Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Does SmoKING Ribs Take the Barbecue Crown?


The SmoKING Ribs
14211 Euclid St. 
Garden Grove, CA 92840

When I told people I would be heading to Garden Grove for dinner, most just assumed I'd be having Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, or trying one of those Cajun seafood spots where you get the whole shebang. I got a bunch of double takes when I told them I'd be getting barbecue, and I had heard great things about the restaurant we were headed to. My Instagram feed has been filled with mouth watering pictures of the meats here, their Yelp page is filled with lots of positive reviews and five-star ratings, and I have read some really good things in the press, so it was just a matter of time until we made it to The SmoKING Ribs.

The man behind this restaurant is Kenny Tran, who used to love grilling in his backyard, but found it to be pretty labor intensive, with all the flipping and making sure things were not getting too overdone. He found that he did not have enough time to enjoy a beer while grilling, so he started out smoking a chicken, which gave him plenty of time to enjoy a beer or two while the meat was in the smoker, and that's how he got his start as a barbecue master.

That was 1999, and in 2010 he started his own barbecue catering company, Bolsa Barbeque. They still do a lot of catering, but this was the springboard for his first and only brick and mortar restaurant. The SmoKING Ribs is the first restaurant Kenny Tran has ever worked at, and he's jumped in with both feet since he's the owner, pit master, and almost every other job you can think of in a restaurant.

The location of this barbecue restaurant is a little odd, in the same sleepy shopping center as a Vietnamese coffee shop, a pharmacy, and a nail salon, and next to the more bustling strip mall that houses the ever-popular Boiling Crab, which always seems to have a long line out the door. We arrived here at 5 pm on a recent Saturday to meet our good friends Duc and Minerva, who pen one of the most enjoyable reads, Much Ado About Fooding. At this early dinner hour, it was no problem getting a table right away, but we've heard that this small, ten table eatery does get packed, so be advised of that.

The menu at SmoKING Ribs is pretty compact, but all the essentials are here. They offer six kinds of meat, a couple sandwiches, nine sides, and five starters, which are half price during their happy hour, which runs weekdays, from 2 to 5:30. I was a little disappointed that there are no combo meals offered here, as that's usually what I like to order to get a good lay of the land when eating at a place for the first time. Fortunately for us, there were four of us in our party, and we coordinated what all of us would be having, so we got a good cross-section of the menu. Let's see if this restaurant is worth all of the hype it has been generating.



Since we were waiting for Minerva and Duc to arrive, because they were running a little late, Katie and I decided to order their much ballyhooed Candied Bacon ($2) to start off with. I've heard this runs out pretty early, so I was pretty eager to give it a try. I thought it was good, but I kind of missed the smokey flavor of regular bacon, since this was way more on the sweeter side. Different, but not something I would probably get again.



I guess we were really hungry while waiting for Minerva and Duc because we also tried their Blueberry Cornbread ($4), which is also one of the choices that you can pick for your side items with an entree. I would definitely get this again. Part muffin, part cornbread, and totally delicious. This was like the best of a blueberry muffin and cornbread all in one. Plenty of blueberries in this, and not too crumbly, like a lot of cornbread tends to be. I did wish that the butter was a little softer so it could spread more evenly, but other than that, this was a very good side and made me eager to see what else was in store for us this evening.



Our food started making its way out to us in waves, the first of which was Minerva's selection on this early evening, the Pulled Pork ($13). This mound of shredded pork came with two sides, and she went with Corn on the Cob and Onion Rings. Minerva liked the pork, but since she went to school in North Carolina, she's used to the real deal barbecue, and she stated that this was good for OC barbecue, but not like anything she's had back east. She said it was a little too mushy, but I liked the pieces I tried off of her plate. I left the corn on the cob alone, but the onion rings were fantastic. Very crunchy breading, well fried, and the onion on the inside was prominent. I think these are one of my favorite onion rings around OC.





When Katie's dinner hit the table, there was an audible gasp of excitement. This Angus Short Rib ($24) is only available Friday through Sunday after 5 pm and is made in a limited supply, so get here early enough to make sure they don't run out before you get yours. Short rib is always tender, and that was definitely the case here. I liked the understated amount of smokiness that attached itself to the beef on this evening. This good sized rib had a nice ribbon of fat running through it, which also helped boost its flavor profile. For her side items, Katie went with the Smoked Beans and Coleslaw, which were both winners. The beans were more soup like, than baked beans, which I thought I was not going to enjoy, but they turned out to have plenty of beef in them, and a great depth of flavor. The coleslaw had a great crunchy texture to the red cabbage used, and was liberally dressed, just the way I like it. Another winner of a plate.





The hits just kept on coming at SmoKING Ribs, with my plate, the Angus Beef Brisket ($21). I really enjoyed the brisket, but a few pieces were a little on the dry side, but for the most part, this was solid beef. I really enjoyed the barbecue sauce that they offer here. They have a sweet sauce, but the one that got me humming was their habanero sauce, which really packed a punch, without overwhelming the meat. My table mates thought it was a little too hot, but that was rectified by mixing it with the sweeter sauce. Really kicked this brisket up a few notches. The side items I chose rocked. The Mac and Cheese had the right consistency of noodles to cheese, and I liked the inclusion of the bread crumbs on top of this, which added a little texture. The Mashed Potatoes were a good, solid version of this classic side dish, which was not too lumpy or runny.




You can't come to a place called the SmoKING Ribs and not get ribs, so here's a shot of the Pork Ribs ($30). Besides the short rib, this was my favorite meat item of the night. The ribs were tender, had a great reddish hue from the smoke ring around the outside of them, and came with a slight glaze of barbecue sauce, which caramelized on the smoker. The two side items chosen with this plate were the French Fries and the Twice Baked Potato. I did not get a chance to give the potato a try, but it looked real good from across the table. The fries were done well here, with a crispy outer shell, and soft potato inside.



Both Katie and I added a Hot Link ($2) to our meals. This tube of meat had a nice slow burn to it, and  I liked the snap of the casing, along with the sausage on the inside. Well worth the extra two dollars, and this went well with the provided barbecue sauce.

I left SmoKING Ribs pretty impressed, and now understand why this restaurant gets so much positive press. So where does this restaurant rank in the hierarchy of barbecue restaurants in OC? It's pretty high up there in my opinion, with only Lillie' Q, Blake's Place, Smokey Fred's and Leadbelly's being better, but of course, these rankings can change based on my next visit to any one of these spots. I do wish they offered combo plates here, as it would help make my decision on what to eat here next much easier. There were some very minor hiccups with the meats here, but the side items were all pretty stellar. Some might feel that the prices are a little on the high side, but you'll definitely have leftovers, so if you think about it like you're paying for two meals, it makes it much more manageable. The service on this evening was pretty good, and they definitely got busier as the night went on. With the addition of the SmoKING Rib, people might start thinking about the city of Garden Grove as a barbecue destination.

Out of five strawberries, (because I always think of this fruit whenever I'm in this area since they hold the Strawberry Festival here every Memorial Day Weekend), five being best to zero being worst, The SmoKING Ribs gets 3.5 strawberries.

For more information about The SmoKING Ribs, head to their website here: http://thesmokingribs.com/

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Yet Another Reason to Visit Downtown Fullerton


D Vine
132 West Commonwealth Ave. 
Fullerton, CA 92832

I know a lot of people are not too keen on Downtown Fullerton. It gets a bad rap for being a little rambunctious as the clock advances towards the wee hours of the night or early morning. I've also heard some grumbling about the lack of parking around the downtown area. I personally have always had a great time in this restaurant-rich mecca. Now with the new parking structure right across from one of my favorite spots in this area, Heroes, parking is a snap.

It had been awhile since we had made it up here on a Saturday night, and Fullerton was humming with activity, as usual when we arrived in this area at about 7 pm. What had brought us up this way? We were invited to try out D Vine, with our good friends Tom, from Toms' Foodie Blog, and his irrepressible other half, Daniele, from Dani's Decadent Deals. We always love hanging out with these crazy kids, and getting a chance to try a much raved about restaurant is an added bonus.

D Vine, which is located right in the heart of the action of Downtown Fullerton, near Heroes, Joe's, and Roscoe's has been in this spot for over a year now. They also have a Brea location, which has been around a bit longer, as they just celebrated their 4 year anniversary. Much of the credit for their longevity in the tough restaurant business can probably be credited to the dynamic duo who runs this restaurant, Lena Quezada, and Chef Walid Alarja.

These two met five years ago, and quickly formed a friendship over their passion to bring the finest Mediterranean cuisine to the people of North OC. Lena, who formerly worked in real estate, seems to be in charge of the business side of things, while Bethlehem native, Chef Walid, who has over thirty years in the culinary arts under his belt, has control of the kitchen. They also let us in on a little secret that they may have another future location in the works, but did not give us any other details. Something to look forward to perhaps.

Back in the here and now, we arrived at the Fullerton location of D Vine, and I was immediately hit by the liveliness of the space, which used to house a bank in its past incarnation. The restaurant is kind of three parts in one. They have 8,000 square feet of space, which includes a large banquet room, a comfortable patio, which is the perfect spot to take in the craziness that is Downtown Fullerton on most nights, and of course their dining area, which is where we were seated.

Taking advantage of the nightlife in this area, D Vine has joined the fray, by creating a lounge, which starts at 10 on Fridays and Saturdays, and goes until 2 am, with a DJ and a full bar. Of course, I am long in bed by the time that party gets going, (yes I feel that old), but I was told it's a pretty chill vibe here on weekend nights at D Vine, and the lounge experience has been attracting many late night revelers. As for us, not exactly early birds, but we did get to partake in the beautiful Tanya perform her belly dance routine, and she even got Katie and Daniele to dance with her. Watching all of this dancing really got me hungry, and lucky for us, the food started coming out.



When you sit down at D Vine you are presented with Fried Pita Chips, Olive Oil, and Za'atar as a welcoming gift. Just like when we are in a Mexican restaurant, and the chips and salsa are set before me, I could not stop eating these. The pita chips had a good crunch to them and were thinner than I thought they would have been. I used the olive oil to bind the Za'atar to the chips, which was a unique treat. They also sell Za'atar for you to take home for $5, which Dani took full advantage of.



Since I would be spending the evening with the very energetic Dani, I felt I should treat myself to a beer, and it was my first time trying Almaza, which is a popular Lebanese beer. Not a fan of heavy beers, this Almaza really hit the spot for me. This pilsner had a good clean taste, with a slight citrus finish near the end of each sip. Definitely made listening to Daniele much more enjoyable. Kidding, of course, or am I?



We ordered two cheese based appetizers to start things out at D Vine, the first of which was this Cheese Fatayer ($7). With this one, they stuffed some Mediterranean cheeses into a pocket dough, and then lightly fry it. Kind of like fried mozzarella, but of course lighter. I enjoyed the slight crunch to the dough, and the subtle flavor of the cheese did not overpower here. Tasty.



To finish out our daily double cheese odyssey, we also went with this Cheese Platter ($12), which featured Halloum and Nabulsi cheeses, which I hear are pretty common cheeses in the Mediterranean area. These cheeses were garnished with some cucumber. I'm not really a fan of cheese platters, so this was not really my cup of tea. I love cheese, but I'm not a fan of having it in chunks by itself. The rest of them all seemed to like this though.



This beautiful platter was way more in my wheelhouse. Out next for us was the crowd-pleasing D Vine Mezza ($15). Their menu proclaims that this is great for sharing, but that's a lie. I wanted this all for myself. This platter comes with a grand slam of items; hummus, baba ghanoush, Mediterranean salad, and turshi. The hummus here is very creamy, and one of the better ones I have had, although I'd like to see if they could make a spicy version on my next visit here. The baba ghanoush, which is seasoned eggplant was my favorite item of the four. Great earthy flavor, with some wonderful spices, added. This went quickly between the four of us. I was not so sure that I was going to like the turshi, which is a combination of pickles, turnips, and olives, but I enjoyed the pickles and turnips very much. Kind of brought to mind the pickle platters you get in good Jewish delis. The Mediterranean salad impressed also, with its combination of cucumbers, bell peppers, onion, tomato, parsley, and lettuce, all dressed simply with lemon juice, house spices, and olive oil. Very fresh, and I liked how the veggies all stayed crisp through their very short stay on this plate.



This is a sampling of two of the items off of the D-Vine entree menu, which allowed us to try a little more of everything they have to offer. These Lamb Chops ($15) were insanely delicious. They were cooked perfectly tender and spiced with just the right balance, so it did not interfere with the natural flavor of the lamb. I did not care who was looking, but I had to get every last piece off the bones. It was worth it. The Half Chicken ($15) takes 25 minuted to prepare, but with chicken this juicy, it's worth the wait. I'm always a little skittish about chicken in restaurants because it's almost always overcooked, but not the case at D Vine. Chef Walid definitely knows his way around a bird, and this poultry was brought to life with the best garlic sauce we have had to date in OC. Katie's been on the lookout for one that compares to the one by her old work in Ontario, and she has finally found it here at D Vine. This garlic sauce is also available for sale, so I know what I'm getting Katie for Christmas.



The most popular item on the D-Vine menu is understandably, the Chicken Shawarma ($12). This chicken dish blew us away. I made a little sandwich with the provided pita bread and garlic sauce, which was awesome. The entrees here come with one cold appetizer and rice, but you can sub out the rice, and for an extra dollar and get another cold appetizer. I was hoping for more baba ghanoush, but they gave us a white cabbage salad, which resembled coleslaw in looks, but not in taste, and my favorite of the two, a beet salad. This fresh beet salad was prepared only using olive oil, lemon juice, and salt to coat the cubed beets. Very tasty, and made me think that I don't eat beets nearly enough.



Dessert would be our last hurrah on this visit to D Vine, and they finished things off with a bang for us. Again, this is two desserts on one plate, the first of which is the Ashta Ice Cream ($6) in the center of the plate. They offer four different flavors of ice cream, and we were given the rose water flavor, which included crushed pistachios on top of it. I thought the rose was going to be too overpowering, but it hung around the background just enough. The Layalee Lubnan ($6) is not something I would generally order, but it was good nonetheless. It uses a base of semolina pudding and is then topped with whipped cream, crushed pistachios, and a simple syrup. This is the perfect dessert for people that are not too fond of overly sweetened desserts.

It's easy to see why D Vine has gotten lots of praise from all the food blogs that I regularly read. The food was pretty stellar, and I really liked the ambiance here as well. The chicken dishes, hummus, baba ghanoush, lamb chops, garlic sauce, and beet salad were all standouts for me on this evening, and we will definitely be back to try some, or all of these in the near future. The price point was pretty impressive at D Vine as well. No entrees approach the $20 mark, and they also offer plenty of sandwiches and kebabs, which were also pretty reasonable. I was also impressed that they are becoming part of the surrounding community, by incorporating the late night lounge, full bar, and cigar lounge into their restaurant. D Vine is definitely another reason that can be added to my list of why I love Downtown Fullerton.

We would like to thank Lena and Chef Walid for their generosity and hospitality on this evening. We loved getting a chance to meet you, try your delicious cuisine, and share your passion for your restaurant. We would also like to thank everyone else at D Vine, who made our stay very enjoyable. Lastly, we would like to thank the great Bob Bradley, for coordinating this visit, and making sure we could share this restaurant with all of you.

For more information about D Vine, head to their website here: http://www.dvineexperience.com/index.php

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

We Found It, But Was It Any Good?


Eureka!
7631 Edinger Ave. #1524
Huntington Beach, CA 92647

It's one of my favorite days of the year. The day that we pick the Ducks games that we will go to for the upcoming hockey season. We split our tickets three ways, and we hold a ticket lottery where we each pick a game until there are none remaining. Unfortunately, due to some crazy circumstances, we did not get a chance to go to any of the preseason games, because we got together too late, but preseason games are pretty lame anyways. As the resident restaurant reviewer in our group, it's usually up to me to choose a spot to meet up, grab some food and drinks, and catch up before the season starts. This year I picked a place I had heard some good things about, Eureka! in Huntington Beach.

I had heard from a guy that Eureka! had some pretty good burgers, and they also have gotten some favorable reviews on some of the OC restaurant blogs that I read religiously. Started in Hawthorne in 2009, Eureka! has since grown by leaps and bounds. The three co-founders have built a pretty impressive chain, which includes 21 currently operating restaurants, throughout six states, with more on the way with their aggressive expansion plan. OC is home to two of their outposts, with the other one being in the University Center in Irvine.

They got their name because they want their customers to feel that they have discovered a fantastic dining experience with great food, craft beer, and artisan liquor program. We arrived at this Eureka located in the pretty popular Bella Terra shopping center, on a recent Sunday afternoon at 2 pm. The restaurant has a very open feel to it, with lots of grays, browns, and exposed wood dominating the very comforting space. There's about a 15 seat bar, with four TVs situated above it, which were showing football and other sports on this afternoon. Our hostess lead us to one of the comfy booths along the right-hand side of the restaurant, where we set up shop to pick our games. We were just in time for Happy Hour, which is every day from 2 to 6, and they also have a late night happy hour from 9 til closing. I quickly made a few selections, as I had skipped breakfast, and was pretty hungry. Let's check out the food here at Eureka!




I really only got these Lollipop Corn Dogs ($6) for the novelty effect, but they were actually way better than I imagined they would be. I think the reason for this was a very light corn breading, along with the surprise that the inside of these contained a polish sausage, instead of the anticipated regular beef hot dog. The spicy mustard dipping sauce was okay with these, but not great. I think we would have rather of had ketchup for dipping these.



Another happy hour item we needed to try were these Osso Buco Riblets ($7). I had pretty high hopes for these sherry braised pork ribs, but they were overcooked, and a little on the dry side. The menu mentioned that these came with a firecracker aioli, but this sauce was a dud, delivering little to no flavor. I'll give these a little credit because they did come with plenty of meat on them, but I'd pass on these the next time I'm here.



Our third and final happy hour menu item of the afternoon were these Smoked Chicken Nachos ($8). The very good and crisp tortilla chip were topped with avocado tomatillo, tomato, jack cheese, cilantro, sliced jalapenos, black beans, chipotle sauce, sour cream, and of course chicken. This was another lackluster appetizer. On the whole, it was fine, but the toppings were used sparingly, with little chicken or cheese to speak of, and they were not layered correctly. Too many of the chips were devoid of any of the toppings on them, and were thus, just plain tortilla chips.



After we had finished divvying up our tickets, we decided to order some lunch, starting with my mom's selection, the Chicken Tacos ($10.50). These visually pleasing tacos came stuffed with plenty of hand pulled chicken, jack cheese, pico de gallo, avocado slices, cabbage, slivered jalapeno, and chipotle sauce. Of course, my light eating mom could only finish one of these, but she really enjoyed the one that she had. She said the chicken was nice and tender, and really enjoyed all of the toppings included here, including the very fresh avocado slice. The tortilla did a great job of keeping everything together, and the sliced jalapenos gave this a little kick. We did think it was odd that the tacos here came with fries, but they were pretty solid.




I guess after being married for over 49 years, my parents have started becoming more and more like each other, as they both got tacos at Eureka!. My dad went the seafood route with these Mahi Mahi Tacos ($10.50). The blackened fish was joined in the tortilla with some avocado tomatillo, cabbage, and mango salsa. My dad enjoyed these but was not wowed by them. The fish had a slight spice to it with the addition of the blackening seasoning, and he liked the way this interacted with the slight sweetness from the mango salsa. My dad did not want fries, so he got onion rings for a dollar up-charge. These panko crusted onion rings were good, with a real thick onion on the inside, and a sturdy coating containing it. We did think it was odd that only three onion rings were included with his tacos, but not any odder than having onion rings and tacos served together.




Katie was in the mood for a sandwich, and this Napa Chicken Sandwich ($12) would be her selection on this late afternoon. This wine country inspired sandwich came with grilled chicken breast, roasted Roma tomatoes, pesto, Havarti, pancetta, and was finished off with some arugula. Katie thought this sandwich had a subtle pleasant flavor, but it did not knock her socks off. She would probably order something else on future visits here.






With all the hoopla I had heard about the burgers from Eureka!, I had to give one of them a try, but it was difficult narrowing it down to one. I finally went with this Jalapeno Egg Burger ($12). This burger had a lot of my favorite things included on this; pickled jalapenos, a fried egg with a runny yolk, cheddar cheese, two strips of bacon, and a spicy chipotle sauce. With everything included on this, I was left a little disappointed after trying this. It was fine, but it was missing something, which was surprising with all of these great toppings. I really liked the sturdy, but soft bun here, but the beef wasn't seasoned enough, and the other toppings did not really pop. I think this burger would have been better with a little more of the chipotle sauce on it, which might have woken this up a bit. The fries were good, and you can tell that they were fresh and hand cut here.

I was a little disappointed with the food that I had at Eureka! on this late afternoon. Nothing was that bad, but it wasn't that great either. I guess you can say it was a pretty average meal, but not memorable in any way. I did feel that the price point here was more than fair. Nothing on their menu comes close to $20 mark, so you can definitely fill up on the cheap, and I was also pretty excited that they offer happy hour every day. Our server, sorry I did not write down your name, was very patient with us, and kept checking on us numerous times during our close to three-hour stay. Even though the food failed to impress, nothing could dim our mood, because hockey is back.

Out of five bathtubs, (because the exclamation Eureka is attributed to Greek scholar, Archimedes, who is said to have said this after making the discovery of volume displacement of the water in his bathtub), five being best to zero being worst, Eureka! gets 2.5 bathtubs.

For more information about Eureka!, head to their website here: http://www.eurekarestaurantgroup.com/