Thursday, March 30, 2017

Must Be a Cold Front Coming Through Because It's 25 Degrees in Huntinngton Beach


Twenty Five Degrees
412 Walnut Ave. 
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

Orange County Restaurant Week is a restaurant reviewers dream. Okay, not just restaurant reviewers, but for anyone that loves going to restaurants, or wants to try a new place without breaking the bank. It's a week that always seems to go by way too fast. We always seem to make all these plans to eat out each night, and then things always pop up, and we have to change our plans. One restaurant that I could not let this happen to was 25 Degrees in Huntington Beach.

25 Degrees has held the top spot on my restaurant wishlist for close to three years now. Yes, I know that's way too long, but it seems like every time we had plans to come up this way, another spot grabbed my attention, and we just kept putting off this restaurant, which gets lots of love for their burgers and cool vibe. So, we made no excuses and headed up to Surf City on the very first day of OC Restaurant Week.

For those of you unfamiliar with OC Restaurant Week, this year they had over 100 restaurants participating, and each of them offers a menu at a prix fixe price. Lunches range between $10 to $20, and dinners range anywhere between $20 to $50 for a multi-course dining experience. I usually spend the better part of two to three hours going through the menus online and pick places that offer the greatest value, and then cross reference that to places on our restaurant wishlist. That's how we ended up at 25 Degrees.

At 25 Degrees they offered a three course, $20 dinner menu, and the topper for me was that their burgers were offered in the deal, so I knew what I would be having. We got here on a cold and windy Sunday, and enjoyed a brief walk around the nearby Pacific City shopping complex and a brisk stroll around Downtown HB. 25 Degrees is a block away from the over the top craziness that is Main Street Huntington Beach, and that city block kind of mellows this restaurant out, at least on this particular Sunday at 5 pm.

Located right next door to the Huntington Beach Beer Company and across the street from both Bruxie and Ritter's Steam Cooking, 25 Degrees does have a speakeasy kind of vibe, without having to give an annoying password at the door to get in. Red velevet wallpaper, ornate hanging light fixtures, and simplistic, yet functional furniture are a departure from the usual beach themed bar that is usually found throughout this city. There is a good number of TV's here, which were unexplainedly turned to 60 Minutes on this particular evening. Must have been a few news junkies hanging out at the way more populated bar. Instead of hearing all the latest about what was happening on the other side of the country, I chose to focus on the food at 25 Degrees, and what was on their restaurant week menu.




As is the custom when Katie and I are eating during restaurant week, we each select a different option from each section of the restaurant week menu. Her selection for the starter portion was this spicy Yellowfin Tuna ($12 on the regular menu). The fresh tuna was perched atop a tempura fried piece of eggplant, and topped with tobiko, which is flying fish roe. Even though Katie is not a big fan of roe, she really enjoyed this unique and fresh starter. The eggplant was a neat vehicle for the fresh, but not spicy tuna. Very impressive start to her meal.



So with Katie taking the tuna, that left me with either the bacon wrapped dates or the wings. Of course, I went with the Chili-Honey Chicken Wings ($9). Every so often I enjoy a sweet and tangy wing, and these hit the spot. They were coated with a very well done sauce, which was both sticky and sweet, and went well with the tender chicken underneath. I made quick work of these three wings and anxiously waited for our entrees.





I was a little surprised Katie did not go the Cuban sandwich route with her entree but instead got this Chicken and Waffles (not on their regular menu). This plate came with three pieces of fried chicken and a whole waffle. Neither of us was a fan of the fried chicken, which had a very crumbly breading, which cracked off rather easily and was more on the greasy and thin side. It really provided little in the way of flavor. The chicken inside was also not above par. There were some real red parts, which kind of freaked Katie out, and there was not too much in the way of meat underneath the subpar breading. She was however pretty fond of the waffle, which I thought was just okay. I would have asked for extra syrup, as the waffle really sucked up the maple syrup quickly. Not the best meal for Katie.




As disappointed as we were in the Chicken, this Blue Style Burger ($11) lived up to the hype. This good looking burger was piled high with plenty of caramelized onions, arugula, bacon, gorgonzola, thousand island dressing, and Crescenza cheese, which I haven't seen offered anywhere else. A very balanced burger, not one component overpowered the other, and I really enjoyed the mild and creamy cheese on this. The burger patty itself was very juicy and seasoned just enough. The bun was soft but still held everything together. Really a good burger, and one of the better ones I have had in a long time.




To complete our three-course meal, we each got to choose a side to go along with our entree. Katie is a big fan of Sweet Potato Fries ($5) and liked these well enough. They came out warm, were simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and were made better with the ranch that came with this. I had the Onion Rings ($5). These came three to an order and were pretty solid. Made with red onion, which I wish more places would do, these seemed to employ the same breading that was used on the fried chicken. It worked better here, although it did break away from the onion way too easily, which is a big pet peeve to me. A good onion ring, but I wish the pepper was a little more prominent here.

This OC Restaurant Week menu at 25 Degrees definitely had some hits and misses on this evening. I don't think fried chicken is one of their strengths, but that burger has got me excited to come back here and try one of their other six varieties available. I really liked the vibe here, which lacked the kind of bro vibe that a lot of bars in HB posses. This is a mellow bar/restaurant, which is cranking out some really solid burgers. Service was very good on this early evening. Our server, Collin, answered all of our questions and made sure our every need was met. Glad we finally made it out to 25 Degrees, and visiting here during OC Restaurant Week made it even better.

Out of five scuba divers, (because the only portion of the 25 degrees north parallel that touches the US is in Key Largo, Florida, which is known as the dive capital of the world), five being best to zero being worst, 25 Degrees gets 3 scuba divers.

For more information about 25 Degrees, check out their website here: http://25degreesrestaurant.com/

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Night of Firsts at Hai Di Lao


Hai Di Lao Fusion Shabu
1065 Brea Mall 1031A
Brea, CA 92821

When restaurant invites roll around, it makes me feel very popular all of a sudden. My friends suddenly return my phone calls, they might even get me a doughnut at work without me even asking, and I hear from people I only usually see in Facebook posts. Okay, maybe this is a little over-exaggerated, but when I get a restaurant invite, it makes me feel like I've got a golden ticket, and get to share the experience.

Most of the time I carefully pick someone that I know will enjoy the restaurant or someone that I haven't seen in awhile. I had it all lined up to take my friend Ryan, but surprise, surprise, he made another lame excuse to cancel, so I scrambled to find someone on short notice. Enter my good friend Danny. He seemed up for it, and since we both had never had shabu or hot pot before, both of us did not really have any indication of what to expect from our visit to the new Hai Di Lao at the Brea Mall.

Hai Di Lao is not new to the restaurant game. Started in China in 1994, they now have over 200 locations and opened their first US spot in Arcadia in  2013. That location is also in a mall, the Arcadia Westfield Mall. Judging from the pictures I have seen on Yelp, the Arcadia venue is bigger, with a bigger decor package, and a dancing noodle guy. We were told that this Brea spot may get a dancing noodle guy, but they are still trying to work out the logistics of it in this smaller space.



Danny and I arrived at this new Hai Di Lao last Wednesday at 7 pm. If you are familiar with the Brea Mall, this restaurant is located right across the way from Red Robin, and right next to the entrance to the Macy's Men's Store. The are in soft opening mode until this Saturday, March 25th, when they will hold their Grand Opening Celebration, and offer guests buy one entree, get one entree free all day on Saturday. For being in soft opening status, Hai Di Lao was one popular spot to be at on this rather slow Wednesday night at the mall. Every table was occupied and most of the bar seating was taken up as well during our stay.

Our waiter Kareem and the rest of the staff did a great job of explaining the menu and process of eating at Hai Di Lao to novices Danny and I. Basically, this is one part shabu restaurant and one part hot pot. It's a three-step ordering process. You pick the style of broth you want. they have different flavors and heat levels for you to choose from. Then you pick the size and the proteins that you desire from a list of nine offered. The last step is to pick your dipping sauce, some of which are add-ons of 99 cents and were created by Michelin Star Chef Joachim Splichal. Let's take a look at what came out for us.





Before we had the chance to order, Kareem had brought out some Japanese Mashed Potato and some Kimchee. He also brought this to other tables as well. I'm not sure what made the potato dish Japanese, as it tasted just like a more dense and cold mashed potato. Different, but good. I actually liked the kimchee better, as it had a good flavor to it, and tasted freshly made. Plus I was pretty hungry after driving from South county on an empty stomach.





Since both Danny and I were pretty hungry, and because Kareem had suggested it, we ordered two appetizers to start but had differing opinions on which one we liked better. Danny was more partial to the Gyoza ($4.99). I felt these needed to be filled with a little more meat, but Danny scarfed these down rather quickly and enjoyed dipping them in the soy sauce provided. Since he was preoccupied with the gyoza, it freed me up to take down a good amount of the Potato Shrimp ($6.99. These good sized shrimp were wrapped around stringed potatoes and then deep fried. Kind of like a shrimp wrapped around a hash brown, which I never would have thought would work, but it totally did. I used the ketchup that was provided, which gave this kind of a breakfast tinge to it. I'm getting these again for sure on my next visit to Hai Di Lao.




When we were about half way done with our appetizers, Kareem brought out our pots of broth to get them heated up on the table top burners. Mine was the lighter colored of the two, the Pork Bone Kimchi, which was touted on the menu as being the second most spicy of all the broths. Danny went with the House Spicy broth, which was listed as the mildest of the spicy broths offered. They also offer some that are not spicy at all.



As our broths were approaching boiling temperature, we were brought out this good looking Vegetable Plate, which comes with every entree. Danny, who works with produce on a daily basis was pretty impressed with the quality of the veggies here. He said there were not dark spots on anything, they were very fresh, and some of the best produce he has seen in a long time. This plate included tofu, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, napa, baby bok choy, and green onions. I agree with Danny's assessment of these vegetables, but wish that there was a little more broccoli and carrots involved here. I gingerly dropped all of my veggies in the boiling broth at the same time so they could soak up all of the flavors from the spicy broth.




Right on the heels of our veggies simmering away in the broth, the proteins that we ordered made their appearance at our table. I got the Large 6 Ounce Kurobuta All Natural Pork ($19.99), while Danny had the Large 6 Ounce USDA Prime Ribeye ($25.99). Then as a special treat, we added on to our order, the Regular 4 Ounce Wagyu Beef ($18.99). Our first few tries of cooking our curled meats in the broth were a little bit of trial and error, but we finally got the hang of it. The thinly sliced meats really cooked quickly. All three of the meats we chose were great, but the Wagyu was very special and well worth the extra money to experience it. Unbelievably tender.


After the meat was done cooking, you could choose to dip it into one of the aforementioned sauces, which of course I had to try them all. I was very partial to the Roasted Garlic Sauce, Peanut Sauce, and the Spicy Roasted Red Onion Sauce. I really liked the uniqueness of each of these, and it made my meal all the more memorable having different sauces to dip my meat into. Danny was more traditional, just using the Sudachi Ponzu sauce as his chief dipping vehicle. Such a creature of habit.

Since it was a little chaotic cooking our own food and getting the timing down, I did not take pictures of the finished product, but just know that we were completely satisfied with our meals, and even pretty big eaters, like ourselves left here comfortably full. Both Danny and I were a little shocked that we could get so full from a plate of veggies, six ounces of meat, and some dipping sauces, but we have to admit that to be the case.



Of course, we are never too full to ignore dessert, and this would be the first time either of us had tried Mochi Ice Cream ($6.99). I think we would describe this as ice cream wrapped in a gummi flavored type casing. This came with three flavors, mango, raspberry, and vanilla. I liked the vanilla one the best, but all were pretty solid.

I'd say that Hai Di Lao was a great introduction to this style of restaurant for both Danny and I. Going in we really did not know what to expect, and on the way home we eagerly made plans to come back very soon with our wives. I was most impressed with the cleanliness of the restaurant and the freshness of every item we had here. As the night went on, it did not really feel like we were eating in a mall, as the passing shoppers faded deep into the background, as the food really became front and center during our stay. I'm so happy that I could share this experience with my friend Danny, as we both experienced our maiden voyage into shabu and hot pot, and it will definitely not be our last.

For more information about Hai Di Lao, head to their website here: http://www.haidilao.us/index.php


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Istanbul Grill Take Two


Istanbul Grill
18010 Newhope St. #D
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Doing what we do, reviewing restaurants, we do not often get back around to repeat visits to restaurants. There's always something new to try, and we want to give our take. It usually takes a special circumstance for us to make a return visit to a restaurant, and this trip to Istanbul Grill in Fountain Valley is one of those special trips.

Our original visit was early last year, and not to let the cat out of the bag, but we really enjoyed the food here. I was all set to write my review, and then my computer hemorrhaged, and I lost all of my photos. Yep, that's right, no backups either. So a year and a few months later, my new computer is working like a champ, and we finally made a return trip to Istanbul Grill

Istanbul Grill has been open in this easily accessible shopping plaza for going on four years now. Located right across the street from Costco, on the corner of Talbert and Newhope, right next to the Flame Broiler and Cancun Fresh restaurants. Istanbul Grill is a Turkish restaurant, but much like the city of Istanbul, which sits on the Bosphorus Strait, which straddles both the continents of Europe and Asia, most people will recognize items on the menu here as something they have had before in a Mediterranean restaurant. Enough of the geography lesson, let's check out Istanbul Grill.

Istanbul Grill is a very comfortable restaurant. Both times we had been here, we got sat right away. There's probably about twenty tables and a patio area with a few more, but we haven't seen anyone sit out there the two times we've been here. Through the decor here you can tell that they are very proud of Turkey, with plenty of pictures on the walls and a large flatscreen flashing pictures from that unique country and some shots of their food. The wait staff is very good answering questions about their menu. Let's see what came out for us on this second trip to Istanbul Grill.




Starting things off would probably be the Turkish equivalent of chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant. The bread is a little thicker than most pita bread slices we have had but tasted very fresh. I did not catch the name of the sauce that came with this, but I'd guess that it was oil based with some Turkish spices included. It was mild, with an earthy feel to it. Katie seemed to like it a lot better than I did.



When dining in a Turkish restaurant, or any Mediterranian restaurant, it's a must to give their Hummus ($6.95) a try. This one at Istanbul Grill had a very smooth consistency to it. One of the smoothest I have had. Unfortunately, the tradeoff was that it kind of lacked in the flavor department. The tahini, garlic, and lemon did little to lift this hummus anywhere above average. Next time I'm going to ask if they have a spicy version.


After being up in the valley a few years ago for a party, I've been on the lookout for a Falafel ($7.95) that rivaled the one I had all those years ago. This one was fine, but not even close. These small balls of chickpeas flavored with garlic, parsley, and cilantro were a little on the dry side and packed a little too dense, so they lacked a lightness that I appreciate in my falafel. This came with a very good tahini sauce, which helped these out a bit. Katie's a big fan of garlic sauce, and liked this one, but was not blown away by it, like the one she had by her former workplace in Ontario.



Entrees are where Istanbul Grill really shined for us. I had the Kebab Combination ($15.95) and could not have been happier. The only difficulty was picking the two that I wanted. I settled on the Lamb and Ribeye Steak Kebabs. Not a bad bite out of the bunch. The lamb was strong here, with a good amount of spices included, and the meat itself really lacked the gaminess that most people complain about when eating lamb. I really liked that they asked how I wanted the ribeye to be cooked when I ordered it. I had it come out medium rare, and that's how they made it. Tender and juicy. Not that it needed it but I alternated using the garlic sauce and the humus with each bite of meat. This also came with rice pilaf and veggies, which also were pretty solid for side items. A very satisfying meal.



Katie was also pretty pleased with her dinner selection on this evening, the Chicken Shish Kebab ($13.95). I'm alway very wary when she orders chicken in restaurants because a lot of times it's way overcooked. Not the case here. This was some very tender cubes of chicken that were marinated nicely in their special sauce and then chargrilled. She was extremely happy with this meal.




When it was time for the check to come, a man, who I assume is the manager or owner came by and asked us how everything was. We told him it was great, and he offered us a piece of Turkish Delight and a Turkish Coffee. Katie took the coffee and I had a piece of the Turkish delight. After this encounter with Turkish delight, I can now confirm I am not a fan of this gel encased, licorice-flavored candy. It reminded me of a candy that grandmothers would have sitting out to trick their grandkids. Katie was a fan of the small, but powerful Turkish coffee, which was strong, and packed a mean caffeine punch, which kept her up even longer than usual on her phone.

Our second trip to Istanbul Grill was just as good as our first and really showed us why this restaurant is always mentioned in the upper echelon of Mediterranian restaurants in OC. Yes, I expected a little more from the falafel and the average hummus, but the entrees were excellent, and even a better value at lunch, where you get a starter, entree, dessert, and pita bread for $8.95. A savings of over 50 percent, and the perfect opportunity to try this Turkish restaurant, without a large investment. Even if you are here for dinner, you'll still enjoy it. The kebabs are some of the best we have found in OC and the service has been warm and friendly both times we've been here. I'm still not happy that my computer crashed, but it did necessitate a return trip here, which we will have to make more of a habit of doing.

Out of five tubs of popcorn, (because the first movie theater debuted in Istanbul in 1896, and has lead to this city becoming the hub for the Turkish film industry), five being best to zero being worst, Istanbul Grill gets 3.5 tubs of popcorn.

For more information about Istanbul Grill, head to their website here: http://www.istanbulgrillca.com/default.html