Thursday, July 30, 2015

South OC Gets Lucky Again

South Coast Kitchen
31105 Rancho Viejo Road
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Away from the hustle and bustle of the mission area of San Juan Capistrano, on the other, quieter side of the freeway is a restaurant that you definitely have to check out. Like I've said before, there's kind of a renaissance of great, independent, chef-driven spots opening up all over South OC. Joining Pub 32, Urban Grill and Wine Bar, Dublin 4, and nearby Pascal in this new age of great restaurants south of Irvine, is South Coast Kitchen.

South Coast Kitchen is definitely off the beaten track, in the same out of the way shopping center that doomed Harlow's. With no direct freeway access, a shopping complex that is anchored by a post office, a Mediterranean restaurant, and a martial arts studio, South Coast Kitchen has managed to be around for three years, and earned some great praise for their restaurant. A ton of five star yelp reviews, a very nice review of their food by the OC Register, and high marks from OpenTable users, I was excited to see what all this great press was about.

It probably has something to do with chef and owner, Justin Davis. If that name sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you remember him from his time at Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis, or maybe you might have heard that he was also at the Ritz Carlton for a time. He left these high profile jobs to open a catering business, but once people tasted his food, they coaxed him into opening a restaurant, where they tweak the menu every week depending on what's available, and what he feels like making. It must be working, as the restaurant was lively from the moment we walked in, until we left.

We had made reservations on a recent Thursday evening. It would definitely be wise to make reservations on weekends, as this restaurant is pretty small, with about ten or so tables inside, and two to three tables out in front of the restaurant. The decor here is understated, but comfortable. The acoustics of the place make it seem louder than you would think from the number pf people occupying the space.

The menu is sectioned off into simply small and large plates, with limited selections offered under each. Of course with a different menu every week, this can change. As with many of these chef driven restaurants, it states that substitutions and modifications to the chef's dishes are politely declined. I used to find this kind of galling, but have come to understand the reasoning behind this. A chef is like an artist, and he's come up with plates that he feels equal each other out, and if you take one part away, it alters their interpretation of what they were trying to accomplish with the meal. Let's take a look at what Chef Justin had in store for us on this particular night.

We were going to be meeting my good friend Michelle, so drinks were definitely in order. SCK only has beer and wine, so they have to get a little creative with their wine cocktails. Michelle tried the SCK Sangria ($12), which was made up of red wine, apples, pear, and sparkling water. Michelle is always bragging that she knows everything about sangria, and she called this version pretty tasty. It was refreshing and not overly fruity. Sorry for the poor shots of this beverage, as it did not photograph to well in the darkened restaurant. My selection was much brighter, the Just Keep Swimming ($12). This tall red drink used sauvignon blanc as its base, elderflower, a vodka infusion, champagne, lemon, and a strawberry garnish. When this was placed in front of me I thought it was going to be too fruity, but it was more toned down than it looked. I'm not sure how they get away with the infused vodka, but I believe that's what toned it down a bit. A good drink, but I was ready for some food.

Katie selected the first of our two small plates. She was intrigued by this Rustic Spanish Bread ($4). The three pieces of grilled bread were joined by smoked salt, house made butter, tomato confit, and local extra virgin olive oil. We all really liked this simply prepared dish. The grilled bread had a nice crunch to it, and all three of the condiments went well together. Not trying to do too much here, this disappeared rather quickly with Michelle around. 

I had read the Yelp reviews of SCK before we got here, and a lot of people commented on the Savory White Cheddar Souffle, so there was no question I'd be ordering it. I really enjoyed the presentation of this dish, even though I did not totally understand it. Of course there was the very well made cheese souffle, which had a lightness to it which I was not expecting. Very tasty. They also included a fruit compote, petite greens, apple slices, and a cube of pork belly. I get the apple, as some people enjoy apples and cheese together. I also get the fruit compote and the greens, as it was kind of like a mini salad, but the pork belly kind of seemed out of place here. Don't get me wrong, I love pork belly, and will never turn it down, but it kind of was left on its own here. Still delicious, but it seemed odd to me. 

Michelle had a hard time choosing her meal here, just as she has a hard time picking which one of her many suitors she will hang out with on a Saturday night. She eventually went with Chicken and Biscuits ($25) for her entree. This was not like any chicken and biscuit version we had seen before. The chicken breast came whole, and was used as the base for the scratch made biscuit. It was plated with a fava bean succotash and a light serving of a foie gras and bacon gravy. Michelle had nothing but nice things to say about her dinner. The chicken was tender and seasoned well, the gravy was light, but still had tons of flavor, and the biscuit was well made. She liked that this was not as heavy as she was expecting. Not your mother's chicken and biscuit meal. 

Katie's been on a real steak kick as of late, and she held true to form on this evening, when she selected this Petite Filet ($30). Unlike those expensive steak house restaurants, you get a full meal here, instead of ordering a bunch of sides. This steak came with truffle potato gratin, broccolini, and a confit onion. Even though Katie likes her steaks medium, this still came out very tender, and the pinot noir reduction got along with the steak, not trying to mask the natural flavor of the meat. The potato was delicious, without the truffle taking things over the top. A very well balanced plate, that left Katie full, but not overly stuffed.  

Just like when I see pork belly on a menu, I have become a big fan of pork cheeks as well, and had to try this Pinot Noir Braised Pork Cheek Carbonara ($27) when I spotted it. The first meal I made for Katie was spaghetti carbonara, which she thought was good, but this one blew mine out of the water. Chef Justin uses linguine here, along with snap peas, a white cream sauce, pecorino cheese, a fried egg, crispy shallots, and of course the very good pork cheeks. This was a fantastic interpretation of a carbonara. Not as heavy as some can be, all the elements blended wonderfully together to form a real homey kind of feel to this plate. My only complaint would be that there was not nearly enough pork included in this, but the pork that was here was very tasty. A very comforting meal. 

We could not let our visit to South Coast Kitchen go by without trying their desserts. The pastry chef here is Samantha Ihde, and she came up with the unusual SCK Snickers and the more traditional Espresso Creme Brulee (both $8). The creme brulee came with a sidecar of Irish coffee, which Katie polished off rather quickly, probably due to listening to all of Michelle's stories. I was afraid that the creme brulee would have been overpowered by the espresso, but it was milder than I imagined. My favorite of the two desserts was the SCK Snickers which utilized a peanut butter crust, chocolate mousse, salted caramel and nougat to recreate the famous chocolate bar. If you ate this expecting it to taste like a Snickers, you'd probably be a little let down, but it was good nonetheless. Not over the top sweet, the peanut butter kind of got pushed to the side, as the chocolate took over, and the texture of this was spot on. I liked the playfulness of this, and it was a great end to our meal.

When we were walking out of South Coast Kitchen, the three of us left totally satisfied. You can definitely add this to the list of very good chef driven restaurants in South OC. I was very impressed with not only Chef Justin's menu, but also that he took the time to walk the front of the restaurant, and chat with each of the tables to see how they liked their meals. Yes, with prices for entrees in the $20 to $30 plus range, this might not be a place you come every week, but it's more of a special occasion restaurant for most of us. Be advised that what you see in this review might not be exactly how it is on the menu when you come here, but if our experience is any indication, you will definitely be in for a treat. Service was solid, and you could tell that our waitress was very proud of the food she was serving here. We felt the same way, and it's definitely worthwhile coming to the quieter side of the freeway in San Juan Capistrano.

Out of five ink spots, (because the musicians, the Ink Spots were the first to record the song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," five being best to zero being worst, South Coast Kitchen gets 3.5 ink spots.

For more information about South Coast kitchen, head over to their website here:

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Extra! Extra! Read All About Pizza Press

Pizza Press
155 North Glassell St.
Orange, CA 92866

It seems like every time I open up my email, there's another do it yourself pizza place opening. These restaurants are getting as common around OC, as the Angels pathetic performances in the playoffs every year. Scioscia needs to go, but that's a story for another day. The point I'm trying to make is that there are lots of these kinds of restaurants out there now.

Of course my immediate thought is how can all of these restaurants survive, and what makes them all different. There's Blaze Pizza, Pieology, Mod Pizza, Pizza Studio, Pizza Rev, Creations Pizza, 800 Degrees, Spin Pizza, and Project Pie. As I'm writing this post, there's probably even a new one popping up in your local shopping plaza right now.

Pizza Press is the latest DIY pizza place to invade my inbox. They invited me and my good friend Richard to come in and give them a try. Richard considers himself to be a connoisseur of these do it yourself pizza restaurants. His favorite is Mod Pizza, which I also like. Usually Richard and I do not agree too much on restaurants. He's a big Chipotle fan, and I haven't been in about three years, and really have no desire to go. He prefers Subway to most other sandwich spots, and considers Togo's to be the worst of the chain sandwich options out there. Crazy, right? So take this all into consideration when he gives his opinion of the pizza at Pizza Press.

Pizza Press, a newspaper themed restaurant, opened in Downtown Orange earlier this year, and almost every time we have been down this way the line has been out the door. They get a solid 4 stars on Yelp, with close to 150 reviews, they have now opened a second location in Anaheim, and have two more on the way, one in Fullerton and one in Pasadena. I've also heard good things from people who have eaten here, so I was excited to give them a try.

We got here just before 5pm on a recent Monday evening. Beating the dinner rush, we got right in, and started the process of making our pizzas. Not as many custom creations as most places, they had five different pizzas to choose from if you did not want to be bothered to make up your own creation. All pizzas are $8, whether you make your own or have a custom job. Otherwise a pretty standard ordering process here, they ask what you want on your pizza, and then they put it on there for you. Straight forward. Both Richard and I opted for this, and put what we wanted on our pizzas.

After the pizza went through their assembly line preparation, we made our way towards the registers, and were amazed by all the beers that Pizza Press has on tap. I lost count as to how many taps they have here, but for beer aficionados this must be like heaven. On the day we were here they had a Stone Brewing Tap Takeover, so there were tons of options from this Escondido based brewing company. They also had Ballast Point, Goose Island, and others pouring from their taps on this afternoon. Pretty impressive.

We'll start things off with Richard's pizza. He went with a similar pizza to what he would normally get at Mod Pizza, which is a combination of chicken, mozzarella, roasted garlic, and bacon. He wanted fresh basil, but it was not offered. The first things we noticed when the pizzas were sat in front of us, was that they were a lot bigger than the ones from Mod. That would be the last positive thing picky Richard would say about his pizza on this night. He was not a fan of what he called, "the bland chicken," or the undercooked crust in the center of the pizza. He claimed that the whole pizza was rather plain tasting, and lacked that pop of flavor that he usually gets when having this combination of toppings at other places. He left pretty unimpressed.

It was not all doom and gloom though, as my pizza hit the table. As is my usual order when eating in these kinds of pizza places, I ordered a meat heavy pizza with jalapenos. The meats here at Pizza Press included pepperoni, bacon, ground beef, sausage, and pulled pork. I have to say that pulled pork was an unusual topping for these kinds of places, but a very welcome addition to this pizza. Unlike my buddy's pizza, this one really did pop with flavor, and had a nice consistency of sauce to toppings ratio. I did have an issue with the crust being a little soggy in the middle, and would probably ask that the pizza be left in the heat a few minutes more on my next visit. Otherwise this was a good pizza, with some good quality meats included on it.

So I guess you can classify this visit to Pizza Press as a split decision. While I liked my pizza well enough, Pizza Press failed to impress Richard at all. I would definitely go back if I was in the area, and was craving pizza. One of the things I have learned the most about writing this blog for the last 5 years is that food is very subjective. You can sit ten people down, serve them the same food, and have ten different opinions come out of their mouths. That's probably why the restaurant business is so hard to succeed in. If you are a craft beer person, and are craving a pizza in Orange, Pizza Press will be right up your alley. Maybe their craft beer selection is what will set Pizza Press apart form all of their competitors.

We would like to thank everyone at Pizza Press for making us feel so welcome, and inviting us in to experience the Pizza Press experience first hand. We would also like to thank Emily Webb of BAM Communications for setting up this visit.

If you wish to find out more about Pizza Press, go to their website here:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Birthday Meet Up in Placentia

Meat Up BBQ
1450 North Kramer Blvd.
Placentia, CA 92870

I know I've been writing this blog a long time when we have gone to the same address for two different restaurants. It's happened a few times now, and it just proves how hard the restaurant business can be. At this same address was a restaurant that we really liked, Sue Ann's Kitchen, which served classic American food. The one time we were here it was pretty sparsely populated, but I had hoped for a better fate for them after eating their food, but it was not to be as they closed their doors in 2014.

When we showed up at Meat Up recently, they were pretty crowded, and filled up during our stay. A very good sign. Meat Up comes to us from the guys behind two food trucks, The Viking Truck and the Garlicscapes Truck. I'm sure it's not a surprise to most of you that read this blog on a regular basis, but I haven't been to either of these trucks before, since I'm not really a food truck fan. I had heard good things about the Viking Truck, and their sausage and tater tot menu. From what I've been able to gather, the Viking Truck is still in operation, and the Garlicscapes Truck has been taken off the road to concentrate on this, their latest venture.

We came to Meat Up on a recent early Sunday evening with my parents, who were going to be buying me dinner for my birthday. Not only because its nearby, but the feel of this place reminded me of Leadbelly's Barbecue, which is a few streets over. Both of these restaurants have versions of loaded fries, some great sounding burgers, sandwiches, and of course meat plates. The only difference between the two is that at Meat Up you order at the counter, and the food is brought to you, while over at Leadbelly's waiter service is the norm, thus costing you a little more money due to tipping. We put our order in, and waited for the food to be brought out to their very comfortable dining area, which had TVs turned to basketball. Let's see if this food was going to be slam dunk good, or were we going to have to call a foul. Sorry for being so cheesy.

I have to admit, as soon as I sit down and see bottles of BBQ sauce on the tables, I get a little excited that we are going to be in for a treat, and if there are multiple bottles, it's even better news. At Meat Up BBQ they had three sauces to choose from, Habanero Mustard Sauce, Red Pepper BBQ Sauce, and a Blackberry BBQ Sauce. I like knowing that the meat will be coming out naked, and I can use the right amount of sauce for my liking. I did try all three of these throughout my meal here, and my favorite was the blackberry variety, but the other two were pretty solid as well. Now, on to the food.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but Chris Burrous was here profiling this restaurant on the Channel 5 Morning News, and he raved about the garlic feta fries, but I could not resist trying these Smothered and Covered Chili Verde Fries ($7). These fries were topped with a pulled pork chili verde and a generous amount of cheddar cheese. The fries stayed remarkably crisp, even as time went by, not that they were around too long. The chili verde pork was a mild version, but the pork was tender, and the sauce went well with the barbecue seasoned fries. Really good, and I can't believe more places haven't thought of putting chili verde pork on top of fries. Delicious.

My mom's go to item at a barbecue restaurant is almost always a pork sandwich, so it was no surprise when I heard her order this Meat Up Pulled Pork Sandwich ($11). For a sandwich, this had plenty of meat included. This sandwich came with pickles, barbecue sauce, cracked pepper, and it usually comes with a horseradish cole slaw, but my mom wanted that on the side. She really enjoyed this sandwich, and found it to be one of the better ones she has had recently. With each sandwich you get your choice of a side, and she opted for the Broccoli Salad, which is pretty close to a salad she made as we were growing up. Meat Up's version of a broccoli salad contains sunflower seeds and cranberry in a creamy sauce. Very tasty, and fresh produce was used in this. My mom left here pretty happy.

It's almost always a crap shoot what my dad will be ordering these days. There used to be a time when we would order a lot alike, but that hasn't happened in a awhile. I'm not saying I wouldn't order a burger in a barbecue place, but probably never on my first trip to a new place, but there he was getting this Smokin Reuben Burger ($11). This burger came with a house fennel sauerkraut, arugula, strips of pork belly, barbecue sauce, and Swiss cheese. My dad loved this burger. The sauerkraut was not overpowering, like a lot of them tend to be. The burger patty was cooked well, and seasoned nicely, and the pork belly pushed this burger over the top in decadence. My dad made quick work of this burger. For his side, he tried the Bacon Potato Salad. This classic potato salad was made up of a mustard-mayo sauce, some pickle, and as you can see in the picture, quite a bit of crumbled bacon. This was a very good version of potato salad. Of course the crumbled bacon was great, but the salad base was good as well. Tasted very homemade, and not too mustardy, which is my biggest pet peeve with a lot of potato salads.

The OC Cheesesteak ($11) would be Katie's dinner on this night. This sandwich utilized smoked tri-tip as the protein, then they added caramelized poblano peppers and onions, avocado cream, sliced tomato, and Swiss cheese to finish it off. Definitely not a traditional cheesesteak by any means, but Katie really enjoyed this. The tri-tip was tender and flavorful, there was plenty of cheese, and the veggies were done nicely so they snapped when bitten into. The only drawback with this sandwich was that the avocado kind of got lost here, but that's bound to happen with all of these big time flavors vying for attention on this cheesesteak. This sandwich was a little on the heavier side for Katie, but she did manage to finish most of it.

It was my birthday dinner, so of course I went big at Meat Up, with their 3 Meat Plate ($21). For my meat-a-palooza I had St. Louis Ribs, Pork Belly, and Rib Tips. All of the meats were pretty solid. The rib tips were not like any I have ever had before. They were huge, and full of meat, but some of the bigger ones were a little on the drier side. I'm still not sure why these were so much bigger than what I was used to, but I wasn't complaining. The pork belly was also a little different than what I was expecting. It came out in strips, like undercooked bacon, and was topped with crunchy chicharron. Not bad at all, but again, not what I expect when ordering pork belly. The pork ribs might have been the best out of all the meats. They were tender, with light sauce, and had just the right amount of light smokey flavor, which is my preference. With a meat plate you get to choose two sides, and I tried the Hellbilly Chili and Mac and Cheese. Both of these sides were solid, with an edge to the chili. This chili utilized three different kinds of beans in it, along with beef, plenty of cheese topping it, and a touch of garlic sauce, which I mistook for sour cream when it first came out. The chili was really flavorful, and the garlic sauce did not overpower the chili like I thought it would, but actually added another flavor profile to it. I can not see myself coming here without getting this chili. The mac and cheese was a step below the chili, it was a pretty classic version of this dish, with a bread crumb topping and some herbs. Not really anything to make this side dish really stand out though. A lot of food, which I only took a little bit home for lunch the next day.

It's hard coming here, and not comparing this place to Leadbelly's. Maybe it's because they are so close to each other, or maybe it's because they serve the same kind of west coast barbecue, but whatever the reason, they are about equal in my book. The sides here are better at Meat Up, and I would give a slight edge to the barbecued meats at Leadbelly's, but just slightly, and only based on our one visit to each. We talked to the owner on our way out, and he mentioned that their menu is still a work in progress, and they are still fine tuning their dishes, so I look forward to trying them out again in the future. North OC seems to be a hot bed of very good barbecue places all of a sudden, so maybe they can spread the love, and open one south of Irvine to feed all of us in barbecue starved, South OC. Please hurry.

Out of five tennis racquets, (because one of my first brushes with someone famous was when I saw tennis great, and Placentia resident, Michael Chang at the supermarket), five being best to zero being worst, Meat Up BBQ gets a strong 3.5 tennis racquets.

For more information about Meat Up BBQ, go to their website here:

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