Thursday, April 28, 2016

Making Pigs of Ourselves at Baos Hog

Baos Hog
13918 Brookhurst St. 
Garden Grove, CA 92843

Sometimes you eat at a restaurant, and you just know that within a short matter of time, there's going to be a bunch of copycats out there. That was the feeling that I had once I saw the menu at Baos Hog in Garden Grove. Just like all the poke places, liquid nitrogen ice cream spots, and the build your own pizza joints, which are dominating the restaurant landscape these days, I can definitely foresee a bunch of these bao sandwich spots opening up all over. For now Baos Hog seems to be the only game in town though, but look for that to change.

Baos Hog opened its doors over 10 months ago, and has gotten some great praise from the local food media. OC Register Restaurant Critic, Brad Johnson put this place on his list of top 75 restaurants in OC this year. The OC Weekly has written numerous articles about his place, including their most recent, which was a glowing review of the food here. All this praise, plus the fact that my aunt Hiroko knows the owner here, had us all very excited to make a rare trip to Garden Grove for dinner on a recent Saturday night.

When the owners of the famous Lien Hoa BBQ wanted to expand their kitchen, and the place next door became available, they not only got more room to operate, but also let their daughter open up her creative new adventure, Baos Hog. According to Edwin Goei, restaurant reviewer for the OC Weekly, and later confirmed by their Instagram page, the original concept for this restaurant was hainan chicken, but the baos quickly took on the more prominent role.

For those of you new to baos, like me, they are steamed buns, kind of reminiscent of what you would get when eating dim sum, and they are traditionally stuffed with pork. At Baos Hog they have expanded their offerings to include duck, beef, chicken, and fish, along with a few selections that include pork. We got to this small, five table restaurant at about 6pm, quickly ordered and grabbed a table out in front of their restaurant. We'd heard that this place gets a little crazy near meals times, and based on our trip here, we can verify that this is true. Let's see how our first experience having baos went for us.

Our order was pretty good sized, so things came out in stages, the first of which was this Roasted Pork Cha Siu Bao ($3.50). When this was sat in front of me I was immediately struck by how nicely presented this was. The honey barbecue pork had a pleasing red ring around it, and was topped with cucumber, fried shallots, green onion, and a house made sesame hoisin sauce on the side. The pork was flavorful and tender, while the fried shallots added a nice crunch to this. I was a little too reserved with the hoisin sauce, but will not make that mistake next time.

Also included in this round of baos was this Boss Bao ($3.50). The base of this one is a five spiced pork belly that was joined in the soft and fluffy bao with pickled red onion, cucumber, green onion, fried shallot, crushed peanuts, hoisin, and a sriracha garlic mayo. I'm usually a big fan of pork belly, but this one seemed off to me textually. It did not have that fatty bacon kind of feel to it. I really enjoyed the sriracha mayo though, and the rest of the insides of this.

We got our next round of four baos out next, and one of my favorites on this evening was one of the simpler ones, the Cow Bao ($3.50). They use chopped grilled ribeye here, along with fried shallot, and green onion. Kind of like Mongolian beef, but in sandwich form. The ribeye was flavored well, and the green onion added just the right amount of flavor as to not overwhelm the ribeye. I'll get this one again for sure.

Another winner for me was this Duck Bao ($4.00). It really should not be surprising that this was good, as they use the same roasted duck that they famously serve next door at Lien Hoa. The duck was delicious, probably one of the best I have had in a long while. I was happy that this one was simply dressed with cucumber, green onion,fried shallots, and duck sauce on the side, as it really let the duck shine. This is another bao that I will return to.

The online buzz is probably the greatest for this Bolsa Bao ($3.50). This one was pretty solid as well, with its crispy pork belly, pickled carrots and onion, cucumber, hoisin and sriracha garlic mayo. The pork belly on this one was a lot more to my liking, and it's easy to see why so many people enjoy this one. Katie's not into pork belly, so I had this one all to myself, which is never a bad thing.

 A new addition to their bao lineup is the Fish Bao ($3.50). A fried basa fish is the centerpiece of this, with a cabbage medley, crispy wonton chip, red onion, and honey mustard sauce playing a supporting role. I was not in love with this. The fish got lost here, and the wonton chip was a little on the hard side. I can see what they were trying to do with this, but I wasn't feeling it.

It's not all about the baos here at Baos Hog, they do have a limited number of side items, one of which is the much heralded Salt and Pepper Wings ($4.50). These wings were more on the peppery side, which I enjoyed. Not the biggest wings we have had recently, but I like that they were fried well, the skin was crisp, and the sriracha dipping sauce actually complimented these, not that it was actually needed. Good wings, and something for people to get that do not feel like a bao sandwich.

I had a feeling that the wings were going to be good, but they may have been overshadowed by these Cauli Fries ($3.50). There's not too much buzz about these, but trust me, you are going to want to try them. Mediterranean inspired, these fried pieces of cauliflower were delicious, and fried to perfection. Not too greasy, and they came with a wonderful dipping sauce, which was part ranch, but with some garlic notes present. Delicious, and you almost think you're eating healthier since it's cauliflower and everything.

Leaving Baos Hog, I was struck by how this was such a simple idea of making baos into sandwiches, and how it just feels that this might be the next thing to be mimicked by other restaurants. Yes, not all the bao sandwiches were winners in my book, and to be truthful, I really enjoyed the simpler ones, like the beef and duck versions better than the more elaborate Bolsa and Boss versions, which reviewers love on Yelp. The sides are not to be overlooked here either, and definitely give some love to the cauli fries. Service was spot on, as the people behind the counter were very helpful answering questions. The food came out staggered, but we eventually got everything, and it came out hot, especially the sides. Glad my aunt Hiroko could introduce this place to us before there are many imitators.

Out of five white Cadillac's, (because this restaurant is of course named after Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show, and he used to drive a 1970 triple white Cadillac), five being best to zero being worst, Baos Hog gets 3.5 white Cadillac's.

For more information about Baos Hog, head to their website here:

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Better Version of KFC in Irvine

Krave Asian Fusion Restaurant
2819 Main Street
Irvine, CA 92614

I've been in the mood for wings lately. I don't know what it is, but I have been thinking about them all the time. It might be due to the fact that this is the best time of the year for a sports fan. We have the start of the long baseball season, the NBA and NHL playoffs, and the NFL Draft is coming up real soon, which means football is not too far off. Anyways, no food item goes as good with sports as wings. Restaurant chains are based off of this concept, even though most of them don't do wings any justice. I'm looking at you Buffalo Wild Wings.

Krave came across my radar when they sent me an invite to come into their restaurant to give them a try. I never set up that media invite, but did put them on my list of places to try. After a rare trip to the movies to see "City of Gold," the flick about LA Times Food Critic, Jonathan Gold, we were near enough Krave, and we were definitely craving food after watching this gastronomic movie, so we decided to high tail it in to give them a try.

Krave is located in a kind of odd spot, near the corner of Jamboree and Main, situated in the same parking lot as a Residence Inn, Souplantation, and Boudin. I thought it might be a little challenging to get a parking spot here, but we got one right in front of the restaurant on this Saturday night.

Krave was not overly busy on this night, with about four tables in use during our one hour stay. The sleek decor is accentuated by the white walls and hanging light fixtures. There's an eight seat bar, with two televisions behind it, a slight nod to the relationship of sports and wings?

The menu is not going to blow you away with its diversity. Three sections to this menu, with one of those being wings, the entree section offers five options, including a burger, chicken katsu, bibimbap, udon noodle soup, and garlic noodles. Starters include potstickers, edamame, salmon avocado salad, a kogi quesdailla, and loaded kogi french fries. Now that you know the whole menu, let's see if this place can satisfy my wing cravings.

Before we get to the wings, let's check out the starter we went with, the Loaded Kogi Fries ($9.99). I have never eaten at the Kogi truck before, I know this probably ends my credibility as a food blogger, but I'm not really into food trucks, and have never been anywhere that they were scheduled to be. Checking out the trucks menu though, they do not offer fries, so I think these are just Kogi inspired. A big mound of fries are topped with Sriracha cheese sauce, marinated ribeye, scallions, and sliced jalapenos. This appetizer kind of fell flat for me personally. I'm never one to be too excited with cheese sauce, and this one was kind of bland, even with the supposed inclusion of Sriracha. I also felt the ribeye needed to be left in bigger hunks, so you could get a better taste of it. The fries were your basic, fast food style fries, which did not blow us away. I'd probably try the Kogi Quesadilla next time I"m here.

Now the main event, and the real reason we were here, the Wings ($11.99). At Krave they offer small, medium, or large orders of Korean Fried Chicken, and depending on the combination of what kind of wings you want, determines how many you get. If you order the small, like we did, you get your choice of 10 wings, 5 drums, or with a combination of both, you get 8. Not sure how set they are on this policy, because we got the small, and it came with 10 pieces with both wings and drums. They also offer four kinds of sauce with their wings; soy garlic, black peppercorn, Chinese chili, or spicy. Again the menu states that you can choose two sauces per order, but our waitress said it would be okay for us to try them all, which we did not scoff at.

The wings at Krave are bigger than most we have tried, with lots of meat on them. The outer shell has a great crunch to it, and the chicken inside has a moistness to it, which you do not find in most chicken wings. Really a great chicken wing, in fact one of the best we have had. The sauces were all pretty good, but none of them really stood out for me, except the black peppercorn. The spicy sauce was not nearly spicy enough, and even Katie could handle it, and she's usually a lightweight when it comes to spice.

Not sure if we had enough food, we also ordered these Garlic Noodles ($7.99) just to make sure. These came to the table more on the lukewarm side, than I thought they should be. Even though they were kind of cold, I warmed up to these as I ate them. The garlic was definitely present, and really jazzed up this rather simple looking dish. Not sure I'd get them again, but on this visit they closed out our meal admirably.

Krave did what we came here for the best, their wings. Even a few weeks after this visit, I still recall these wings favorably, and still think they are the best I have had to date. I do understand that they may not be for everyone though. Some might scoff at the price tag of over a dollar per wing, or the fact that there is no traditional buffalo sauce here, but taken for what these are, you will be blown away by these wings. The other items we had on this evening unfortunately did not live up to the high standards set by the chicken wings. Both the noodles and the fries kind of fell flat. Service was pretty good as expected, as there was only three tables of customers during our stay. The wings are the things to get here, and we look forward to coming back again soon to have some more, while watching some games.

Out of five pieces of jerky, (because in 2015, Hershey bought Krave Jerky for over $200 million dollars), five being best to zero being worst, Krave Asian Fusion gets 3 pieces of jerky.

For more information about Krave Asian Fusion, head to their website here:

Krave Asian Fusion Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Hoping El Camino Does Chilaquiles the Right Way

El Camino Cafe
195 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Mexican breakfast is one of my favorites, and one of my favorite Mexican breakfast items is chilaquiles. So when one of my favorite food writers in OC, and probably the most knowledgeable person on Mexican cuisine in Orange County, Gustavo Arellano wrote a top 10 list of the best chilaquiles in our great county, I quickly added about seven of his picks to our restaurant wish list. After you are done reading this review, you should definitely read his article here.

For those of you that are unaware, chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish, which has a lot of variations, but the base of this dish is some cut up tortillas, which are lightly fried, then they are topped with the salsa of your choice, and garnished almost any way that you like. Most common garnishes are crema and avocado, but eggs, chicken, beef, and cheese are commonly added to enhance this dish. Even looking at the pictures in Gustavo's article, you can see that every restaurant has a different spin on this diverse breakfast item.

El Camino Cafe was ranked number four on his list, but the picture made me want to try this place out first. Katie and I have been trying to find time to go on two-mile walks, and I noticed that Peter's Canyon Trail was near Tustin, so after our walk, we headed to the Old Town area of Tustin. This sleepy little area was pretty quiet, except for the people eating outside, and waiting for their food at El Camino Cafe.

Open for two years now, this cafe is only operating between the hours of 8 til 2:30 in the afternoon, and they are closed on Mondays. Pretty small inside, we arrived here at close to noon on a recent Sunday and were relegated to sitting along the window bar, which overlooked the other patrons sitting outside underneath the canopy. Ordering is done at the counter, you are given a number, and then the food is brought out to you. After our two-mile hike, I was ready for my first El Camino experience. Let's see if this chilaquiles makes my top ten list like it did Gustavo's.

Before we get to the main event, I wanted to give these Cinnamon and Sugar Besos ($4) a try. While eating breakfast, I always like to balance my first meal of the day with sweet and savory items, and these and flan were my only two options to do this here. These besos were good, but not great. As I've learned with almost every other cultures food, most desserts are not as sweet as their American counterparts. These were freshly made, a little dry on the inside, but you get plenty for four dollars. The sugar and cinnamon added just enough sweetness to help me balance the savoriness of my upcoming meal.

My order got completely screwed up here, as I had wanted the red chilaquiles with carne asada added, but this green version came out with no meat, but I was so hungry I ate this anyway, and it was still great. This version of Chilaquiles "Hector" Verdes ($9) was topped with a slightly spicy green salsa, queso fresco, onion, cilantro, and a sunny side up egg. What made this for me was that the chips were not soggy, They stayed crisp, even though there was plenty of salsa used here. The green salsa was good, with a slight sourness to it, which was counteracted by the very good refried beans and rice. A stellar plate and I do look forward to coming back and having my red chilaquiles with meat next time.

When Katie's plate came out, I thought it really popped with color. Her choice was the Huevos Rancheros ($8). Two tostadas with two over-easy eggs, and bathed in red salsa. I've never really been a big fan of this dish, but she seems to get this every time it is offered on a breakfast menu. She proclaimed that this would be her go-to breakfast item every time she returns here. She loved the freshness of the salsa and other ingredients. She thought the salsa had a good flavor, which did not overpower the eggs but rather complimented them. She left El Camino Cafe very satisfied.

Even with the snafu with my meal, I could totally see why El Camino Cafe was on Gustavo's list of top chilaquiles in OC. The food here was very clean, not heavy, and really seemed like you were eating in someone's home, instead of a busy restaurant. This restaurant gets a lot of praise for their breakfast items, but they do offer tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and other Mexican specialties, but again, get here before they close at 2:30. We also noticed a lot of people coming here expressly for coffee drinks. Service was pretty good, as the lady that dropped off our food made sure everything was all right for us, and they were very quick to clear plates, to assure that the never-ending line of people coming in had a place to sit once their food was ready. With breakfast this good, the lines are not going to get any shorter, anytime soon.

Out of five butterflies, (because this flying insect is the mascot of this restaurant, as it adorns the menus, signs, and merchandise), five being best to zero being worst, El Camino Cafe gets 3.5 butterflies.

El Camino Cafe does not have a website, so check out their Yelp page for more information:

El Camino Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, April 15, 2016

Living La Vida Cantina

La Vida Cantina
1870 Harbor Boulevard
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

It's got to be a little nerve-racking opening a restaurant in a spot where the former tenant failed so miserably. Even more tense when you are opening the same kind of restaurant in this maybe cursed location. I never had the pleasure, or displeasure of eating at El Corozon when it was around for not even a year and a half. I did hear plenty about it though.

El Corozon got one of the nastiest restaurant reviews I have ever read from the OC Register's Brad Johnson. They barely got two and a half stars on Yelp, and probably the main reason I steered clear of El Corozon was that I learned that they were owned by the same people that run Saddle Ranch, which is right across the way from this spot. I've given Saddle Ranch three tries, and have regretted it all three visits. I guess if you're the owners of La Vida Cantina, you have to hope that people can distinguish that you are a different Mexican restaurant, and that you have nowhere to go but up from here.

La Vida Cantina is owned by Identity Management Group, which also owns the very successful Sutra, which has helped bring new life into this shopping complex that has been re-branded as The Triangle, but will always be Triangle Square to me. It seems that the bad taste left by El Corozon has become a faded memory. Yelp reviews for La Vida are overwhelmingly positive, and they have a four star rating with over 500 reviews. There has also been some very good word of mouth among the food community in OC about this restaurant, so this had me very hopeful on this evening.

It not only had me hopeful, but judging from the crowd at La Vida Cantina on a recent Saturday, a lot of people are also pretty excited about this place. We were here for the OC Restaurant Week menu on this evening, and sat on the darkened patio out in front of the restaurant, which had an unmistakable resort feel to it. With the frivolity of this shopping center, it is quite easy to imagine yourself out, not in Costa Mesa, but maybe Cabo San Lucas. Let's see if the food lives up to the vacation vibe here.

As is our custom when eating in Mexican restaurants, we always want to give you a look at the Chips and Salsa that are provided at the start of the meal. Both of these were pretty stellar. The salsa had some good chunk to it, while adding a little spark of spice. The chips were fresh, and fried nicely. They were also not shy about refilling either of these once they got low.

One thing Katie definitely inherited from her family is a love of Guacamole ($7.25), and there's definitely worse things she could have gotten from that bunch. Anyways, this was a very solid version of this classic appetizer. The avocados were mixed with the tomatoes, cilantro, onion, and Serrano pepper, which they used sparingly so the avocado would be front and center. A good consistency to this, my only complaint would be that they could have maybe added a little more spice, to make it pop a little more.  

I usually do not drink when we are out eating, so I can save room for more food, but their $30 OC Restaurant Week menu included either a shot of tequila or this Karma Palapa Margarita. Not wanting to get too out of hand, as it usually does when I start doing shots, I went with the margarita. This margarita had a little bit of everything going on with it. This started with a base of Karma Silver Tequila, then had some St. Germain liqueur added, along with agave nectar, lime juice, jalapeno, cucumber, pineapple, and pomegranate. What I liked about this was that every sip of this drink was different. In some gulps I got the sweet from the pineapple, which then turned to the spice of the jalapeno. It really kept me interested the whole time.

As is the case when we are dining out for restaurant week, Katie and I divide the prix fixe menu between us, and then share what we want. I knew she'd love these Ahi Poke Tostadita, so I only took one bite of it. You would not expect a Mexican restaurant to have good ahi, but this was tasty. A small tortilla is topped with a good mount of ahi, then crowned with avocado, mango, red onion, Serrano pepper, chipotle sauce, cilantro, and a poke sauce. Just like the margarita, this had a lot going on with it, but that just kept us guessing as to which bite we were going to be getting. I also liked the different textures going on here. The crunch from the tortilla, the rich ahi, and the smooth avocado slice all worked well together to make this a great start to our meal.

Something a little more like you'd expect in a Mexican restaurant, these Taquitos were top notch. The restaurant week menu said that these would be chicken, but our waiter offered me a choice, so I definitely took him up on the shredded beef version. These rolled tacos came out plated nicely with plenty of salsa fresca, Mexican crema, guacamole, and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Not greasy at all, the beef was tender and flavored well, and the condiments here really added to these taquitos.

First things first, it was really dark on the patio, so that's why my pictures look a little washed out. Up first for the entrees was Katie's pick, the Mahi Tacos. These tacos started with a flour tortilla base, then piled high with some mahi mahi, salsa fresca, corn, shredded cabbage, chipotle cream, and cotija cheese. Dressed almost exactly like the taquitos, these were just as good. Katie was surprised by how much she enjoyed this. The fish was moist, and the other parts of this melded well with the fish. She'd definitely be hard pressed not to get this again on future visits.

My go to at Mexican restaurants is to always lean towards carnitas, and lucky for me, these Carnitas Tacos were offered on the restaurant week menu. On these they used a corn tortilla, and placed a boatload of pork on them, guacamole, cotija cheese, shredded cabbage, and salsa quemada, which I learned is a burnt, or smokey salsa. I'm usually more of a red salsa person, but this green version had a depth of flavor thanks to the roasting, it really went well with the tender pork also. They were a little difficult to eat because the tacos were filled with a lot of stuff, but that's a good problem to have. The beans and rice was good, with me liking the beans a tad more than the rice, but that's almost always the case for me.

A sweet ending was awaiting us when it was time to have dessert. Both Katie and I split both of the selections off of the restaurant week menu. The clear winner for me were these freshly made Churros. They came with a caramel dipping sauce, which was not overly sweet, and almost seemed to be spiked with something to tone down the sweetness. The churros were served warm, and had a great crunch on the outer shell, and soft insides. The Flan was good, but it kind of fell flat when it came to the sauce, which was a bit runny. Good creamy texture though.

I have to say I was pretty surprised with our visit to La Vida Cantina. Maybe subconsciously I was thinking about the awful reviews the old tenant had, but everything we had on this night was very solid. It was made even better because this was restaurant week, and after a quick tally of the things we consumed on this night, it would have cost us $40 a person during a regular week, but this particular week it was just $30 per person. Proof that most restaurant week menus are a real bargain. Service on this evening was exceptional with everyone we encountered, including Manager Diedre Stary. We will definitely be back, and maybe the restaurant across the way can take a lesson on how food is supposed to prepared, instead of coming out of a bag from the freezer.

Out of five turkey legs, (because Costa Mesa is home to the OC Fair, which happens every July, and they must sell a ton of turkey legs), five being best to zero being worst, La Vida Cantina gets 3.5 turkey legs.

For more information about La Vida Cantina, head to their website here:

La Vida Cantina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato