Sunday, June 28, 2015

Taps Opens in Irvine

Taps Fish House and Brewery
13390 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA 92602

A lot of new places have been opening up at the Tustin and Irvine Marketplace recently. These two centers, that are really one, are divided by Jamboree Road, and they have really stepped up their culinary game in the last few months. Opened just recently is a new sushi spot, Mizu Sushi, Inland Empire staple, Miguel's Jr., Class 302, and Piadina Italian Sandwiches are all now in full operation here, and there are more on the way. It's been announced that The Melt, Famous Dave's BBQ, and Wokano, which is erupting like crazy, will be opening here in the coming months. I was excited to try another new restaurant, the one that brought us here on a recent Thursday afternoon, Taps Fish House and Brewery.

Taps is not entirely new though. They have outposts in Brea and Corona, both of which have been wowing people in those areas with their fantastic Sunday brunch, seafood and award winning beers. This move to South OC did not come all of a sudden either. Owner Joe Manzella had been looking for this kind of spot for awhile now. In fact, back when we experienced Taps brunch for the first time in April of 2012, Joe had let Katie and I know that they were scouting out where to put their next Taps restaurant in South OC. Over three years later they are opening up in the old Buca Di Beppo spot, across the street from Lazy Dog Restaurant.

This latest Taps is kind of a mash up of Taps in Brea and Joe's other restaurant, The Catch, next to Anaheim Stadium. There's a very nice patio here, high ceilings, and a huge bar, that brings to mind all that is great about The Catch in Anaheim. The rest of the restaurant is equally grand. Nice comfy booths along the walls, a nice brick archway that separates the two roomed dining area, and nice sight lines which direct your attention into the busy kitchen. There's also an oyster bar that has all their oysters all lined up ready to be consumed.

We were here for a friends and family event, which meant they were still working on staff training, getting the kitchen in working condition, and also testing the fire alarms. If this dry run was any foreshadowing of what to expect when they opened, everything's probably running smoothly right now. To help with training, every table was given a different preset menu. We saw many wonderful dishes coming out of the kitchen to surrounding tables, and were eager to see what was in store for us. Let's take a look.

All meals at Taps start with their very good bread. This was served with some oil and vinegar, which went well with the toned down sourdough. It came out hot, and was great start to our meal.

First up on our preset menu was the Ahi Tartare ($14.99). I'm always a little weary when an item has so much going on with it, especially when that item is ahi, but this was excellent. Ahi tuna is mixed with avocado, red onion, cucumber, scallions, soy chile-emulsion, and is topped with crispy wontons. This was served with gem lettuce cups, but we preferred it without. The lettuce kind of overpowered the very well made ahi mixture. Very tasty.

I really liked this little twist on a regular Caprese salad. The Heirloom Tomato Caprese ($10.99) drew raves from my buddy Joe, who considers himself to be a Caprese connoisseur. On this version, the tomatoes are joined with one of the best burrata's that we have had, a smear of basil and another of vincotto, micro-basil, crisp prosciutto, and toasted pine nuts. Most of you know that I'm not really a big tomato fan, it's a texture thing for me, but this was stellar. The nuts gave this an earthiness, the burrata was creamy, and the tomato added a little sweetness to even out this plate. Joe was very pleased with this.

The first of our two entrees was nothing that I would normally order, but I ended up enjoying this Grilled Alaskan Halibut ($32.99). The fish was joined by some blistered shishito peppers, pork belly, spring veggies, and a citrus herb salad. As I was eating this, it kind of grew on me. At first I thought the vegetables made this more of a salad, and the pork belly and halibut kind of got lost. After we picked away at some of the produce, the freshness of the fish, and the tasty pork belly shined through. I'm still not sold on this for me, but others out there that enjoy vegetables more than myself, might enjoy this entree.

You might not think of trying a burger at Taps Fish House, but you would be missing out. This Taps Burger ($13.99) had it going on. The burger is made up of aged chuck, sharp cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, red onion, tomato, lettuce, pickle, and is sandwiched between a toasted brioche bun. All of this contributed to a very juicy burger. With all the moisture, the bun did a great job keeping its integrity. The beef was fresh and flavorful, and the sharp cheese complimented the beef well. I was also happy the meat was cooked medium, just the way I like it. Excellent burger that could be only made better by adding a few slices of bacon to it. Maybe next time. The fries were also pretty good at Taps also. A subdued garlic and parsley flavor was detected, and these came out of the kitchen scalding hot.

This visit to Taps Fish House really just whetted my appetite for what's to come here. I'm really looking forward to trying their brunch buffet that features lots of breakfast items, seafood, and a chocolate fountain. There's also a few things they had yet to divulge about their brunch, and I look forward to seeing what those things are. Since they opened on June 8th, I have heard all positive things about Taps, which is kind of rare for a new restaurant. Our server, Talya  was very sweet, and dealt with us awesomely. It will definitely be nice cutting down on driving time to Brea by having this Taps Fish House open closer to us in Irvine.

We would like to thank all of the staff at the new Taps for all the wonderful service we received during this visit. I'd also like to thank General Manager Masaya Yamazaki for taking the time to chat with us, and give us a little hint of what was to come at this location of Taps. I'd also like to show my appreciation to the wonderful Lee Healy, who offered us this invite to the friends and family event. Thanks for everything Lee. Lastly, I'd like to thank my dining partner on this adventure, my good buddy Joe. Always a good time hanging out with this guy, and he definitely knows his food as well, way more than he knows how to play poker, but that's a story for another day.

For more information about Taps Fish House and Brewery, go to their website here:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Birthday Bash at Bari Bari

Bari Bari Japanese Steak House
19677 Yorba Linda Blvd. 
Yorba Linda, CA 92886

When you are 5 or 6 years old the world seems so small. I lived in Anaheim Hills for the first three years of my life, but then we moved to Yorba Linda in 1975. My parents still live in that house, and we travel there regularly for birthdays, holidays, and for other family events. Coming back here always brings back memories.

Back when kids actually got out of the house, rode bikes, played in parks, and set up lemonade stands, I was roaming within a mile of my house, and exploring the one shopping center that we had near us. This shopping center used to house Von's Supermarket, Thrifty's, and a TG&Y back then. There were also smaller stores between the anchor stores. Now the Thrifty's has turned into a Rite Aid, Cons has been transformed into a Trader Joe's, and the TG&Y has been chopped up into smaller shops.

Back to present day, we were here at this shopping center of my youth, which is at the corner of Fairmont and Yorba Linda Boulevard for my sister's birthday. She had recently eaten at Bari Bari for her anniversary, and could not wait for us to try it as well. So Katie and I, my parents, and my sister's three girls and husband made reservations to eat in our old stomping grounds.

I'm not sure how long Bari Bari has been here, but the oldest review on Yelp is from 2007, and people talk about coming here way before that. They used to serve lunch, but now they are only open for dinner. The wear and tear on this teppanyaki restaurant is evident, but from what we observed, the restaurant is clean, but since it's a smaller restaurant, the smoke from the tables does linger a bit. I've also heard that during peak times it is hard to get a seat at one of their four teppanyaki grill tables. A lot of the Yelpers also report feeling rushed, but we did not experience any of that. Let's see what we did experience though.

Before our teppanyaki chef made his appearance, our waitress brought out our Salads and Soup. Both are included in the price of the entrees at Bari Bari. The salad is your basic variety garden salad, with iceberg lettuce, a few strands of red cabbage, and a ginger dressing. The dressing woke up this rather drab salad just enough to entice me to finish it. The soup was a miso broth concoction with a few sliced mushrooms included. This soup was unremarkable, and really was more watery than a soup should be, so I ended up just drinking it.

While we were eating our food, the teppanyaki chef arrived, and began doing all of the tricks of the trade that you expect from a teppanyaki restaurant. The onion volcano, flipping egg in all of our mouths, flipping shrimp into his shirt pocket, and cracking an egg in midair with his spatula. Our chef was pretty nice and friendly, and after he finished all of his tricks, he turned all business as he was making our meals. Since Katie had alerted him to her shrimp allergy, he cooked all of the seafood last, which made my dad wait for his scallops and shrimp.

Since everything is cooked in stages, you find yourself eating bits and pieces off of your plate here. The most popular items appear to be the combination dinners, and they have a wide variety of options for you to choose from. I went with the Filet Mignon and Shrimp ($27.25). The chef had asked how I wanted my steak, and it actually came out to my desired medium rare, which is kind of an oddity for this kind of place. Usually it comes to me medium to well done, and is tough. This was not the case at Bari Bari. The steak was the best thing I ate all night here. It was tender, and cooked perfectly. The shrimp were okay, but nothing to crow about. Dinners also come with grilled veggies and grilled fried rice, which was pretty average. Katie selected the Chicken Dinner ($17.25) for her entree, and thought it was okay, but nothing distinguished it from any other teppanyaki place she has visited.

I should probably disclose to all of you that this is one of my least favorite kinds of meals that is out there. I have never really been awestruck by anything that I've had at a teppanyaki restaurant before, and that held true on this night as well. Yes, the steak was cooked better than at most teppanyaki restaurants, but the rest of the meal fell to impress. You're basically overpaying by a good amount for watching them cook your food in front of you. At least here at Bari Bari you are not paying Benihana prices, which if their website menu prices are correct, are about $5 higher on most items. On the plus side, the service we had on this night was pretty good, with our waitress waiting in the wings, refilling our drinks, and taking away our plates when we were done. She even brought my sister a beer with a candle rubber banded around it for her birthday. The rest of my family really enjoyed their meals at Bari Bari, and liked watching the chef, and that's all that's really important. It's really awesome that my nieces can make childhood memories in the same area me and my sister made ours.

Out of five motorbikes, (because there was a Japanese comic book series, "Baribari Legend", which had an eight year run about motorbike racing), five being best to zero being worst, Bari Bari Japanese Steak House gets 2.5 motorbikes.

Bari Bari Japanese Steak House does not have a website, but you can find information about them on their Yelp page here:

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Another South OC Gem?

Pub Thirty-Two
23962 Alicia Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92691

A lot of people kind of give South OC a bad rap for being the land of chain restaurants and fast-food joints, but there's kind of been a renaissance of unique, once-off restaurants hiding in the strip malls and shopping plazas of South OC. Yes, you might have to look a little harder to see them, but they are there. Hiding behind the Denny's, or in weird shopping plazas, you drive right past all the time.

Restaurants like Dublin 4, South Coast Kitchen, Delize's, and Cocina de Ricardo have brought credibility to south county. Yes, you might still have to drive up the 5 Freeway for a great meal, but the restaurants south of the El Toro Y are closing the gap in a hurry, so the northerly drive will become a little less frequent. We were hoping that our trip to Pub Thirty-Two in Mission Viejo would continue this trend. Let's see if it did.

Pub Thirty-Two has been opened for pretty close to a year now, in what was the former Tijuana Gillies spot, which just happened to be my second ever review on this blog. Oh, the memories of the awful salsa, bland Mexican food, and empty tables all over the restaurant. We were not surprised when they closed but were surprised at how long that spot sat vacant, nearly 5 years until Pub Thirty-Two moved in.

The place is almost unrecognizable from how it used to be. The restaurant has really opened up and is not that dirty and dark Mexican restaurant it used to be. A wall of windows lines one part of the dining room, with a skylight adding even more light to space. Relaxing grey walls, along with bare floors do little to quell the chattering of other diners, which was actually quite loud at times. Not really a spot for a romantic evening, but Katie and I have been married for two months now, so all that mushiness is long past.

We arrived at Pub Thirty-Two with reservations at 7 on a recent Saturday night. The bar area was pretty full, with two large TVs showing hockey. This place is owned by Diarmuid Noone, who grew up in his parent's pub in Ireland, and once he moved to Southern California, he opened up his own place, Molly Bloom's in San Clemente. From what I hear, Molly's is a little more casual than his latest venture. The chef here is Glen Tinsley, who has worked up in Northern California, Hawaii, and also a stint in Italy. His focus here is to put together a seasonal menu, with an emphasis on the fork to table philosophy and also finding the highest quality ingredients to cook with. Let's see if he hit his goals with the food that we ordered.

Katie is an ahi fiend, so I was not surprised when she zeroed in on these Spicy Ahi Tostadas ($12). Ahi is all the rage right now, and this version was pretty good. The tuna was tender but chopped a little too fine for Katie's taste. She also felt the cilantro overpowered, but she's more sensitive to cilantro than most people. I liked the flavor of this, but I wish the wasabi was a little more prevalent. The crunch of the tostada added a nice texture component to this appetizer.

Long-time readers of this blog know my love of Caesar Salads ($9), and I had to try Pub Thirty-Two's version when I saw it on the menu. All the key elements are here; pecorino croutons, Parmesan cheese, romaine lettuce, and a very good house-made Caesar dressing. The presentation of this salad looks good on the plate but involves a lot of work cutting the lettuce up. Once it was all cut up I was surprised at the large serving size doled out here. I wish they were a little more heavy-handed when it came to the dressing, but it's a very good version of my favorite salad.

The menu here is not overly huge, with only eight or so items offered, but Katie selected my first choice for an entree, but me being the gracious husband let her have the Grilled Flat Iron ($24). The moist and tender steak was flavored by blue cheese, and accompanied by potatoes, onion, and asparagus. Even though Katie is partial to steaks being well done, she had this one medium and loved it. There might be hope for her yet. Even though this plate was anchored by steak, it was not a heavy plate. The asparagus and the pearl onions were flavored nicely by the juice from the steak and the blue cheese. The potatoes were fork tender, and this plate left Katie completely satisfied.

Since Katie took my first choice, I went with my second, the Crispy Pork ($21). This plate came with four pieces of crispy pork, mac and cheese, and green beans. The pork was very tasty, and even though the sarsaparilla BBQ sauce did not add too much in the way of flavor, it did not need it with this well-cooked pork. The mac and cheese was understated, but still, a really good side dish, even though it was served lukewarm. The green beans were some of the freshest I have had, and I'm not even a big green bean fan. A very satisfying dinner.

There's always room for dessert, and we went with the Chocolate Molten Cake ($8) to finish things up at Pub Thirty-Two. This cake had a nice texture too it, not too mushy like a lot of these kinds of desserts tend to be. Not overly sweet, the bourbon sauce did not overpower here either, and the smoked blueberries on top were a nice touch. My only complaint about this was that it could have been larger, but that's just because I selfishly wanted a few more bites of this.

I knew going into Pub Thirty-Two that this would definitely be an upgrade from the last time we ate at this address. That is an understatement though. The food here was great, and we loved the little twists that most items featured. Yes, a few things could be tweaked a bit, but the cuisine here is solid, and we look forward to coming back to this chef-driven restaurant. Chef Tinsley nailed the farm to fork feel that he was going for. You could tell there was a freshness to his food that we appreciated. We also were pretty stoked with the service we received from our waiter, Jonathan. He took really good care of us and gave us some excellent tips regarding his favorite menu items. Owner Diarmuid Noone was very hands-on, running food and checking on tables. Good to see an owner take such an active role. I think it's safe to add Pub Thirty-Two to the list of very good South OC restaurants that have suddenly sprung up, but you still have to hunt for them.

Out of five hockey pucks, (because one of my favorite hockey player of all time was Stu Grimson, who once threw me a hockey puck during a game, and wore number 32), five being best to zero being worst, Pub Thirty-Two gets 3.5 hockey pucks.

For more information about Pub Thirty-Two, go to their website here:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Stepping Back In Time in San Juan

El Adobe De Capistrano
31891 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

A few weeks ago I got a link to a list of the oldest restaurants in Southern California. Like with most of these lists, there were a few restaurants that the author missed, but of course, the Internet being what it is, people told her all about the ones she omitted. The one restaurant I had thought of immediately was not on the list either, but it would have only made it the 5th oldest restaurant in OC. That restaurant is El Adobe in San Juan Capistrano.

It just so happened that we would be eating here, and I was surprised to see that we haven't blogged about our experience at this 67-year-old restaurant yet. It was Katie's brother's graduation dinner, and the whole family was supposed to come to celebrate with him. As is usually the case at Katie's family gatherings, there's always a random few who flake out on the event, and this time it was Katie's sister, Sara who would not be joining us. No big loss here, as she usually only gets a plate of rice, like a glass of water can give her heartburn at any time.

Anyways, back to El Adobe. The building is even older than the restaurant itself. Recognized as a historical landmark by the State of California, it was originally two structures, the Yorba Adobe (1778) and the Juzgado Court and Jail (1812). Brought together to form a single residence in 1910, it lasted in that incarnation until 1947, when the building was bought by a farmer who built it to be a restaurant. The restaurant opened on July 8th, 1948, with the wedding and reception of the First Commandant of Camp Pendleton, starting a tradition that continues to this day, as many weddings and receptions are still held here in the back patio portion of the restaurant.

No history of El Adobe would be complete without a mention of OC's own, President Nixon. During his administration, and after he left the White House, he enjoyed the food prepared by the chef at El Adobe. President and Mrs. Nixon's favorite meal is still on the menu, which we will see in a bit. Speaking of food, we were all pretty hungry, so let's see if it's the history or the food at El Adobe that brings the people in.

Of course, we definitely need to take a look at the Chips and Salsa before we check out the food. These were pretty darn good. The tortilla chips were nice and fresh, with a crispness that made them a pleasure to eat. The salsa was also pretty strong, with a good chunkiness to it, and just a tinge of spice, which did not overshadow the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. Pretty tasty.

As is almost always the custom when eating out at a Mexican restaurant with Katie's family, guacamole is a must to start with. This Rancho O'Neill Guacamole ($11) is made tableside, which somehow always make things taste better. I should have taken a few action shots of this being made, but I was a little lazy. So I do not exactly know what was in their guacamole, but it was pretty solid, and I do know that it was topped with cotija cheese, which is always a plus in my book. The guacamole could have been a little spicier, but Katie's family is kind of averse to spice, so this milder version worked out fine for them. The texture of this was worth noting as well. It walked the thin line of being too smooth and overly chunky. Very well made.

Katie's mom Lynn ordered something I don't think I have ever seen before on a menu, a Cheese Enchilada Salad. ($14). Basically, this is chopped romaine, tossed with a cilantro pepita dressing, and two cheese enchiladas placed on top of it. I'm not much into mixing hot ingredients into my salads, but Lynn was pretty pleased with her dinner on this night. She liked the mildness of the red sauce and loved the uniqueness of this dish. She would definitely get this again.

Combo plates abound here at El Adobe, and Dennis put together his ultimate 2 Item Combo ($15) which included a shredded beef taco and a cheese enchilada. He seemed pretty pleased by his choice and did not have any leftovers to take home. I thought the taco shell looked a little odd, but he made no mention of it.

It's very rare that Katie doesn't get fajitas when eating in a Mexican restaurant, and that held true to form on this night as well. These Chicken Fajitas ($19) came out with the usual steam and pops that these plates always come out of the kitchen possessing. The sizzling chicken was accompanied by the usual red and green bell peppers and red onion. Also served with beans and rice, and your choice of flour or corn tortillas. Surprisingly, the chicken here was pretty tender but still was not as big on flavor as I would have liked. Katie ended up really enjoying her meal here, and will probably have chicken fajitas the next time we eat at a Mexican restaurant. Keep an eye out for it.

Not a very big eater, Katie's sister Emily took most of this Quesadilla Capistrano ($12) home in a to-go container, which probably sat in the fridge for the next few days before being thrown out. Yes, I know these people pretty well. Anyways, with this quesadilla, you have the option of having it with beef or chicken, and Emily went with the latter option. It was served with a small scoop of sad-looking pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. One of life's great mysteries to me is how they can charge so much for what is essentially two tortillas, a handful of cheese, and some shredded chicken. It's just not here at El Adobe, but most places charge way too much for something that could only cost about $5 or so to put together. Sorry, end rant.

Jimmy's much better half, Rachel, also had a combo meal, opting for the One Item ($13) variety. Her entree of choice was the carne asada taco, which was joined by beans and rice. The beans here were fair, but a little on the watery side. The rice was pretty average as well. Neither really stood out.

A meal fit for a king, or in this case a president. This was President Nixon's favorite three-item combo at El Adobe, the President's Choice ($17). This combo consists of a chile relleno, chicken enchilada, and a shredded beef taco. Playing the role of president on this evening was my soon to be brother in law, Jason. He felt this was just average, safe Mexican food. Nothing on this plate really grabbed his attention. Not awful, or anything, but nothing that would make him order this again. Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence.

I guess we are all kind of creatures of habit because when I'm eating at a Mexican restaurant for the first time, I usually steer myself towards carnitas. When this Carnitas Michoacan ($18) was placed in front of me, I thought it looked a little odd. The pork came in a large hunk that kind of resembled a Cornish game hen, or maybe my eyes were deceiving me a bit. The pork was not very tender, and a little on the dry side. This was pretty good portion size, and the beans helped add moisture to the pork. A very underwhelming plate of food.

I think Jason summed up El Adobe the best when he said that this is safe, non-threatening Mexican food. There were no pops of flavor, and the heat was turned way down in their food. I get why people still come to this restaurant though. It's probably a tradition thing, but there's much better Mexican food to be had nearby. We did experience really good service on this night, and it seemed like our waiter has been here a long while since he knew so many of his customers. We also really enjoyed the guitar player that was set up right near our table. He played a good range of music and kept us entertained, even when the food failed to do so.

Out of five headless friars, (because like a lot of older restaurants, people have seen ghosts, and the one that is said to frequent this place is a headless Friar, out in front of the restaurant), five being best to zero being worst, El Adobe De Capistrano gets 2.5 headless friars.

For more information about El Adobe De Capistrano, go to their website here:

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