Monday, August 31, 2015

North OC Lands Another BBQ Spot

Lillie's Q BBQ
240 South Brea Blvd.
Brea, CA 92821

OC has all the sudden become a barbecue mecca. I guess I should say that North OC has become a barbecue mecca. There's not a decent barbecue restaurant south of Irvine, and no matter how many times people tell me that they like Bad to the Bone, we've been three times, and it hasn't been good any of those times. Sorry for the little rant, but I'm tired of having to drive past the 55 Freeway for good barbecue, but that's what we were doing on a recent Sunday evening, when we were meeting my parents at Lillie's Q in Brea.

We have been to Lillie's Q one other time, during a media event right after they had opened. On that afternoon we tried samples of a lot of their stuff, but that only had me wanting more. They've been in business here since the very end of last year, but their other locations, (two in Chicago and one in Florida), are very well received, and from what we hear, are busy all the time.

Lillie's Q is in the old 240 South spot, just a few doors down from Taps Fish House, close to the corner of Imperial and Brea Boulevard. This restaurant landed in Downtown Brea due to a partnership between Joe Manzella of Taps and Lillie's Q head guy, Charlie McKenna. Yes, there is an actual Lillie, and she's the 88 year old grandmother of Charlie, who inspired his passion for southern style cooking at an early age. That passion has been appreciated and rewarded by a lot of people, and the accolades for Lillie's just keep pouring in. They were named best new barbecue restaurant by Food and Wine Magazine in 2011, and have a list of accolades a mile long from Chicago food media outlets. With all this praise I was beyond excited to try them out.

We arrived at Lillie's Q at 5pm on a recent rainy afternoon. The restaurant is very comfortable, with high ceilings, and a comfortable dining area. Not overly crowded at this early dinner hour, there was a steady stream of people that entered during our stay. The first sign that this was going in the right direction was that there was plenty of barbecue sauces on the tables. We had six different sauces to choose from, and I always enjoy when a barbecue spot trusts its customers to add their own sauce to their meats. The sauces were varied, which is also a nice touch. They had a mustard based sauce, hot and mild barbecue sauces, vinegar based sauces, and an interesting Ivory sauce, which they also use as the base for their coleslaw. I was so hungry that before our food arrived, my appetizer plate looked like a painter's palette from trying all of the sauces. Let's see how the food turned out for us.

Since we decided to eat dinner so early, we were able to take advantage of the happy hour specials, which are even offered in the dining room, and not just the bar area. I was a little disappointed in the serving size of the Fried Pickles ($3) until I saw that they were only three dollars. These came five to an order, and were so good, that we splurged and spent another three dollars on another order. Way better than anything you can get at Lucille's or any other place you can think of that serves fried pickles. These sliced pickles were breaded in a beer batter, and served with some ranch. My parents declared these some of the best they have ever had, and I'd have to agree. Even better than ones my brother in law makes. Sorry Jarrod. We also tried an order of the Deviled Eggs ($3), which came with a more reasonable six to an order. Deviled eggs are not really my scene, but Katie and my parents really enjoyed these. They were a classic deviled egg, with some hot sauce and a jalapeno ring on top. I tried a bite, and thought they were okay, but I'm not too good of a judge of deviled eggs. I did like the coleslaw they had laid out as garnish for the eggs. It had a good moisture to it, and the dressing was on point. Happy hour prices here are a pretty good value.

Thanks for the great hand modeling dad. Anyways, my dad's streak of getting burgers in barbecue restaurants has now reached four straight times, when he ordered this Q Burger ($15). This burger must be a new item, because it does not appear on any of their online menus, but my dad was pretty excited they have it on their menu now. This burger was delicious and juicy. It came with cheese, red onion, tomato, and some very good collard greens. One of the better burgers we have had in awhile, but the bun had a hard time keeping everything together. It gave a valiant effort, but in the end the juiciness of the burger, combined with the moisture from the cheese and greens proved to be too much, and we had to use a fork to finish it off. With his burger my dad selected Potato Salad as his side. Another item that is not on their online menu. This potato salad was creamy, but still had chunk to it. Good flavor, and the portion size was very generous.

If my dad has become predictable about his order at a barbecue restaurant, then you could set your watch to what my mom always gets, and again she failed to deviate from her standard order of a Pulled Pork Sandwich ($8) on this night. She ordered this sandwich ala carte, and was very pleased with it. There was plenty of pork piled on here, and she was a big fan of the Hot Smoky barbecue sauce. The pork was very tender, with a hint of smoke, which allowed the natural flavor of the swine to come through. She managed to eat half of this, and I had the other half for lunch the next day, and it was still good.

Another usual order for Katie, is getting tacos in a barbecue restaurant. She's done this before, with varying success. On this night at Lillie"s Q she couldn't have been happier with these Memphis Tacos ($15). These were three street taco sized tacos, and came with smoked pork, salsa verde, coleslaw, and the hot smoky barbecue sauce, all on a house made corn tortilla. She loved the way that the flavors melded together here. The salsa went well with the smoky pork, and the coleslaw added a nice texture element. The only blight on this plate was her side item choice, the Cornbread. One of the worst we have had. It came out way overcooked, was not moist at all, and burnt badly on the edges. It was served with honey butter, but even that could not save this side item.

Not to give too much away, but I still dream about this plate of food, even a few weeks after being at Lillie's Q. As is my custom when eating in a barbecue restaurant for the first time, I always gravitate towards a combo meal, and at Lillie's Q, that means I had to get the Taste of LQ ($27). My first choice of meat, brisket was not available, even at this early dinner hour. Bummer. I instead went with baby back ribs, tri-tip, and their hot link. These meats were all really good. Just the right amount of smoke for my taste. I like the smokiness to accentuate the meat, not overpower it. This was accomplished here at Lillie's Q. The ribs were tender, with plenty of meat on them. The tri-tip had a great smoke ring embossed on it, and was moist. You could tell that the sausage was made here, and it might not be for all of you, but I liked the almost grittiness of the meaty sausage. Almost overshadowing the meats, was my choice for a side item, the Stone Ground Grits, which were topped with bacon. If there are better grits available in OC, we have not had them yet. Buttery, and a velvety smooth texture will have me getting these on every return visit here. A very satisfying meal.

Even though we were all pretty stuffed from the great food here, we could not resist splitting this Banana Pudding ($5). This mason jar was filled with pudding, bananas, whipped cream, and Nilla wafers. This dessert was just like you remember. It could have used a little more Nilla Wafers, but it was a light end to our heavy meal. I really enjoyed the smooth pudding, and the light whipped cream in this.

I guess if you've read this much of this review, you know that we were all pretty impressed with Lillie's Q. You can safely add this restaurant to your list of some of the best barbecue in our great county. The meats were all pretty stellar here, and most of the sides were equally as great. A few people have squawked online that they thought their prices were a little on the high side, but I'd gladly pay a little extra for barbecue of this high standard. I'm not ready to anoint this as the best barbecue in all the land, because there's more that I want to try, but it's definitely in the upper echelon. We experienced good, non-intrusive service on this night. Glad to add another barbecue gem to our list in OC, just wish we could add one that's closer to where we live, south of Irvine. Someday it'll happen.

Out of five snowmen, (not only does this restaurant have its roots in Chicago, a city that has its fair share of snow, but one of the largest glaciers in Antarctica is named Lillie, and that could provide enough snow for a few snowmen), five being best to zero being worst, Lillie's Q gets 4 snowmen.

For more information about Lillie's Q, go to their website here:

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Much Love for Amor Y Tacos

Amor Y Tacos
13333 South Street 
Cerritos, CA 90703

Now that the first half of the year is over, we have a little more time to venture out. The first half was all about wedding planning, enjoying our wedding and honeymoon, settling into married life, and going to other people's weddings. We have eight weddings to attend this year, but now there's a lull, and we can finally get back to our list of restaurants we need to hit up. That's what brought us to Amor Y Tacos in Cerritos.

This restaurant gets a lot of love from OC Weekly and other Orange County food blogs that I like to read. Even though it is technically in LA county, it is OC adjacent, so I think that's part of the reason a lot of people come here. The other part is that I hear the food is really good.

Amor Y Tacos comes to us from hometown chef, Thomas Ortega. He grew up here in Cerritos, graduated culinary school in Pasadena, and is also the Chef and Owner of the ever popular Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach. Much like that restaurant, this one is also featuring modern Mexican, with an emphasis made from scratch foods and a farm to table approach. Chef Ortega has realized that people in the suburbs have grown tired of the corporate, or chain restaurants, and they want something more. Judging by the crowd on this Friday night, I'd say he's right.

We had made reservations for this rather large restaurant, which is right next to Cerritos Lanes, so we did not have to worry about waiting like a good majority of the people did on this night. As you walk in the door, you will notice a lady making fresh tortillas. This got me excited. I was also excited about the vibe of this place. It kind of reminded me of Solita in Huntington Beach, with a little more twists to their food. The menu is devoid of combo plates, and instead there are plenty of starters, special entrees, and a variety of tacos, enchiladas, and burritos present. Not the most comfortable restaurant in the world, it was extremely warm inside on the night we were here, the tables are pretty close together, and there's nothing to really buffer the loudness of the restaurant. Even with these minor inconveniences, we were excited to catch up with our good friend Emily, and have what we hoped would be some great food.

Let's first take a look at the Chips and Salsa at Amor Y Tacos. The chips were remarkably fresh, crisp, and everything you'd want in a chip. The salsa was good, but not great. A little on the watery side, I'd like to have seen a little more chunk to it, and some extra pop of flavor.

Since it was a long drive up here from South OC, I decided that some Guacamole $6.75) was definitely in order. This was a good, simple version of guacamole. Avocados, a little white onion, tomato, lime, cilantro, and jalapenos combined to make this fresh tasting starter. I liked that they were not trying to do too much here. Smooth, but still a good chunk to it.

Probably one of their most buzzed about items at Amor Y Tacos is this starter, the Mole Tots ($8.50). The mole here utilizes 21 ingredients, and goes great with these tater tots, which are also topped with cilantro, red onion, sour cream, and queso fresco. The depth of flavor of the mole was definitely prevalent. The tots were fried perfectly, and did not lose their crunch, even though they were not around too long, as we gobbled them up in a hurry. My one complaint would be that there could have been a little more mole poured on top of this, but I still enjoyed this. I can see why so many people enjoy this appetizer.

I usually don't write up the drinks that I have when I'm out, mostly because I don't really drink out that often, preferring to save the money on food instead. We were here for Emily's birthday, so a cocktail was in order for sure. She had the 54 Delux ($8), which is their version of a Cadillac Margarita. This one is made with Olmeca Altos tequila, agave, limeade, and bouchant, which I learned is an orange liqueur, then the glass is rimmed with chile sugar salt to finish it off. Emily must have really enjoyed this, as she had two of these during our stay. I really enjoyed my cocktail as well. I had the sweet and spicy Mango Con Chili ($9). This one used a different brand of tequila, Avion Blanco, limeade, a fruity agave chimoy, and the Mexican staple seasoning, Tajin. I loved the contrast of this beverage. It started sweet, and then you got the spice at the end. This also came with a spicy mango sucker, which was a wonderful surprise as well. Tasty, and I could not tear myself away from it. I'd definitely get this drink again, and getting the sucker is an added bonus.

Since it was Emily's birthday, we'll start off with her meal first, the Grilled Mexican White Shrimp ($15.95) served A La Diabla Style. With this order you get eight pretty good sized shrimp, served alongside a smoked jalapeno mojo, salsa de arbol, garlic aioli, papas bravas, and a salad of cilantro, charred pineapple, chiles, and fennel. Emily was gracious enough to share a shrimp with me, and it was great. Tender, and what made this dish for me was the sauce. It was flavorful, but did not overpower the shrimp. I did not get a chance to try the salad, but Emily seemed to enjoy it very much. A most satisfying birthday dinner for our girl that turned 22 on this night. Your welcome for the shaving of the years Emily.

Katie gravitated towards the taco section of the menu, and settled on the Tinga de Pollo Tacos ($10). She at first thought the tacos were mix and match, but you have to get all three tacos the same. They come served on freshly made corn tortillas, with salsa verde, crema, radish, cilantro and cotija cheese. She felt these tacos were a touch on the dry side, and could have been helped out with a little more salsa on them. Other than that, she loved the flavor of these, and she wishes that tinga would be on more menus across the OC. I would agree with that. This plate usually comes with beans and rice, but she opted to do without, and there are no substitutions offered here.

Man I had a hard time selecting what to have for dinner on this night. This menu had so many great choices, and I knew that it would be some time before we made it back here, and I didn't want to make the wrong  choice. My love of pork belly won out, and I finally decided on the Mexican Coca Cola Glazed Pork Belly ($13.95). The portion size of this was deceivingly large. The pieces of pork belly were cooked well, and there was lots of fatty pieces, which I liked. The pork was glazed in Coca Cola and ancho chili, but I did not really detect too much of a cola flavor. The pork was paired with a very nice sweet potato puree and a fennel salad. I did not get these side items at first, but as I went along eating, I got why they were there. I probably would not get this again, but it's just because there are so many other things I want to try here.

Remember the tortilla lady I was talking about at the door, it seemed that every table had a basket of tortillas on it. I followed the cool kids and had the Flour Tortillas ($1 per basket) too. These came three to an order, and I have to admit, I was not as big a fan as others. Emily loved these, but I felt they were a little too thick for my taste, and not as soft as I would have liked. I'll give them another try though, maybe with butter next time.

I have to say that I was pretty impressed with Amor Y Tacos, and wish that I lived closer so I could try more of their menu. I really like this trend of modern Mexican food places opening up. There's definitely a place for the Alberto's, Rigaberto's, and whatever other versions of these kinds of restaurants you have near you, but I have a growing fondness for the more upscale Mexican restaurants that have chefs that are willing to take chances, use fresh ingredients, and don't pile on the cheese and sauce on their plates, so you can actually taste the food. Some on Yelp and other food related sites have been pretty harsh on this restaurant for the price point of their dinners, but I honestly thought they were going to be a few dollars higher than they actually were. Service was pretty good, nice and steady. They did get the food out real fast, and tended to turn tables over rather quickly. I'm really happy our schedule slowed down a bit so we had some time to celebrate and catch up with our good friend Emily, and have some pretty good food in the process.

Out of five shopping bags, (because Cerritos residents are the second highest retail spenders in California, second only to the residents of Beverly Hills), five being best to zero being worst, Amor Y Tacos gets 3.5 shopping bags.

For more information about Amor Y Tacos, go to their website here:

Click to add a blog post for Amor y Tacos on Zomato

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fins Splashes Down in South OC - CLOSED

Fins Poke Fusion
28251 Marguerite Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92692

If there's any food that has broken out more than poke in the second decade of this new century, I'm not sure what it could be. Yes, kale and quinoa have had their time in the spotlight, but let's be honest, these foods are awful. At least cubed pieces of seafood are something that almost all of us can agree is better than kale or quinoa.

You can also judge the popularity of poke by the amount of it that has become available all of a sudden. A simple Yelp search turns up 17 restaurants that serve poke, or have poke in their name. For the most part, all of these restaurants are in the northern part of OC. You can now add another poke option for people south of Irvine, with the opening of Fins Poke Fusion.

Fins is located in the old Sushi Zone spot and are run by the same owners. Sushi Zone was an all you can eat sushi place, which saw its profits dry up after fish prices went through the roof. Not wanting to sacrifice the high quality of fish they used, Co-Owners Peter Cho and Moby Duncan had to make a decision about what to do with their restaurant. They made the wise decision to ditch the AYCE option and create a build your own poke bowl place.

Fins switched to this new format in March and are having their grand opening this month. I heard about this place by reading Edwin's review in the OC Weekly. You can see his review here. I've now been here two times, and the first time was after the switch over to poke, but before they had remodeled the inside. The ordering process was more choppy then, with an ordering process that could best be described as awkward. It used to be that you ordered at the register and went to your table and waited for your poke to be brought out. This resulted in a few of the orders coming out wrong.

Now the process is more like a Chipotle, you walk along with the person making your masterpiece, and can have them add and customize your poke just the way you like it. A much better way to order this. Also, the first time we were here they gave you a separate bowl for the poke, and you had to mix it with your base yourself. Now they serve everything in the same bowl, which made the second trip way more enjoyable for me. Here are a few shots of the food during our first visit.

Even though it was awkward eating the poke this way, it was still very fresh, and everything tasted great. We loved all the options, and the serving size was more than generous at Fins. Let's see how our second, more successful trip to Fins was.

The new improved ordering process at Fins was much easier to follow. There are signs at each station letting you know what options are available, and the people behind the counter were also on hand to answer all of your questions as well. You start with what size of poke bowl you want, small, medium, or large. Then you choose what kind of base you are in the mood for, mixed greens or white or brown rice. At Fins you have the option of tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, shrimp, albacore, or they may have a special selection from time to time. There are also three sauces to choose from, a spicy mayo sauce, a house-made ponzu sauce, or a more traditional poke sauce, sesame shoyu. The last step is to complete your perfect poke bowl with any extra toppings at an additional charge. These include avocado, crab meat, scallops, jalapenos, and more. These range in price from 50 cents to a dollar per item.

Here's a look at our finished poke bowls. I went with the Big Kahuna (large $10.95) sized bowl which came with 7 ounces of cubed tuna, with a base of brown rice. I also added garlic chips, jalapenos, avocado, and spicy mayo and ponzu sauce. Again the fish was fresh and delicious, the garlic chips were stronger than I imagined they would be and added a new element to my poke creation. They were a little light on the sauce, so I had my great friend Daniele go up and get some more for me. She did so begrudgingly, but I convinced her it would be in her best interest to complete this task for me. The spicy mayo sauce, which they call Kilauea is not really spicy, but more of a thousand island type sauce, without the pickles. The jalapenos picked up the slack for the non-spiciness of the sauce, as these little guys really packed a punch. A very filling dinner which left me full, but not lethargic.

We are so happy that we went to Fins a second time. Glad to see all the kinks have been ironed out with the ordering process and the way the food is served. They are also working on updating the dining area, which is nearing the process of being finished. At this build your own meal kind of places is always a challenge finding your perfect combination of items, but so far the journey at Fins has been pretty good. We look forward to going back again soon and perfecting our ultimate poke bowl. Glad to see that South OC has another option for poke, and we heard whispers that there might be a new Fins location opening soon. We'll keep you posted.

Out of five orca whales, (because the mascot for the Vancouver Canucks is an orca whale named Fin), five being best to zero being worst, Fins Poke Fusion gets 3 orca whales.

Fins Poke Fusion has a very limited website, but there are links to their social media outlets by clicking here: