Monday, May 29, 2017

Barbecue Showcase at the House of Blues

House of Blues
Anaheim Garden Walk
400 Disney Way #337
Anaheim, CA 92802

Okay, let's get this out of the way right now. Yes, the Anaheim Garden Walk has been one of the most disappointing shopping centers that Orange County has ever seen. Probably even more than the Kaleidoscope in Mission Viejo, which also definitely has its share of problems getting people into that freeway close, but desolate shopping and entertainment complex. Garden Walk has the same problems, with lots of empty storefronts, little to no foot traffic, (especially towards the back area of the center), and no big draws to get tourists to maybe skip eating or visiting a nearby Disney restaurant or property. There does appear to be a ray of hope for the Garden Walk though.

That ray of hope comes in the form of the House of Blues, which opened here in early March, after leaving the family friendly, overly touristy Downtown Disney District. We've heard some grumblings that Disney was pretty conservative about what events and artists could play at HOB, but those, of course, have never been confirmed by either side. We were at Garden Walk earlier this month for another event and saw a huge line for a concert going on at HOB. So, House of Blues appears to be doing their part by getting foot traffic into this sparsely populated shopping plaza.

The same was true on the recent Wednesday evening we were visiting HOB. We were here to try some barbecue items off their menu, but there were tons of young girls, with parents in tow, snaked around the upper level of Garden Walk many times over. The band was Catfish and the Bottlemen, which I hear is an upcoming British band. We did not get a chance to listen to them because us old people had to get home before they even started to play. With us there, it would have doubled the average age of the audience easily.

When we waltzed by the waiting teenagers into the restaurant, we were ushered into one of the many private rooms that are available for parties at the new House of Blues. What I noticed most about this new space, as compared to the old one at Downtown Disney was the openness of it, and it seemed to be brighter. Even though we were separated from the main dining room by a couple of roll-up doors, we could still hear the music in the dining room clearly. Checking out their event calendar, you can find out not only who is performing in their concert hall, but you can also check out who is performing in the dining room and lively bar area of the restaurant. After some mingling among the food media, we were all pretty excited to see what Chef Kelvin Crisostomo had in store for us with this barbecue showcase.

Up first was not something I was expecting and was definitely an Asian twist on the barbecue theme of the evening. These Korean Riblets are available every evening in the exclusive Foundation Room every night of the week. I'm not really big on riblets, but these had plenty of meat on them and went well with the very well done kimchi. In fact, this could have been some of the best fermented veggies I have had. I also enjoyed the tinge of spice from the provided sliced jalapenos topping each riblet.

Our barbecue march continued on at the House of Blues with this Pulled Pork Sandwich ($11). Chef Kelvin told us that they smoke this pork for 12 to 14 hours before it's hand pulled and mixed with barbecue sauce and placed between a structurally sound bun. The pork was tender, but I wished that they would have allowed me to apply the barbecue sauce, instead of it already coming out dressed. The coleslaw was very solid and had an excellent crunch to it. I added it to my sandwich, which provided a nice textural element. The fries were hot and crisp.

Best dish of the evening belongs to these Smokehouse St. Louis Ribs ($17). This is the half rack size, but you might as well splurge and upgrade to the full rack for an extra seven dollars, you'll thank me later. These ribs are rubbed with their special House of Blues Cajun seasoning, then smoked, and lightly brushed with barbecue sauce. The result was a very tender, fall off the bone rib, which had nearly everyone at our table very excited about this slab. These were served with a little extra sauce, the same excellent coleslaw that we came with the pork sandwich, and BBQ Baked Beans. A very satisfying plate, and one we will come back for very soon.

Last but not least, the Bourbon Bread Pudding ($7) gets a lot of love here, and rightfully so. This sturdy bread pudding was not as damp as others we have had, which is a plus in my book. It was still moist and came with a very nice caramel pool surrounding it, which added just the right amount of sweetness.

I think it's safe to say that the House of Blues has made a very graceful transition to their new home at the Garden Walk. Starting from the ground up, they have seemed to fix some of the minor glitches of their old venue and created a much more inviting and open space. Based on our two visits to this center, the House of Blues is definitely doing their part by bringing some much-needed foot traffic into this very quiet shopping center. Time will tell if it's enough to save the Garden Walk, but with the great concert lineup and the food we had on this evening, we are guessing that this is definitely the shot in the arm this shopping and entertainment complex needed.

For more information about the House of Blues, head to their website here:

Monday, May 22, 2017

Meeting an Old Friend at 333 Pacific

333 Pacific
333 North Pacific Street
Oceanside, CA 92054

Katie and I have a tradition of going down to the Carlsbad Outlets around her birthday and getting her a new purse at Coach. I like this tradition for two reasons. One is that they give you a coupon when you walk in the store for half off your entire purchase, and that saves us a bunch of money. The second reason I like coming down here is because it gives us a chance to try a new restaurant, in an area we don't make to that often. Since my parents were going to be joining us, I knew exactly where I wanted to eat down here, 333 Pacific.

It was not just because I have heard good things about this restaurant, which I have, but because I had the chance to surprise my parents with someone from their past. When we were growing up in Yorba Linda, we were very close to the neighbors down the street, but they moved in the late 80's. I reconnected with Andrea, the youngest member of their household on Facebook a few years ago, and knew that she worked at 333 as a bartender. I also knew that she worked on Sunday afternoons, which just so happened to be when we were going to be in the area.

My surprise worked like a charm. After the initial shock, the long overdue hugs, and the catching up, I knew we could finally get down to the business of eating, which I was pretty excited to do after an hour and a half of shopping. 333 Pacific is part of the Cohn Restaurant Group which has quite the presence in the San Diego area. They operate 19 different restaurants in San Diego County, along with one in Long Beach and another in picturesque Maui.

333 Pacific was pretty picturesque itself. Located steps away from the famous Oceanside Pier, this was our first visit to Oceanside, and with the beautiful weather, and all the restaurants around, it probably won't be our last. Parking was a little tricky on this beautiful spring day, but persistence paid off, and we found a spot not far from 333 Pacific, which takes up residence on the bottom floor of the Wyndham Oceanside Pier Resort.

Being this close to the coastline, of course, the menu here is seafood driven, but there are other things for people who are not into fish. We never ventured farther inside the restaurant than the small bar area at the front of the restaurant, but checking out the pictures from online, 333 has a great patio, with an awesome view of the pier and the passing traffic on Pacific Street. Let's see how everything turned out for us on this afternoon of surprises.

Since I was with my parents a drink was definitely in order. Kidding of course, maybe. The bar at 333 Pacific is kind of a vodka-centric bar. Okay, this is an understatement. They have a massive amount of vodkas to choose from. A quick, unofficial count online gave me the tally of 110 different varieties of vodka to choose from. Most impressive. Also impressive is that it's always vodka happy hour in the lounge, with $8 vodka drinks all the time. I took advantage of this by getting the 333 Mule ($8). I really liked this mule, which utilizes Svedka vodka, ginger beer, and a fresh squeeze of lime. Very refreshing, but on my next visit I might ask for a variation on the type of vodka used. Maybe the Hanson Habanero vodka for a bit of spice.

I guess my parents were not as hungry as Katie and me, as they decided to split this Big Kid's Grilled Cheese ($15). For this one, they use local bread purveyor Bread and Cie's, bacon bread, and sandwich it with fontina, PointReyess blue cheese, white cheddar, a basil aioli, bacon, and tomato.  I was a little surprised that my mom wanted to try this, as she's not really a fan of blue cheese, but she liked it well enough to have a few bites, and then turn the rest of the sandwich over to my dad, who really enjoyed this upscale grilled cheese. I snagged a bite and really loved the contrast between the crunchy bread and the creamy inside. This also came with a charred tomato bisque which I did not get a chance to try.

When Katie inquired about what kind of fish was the fresh catch of the day, and Andrea replied that it was salmon, that's all it took for Katie to order it. This Griddled Fresh Catch ($31) came with a nice piece of perfectly cooked salmon perched on top of a chilled quinoa salad and a muted lemon vinaigrette dressing, marinated tomatoes, and arugula. Katie devoured this in record time. She felt this was cooked well and the salmon was very fresh, without a fishy taste. The flavor of the salmon and the quinoa salad worked well together here. I thought the serving size of this was a little sparse for a dish over $30, but Katie loved the quality of it.

Even though we were steps from the sand, I didn't get any fish. After reading the description of this Bacon Wagyu Baja Burger ($19) I did not really want to try anything else. This burger had my name written all over it. It starts with a half pound of beef and is then joined on the very solid Bread and Cie brioche bun with an ancho aioli, crispy onions, guacamole, bacon, and is then finished off with a sunny side up egg. I might have had too high of hopes for this burger. It was fine but did not knock my socks off. The beef was overcooked, and the rest of the items on this burger kind of got overshadowed by the very runny egg. The bacon and guacamole did not really stand out and that's a shame because those are two of my favorite things to have on a burger. The house cut fries that came with this were very solid, and the crispy ones were among some of the best I have had recently.

Dessert would close us out at 333 Pacific, and we decided to splurge and try two of their seven dessert selections. I picked the Sweet Corn Brulee ($10) just for the novelty of it. This Brulee had a different flavor profile than the usual vanilla creme brulee that can be found on menus all over. The sweetness was muted a bit, and the smoked salt added a depth to this dessert. The candied jalapenos topping this were a little out of place here, and not really needed. Since I'm a big Reese's fan, I also had to try the Peanut Butter Bombe ($10). This bombe used a chocolate cookie crust and was filled with a peanut butter mousse that was served with slices of bruleed bananas. The peanut butter mousse was too dense in this, and the peanut butter flavor really needed to be heightened here. Not bad, but I'd probably not get this one again.

The food on this trip to 333 Pacific was good, but most items did not wow us. Yes, the fish dish was the exception, and since this is more a seafood-focused restaurant, fish might be the thing to get here, instead of the burger. Listening to locals at the bar, they were pretty keen on the happy hour here, which goes from 4 to 7 pm on most days, and offers $8 items which is great news for those of you wanting to avoid paying entree prices here, which hover around the $40 and up mark. A little steep, but understandable being this close to the beach. Service was, of course, superb, even though Andrea had a full bar at most times during our stay. She kept on top of everything, like the pro that she is. Glad my little surprise worked out so well, and I hope that it doesn't take us close to 30 years to see our great friend Andrea again. In fact, I know we will be seeing here sooner, rather than later.

Out of five floppy discs, (because State Route 333 in New York runs through the town Campbell, which happens to be the birthplace of IBM founder Thomas Watson, which was my first computer growing up), five being best to zero being worst, 333 Pacific gets 3 floppy discs.

For more information about 333 Pacific, head to their website here:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

No Surprise, Pie Leads Us to the Circle City

Casa Taquito
2721 Green RiverRoad #106
Corona, CA 92882

It seems that after a long absence of not coming out to Corona, we have made numerous trips out the 91 Freeway recently. This visit to the Circle City was initiated about three months ago when my family and I had a late night craving for pie and headed to Polly's in Yorba Linda. There we met a server, Albert, who after some small talk we discovered that his family owned a small Mexican restaurant in Corona, which he claimed to be the best in town. Always in the mood for good Mexican food, I jotted down the info, and it sat there for three months, but the stars finally aligned and I made the trip to Casa Taquito with my parents in tow.

Casa Taquito is located in the Sierra Del Oro Towne Center, at the corner of Serfas Club and Green River. This shopping plaza is anchored by a Ralph's and a Dollar Tree, and Casa Taquito sits almost right between them. We arrived here at close to noon on a recent Thursday, and I was surprised to find this small, 15 table or so restaurant pretty full throughout our stay.

This truly is a family restaurant. Run by the Ortega family for the last few years, they are residents of the Corona community and make a point to stop by each table to make sure everything is up to their guest's standards.  When we walked in, we were met by Albert, who was serving here this afternoon and was then headed off to work a night shift at Polly's. His mom and dad were in attendance running food, cooking in the kitchen, and probably making sure Albert wasn't burning down the place. Kidding Albert.

The menu here is pretty much what you would expect from a family run Mexican restaurant. I was actually impressed with the numerous menu options, based on the size of this restaurant. They have plenty of combination plates, tacos, burritos, seafood dishes, and other Mexican favorites. Of interest for us since we were here midday were the lunch specials. Let's see if Albert's claim of this being the best Mexican food in Corona was founded.

As is our custom when eating in a Mexican restaurant, we always want to share what the Chips and Salsa look like. These chips were pretty good and stood up to the salsa well. I like a little more chunk to my salsa, but the flavor of this was right on. Of course, a little more spiciness would have made this salsa even better in my book.

 Lunch specials at Casa Taquito include your choice of soup or salad. Both my mom and dad went the soup route. My mom favored the Tortilla Soup, even though it had peas in it, which she is not a fan of. My dad really liked the Albondigas Soup, which had a flavorful broth but was a little light on the number of meatballs included in the cup.

Instead of the soup, I got the Salad option with my lunch special. Albert told me that they make the copycat recipe of the cilantro and pepita dressing from El Torito, which is probably the only reason to still visit El Torito these days. I have to admit that they nailed this dressing, as it tasted just like the original.  The greens were topped with a few tomatoes, some shredded carrots, and jack cheese. I really enjoyed this salad, as it had plenty of dressing included, and the produce was nice and fresh. Good sized salad for a dinner salad.

Before showing up to Casa Taquito, I had done a little research online to see what people liked here. A good amount of people mentioned their Nachos ($7.49) so I knew I had to give them a try. This was the small sized version, which was more than enough for the three of us. The nachos were layered nicely with refried beans, cheese, guacamole, jalapenos, sour cream, pico de gallo, and shredded beef. Every chip was covered by something, which is the mark of a good plate of nachos in my book. This definitely could be a meal for some people, but we still had our entrees on the way.

I haven't seen my mom go back and forth about what to order for a long time. Usually, she is very decisive about what she wants, but this time she debated between the taquitos and a cheese enchilada. As you can see, the Cheese Enchilada ($7.49) won out. This enchilada came with plenty of red sauce, sour cream, rice, and beans. For someone that's not a real big eater like my mom, this was the perfect lunch size portion. She devoured the enchilada quickly and was pleased with the amount of cheese and red sauce included here. She'd get this again for sure.

Sensing my mom's anguish about her Sophie's Choice moment at Casa Taquito, my dad came to the rescue when he ordered the Two Taquito Lunch Special ($7.49). This way my mom could eat half a taquito, and not miss out. Who says gallantry is dead? My dad got one chicken and one beef taquito. He enjoyed the beef one a tad more but thought both were pretty decent. He'd probably branch out and try something else on his next visit though.

My benchmark item when eating in a Mexican restaurant for the first time is Carnitas ($8.49), and based on these, I left with a favorable impression of Casa Taquito. Not only were these reasonably priced, but the serving size was more than I was expecting for a lunch portion, and they were done nicely. I enjoy crispy tips on the carnitas, and this pork came to the table that way. Not a bad piece in the bunch and flavored nicely. This was one of the better versions of this dish that I've had recently, and I'd be hard pressed to skip it the next time I was at Casa Taquito. The beans and rice were pretty solid here as well.

I'm usually not a big fan of dessert in Mexican restaurants, but we tried two of them here. The better of the two was the Deep Fried Ice Cream ($4.99). A large scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in corn flakes and then drizzled with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. The ice cream was good quality, and I liked that the coating of the scoop was not overly crunchy and hard like other versions of this dessert tend to be. Also, I have to mention the very nicely done fried chips with a dusting of sugar and cinnamon. They were puffy and light and would be good on their own as well. The Mexican Homemade Flan ($4.99) was good, even to a non-flan lover like myself. It was not overly sweet, had a good solid structure to it, and was a favorite of my dad, who was very stingy allowing my mom and me to have too much of this. Maybe he's not as gallant as I thought.

Casa Taquito is a good, solid choice when craving Mexican food in Corona. If I lived closer, this restaurant would definitely be in my rotation of Mexcian restaurants I would visit frequently. They do all the standard Mexican items you have come to love exceptionally well, and at an affordable price point. Even for dinner no item comes close to the $20 mark, and their lunch specials are definitely a steal for the amount of food you recieve. Service was very personable and friendly, but also quick, which is what most guests probably like at lunch time. Be advised that they are not open on Sundays though. Glad our late night pie craving at Polly's helped us end up at Casa Taquito.

Out of five Aztec dancers, (because there's always Aztec dancers on Olvera Street in LA, which just happens to be the birthplace of the taquito in 1934), five being best to zero being worst, Casa Taquito gets 3 Aztec dancers.

Casa Taquito does not have a website, but you can find their location, hours, and more info on their Yelp page here:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

It's a Prime Time to Head to BJ's

BJ's Brewhouse and Restaurant
24032 El Toro Road
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

For a lot of people, BJ's probably conjures up visions of deep dish pizzas, delicious potato skins, and of course their world renowned Pizookies. I admit these are the things I think of and order when coming to BJ's for dinner, which we do every few months. After this visit though, I might start thinking about BJ's for their prime rib. Yes, you read that right, Prime Rib.

There are some big changes going on at BJ's. Yes, you can still get a Pizookie and they still offer their pizza, but they have recently installed slow roasting ovens in all of their kitchens, which allowed them to expand their menu and offer guests some slow roasted options for diners who want to have an even more special meal at BJ's.

Starting May 11th, the roll out begins at all BJ's restaurants. The Slow Roasted Menu includes six new menu items. There's a Doube Bone-In Pork Chop, Baby Back Pork Ribs, which are on special every Thursday, a Hand Pulled Turkey Dip, a delicious sounding Barbequed Pulled Pork, and last but not least, and the reason we were here on National Prime Rib Day, a 15-ounce prime rib.

We arrived at our local BJ's in Laguna Hills a few nights ago. This is always a very busy and lively restaurant, which is always full of hungry guests. Even with the crowd waiting outside, we were seated right away, as we were one of the few parties of two waiting for a table. The inside of this restaurant is pretty cavernous, so wait times are usually shorter than expected. We were met by our waiter, and since we knew what we wanted, we put our order in rather quickly. This is how everything turned out for us on this evening.

Katie and I had arrived at BJ's right from work, and we had worked up quite an appetite, and wanted something quick before our meals, so we got the Honey Sriracha Brussels Sprouts ($6.50) at the suggestion of our waiter Nicolas. He made the right call on these. Served in a metal cake pan, these sprouts were seasoned with some Big Poppa Smoker's Desert Gold Seasoning and finished with a sweet Sriracha crema drizzled over the top. Nicolas touted adding some balsamic with this, and that put this over the top. I loved the crunchy sprouts and the combo of the two sauce really kept me interested.

Since my meal included a choice of salad, Katie did not want to be left out and got the affordably priced House Salad ($3.50). This side salad includes a mixture of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, shaved parmesan squares, and some seasoned croutons. A very suitable salad which more than satisfied Katie. I had a choice of salad with my meal and deviated from my usual Caesar by getting the House Wedge Salad. This is your typical wedge of iceberg topped with plenty of blue cheese crumbles and dressing, cubed tomatoes, sliced red onion, and crumbled bacon. As with most wedge salads, this has some big time flavors included, and I liked that this had plenty of dressing on it. Still a lot of work cutting it up, but a nice change from my usual salad selection.

Before we get to my meal, a quick look at Katie's selection, which also comes off the new Slow Roasted Menu, the Hand-Pulled Turkey Dip ($12.50). I have to admit I was pretty impressed with this sandwich. The turkey actually tasted like it came fresh off the bird, and was made even better with the addition of a very tasty creamy horseradish, a blanket of Swiss cheese, and some caramelized onions for a touch of sweetness. The hoagie roll had a nice crunch to it, which was softened when dunked into the warmed au jus. Katie went the classic route for her side by getting the crispy thin fries to accompany her sandwich. Very tender turkey here, just like we get the last Thursday in November.

Ever since I was a kid I have loved prime rib, it made me feel so grown up to eat it. So on this National Prime Rib Day, I was excited to try BJ's newest addition to their menu, their Prime Rib Dinner ($26.95). I have to admit I was kind of skeptical coming in here to get prime rib, but BJ's made a believer out of me. This slab of beef came to our table a beautiful medium rare, was tender, and spiced nicely on the edges. Very juicy, even in the middle, which is not the case at most places. For my choice of two house-made sides, I had the white cheddar mashed potatoes and the roasted asparagus. The mashed potatoes had a good texture to them but were a little light on the white cheddar. The asparagus was nicely done and picked up a little flavor from the grill.

Again, with my dinner, I got to have a Mini Pizookie ($3.75) as the finishing touch to my meal, and Katie did not want to miss out, so she got one also.  With eight varieties of Pizookies now, the hardest part is deciding which one to get. Katie had the salted caramel, while I had the triple chocolate version. Both were excellent, and just the right size so we did not have to share with each other.

Even though you do not think of BJ's as a place where you can get prime rib, it's definitely now on my radar, and when you can get a complete dinner for under $30 it's definitely way more than on my radar. Now be aware that the prime rib at BJ's is only available Friday and Saturday after 4 pm, and all day on Sunday. The rest of the Brewhouse Slow-Roasted menu is available every day but is served in limited quantities daily. If the prime rib and the pulled turkey dip are any indication, I can't wait to try their ribs and pork chop in the near future.

We would like to thank everyone at BJ's for the invite to be among the first to try their Slow Roasted menu. We had a great dinner, and really forward to coming back again soon. We would also like to thank all of the staff at the Laguna Hills location that we encountered on this evening, especially our server Nicolas. He not only provided us with fantastic service but seemed to be very proud of the food he was serving. Thanks for everything Nic.

For those of you that would like to experience the new Slow Roasted menu for yourselves, or to find your nearest BJ's location, head to their website here: