Thursday, December 29, 2016

Our Best Restaurants Visits of 2016

For most everyone, 2016 can not end fast enough. It's been a tough year with all of the celebrity deaths, going through the election chaos, and it seems like every time I log on to Facebook, one of my friends has posted about something awful that has happened to them or someone that they know. Yep, 2016 has been awful for some, but the calendar is soon going to flip to 2017, and hopefully there will be much better things in store for all of us.

My quest to eat and review at least 1000 restaurants on this blog continued this year, slowly but surely. We now stand at 655 different restaurants reviewed in 81 different cities throughout the US. I had wanted to hit up at least 100 restaurants this year, but I fell 12 short of that goal, primarily because we were short handed at my real job, and I had to work a lot more. We also wanted to travel more this year, but we only managed a short trip out to Palm Desert and also a short jaunt out to Las Vegas, for a much overdue visit to try some of the great restaurants there. Hopefully, both of these things will change in 2017.

Before we get to our top ten list of restaurant experiences we had in 2016, I'd like to thank all of you readers of this blog, who have commented, managed to get through my awful writing and grammar mistakes, and have hopefully found some great places to eat while reading this blog. It's because of all of you that makes this journey through all of these restaurants worth it. I'd also like to thank all of my dining companions this year, many of whom were very patient while I was taking my pictures, and did not mind me asking over and over how they liked their meals. Lastly, I'd like to thank my partner in life, my beautiful wife Katie, who has allowed me to continue this hobby/quest to find the best food that our great county has to offer. I could not ask for a better wife/dining companion and look forward to another 50 years worth of meals with her. Now enough with all this sappiness, let's get to the places we ate in 2016.


#10 Anaheim White House - This is a spot that makes our list for not only the wonderful Ossobuco Milanese that I had for Katie's birthday dinner at this iconic OC restaurant, but also for the great work that Chef/Owner Bruno Serato has done for the community. At last count, his Caterina's Club has fed 1.2 million meals to underprivileged children. This might be one of the reasons that I believe Katie has a slight crush on Chef Bruno, which I'm kind of okay with.


#9 El Camino Cafe - All it took for us to make it to this Tustin breakfast restaurant was a mention from OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano, who put this on his list of top ten chilaquiles in OC. Good enough for us, and he was right on with his assessment. One of the most balanced versions I have had, and almost as good as the one at Anepalco's.


#8 What A Dish Cafe - Another breakfast/brunch spot on our list, and the highlight here was an East Coast Benedict, which featured a great crab cake on it. I still don't understand why people wait an hour at RJ's Cafe, which is in this same shopping center when you can usually get a table right away at What A Dish, and get a far superior first meal of the day. I hope it stays this way.


#7 The Pie Hole - This LA transplant is expanding, and the City of Orange hit the pie jackpot by getting great access to desserts like grandma used to make. The Apple Crumble, Mexican Chocolate, and the Maple Custard have all been winners. Now it's time for me to try their savory pies next.


#6 Burger Parlor - The only burger spot to grace our top ten list this year. Burger Parlor, a few doors down from Pie Hole, also expanded from their Fullerton roots. Chef/Owner Joseph Mahon brought his award-winning burgers to the Plaza in Orange, and we could not be happier. The Frito Chili Cheese Burger is the stuff of legends and just one of the great options here. Burger Parlor definitely has a spot on my Mount Burger-more of OC burgers.


#5 Roma D' Italia - Tustin seems to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Italian restaurants. Last year Tustin's Pina's Bistro made our list, and this year it's the venerable Roma D' Italia, with its stick to your ribs Italian fare that makes an appearance. This restaurant is coming up on 50 years in business soon, and with sausage rolls, lasagna, and other pasta dishes like these, they'll be around for at least double that time.


#4 Sol Agave - Food truck turned brick and mortar restaurants are pretty common nowadays, but the Mexican cuisine at Sol Agave is not common. We loved this modern, upscale Mexican restaurant, and look forward to checking out their carnitas, queso fundido, and other specialties in their new, larger digs, which is just across the same parking lot, in the old Harlow's location.  Glad they are so close to where we live.


#3 The SmoKING Ribs - Barbecue is one of my favorite genres of restaurants, but you really have to hunt for good ones, especially in South OC. Not in south OC, but definitely worth the drive is this barbecue mecca in Garden Grove of all places. The meats and sides here were all stellar, and you'll definitely leave with leftovers for the next day, and become the envy of your coworkers. Trust us, this place is that good.


#2 Ironwood - This is basically a sister restaurant to the much-heralded Vine in San Clemente, with a few tweaks to its menu. With our love of Vine, it's no wonder that this Laguna Hills restaurant would make our list this year. I celebrated my birthday here, and still dream about the bone in rib-eye, covered with Bearnaise sauce that made my big day even more special. Another winner for Russ Bendel and his team.


#1 Grits - Time will tell how the recent departure of Chef Cody Storts will affect this restaurant, but for now, they land at our best meal of 2016. Actually, we ate here 2 times, once for brunch, and another for dinner, and both were incredible. They are still using all of Chef Cody's recipes, so you should still make a trip to Fullerton to try out their Pot Roast Benny, Thai Waffle Stack, Dr. Pepper Pork and Grits, or their Big Papa Burger. All will leave you wanting for more.

Okay, that's it for this year's list. Who will make it on next year's list? Time will tell, but I know I'll enjoy the ride. May all of you and your loved ones have a fantastic and prosperous 2017. Now go out there and make it a great one.

Fulfilling Chinese Experience at Mandarin Terrace?


Mandarin Terrace
24291 Avenida De La Carlota
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

It has been a pretty long time since we have had some Chinese food. When the weather turns colder, and it gets a lot closer to Christmas, I start to get a hankering for some good old-fashioned Chinese cuisine. Then, after reading Brad Johnson's top 20 Chinese restaurant piece in the OC Register, it got me thinking even more about Chinese. Unfortunately, there were only three places south of Irvine on his list, and we did not want to venture too far on this particular evening. So we struck out on our own and headed to Mandarin Terrace in Laguna Hills.

Food people will know exactly where Mandarin Terrace is because it's right next door to the wildly popular, and one of the best breakfast joints in OC, Break of Dawn. If you are still unclear as to where this restaurant is located, you might also know this shopping center as adjacent to the being refurbished Laguna Hills Mall, and in the same parking lot as Trader Joe's, El Torito, and the awful Woody's Diner. Now that we have our bearings, let's check out this joint.

Mandarin Terrace was very bright inside, and really had an old school charm to it. They have plenty of comfy booths, with many other tables situated in the center of the restaurant. We arrived here pretty close to 6:30 on a recent Sunday evening. In this area, bordering the retirement mecca of Laguna Woods, we did not expect this restaurant to be bustling with customers, but there were about half of the 16 tables occupied on this evening.

The menu here is pretty standard for an Americanized-Chinese restaurant. They offer beef, chicken, seafood, duck, and vegetarian entrees, along with appetizers, soups, and noodles. Being this close to Leisure World, Mandarin Terrace entices its older customers with lunch specials and an early bird special, which runs daily from 3 to 6, and even though we got here closer to 6:30, they had no problem with allowing me to partake of this deal. After placing our order with our very nice waitress, we patiently waited for our food. Here's how it all came out for us.



Right after we ordered, we were brought out these Chow Mein Noodles with Spicy Chinese Mustard Sauce and a Sweet and Sour Sauce. I guess this is the Chinese equivalent to having chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant. The noodles were okay, as they kind of seemed a little past their prime, but they were free, so no big deal. The sauces were pretty standard, and like others I have had in Chinese restaurants.



My early bird special included my entree choice, an appetizer, sweet and sour pork or chicken, rice, and my choice of soup. I went with this Hot and Sour soup over the egg flower soup. This version is made with seafood, and it added a good depth of flavor, which I presume I would not have gotten with the egg flower choice. This soup was a little light on the sour tinge but was still pretty solid.



The early bird menu says that you get your choice of a wonton, egg roll, or green salad, but they brought me out both a Fried Wonton and an Egg Roll. Score. These were both kind of humdrum. The fried wonton was fried nicely, but contained about a dime sized piece of meat, which might have been beef or chicken, but was so small I could not discern what it was. The egg roll was better, but still not great. It was filled with plenty of veggies, but lacked any kind of flavor, until I used some of the sweet and sour sauce from earlier. Pretty mediocre appetizers.



Katie has been pining to go to Din Tai Fung in Costa Mesa, and I think she ordered these Steamed Dumplings ($8.95) to give me a little hint to make plans to go there. These were pretty good, but the outside was a little too rubbery. The inside had a good amount of pork in them, but they needed a bit more liquid inside. I enjoyed the sauces that came with these, but could not really tell the difference between them, other than one included lemon grass. I promise I'll make plans to hit up Din Tai Fung soon Katie.





Here was the rest of my early bird special, including my entree choice on this evening, the House Special Beef ($13.95). This was actually pretty good, although the beef could have been more tender. The sauce used here was kind of a cross between the one used to make Mongolian beef and a less citrusy orange chicken. The menu made no mention of the broccoli that surrounded this so they might have just wanted me to get my daily vegetable requirement. The fried rice was not greasy at all, but the trade off with that was that it was kind of devoid of flavor. The tiny side of sweet and sour pork was pretty unremarkable and tasted like it could have come out of the freezer section at the supermarket. A decent meal, but nothing that wowed.


No, we suddenly did not run out, and go to a Mexican restaurant in the middle of dinner, this was Katie's choice on this evening, the Chicken Moo Shu ($11.55), which was prepared tables side. I should have taken a picture of our waitress making this, but I was not so sure she would have liked me photographing her handy work. She did an admirable job of filling the pan cakes with the chicken, egg, and vegetable mixture. This Asian-tinged burrito was not really my cup of tea. It was a little plain tasting and needed a sauce to make this pop. Katie liked this alright, but even she admitted that she would forgo this on future visits to Mandarin Terrace.



When the check came, we were presented with the customary Fortune Cookies, along with two orange wedges, and some pineapple. A very nice gesture.

Mandarin Terrace fulfilled my craving for Chinese food on this winter evening, but it failed to impress us enough to want to return based on what we had on this visit. I did think that the value for the money was pretty strong here, as my early bird special with all of that food was less than $15. As long as you enjoy pedestrian Chinese cuisine, and don't want to spend a lot of money for it, this might be your spot. I do have to admit that our waitress was very nice, and made us feel very welcome. A very comforting environment, but unfortunately the food did not equal it.

Out of five mustangs, (because that's the mascot of Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Florida), five being best to zero being worst, Mandarin Terrace gets 2 mustangs.

For more information about Mandarin Terrace, head to their website here: http://www.mandarinterracerestaurant.com/home.html

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Another Emerging Restaurant in Dana Point


Craft House
34094 Pacific Coast Highway
Dana Point, CA 92629

When I first started this food blog seven years ago, I thought that Dana Point had some of the worst restaurants of any OC city. I'm sure there were some good ones back then, but the Jolly Roger, Wind and Sea, and Harpoon Henry's were some of the first ones that I reviewed, and they were all pretty much awful. Then, as I started to delve deeper into the restaurants of this seaside city, I began to find some good eats.

Stack's Pancake House is one of my favorite breakfast spots, Harbor House is always a great option for late night grub, and then other restaurants began moving in to liven up the dining scene in this beautiful city. The Shwack is a great option for burgers, Jimmy's Famous Tavern livened up the harbor area, and Waterman's Harbor was a definite upgrade to the former Jolly Roger spot. Now a new wave of restaurants has hit Dana Point, and we had heard some good things about Craft House, so that's where we headed the night before Thanksgiving.

Traditionally, the night before Thanksgiving is a pretty slow time for restaurants, but the full tables of customers at Craft House evidently did not get that memo. Luckily I had made reservations, and we got seated at our table, right at 6 pm. This address used to be a carpet store a few years back, but you wouldn't know it by being in here now. The high ceilings, dark toned woods, and partially enclosed patio overlooking PCH really made this restaurant pretty comfortable, although a bit loud.

The Owner/Chef of this joint is Blake Mellgren, an OC native, who started in the restaurant business at an early age, graduated from Loyola Marymount, and then after graduation, moved to New York to work as a line cook at a famous NYC restaurant, while also completing courses in restaurant management at the International Culinary Center. He moved back to OC in 2014, and two years later, opened up Craft House.

Chef Blake was very active on this evening, running food and chatting with guests. The menu at Craft House has a good array of items for your dining pleasure. They have ten appetizers, along with 11 entrees for people to choose from. I had seen earlier on this evening that their local fisherman purveyor had brought them an 85-pound bluefin tuna, and they offered it three ways on a special menu, which you will see Katie took advantage of. Let's check out all the other food and beverages we took advantage of.



I had a hard week at work leading up to Thanksgiving this year, so an adult cocktail was definitely in order. The Moscow Mule ($11) would be my choice on this evening. This version was pretty good at first, with quite a bit of bite to it, but as it got watered down as time went on, it kind of lost a little of that bite. I probably just should have drunk this quicker. I forgot to take a picture of the drink menu, so I am not quite sure what set this apart from other mules I have had, but it did provide a nice spice in the first couple of sips, and I'd still get it again.






None of the appetizers really piqued my interest too much on this evening, so I let Katie pick, and she went with these Hush Puppies ($13). This was one of the lighter hush puppies I have had. It was not as dense as most tend to be, which I liked. The menu said these came with crab and chive inside of them, and then was served with an Old Bay aioli. The crab was really not that prominent, as the inside of each hush puppy had just a few wisps of crab included. I was also not too big of a fan of the Old Bay seasoning, as it was a tad too salty, and I wished for a softer sauce.




As hinted about earlier, Katie opted to try part of the 85-pound bluefin tuna that Craft House got earlier in the week from the waters off of Dana Point. This Bluefin Poke ($18) is just the light meal that Katie needed on this night before Thanksgiving. The tuna was mixed with some avocado and some other seasonings, but still, let the fish be the star of the show. It's easy to try to do too much with this, but Katie was happy that they kept the natural integrity of the tuna here. The wonton chips that were served with this were a very good vessel for scooping up the fresh tuna. She was very content with this meal.



I went for a more substantial meal on this evening, as I ordered up the Grilled Meatloaf ($24). This meatloaf is made up of the holy trinity of meats, ground beef, pork, and bacon. I thought it was going to be too greasy, but it was firm and full of flavor. I also had some reservations about the use of tomatoes as a gravy, but I warmed to the idea as I ate this. The hominy puree was a lighter alternative to mashed potatoes, that actually worked here, Even the greens were done correctly. This entree had a southern slant to it but was done in a much lighter way.





As if we did not have enough food already, we also got two sides at Craft House. The Mac and Cheese ($8) was a favorite of Katie's. No macaroni was used here, as they instead used ear-shaped, orecchiette pasta, with a cheese sauce made up of Gouda and cheddar, and then topped with bread crumbs. The orecchiette was cooked perfectly, and the cheese sauce was a little sharp, but still manageable. They were a little heavy handed when it came to the breadcrumbs, as they overwhelmed a bit here. The Roasted Cauliflower ($8) was much more to my liking. It was grilled just enough to give it a pleasing crunch when bitten into and was sprinkled with cotija and slivered almonds. I would have liked this even better if it had come with a dipping sauce, but still worth getting.





When I had read Brad Johnson's restaurant review of Craft House in the OC Register, he raved about the chocolate bread pudding, but unfortunately, that is no longer on their dessert menu. So, both Katie and I picked one dessert off of their four item dessert menu. I went with the Apple Tart ($8). Not sickeningly sweet, this puff pastry was filled with granny smith apples and then topped with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel. I liked this but was not in love with it. The apples tasted very fresh, and there was plenty of ice cream included with this, but it was missing something that I could not put my finger on. Katie on the other hand really enjoyed her dessert, the Pumpkin Spiced Latte ($8). This was not like any latte you could get at Starbucks. They took a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie, and then put coffee flavored ice cream over that, and finished it off with a maple gastrique. I'm not a fan of coffee, so this was all Katie's, and she seemed fine with that.

I left Craft House liking it, but thinking that this restaurant is still a work in progress. I don't mean this in a negative way because I really enjoyed my entree here, but I think that the future is when this restaurant is going to hit its stride. Not unusual for a restaurant that has only been open for a mere ten months. The management team here is first rate, and very hands-on, which is great in this day and age. They really did a great job making sure everyone was comfortable, and making sure that every table was well taken care of. I did not think that the prices were too out of whack for this area, and they seemed to be right in line with other restaurants around Dana Point. It's restaurants like these that have changed my attitude about dining in Dana Point.

Out of five lanterns, (because several street names in this city are named after different colored lanterns), five being best to zero being worst, Craft House gets 3 lanterns.

For more information about Craft House, head to their website here: http://www.eatatcrafthouse.com/index.php

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Blast From the Past, Naugles Returns


Naugles Corporate Kitchen
18471 Mt. Langley St.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708 

For people that are over the age of 40, you have definitely heard of Naugles. Most of all the people in this age group that we encountered are pretty excited about the return of this iconic fast food chain. For people under the age of 40, allow me to introduce you to Naugles, a Mexican fast food restaurant, which probably has a soft spot in the hearts of your parents and other older people you may know, who grew up in California, Nevada, and parts of Missouri, Utah, Illinois, and Arizona.

Naugles was founded by Dick Naugle, who was a former Del Taco partner back in the day. In its heyday, there were 275 Naugles restaurants in operation, in 10 states. Then in 1988, both restaurants were bought by the same company, and merged with each other. This was the beginning of the end for Naugles, as the parent company began systematically converting all of the old Naugles into Del Tacos. By 1994 the conversion was complete when the last remaining Naugles in Missouri were turned into Del Tacos.

Now fast forward to 2010, when my friend, and fellow food blogger, Christian Ziebarth, wrote a blog post about his love of Naugles, and he was taken aback by the avid response that he got from his readers. Christian then started doing pop-ups, featuring Naugle's original recipes, made by people that actually worked there back in the day, and these Naugles pop up events were big hits, and just whetted everyone's appetite for more Naugles. This is when Christian went to court to try to get the Naugles trademark from Del Taco. After a long trial, he finally won the right to use the Naugles logo and recipes, which has paved the way for the return of Naugles.

Christian and his investors have a very aggressive plan in place, a plan that calls for close to 275 Naugles restaurants in the near future, and maybe even more than that when all is said and done. They are looking at spots that will offer a 24-hour drive-thru, which was one of the many innovations that first took place at the original Naugles back in the day. For now, there's only one spot to get your Naugles fix, and lucky for us in OC, it's centrally located right here in Fountain Valley.

This Naugles Corporate Kitchen is open every day from 8 am to 9 pm. They also have a seasonal location, which is operating during the summer months, near the Huntington Beach pier. I have to admit I only remember eating at Naugles a couple of times in the early 80's, as my parents were pretty loyal to Del Taco and Taco Bell. I recall eating at the one on Esperanza Road a few times, and also the one on our way out to the river, but other than that, I don't remember too much about the food, but was excited to give it a try.






Christian recently hosted a blogger meet up at his corporate kitchen in Fountain Valley, and he was even gracious enough to allow my sister and brother in law, who are big Naugle's fans to also attend. I was even more excited when we walked into Naugles for the first time in decades. The bright colors really evoked some long lost memories in me and got me even more excited to try their reformulated original recipes, which now match current health sensibilities, without sacrificing the original flavor of the food. We quickly ordered at the counter and waited patiently for our food to arrive at our table.




Katie's meal was the first to come out, and I was the first one to grab some of her French Fries ($2.50). I love crinkle cut fries, and these were done right. Fried nice and crisp, the crinkle in the fry held just the right amount of ketchup when dipped. Katie was pretty excited by the Combo Cup ($5.00), which is basically a taco in cup form. It comes with beans, cheese, beef, choice of sauce, red or green, and was topped with tomatoes, I swiped a few bite of this as well, and really enjoyed it. It was kind of like a combo burrito, in cup form. To round out her meal, Katie also got the Naugles fan favorite, the Cheese Burrito ($3.00) with green sauce. This is like a quesadilla, but even better, because you get more cheese in each bite. I've heard numerous stories that this is a great thing to consume after a late night of drinking. You'll feel a lot better in the morning after having one of these cheese burritos.





For my meal on this evening, I went with the Combo Burrito ($5.50) and the Naugleburger ($6.00). I feel bad that I did not take a picture of the inside of the combo burrito, but burritos are not really the most photogenic of food items. It was good, as it was full of ground beef, beans, plenty of cheese, and red sauce. It was like a better version of the one I had at Del Taco last week. The Naugleburger was truly something special. I had asked Christian about it, and he boasted that a lot of people feel this is a superior burger to In-N-Out, and I'd have to agree. This comes with double patties, two slices of cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, white sauce, and pickles. The cheddar cheese really stood out here, and I liked the way the white sauce complimented the beef and other toppings. I'll have to get some extra sauce on the side the next time I have this burger. A very fresh, and appetizing fast food burger.


My brother in law was very excited by these Hombre Nachos ($5.00), which could easily feed three people. Plenty of tortilla chips are topped with beans, house made cheddar cheese sauce, beef, and sour cream. Even though I'm not really a fan of cheese sauce, I even enjoyed these, and I was happy that they did not skimp on the toppings here. There's nothing worse than getting nachos, and most of the chips are not covered by anything. This was not the case with these nachos. Every chip was covered with cheese and the other toppings. Very well done nachos at Naugles.




I was pretty full at this point but wanted to give their Original Taco (2.50) a try. It was just as good as the new Del Taco that I'm addicted to at Del Taco. This taco reminds me of the ones I had as a kid. The cheese tastes freshly grated and was plentiful. There's a nice sized layer of beef included here, and the lettuce and tomatoes are both fresh. As an added bonus, if you're eating at Naugles on a Tuesday, they offer two tacos of your choice, a bag of chips, and a drink for only $5. A great deal, and I recommend getting these hard shelled beef tacos.

I have to admit, I left this rebooted Naugles pretty excited by the food, and for what the future has in store for this eventual chain. My uncle asked me if I thought Naugles would be able to compete with the Del Taco's and the Taco Bell's of the world, and my answer is an emphatic yes, as long as the stay true to the concept, and churn out food like we had on this evening. They might have to expand their menu a bit, but this evening proved that people who are nostalgic for Naugles, will be very happy with what they eat here.

Thanks so much for hosting us Christian. We are very happy to see your dream becoming a reality and look forward to seeing how everything works out in this venture. We would also like to thank all the energetic employees we encountered on this evening. You all take great pride in this restaurant, and it shows.

For more information about Naugles, and to keep up with all the latest news from them, go to their website here: http://www.nauglestacos.com/index.php