Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tackle Box Has Us Hook, Line, and Sinker

Tackle Box
3029 East Shore Dr. 
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

There used to be a time when there were just a couple of celebrity chefs around. Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, and Graham Kerr, among a select few others, were household names. Now that we have hundreds of channels to choose from, it was going to be inevitable that some of those networks would be focused on food, and that has lead to celebrity chefs sprouting up just about everywhere. Food-focused shows have even replaced soap operas, which I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. Yes, I grew up during the Luke and Laura era, when soaps were all the rage.

There are restaurant shows, cooking competitions, restaurant makeover shows, and luckily the cupcake craze seems to have subsided. Anyways, my point is that there's never been an overabundance of celebrity chefs out there, and I like to see where they end up after the cameras stop rolling. It's always interesting to see if their fame helps them achieve their dream of owning their own restaurant, or if they parlay their exposure into another gig. It's this curiosity that has brought us to Tackle Box at Corona Del Mar State Beach on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Tackle Box is the home of Chef-Owner Brian Huskey, who you might remember from Top Chef Season 11 New Orleans. He made the top 5 that season, and in each episode he appeared on until he had to pack up his knives, he showcased his talents and won heaps of praise from the judges. Not surprising since he had quite the resume before getting on Top Chef. After graduating from culinary school, Brian worked in a long list of LA restaurants and was even a sous chef at Leatherby's at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa when they first opened.

So what's a fine-dining chef doing running a concession stand at the beach? He approached the city over two years ago about taking over the concessions with a chef-driven menu, and they countered that it would be fine, but he also had to run a more traditional concession as well. He acquiesced, and Tackle Box was born.

We arrived here on a rather warm mid-July Sunday evening. We were hoping to miss most of the beach crowd, but the beach was still pretty jammed packed with families, sunbathers, and lots of people trying to escape the heat inland. We did manage to get a sweet parking spot right near Tackle Box though. The menu here is not like the hot dogs, snow cones, and chili cheese strips that we had when coming to the beach when I was a kid. This menu is dotted with some upscale sandwiches, clam chowder, and other assorted snacks which you would not expect to see served within inches of the sand. There are even breakfast options for those here before 11 am. Let's see Chef Brian's take on a grub shack at the beach.

After ordering at the counter, we grabbed one of the picnic tables which are reserved for customers of Tackle Box, and our food slowly made its way out to us, starting with this Quesadilla ($9.50). This was a great way to start. This quesadilla had a great crunch to it and came with a three cheese blend, caramelized onion, and roasted poblanos. The poblano was mild enough so Katie could handle it, but I would have liked a little more heat included with this. I kind of thought at over $9 it was going to have some protein involved here, but no such luck. Still a high-quality quesadilla.

Katie's sandwich selection came out first. This was a pretty impressive looking Chicken Club ($11). It included chicken of course, and a couple strips of applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and an unexpectedly mellow lemon garlic sauce. She liked the tender chicken and the sturdy New England style hot dog bun which was forefront in her mind when remembering this sandwich. She also enjoyed the house chips, which came with this sandwich. They were fried nicely, and most of them were very crisp.

The one time our paths crossed with Brian Huskey and the Tackle Box crew was at a launch party for Newport Beach Restaurant Week. They were sampling this Buffalo Cauliflower ($9) and ran out of it rather quickly. I knew then and there that we would be getting this when we came to Tackle Box. Cauliflower is all the rage right now, dethroning kale, which is a good thing. This was fantastic. The buffalo sauce covering this had a little kick to it, and the cauliflower was fried lightly enough to avoid being too heavy. I wish they would have given us a little more blue cheese dressing with this, but you will not miss the chicken wings when ordering this starter. It's easy to see why this was such a hit at the kickoff party.

I had my choices narrowed down to about four when I got to Tackle Box and was still debating when I was in line. I eventually ordered this Cali Cheesesteak ($13). Not a bad choice at all. This sandwich might have been smaller than I was expecting, but it packed a nice flavor punch. The lightly toasted New England style hot dog bun was filled with thinly sliced beef, some white cheddar, crispy onions, and fried peppers. This was a very light cheesesteak. It was not heavy on the meat or cheese, but the fried peppers added some nice texture and some unexpected pops of heat.

Tackle Box is a definite upgrade to what you have come to expect from a concession stand at your local beach. Without even knowing who is helming this kitchen, you could tell that the food here is of a pretty high quality and there's a lot of thought and care that goes into it. I would have liked the portion sizes to have been a little bigger for what you are shelling out here. Most items were a couple dollars too much for the amount you get, but that might be because of the area. The prices will not deter us from a return visit though. I look forward to trying their Pork Belly Bahn Mi, their Tackle Box Burger, and the Lobster Roll, which is only available on weekends. Of course, the Buffalo Cauliflower is a must as well. I'm glad OC is home to quite a few celebrity/TV chefs so we can try what looks so great being shown in our living rooms on almost every channel.

Out of five roses, (because Chef Brian Huskey is a native of Pasadena, and from what I hear they have some sort of parade and football game which has something to do with roses), five being best to zero being worst, Tackle Box gets 3.5 roses.

For information about Tackle Box, head to their website here: http://tackleboxoc.com/

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Rollin' down to Proud Mary's

Proud Mary's
34689 Golden Lantern 
Dana Point, CA 92629

Now that I have been getting Sundays off from work with a little bit of regularity, I've become pretty lazy on the last day of the week, or the first day depending on how you look at it. We usually don't start moving around until 9 am and then we throw about ideas on what we are going to do with our day. Most of the time Katie goes to see her nephew and I get some work done on this restaurant blog. This particular weekend she had no plans with her family, so we decided to take a jaunt around Dana Point Harbor, and while down there, of course, get some breakfast. We tried Proud Mary's for the first time.

It's pretty amazing that this was our first time at Proud Mary's when you consider how often we have walked this picturesque harbor, and how long Proud Mary's has been around. Mary Merrill opened this place up in 1977 and then sold it to the Zdrakas family in 2005. After a 2007 fire destroyed the original restaurant, the family vowed to come back to the community that showed them so much support while they were closed, with a new and improved version of Proud Mary's. They enlarged their patio, taking advantage of the great year round Dana Point weather, they reimagined their dining room and added a banquet space with a new menu so they can hold special events at the restaurant.

We got here just before 11 on a very busy Sunday morning in Dana Point. We parked quite a ways away, but walking was part of the reason we came down here. Proud Mary's is situated between Turk's and the Wind and Sea Restaurant, right near where you catch the Catalina Express for your trip 26 miles across the sea. We had a close to 10-minute wait, which wasn't too bad, but it was a much longer wait for a table on their happening patio.

The breakfast menu at Mary's says that they only serve breakfast until noon, which has been a bone of contention among customers since the old Proud Mary's used to serve breakfast all day. The breakfast menu has all the items you would expect to see on it. There are breakfast sandwiches, egg dishes, breakfast burritos, griddled items, and a decent selection of combination plates. We couldn't wait to dig in and continue our walk after breakfast.

This good-looking California Scramble ($13) was Katie's selection. When this was placed in front of her, the colors just seemed to emanate from the plate. This scramble was made up of turkey, bacon, tomatoes, and avocado. This was a pretty good-sized portion, and one that Katie felt was good, but it didn't really pack the flavor punch she was expecting. Maybe some cheese on this would have helped push this up a notch.

I was also feeling the scramble vibe at Proud Mary's, where I ordered the Meaty Scramble ($12.50). I'm always in when I see the holy trinity of breakfast meats on one plate on a breakfast menu. This scramble included ham, bacon, and sausage, and was bound together with some cheddar cheese. I kind of had the same feelings about my breakfast as Katie had about hers, it was fine, but kind of average. The home fries were decent, but needed more seasoning and maybe a little more crunch to them. No, I'm not into wheat toast, but that's what came with this, and it didn't seem like they had any other bread options available.

As is my usual need when eating my first meal of the day, I need a sweet item to go along with my savory breakfast option. On this morning I tried this Short Stack of Pancakes ($7.50 with chocolate chips added). I was pretty impressed with these. Not too doughy, full of chocolatey goodness, and not dry either. A pretty impressive plate of pancakes. Still heavy, but I have kind of come to expect that from pancakes.

Proud Mary's ended up being a decent option for breakfast in Dana Point Harbor area. It's not as good as What A Dish Cafe, but it's not as bad as the overly hyped RJ's Cafe. Proud Mary's is kind of situated in the middle of the restaurants we've tried down there. Service was a little spotty during our stay, maybe because we were sitting in an out of the way corner of the restaurant which was easy to miss. We'd still come back here again if we can shake off the laziness that we always seem to have on Sundays.

Out of five Vulcans, (because everyone knows the CCR or Tina Turner version of the song Proud Mary, but you probably don't know that Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy also sang the song), five being best to zero being worst, Proud Mary's gets 3 Vulcans.

For more information about Proud Mary's, head to their website by clicking here: http://www.proudmarysdp.com/

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mixed Review of Crocker's

Crocker's The Well Dressed Frank
211 Marine Ave. 
Newport Beach, CA 92662

I never feel like we take enough advantage of our coastline. Katie and I might be nicknamed the pasty posse because we burn within minutes of being exposed to the sun, but we seriously love being down at the beach. Taking advantage of the cool ocean breezes, getting a little exercise, and the general feeling of a mini getaway that the seashore can inspire makes us grateful for being able to call OC home. One of our favorite seaside strolls is around Balboa Island, which also gave us an opportunity to cross Crocker's off of our restaurant wish list.

Crocker's earned their way on to our list when they got a glowing review from who I believe was OC Register Restaurant Critic Brad Johnson for their Chili Burger and their Chicago Dog. I quickly made a note and it sat on our list for awhile.

Crocker's has been open for three and a half years now and is owned by Victoria and John De Frenza, who named their restaurant after Victoria's grandfather, who just happened to be the first paid Fire Chief on Balboa Island. It's this nostalgia that has inspired their menu of pure American comfort food. Burgers and hot dogs headline here, but there are a few sandwiches, sausages, and a couple of seafood options as well. We also hear that they make a pretty decent clam chowder, which we didn't try on this trip, but maybe will in the future when it cools down a bit.

To be honest, this is not the most comfortable of restaurants. Not good for large groups for sure, there's one table for four, one that sits two, and some counter seating facing a wall. If things do get a little tight here, we've heard that you can also order and sit at their restaurant next door, the slightly larger Croker's Abundant Table. Other than those options, it might be wise for locals to do what we saw a lot of people doing, getting their food for takeout. We got lucky and got one of the two tables, so let's see if our luck would hold with a great meal at Crocker's.

I must admit that I was a little taken aback when Katie got the Chief's Chicken Sausage ($9). Not the most photogenic of sausages, this albino looking sausage came with Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing, warmed kraut, and a poppy seed bun. Katie liked the snap of this mellow chicken sausage, which went well with the Rueben feel of this. She also mentioned the bun as a standout.  

I was all set to try the Chicago dog before arriving here but switched it up at the last minute to this Wild and Wet Chili Dog ($9). This steamed skinless frank came with chili, shredded cheddar cheese, diced onions, and a strip of bacon perched on top. This was a very good version of a chili dog. It starts with the bun, which was freshly baked, soft, but pliable, and I have a sneaky suspicion that they might come from Blackmarket Bakery, but I don't have any official confirmation on this. Whoever makes them, they are excellent. The chili is pretty good, not of a spicy variety, but still flavorful. I had wished that the bacon would have been tucked into the bun so I could have it included in each bite, but still satisfying.

As much as I enjoyed the chili dog, I was underwhelmed by George's Patty Melt ($11.50). This half pound burger was seriously underseasoned, and the Swiss, onions and thousand island dressing could not salvage this. The bread was very sturdy, but that's about as memorable as this sandwich gets. Should have gotten the chili burger instead.

Rounding out our meal were these Fries ($5). I rather enjoyed these fries seasoned with parsley and sea salt. They had a great crunch to them, while the potato inside was pillowy soft.

Looking back over this visit, I should have probably stuck with the items that I was gonna try when I first came here, the chili burger and the Chicago dog. Even though the chili dog shined, I'm not sure it was a $9 chili dog. In fact, I think most of the prices were a few dollars too much for the amount of food you get, but you have to consider the high rents in this touristy area. Service was pretty solid, and the food came out in a pretty timely manner. Even though Crocker's did not blow us away, it was great getting out and enjoying Balboa Island, one of our favorite beach spots.

Out of five boxes of cake mix, (because whenever I hear the name Crocker, it always brings to mind the advertising icon, Betty Crocker of General Mills fame), five being best to zero being worst, Crocker's The Well Dressed Frank gets 2.5 boxes of cake mix.

Crocker's Well Dressed Frank does not have a website, but you can check out their reviews by going to their Yelp page, https://www.yelp.com/biz/crockers-the-well-dressed-frank-newport-beach

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Consuming CroCreams at Churned Creamery

Churned Creamery
2493 Park Ave. #21
Tustin, CA 92782

After a rather lackluster dinner experience nearby, I was really ready for some dessert. Since it has been so warm and humid out there lately, ice cream was, of course, the natural choice. A quick check of Yelp led us to Churned Creamery, which is located on the backside of the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy.

Not knowing too much about Churned Creamery before getting here, the ordering process was a little confusing at first. The three step process starts with how you want your ice cream; in a bowl, a brownie bowl, cone, or in a croissant. Then you pick your flavor, which on this particular evening they had 13 available with the wildest ones being either the honeydew or the whiskey and cream. There are also four sorbets available. The third and final step in the process is to add your toppings and maybe a drizzle of Nutella or caramel over your creation. There's also shakes and soda floats for people that would rather drink their ice cream than eat it with a spoon.

Katie went the simple route at Churned Creamery with this Single Scoop of Chocolate ($4.50 + $1 for up to three toppings). The ice cream was very creamy and the chocolate shined here. I liked the consistency of the ice cream, as it was not overly heavy, but did stay cold for awhile. I was a little disappointed with the selection of toppings that they had. There were no crushed up Resse's, no crushed peanuts, and no peanut butter drizzle. Sounds like they are anti-peanut or maybe I just really wanted a peanut butter and chocolate vibe. Katie settled on Butterfinger pieces and chocolate sprinkles which she seemed to really enjoy.

Here's the real reason to come to Churned Creamery, their signature Crocream ($7 with three toppings included). I was pretty stoked with this creation. It's a croissant cut open with a scoop of ice cream inside of it and then you choose up to three toppings to complete your masterpiece. I had the Resse's Peanut Butter ice cream with a Nutella drizzle, chocolate chips, and granola rounding this out. They were not shy with the amount of ice cream they added inside of the croissant, so I ate a few bites with my spoon and then finished this off eating it like a sandwich. Even though I would probably not get the underachieving Resse's ice cream again, this was a delicious dessert, and one I have thought about since I had it a few weeks ago.

Churned Creamery finished our evening off well. I'll definitely go back and have another Crocream the next time I am at the District. Now that I got the lay of the land here, I'll create an even better version of my masterpiece next time. Probably a mint concoction with chocolate and Oreos. I didn't think that the prices were too out of control, especially when you consider the area. Service was pretty solid, and the guy who helped us was very patient with all of our questions. A very welcome addition to the Union Market, especially since Mr. Holmes Bakery is always closed when we are here.

Out of five blimps, (because this restaurant is in the shadows of the massive hangars that were once a storage and repair area for blimps during the Marine Corp Air Station days), five being best to zero being worst, Churned Creamery gets 3 blimps.

For more information about Churned Creamery, head to their website here: http://www.churnedcreamery.com/#home-section

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Enamored with Ike's Love and Sandwiches?

Ike's Love and Sandwiches
2487 Park Ave. 
Tustin, CA 92782

It seems that all of a sudden restaurants from other regions of the country have been opening up in OC. We are now home to the Midwest favorite, Steak and Shake, (yuck), Portillo's, (delicious), and Raising Cane's, (I could take it or leave it) among others. It didn't use to be this way. It used to be that if you wanted to try let's say, Five Guys, you had to travel to the East Coast. Now at last count, there are 11 in OC so you can see for yourself if this chain truly is the In-N-Out of the east.

It's another import that has brought us out on this early evening, Ike's Love and Sandwiches. Ike's comes to us from the Castro District in San Fransisco, where on most days there's a long line of customers from the time they open until they close. They even had to reduce their hours at one point to keep their neighbors from revolting against this suddenly expanding chain of sandwich shops. There are now 36 places where you can get one of Ike's sandwiches, including three spots in OC, including this location at The District at Tustin Legacy.

Ike's menu is a little intimidating for first timers like myself. There are close to 50 sandwiches named after celebrities and San Francisco pro sports players. As if that's not enough, there are also some secret menu items, and each location of this sandwich chain has its own special menu items tailored towards its clientele. With so many options, I was really nervous about making the wrong choice, so I decided to try two sandwiches, and take half home for lunch the next day.

Ike's is situated in the old Capriotti's location at the ever changing District at Tustin Legacy shopping complex. They have been here for almost a year now, and have gotten plenty of love from Yelp, with a four and a half star rating with over 150 reviews. Ike's is a quick service restaurant, as you order at the register and your sandwiches are made in full view of customers. The space is dominated by large logos featuring Ike Shehadeh, founder of this concept and of course, a good portion of another wall is used to feature all the numerous sandwiches offered here. Let's see what we ended up getting off this humungous menu.

Katie will start us off with her sandwich pick, the Backstabber ($9.99). This sandwich utilizes diced up, tender halal chicken as its base, and then tops it with Caesar dressing, marinated artichoke hearts, and a blanket of provolone. Katie got this on their famous Dutch crunch bread, which is dense, yet doughy at the same time and has a distinctive cracked crust topping it, which yields a slight sweetness to it. Really good bread. Katie loved the chicken here, which she claimed was very flavorful and went well with the Caesar dressing. She could see herself getting this sandwich again. Katie also got a bag of Zapp's Cajun Dill chips and was pretty happy with them. The dill really came through and made this into a pickle in potato chip form. I look forward to trying more flavors from this Louisiana chip company in the future.

The first of my two sandwiches was this Paul Reubens ($9.99). This take on a Reuben sandwich has pastrami as a base and then dresses up the sandwich with some french dressing, poppy seed coleslaw, and Swiss cheese. I liked this sandwich but was not in love with it. I got this with their sourdough bread, which went well here, but I would probably get their Dutch crunch bread next time. I'd also ask for extra french dressing, as they applied it pretty lightly, and I like my sandwich condiments to stand out a bit more. A decent Rubenesque sandwich, but I'd probably get something else next time.  

I ordered this sandwich by mistake. I had meant to get the John Wayne but for some reason when  I was ordering, the Bruce Wayne ($9.99) slipped out of my mouth instead. So, instead of the steak and American cheese that comes on the John Wayne, I got the roast beef, swiss, and steak sauce that came with this sandwich. This was an okay sandwich, but what made it for me was the Dutch crunch bread. Other than the bread it was a little boring. Too much lettuce, the swiss cheese really got lost here, and steak sauce is not really my favorite. The serving size of the roast beef was a little on the skimpy side, so I'd ask for double meat next time.

Alright, Ike's did not really impress me too much with this visit, but with so many sandwiches available, and enough ingredients to come up with over 400 sandwich combinations, I still feel like there's hope for me that I could come up with a really great sandwich at Ike's. I'm glad that Ike's is one of the many imports to have opened up in OC recently. Not only do I look forward to finding my favorite sandwich here soon, it also saves us some airfare miles going up to San Fran to try them out.

Out of five cable cars, (because of the ties that this restaurant has to San Francisco), five being best to zero being worst, Ike's Love and Sandwiches gets 2.5 cable cars.

For more information about Ike's Love and Sandwiches, head to their website here: http://ilikeikesplace.com/

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Getting Away from It All by Staying Close to Home at Islands

799 The Shops at Mission Viejo Suite A
Mission Viejo, CA 92691

When Katie and I are not out finding new restaurants, we are homebodies. We curl up on the couch and watch the four plus shows we are currently watching on Netflix. I love trying new restaurants, but sometimes you just need a break. On these rare nights, we usually stay close to home. One of the places we find ourselves at probably once a month or so is the new Islands at the Shops at Mission Viejo.

It's hard to believe that this Islands location escaped the cursed Kaleidoscope center nearly a year ago. Now with plenty of parking, no more broken escalators, a much more open floor plan, and a wonderful patio to take advantage of outdoor dining, Islands has seemed to have hit its stride at this almost always packed restaurant, which is situated next door to P..F. Chang's and the entrance to the food court.

It's also kind of hard to believe that Islands has been around for 35 years. That's when Islands founder Tony DeGrazier opened his first location in West Hollywood, bringing a little bit of Hawaii to Southern California. He wanted a place where you could get a burger, fresh hot fries, and drinks after a long day. My first Islands experience was in the mid-eighties and has continued to the present day.

We were lucky enough to have been invited to our local Islands to try their limited time menu items. That's one of the things I admire most about Islands, is the fact that they always have some limited menu items, keeping things fresh for those of us that visit their restaurants frequently. I look forward to every year when their spicy Nalu Nalu Burger is available as a limited time item.

We arrived at half past six on a recent Thursday evening and the restaurant was humming with activity. We were seated right away and perused the menu not out of necessity, but more out of habit since Katie pretty much always get the same thing, and I already knew I'd be trying their limited time items. Let's see how everything turned out for us on this evening.

The first of the two limited time items offered was this Islands Golden Ale ($8.55). Since it's been so hot and humid lately, this brew, which is exclusively crafted for Islands by Karl Strauss Brewing Company really hit the spot. I was afraid this was going to be too hoppy for my taste, but it had just the right amount of bite to it and a very clean finish. They say this pairs well with their Waimea Burger, but I could see this pairing well with just about anything.

Can't come to Islands and not get their Cheddar Fries ($8.65). Looking back on it, I think Islands was the very first place that I ever had fries with cheese on them. They are still as good now as they were back in the 80's. These fresh cut fries are fried crisp and then topped with plenty of melted cheese and scallions. Yes, you can have these with chili and bacon added, but they are perfect this way, with just a little ranch to dip them in.

I always think it's a little odd that Katie gets these Northshore Tacos ($9.79) at Islands because I always think of this place as a burger spot, but this is her, "go to" item here. These chicken tacos are filled with plenty of cheese, lettuce, and come with sour cream and salsa to round things out. Katie also always orders a small side of guacamole to complete her meal. She loves the tender, slightly spicy chicken, and the ranchero beans that accompany this.

Alright, it was burger time, and this Waimea Burger ($11.75) is available for a limited time. This burger features some Kalua pulled pork, caramelized onions, teriyaki glaze, pineapple, and Swiss cheese. This burger screamed Hawaii and really fit in perfectly with the Islands vibe A little on the sweet side, I'd probably ask for the teriyaki on the side when I have this burger again. Since I had the cheddar fries as a starter, I decided to forgo the endless fries option and get a Caesar side salad instead. This was the right call. The Caesar salad at Islands is very underrated and came with some flavorful dressing, crunchy croutons, and a little parmesan.

Maybe because I had a big lunch, this meal really seemed to fill me up, but I would not be deterred from getting a little something for dessert. Katie and I split this individually sized Fudge Brownie ($2.69), which really hit the spot. The small brownie was topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some chocolate sauce. Simple, yet delicious and a great end to our visit to Islands.

As usual, it was another stellar visit to our local Islands restaurant. Both of the limited time items I tried were a nice change of pace and something I would totally get again. Manager Hector and his entire staff did a great job of meeting not only our needs but also making sure that all of their guests were having a great dining experience. We consider ourselves pretty lucky to have this Islands location situated right across the street from where we live for those rare nights we stick close to home.

For more information about Islands, and to find your nearest location head over to their website here: https://www.islandsrestaurants.com/