Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Little Taste of Cuba in Irvine


Habana
708 Spectrum Center Dr. 
Irvine, CA 92618

If you have been to the Irvine Spectrum Center recently you have probably noticed all of the construction going on in the former Macy's area of this large South OC shopping and entertainment complex. The Macy's has been demolished, there are quite a few parking spots being taken away by the construction, and the Irvine Company has just announced 14 of the eventual 30 new businesses that will be opening over the next year.

These include an 85 Degrees Bakery and Cafe, a Hello Kitty Cafe, an Afters Ice Cream, a BLK Coffee, and a Falasophy, which is a modern Lebanese street kitchen. It's not all food places of course, as there's also going to be a Sephora and the always trendy H&M. This roster of new stores and restaurants is sure to make the Spectrum busier, but there's also going to be a new 1,500 space parking structure built to help alleviate the troublesome parking situation here.

For now, Habana is kind of on an island off by itself. If you are coming from the mall side, Habana is situated right behind the Urban Outfitters, Barnes & Noble, and Tilly's. If you are coming from the parking lot, look for Dave and Buster's and it will be to your left. Complicating things a bit, Habana has no sign on its building. I'm not sure if this is a temporary thing or not, but it does make it a little harder to find this isolated (for now) restaurant.

Habana is not new of course. The location at the LAB in Costa Mesa has been open for over twenty years now and has been the scene for some wild late nights when I was in my 20's and early 30's. I've also had some pretty good Cuban dinners at Habana, including this one that I reviewed seven years ago. Has it really been that long? Geez, it was definitely time to visit Habana's new spot at The Spectrum.

Entering Habana is done on the mall side of the restaurant. If you enter from the parking lot you will be entering their small coffee shop and bakery. The inside of Habana transports you to a bygone era that most of us have just seen in the movies or on TV. There's a patio which we hear is nice and serene, but we were seated in their glorious dining room, with its arched, high ceilings, which lends to the grand ballroom feel you get when dining here. Adding to the ambiance is the table setting, with its small lamps providing not enough lighting to the darker than I would like restaurant, the glass chalices used for water glasses, and the china that looks like it's right from the 50's, and only used for special occasions. All of this ambiance was great, but it's all for naught if the food is not good, so let's see how that turned out for us.



Mexican restaurants traditionally start you off with chips and salsa, while at Habana they start your meal with a trio of cassava, taro, and sweet potato chips and then pair it with a trio of sauces; chimichurri, a red pepper and garlic salsa, and the best of the bunch, a black bean dip which I could not get enough of. Addictive, and they were not shy about refilling this.



It had been almost two days since my last Caesar salad, and I was intrigued by the Habana Caesar Salad ($7), so I had to give it a try. Not only was this a very generous portion size for a Caesar, it could have easily fed two people, but I liked the slight twist they made to make this their own. It came with some very good garlic croutons, some parmesan crisps which added some nice texture, and a very well done papaya seed Caesar dressing. The key to the success of this salad was plenty of parmesan and the just right amount of dressing used on this. The papaya tinge was just enough but did not overpower. A delicious salad which I would get again without hesitation.



Ozker must have been a little jealous that I was enjoying my salad so much because he hastily ordered this Mariscos Fritos ($14). This fried fish platter contained some calamari, shrimp, and conch fritters. That's at least what the menu said, but I only saw one or two shrimp and no conch. Maybe Ozker snagged them before I got a chance to try them, but he's not that fast. The buttermilk fried calamari was nicely done, without the heaviness that usually accompanies fried fish. I really enjoyed the jalapeno crema that came as a dipping sauce with this.



Sorry for the poor picture quality of Martin's entree, it was really dark in the dining room on this evening. He had the El Churrasco ($28). This plate included an 8-ounce skirt steak, corn on the cob with a chile lime butter and cotija cheese, white rice, plantains, and black beans. Martin thought the steak was a little under-seasoned, but it was helped out with a good chimichurri sauce included and was just tender enough. As for the sides, he was not really a big fan of the corn but liked the rice and the black beans well enough. He'd get something else the next time he was at Habana.


Ozker probably got the most famous of all Cuban dishes, the Ropa Vieja ($20). He made quick work of this shredded beef which was studded with sweet peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and then served over rice. A very comforting dish, the beef was flavorful and tender, and the sides of black beans and plantains did not last too long either. A very good rendition of Cuba's national dish.



I always steer towards pork at Cuban restaurants, and that was the case when I stepped up and had this El Puerco Primo ($23). This homey meal had a great balance to it. A very large pork shank was plopped in the middle of some creamy and delicious garlic mashed potatoes, greens, and sweet plantains to finish it off. I loved the savory pork, it did not have a bad bite in the bunch. The greens worked well with the potatoes, and the plate was rounded out nicely with the sweet plantains, which I'm not usually too fond of, but they went well here. A winning dish for sure.


No dessert for Martin, as he'd rather drink his dessert apparently. When you are at Habana you will no doubt hear the bartenders chopping coconuts to make this Al Centro Pa Dentro ($10). Looking around the dining room on this evening, this might be the signature drink at Habana. It's a mixture of coconut water, mint and Bacardi served in a freshly chopped coconut. I liked the refreshing taste of this, with the little kick you get from the rum after each sip. Be advised that these tip over rather easily, as both Martin and Ozker, spilled theirs at different parts of the evening. Amatures.


There were many desserts which sounded good to finish off my evening, but when I saw these Banana Fritters ($8) on the menu, I knew my quest for dessert was over. These bananas were wrapped in pastry dough and then fried and drizzled with a rich caramel rum sauce, and served with ice cream. I liked these, but they were a little difficult to eat. The pastry dough was not as light as I was hoping for. It was difficult to cut through, and once I did get through it, all the fried dough came off in one fell swoop. The caramel sauce was magical though.

This visit to Habana reaffirmed their position as top of the Cuban restaurant throne in OC. Not only is this one of the most beautiful restaurants in Orange County, but they have the food to back it up. I do wish they had their Cuban sandwich on the dinner menu, but that just gives me a reason to go back for lunch very soon. There's also a brunch that we have heard some good things about. Service on this evening was very professional, and our server kept things moving along nicely with some good pacing. I'm looking forward to the other new restaurants opening up at The Spectrum, but having Habana there is a great way to start things off.

Out of five bags of sugar, (because most people probably don't know this, but there's a Habana in Queensland, Australia named after a now-shuttered sugar mill), five being best to zero being worst, Habana gets 3.5 bags of sugar.


For more information about Habana, head to their website here: https://www.restauranthabana.com/#home-section

Friday, January 26, 2018

Woo-Hoo for Sam Woo!


Sam Woo BBQ Express
15333 Culver Dr. Suite 722
Irvine, CA 92604

I have to admit I got a little embarrassed when I actually looked up the number of Chinese restaurants we have reviewed on this restaurant blog. Yep, it was eight, not including this recent visit. So that means that out of the 731 different restaurants we have visited, just over one percent have served Chinese food. Being in OC, with the amount of great Chinese food available, that's a little unacceptable. Sam Woo might be the restaurant to change that.

To be honest I am not too well versed in Chinese food. Everything I know about Chinese food I learned by eating at Panda Express, Pick Up Stix, and some little hole in the wall places near where I have lived that serve their food out of steam trays and package up your food to enjoy at home. Not exactly what I imagine they are serving in Downtown Beijing, but I like this Americanized version well enough.

It was early January, so it was time to take my good friend David out for his birthday. In a change of habit, I let him pick the restaurant that we would be going to eat at. This year he wanted to head to Sam Woo BBQ Express in the very active Culver Plaza, which is situated on the corner of Irvine Center Drive and Culver. Anchoring this busy shopping complex is a 99 Ranch Market, a 24 Hour Fitness, a good number of banks, and of course our destination on this evening, Sam Woo.

As I was waiting for David to show up, it kind of confused me where to meet him. This Sam Woo is kind of like three restaurants at the same time. There's the Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant, then the Sam Woo Barbecue Express, where people line up and get their food to go from steam trays, just like what I'm used to at other Chinese restaurants. Then there's where we ended up eating, in the middle of the two, a pleasant dining room, with white table clothed tables, folded scarlet napkins placed on top of plates, and professional looking servers, who I can imagine each of them working here for a long time.

We must have hit this place at just the right time, because at half past five on a rainy Monday evening, we had our pick of the tables. It did fill halfway up during our stay, and the quick service side was busy during our entire visit. I have read stories online about long waits for tables here, but not the case on this evening. There are plenty of signs all over the dining area stating that this is a cash-only business, but David told me not to worry about that. Of course, he was wrong, as I was directed to an ATM at the front of the restaurant when it was time to pay. Thanks, David.

The menu here is pretty impressive with its myriad of choices. There are 330 numbered items running from soups, noodles, rice dishes, chow mein, hot pots, veggies, meat, fish, poultry, appetizers, and finally desserts. When I'm in a Chinese restaurant I usually like to get one beef, pork, chicken, and rice selection, which is a nice variety. That's what we ended up doing for David's birthday bash. Let's see how that worked out for us.


Out first for us was the Assorted Meat on Fried Rice ($8.95). This was one of the lighter fried rice dishes I have ever had. Not a lot of grease and the rice was nice and fluffy. There was not a ton of meat on this, but it did the trick as a good side item to our entrees. 


When I picked this Chicken with Satay Sauce ($12.95) I was expecting something else, but it ended up being fine as it was. I thought it was going to come out with a thicker satay sauce that resembled the chicken satay appetizer that I had for David's birthday a few years ago. This satay sauce was thinner, but still provided a nice peanut flavor that went well with the tender chicken, white onions, crushed peanuts and the green onions. I'd get this again, but am interested in their other chicken dishes now that I know they do not overcook their chicken.


Our pork choice on this evening was selected by David and was the only thing I was not too excited about during our stay. This BBQ Pork with Tofu ($11.95) came out with snap peas, carrots, and of course sliced pork and plenty of tofu. I'm not much of a tofu person. The texture doesn't do it for me, and it doesn't really taste like anything to me. The pork on this was hit and miss. A few pieces were dry, but some were nice and tender and tasted great. The jury is still out on whether Sam Woo does pork well, but I would probably not get this entree again.


David redeemed himself big time with his beef pick, the Baked Chunk of Steak in the French Style ($16.95). One of the more expensive items on the menu, but well worth it. These cubed steak chunks were almost butter tender and came nicely sauced where it did not detract from the natural flavor of the beef. A delicate balance to achieve. This also came with some big mushrooms which were tender and nicely prepared. David said the bowl was edible, but he might have just wanted to see me make a fool out of myself. Real nice David, especially when I took you out to dinner.

Sam Woo has me rethinking Chinese food. This was not the usual greasy, everything kind of tastes the same stuff that you get at the lesser Chinese restaurants that most of us frequent. The food here is a higher quality and done more thoughtfully than your usual neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I look forward to coming back and trying more of the 300 plus items on this gigantic menu. Yes, this is not the most convenient of restaurants, in fact, they don't make it accommodating at all. Not only is there a line for a table on most days, but the fact that they don't take credit cards is a big hassle for people like me that don't like having cash on me, and tends to make me think that there is something more sinister going on here than not wanting to pay the credit card fees. Service was okay, not overly friendly, and not too attentive to the two of us. Even with all of the negative, I still will make a return visit. Glad I could add to our Chinese restaurant total, and I look forward to trying more of the Chinese food that OC has to offer.

Out of five lima beans, (because this shopping plaza is named after Fred Culver, one of the earliest residents of what would become Irvine, and he was a lima bean farmer), five being best to zero being worst, Sam Woo BBQ Express gets 3 lima beans.

For more information about Sam Woo BBQ Express, go to their website here: https://www.samwooirvine.com/bbq-express.html

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

All Around the Mulberry Street Ristorante


Mulberry Steet Ristorante
114 West Wilshire Ave. 
Fullerton, CA 92832

Ever since I have known Sandy she has wanted a grandchild. She's the mother of my life-long friend Clay. Clay had a let's say, colorful dating life. He went from woman to woman, but never quite found that perfect match until he met Jen about eight years ago. They got married three years ago and gave Sandy her first grandchild late last year. Sandy was, of course, ecstatic, but there was a problem.

After getting married, Clay and Jen high tailed it to Kentucky for new opportunities. As we all predicted, Sandy and her long-winded husband Kenton put their house up for sale right away to be closer to their grandson Christopher. So this dinner was not only a long overdue catch-up but also a sort of going away dinner for all of us. As it was my job to pick a restaurant, my trusty restaurant wishlist guided us to Mulberry Street Ristorante in Downton Fullerton.

The neon sign out in front of Mulberry Street states that they have been open since 1984. I seem to remember coming here as a kid for a Sunday brunch with my parents a long time ago, but my parents don't remember that, and now my memory is a little hazy about it as well. Mulberry Street is located right across the street from the Villa Del Sol, where Katie and I got married, and just removed enough from the craziness that is Harbor Boulevard.

Mulberry Street has the feel of an upscale Italian restaurant, without the stuffiness. It kind of brought to mind Maggiano's, but on a smaller scale, and without the corporate feel that has taken over Maggiano's. The Italian tinged menu has plenty to offer. Steaks, seafood, and pasta entrees range from $12 to $28, and there's also appetizers, soups, and salads. Probably about 25 or so tables in the dining room, which is decorated simply with plenty of framed pictures and tables with white tablecloths. Just as Kenton was starting some story that none of us were interested in, our server saved us by having us order. Here's how our night went at Mulberry Street.



Have to start out with a quick shot of the Bread Service at Mulberry Street. This bread came out warm, with plenty of butter. Even better they were not shy about refilling it.



Kenton has grown an affinity for Fresh Oysters ($13.95), and since Sandy is not too fond of them, I decided I'd split them with him. These came six to an order and came with their own cocktail sauce. These were not the best tasting oysters I have had by a long shot, but with the provided cocktail sauce they became passable. A few still had some grit to them, but at least they were fresh. I'm always a little skittish about having oysters at a restaurant that is not a seafood-focused place, but it turned out fine here. 


As if we did not already have enough bread, we also got this Garlic Bread ($4.95) as an appetizer. Carbs be damned! This was a basic, but delicious version of garlic bread. Plenty of butter, some parmesan cheese, and it came to the table warm. Very comforting.



Entrees at Mulberry Street come with your choice of soup or salad, and Katie and Kenton both tried the soup. Kenton could not stop raving about the Clam Chowder that he got. He claimed that this was the most creamy, and one of the better clam chowders he has ever had. I guess I'll have to take his word for it as he was pretty stingy with offering me a spoonful. Very selfish Kenton. Katie scoffed at the $2.50 upcharge to get the opportunity to try the French Onion Soup. She felt it was a very comforting version of french onion, with a thick layer of cheese topping it, and a warm, rich broth underneath.



I guess Sandy and I are more into salads than soup, as we both opted for the greenery at Mulberry Street. The House Salad is made up of your basic mixed greens, some red cabbage, a tomato wedge, and your choice of dressing. No complaints from the always wonderful Sandy and the salad appeared to be very fresh from across the table. I went for the $3.50 upcharge and got the Caesar Salad option. I've had unbelievable luck with Caesars lately, and this held true on this evening. Chopped romaine, plenty of parmesan squares, crunchy croutons, and a liberal amount of Caesar dressing made this one a winner. Worth the extra three dollars to me.


This colorful plate belonged to Sandy. She had this veggie-centric Fettuccine Primavera ($16.95). A ton of vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, peas, spinach, and zucchini were mixed with a very tasty light cream sauce and then served over fettuccine. Fresh and light, this entree had Sandy singing its praises. She was excited to box half of this up for lunch the next day.


Katie's entree did not live up to her lofty expectations. She went with the Chicken Pomodoro ($18.95). With this one chicken pieces were sauteed in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, and some white wine, and then placed above some linguini. Really bland, this dish fell flat. It was livened up with the addition of some grated parmesan, but not much. The bite of chicken that I had was a little on the dry side.


Kenton must really love seafood, probably because everyone keeps telling him to take a long walk off a short pier. He went with the special of the evening, which was a bunch of assorted seafood; shrimp, calamari, scallops, and other treats from the sea. Kenton was a little disappointed with this meal, as it was rather pedestrian. He thought the seafood was fine, but he would have liked a more prominent sauce with this entree. He'd skip this the next time he's here.


I don't order veal nearly enough, but I'm glad I took a chance on this Veal Marsala ($25.95). Medallions of veal sauteed with butter and mushrooms in an excellent marsala sauce made for a wonderful entree. My one complaint about this dish was that the sauce and the mushrooms kind of overpowered here, so the veal was pushed to the background. It was hard to get the feel for the veal. Maybe I'd get the chicken marsala next time and save $6.



A sweet end to a wonderful evening. When our server brought over the dessert tray, it was a little difficult to pick from the eight or so offerings, but we ended up singling out the Strawberry Shortcake ($6) and a slice of Coconut Cake ($6). I really liked the coconut cake. It was not overly sweet and had a pretty solid icing topping it. It could have been a tad moister, but still worth trying. I'm not really a big fan of strawberries, (I know I'm weird), but Sandy really enjoyed this slice. I really enjoyed that Kenton could not partake of any of the desserts since he's averse to sugar. Too bad Kenton.

Mulberry Street was a good spot but there were some hits and misses. This is not Italian food that is going to blow you away, but there are some gems to be found on the menu here. The soups, salads, and the marsala dish really shined, but the seafood and chicken entrees missed the mark for us on this evening. I felt the prices were very fair here based on the amount of food that you get. Service was excellent, as our waitress was very sociable, and came by to check on us frequently. I like the fact that Mulberry Street is set a little off the beaten path of the busier downtown area a bit, as it's a little less chaotic, easy to get a reservation, and not as many people will see us with Kenton. Sorry, Kenton, I had to get one more in on ya. Good luck to you and Sandy in Kentucky, and enjoy your grandchild.

Out of five yards of silk, (because mulberry trees are a key habitat for silkworms, which are a primary producer of the fabric), five being best to zero being worst, Mulberry Street Ristorante gets 3 yards of silk.

 For more information about Mulberry Street Ristorante, head to their website here: https://www.mulberryfullerton.com/

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Readers Tip Brings Us to Pizza 90...Finally


Pizza 90
5365 Alton Parkway
Irvine, CA 92604

Most people have a hard time keeping their new year's resolutions. Yes, me included. As I've gotten older I realize that this is because we make resolutions that are not that fun to keep. This year I decided to change my usual, save money, lose a little weight, and watch way less TV resolutions. I decided from now on I will only focus on resolutions that I'd consider fun and advantageous to me as a person. One of the goals I set for myself this year is to tackle my expanding list of restaurant tips. That's what has brought us to Pizza 90.

Pizza 90 was a tip from a reader named Eric, from a few years ago. If you are still reading this blog Eric, I'm very sorry it has taken me so long to get to your restaurant suggestion. Eric's pick was actually on the top of my list, which means it is the oldest restaurant tip that I have yet to go to, until now. Again, sorry for the delay Eric, and I hope you still enjoy this restaurant review site.

The build your own pizza concept exploded a few years back. Some of the entrants in these Chipotle-style pizza concepts have already bowed out, but I was happy to see that Pizza 90 was still in business when I did a little research on them prior to our visit. Pizza 90 is so named because their pizzas are fired up in a 900-degree pizza oven for 90 seconds. The 6,000-pound ovens are built in Italy and shipped to the US by boat.

There are currently two Pizza 90 locations, this Irvine one and the other being in Sherman Oaks. We visited the Irvine spot on a Tuesday evening at half-past seven. We must have missed the dinner rush, as there was not anyone in the restaurant other than Katie and I when we arrived. As our visit progressed there were a couple of customers that filed in behind us.

The premise of Pizza 90 is pretty commonplace these days. You build your pizza with whatever you want on your pizza. At Pizza 90 they have a red, white, or green sauced pizza you can choose from, and then you add veggies, meats, cheeses, and finish it off with seasonings or maybe some garlic. Too complicated for you? There are 11 Neapolitan classics to pick from for people that don't want the headache of coming up with their own creation. Let's see how Pizza 90 compares to their other build your own pizza competitors.



Katie was really pushing for a salad to start her meal at Pizza 90, and after having this Market Salad ($8.99) I'm really glad we got this one. The market salad here is made up of a spring mix of greens, cubed apple, pear, plenty of blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and we substituted the usual champagne dressing for ranch dressing. It's been a few weeks since we have had this salad, and I still think about it, which says a lot for a salad. The produce was fresh, the apple and pear added a nice sweetness, and there was plenty of blue cheese included on this. We couldn't have asked for a better start to our meal.



Katie did not want to be bothered to create her own pizza, so she selected one of their classics, the BBQ Chicken Pizza ($8.99). This pizza came with chicken, mozzarella, caramelized onion, red onion, parsley, and was finished with a drizzle of barbecue sauce on top. Katie liked the interaction of the toppings on this one but felt that there might have been too much barbecue sauce on this. Neapolitan pizzas are usually a little damp in the middle, and this one was no exception. She'd ask for light bbq sauce next time, but otherwise, she called this pizza yummy. 


When I'm at a build your own pizza place, my order does not really shift around too much. On my Build My Own Red Pizza ($8.99) I got all the meats, then added red onion, and jalapenos. Nothing too crazy, I like to keep it simple. I was let down by this pizza. Katie was right, the pizza was wet in the middle, but I did expect that, but not to this degree. I did like the thicker than I was expecting crust on this pizza, with its slight char to it. The toppings really did not provide too much in the way of flavor. I had to douse each slice with red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese to keep things interesting.

Pizza 90 was fine, but it could not beat out my two current favorite build your own pizza restaurants, Blaze and MOD. It's not a good sign when the most memorable thing about a pizza place was the salad, (although it was a really good salad). I felt the middle of the pizza here was too moist and it made the pizza too hard to eat with my hands. I also felt the toppings lacked any pop of flavor and made for a rather bland pizza. If you are near here and want pizza, and don't want CPK, which is in the same shopping center, then Pizza 90 would be a fair option. It feels good to cross this one off of our list, and I look forward to getting to more of your restaurant picks very soon. 

Out of five diamonds, (because 90 feet is the distance between the bases on a baseball field, also known as a diamond), five being best to zero being worst, Pizza 90 gets 2.5 diamonds.

For more information about Pizza 90, head to their website here: http://www.pizza90.com/

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Catching Some Raes in San Clemente


Cafe Rae
1421 North El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672

I feel bad to say it, but if it wasn't for social media, I probably would have never made it to Cafe Rae in San Clemente. They are a family run business that doesn't have a fancy PR company behind them to help get their name out there. A quick Yelp search for restaurants in this beachside paradise lists Cafe Rae way down at the bottom of the San Clemente restaurant list, even though they have a four-star rating with close to 300 reviews. Damn Yelp algorithm.

Cafe Rae finally came across my radar a year or so ago when they happened to follow me on Instagram. I quickly followed them back and checked out their feed. There were some good pictures of their food, but what really stuck out to me was their blackboard of specials that they pictured to help promote their off menu items. With Cafe Rae only being open until 3 in the afternoon and being closed on Tuesdays, both Katie and my schedules would have to line up perfectly for us to give Cafe Rae a try. That happened the Saturday after Christmas when both Katie and I had the day off and made plans to walk our beloved San Clemente Beach Trail. We walked the picturesque trail and then hightailed it to Cafe Rae for a late breakfast.

Cafe Rae is situated off by itself, between a bike shop and a surfboard store, just up the hill from Rider's Club Cafe, and a few blocks away in the other direction from the busy downtown area of San Clemente. Opened since 2007, Cafe Rae is run by Jenny and Terry Shapiro, a couple of East coasters who came west and made a home in this beautiful seaside community. From what I can ascertain, Jenny is in charge of the front of the house, including the colorful design and the clothing that she has designed, and is for sale. Back of the house duties goes to Terry, a self-trained chef with years of experience in the restaurant business and he's been the chef for a bunch of musicians including Neil Diamond, the Rolling Stones, and 311.

We arrived at Cafe Rae just after noon and got a seat right away. The restaurant's ten or so tables were sporadically occupied during our visit. The menu at Cafe Rae is, of course, breakfast heavy with plenty of egg, pancakes, and french toast selections to choose from. For late risers, there are also sandwiches, salads, and burritos to pick from. Cafe Rae also features a vegan/vegetarian section of their menu. You know I shied away from there, as I love meat, so let's see how our food experience at Cafe Rae went.



Katie wanted to keep the healthy vibes going after our walk and ordered this light breakfast of Avocado Toast with Eggs ($7.95). A lot of people have an aversion towards avocado toast because it's too hipster. Nobody is going to confuse Katie and me as hipsters, but she did find this simple breakfast delicious. The avocado was spiced up a bit with some red pepper flakes and came on some solid sourdough bread. The scrambled eggs were done simply and not bathed in butter. A nice light meal to start her day.



Whenever I eat breakfast out, I like to mix sweet with savory. These Blueberry Coconut Pancakes ($8.25) off of their specials blackboard satisfied the sweet portion of my first meal of the day. Katie ended up liking these large pancakes more than I did. The coconut was not as pronounced as I would have liked, and these really soaked up the syrup. The pancakes were light and airy though, but I expected a tad more sweetness from the blueberries. I'd opt for chocolate chip pancakes next time. 



Fulfilling my savory breakfast requirement was another special, this Brisket Hash ($12.95). This hearty hash was made up of some sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and of course brisket. A few of the bites of brisket were tough, but most were very tender. I liked the inclusion of the sweet potato, as it gave this hash a twist that you don't get at many other places. The two eggs were perfectly done sunny side up, and the sourdough toast came with plenty of butter. Just the way I like it.

Cafe Rae is a great local spot for breakfast if you are in the area. The menu is diverse enough that you'll definitely find something that will intrigue you. Prices all hover around the ten dollar range, and the serving sizes are generous. Service on this morning was fair, as our server was not overly friendly, but got our food to us in a timely manner and made sure we had refills. Cafe Rae will probably make our breakfast restaurant rotation when we are down this way walking the beach trail. Glad they ended up following our Instagram account so we could find out about them and try them out.

Out of five roller skates, (because when I hear the name Rae, it reminds me of Charlotte Rae from the Facts of Life, and on that show, Tootie would always be on her skates), five being best to zero being worst, Cafe Rae gets 3 roller skates.

For more information about Cafe Rae, head to their website here: https://www.caferae.com/

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Legado Hoping to Create a Legacy for Themselves


Legado Bar + Kitchen
30065 Alicia Parkway
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

There's not too much that I like about the holidays. Not to get too much bah humbug on ya, but my real job is in retail, and the holidays make people lose their minds. It's like they haven't bought butter all year long, and they just stare at it endlessly as other people are trying to get into the case.  The holidays also bring in people that have never been in a supermarket before. No, we don't have tennis balls, and why would a supermarket carry sporting goods? That's just one example, and I have much more I'm saving for my upcoming book that I plan to write after I retire.

Anyways, I bring this up because there are very few things that I enjoy about the holidays. There is a newish tradition of Katie and I going out with her parents a few days before Christmas that I really like. It's a time to reset before the craziness at work, and they let me pick the restaurant we are going to eat at. This has been going on for probably five years now, and for this years pick we went to a restaurant near her parent's house, Legado Bar + Kitchen.

Legado has been open since April of last year. This used to be a Pick Up Stix, but it's pretty unrecognizable from those days. Once you walk in the door there's a u-shaped bar, and behind that, there's a view of the happenings in the kitchen. The dining room is a pretty narrow, but comfortable enough. Table spacing was good, and you did not feel like you were eating right on top of other customers.

Before coming to Legado, I checked out their menu and it kind of intrigued me, and with all the places I have eaten, that does not happen too often. Almost all of their menu allows you to pick a full or small sized portion of your entree, pasta, salad, or starter. This is great for someone like me who is a big eater and can get two small entrees so I can try twice as much. I was also interested to see how they pull off such a varied menu. For a small restaurant, there's a lot to choose from. 16 appetizers, 8 pasta choices, 11 salad options, and 13 entrees. Let's see how our first Legado experience played out. 



Up first is the small-sized Wedge Salad ($7). This was a pretty traditional version of a wedge. Iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, red onion, crumbled bacon, and a liberal amount of blue cheese dressing was included on this. Katie's mom Lynn had no qualms with this wedge. She loved the freshness of the produce, the salty bits of bacon, and the tinge of flavor that the red onion provided. A winner in her book.


Katie's dad Dennis was also fond of this 3 Cheese Heirloom Stack ($9). The three kinds of cheese used in between the sliced tomatoes were gorgonzola, goat cheese, and fresh mozzarella. This stack was finished off with some red onions and a cabernet vinaigrette. Dennis praised the fresh tomatoes here, and also liked the uniqueness of this salad, with the use of the three cheeses.  He'd get this one again.



I think Katie and her family think they are aspiring hand models or something, as they always manage to get a hand in the pictures. Not off the salad portion of the menu, was Katie's selection the Ahi Tartare ($9). This starter had a lot going on with it. It was formed in a mini tower, with layers of ahi, cubed mango, cucumbers, red onion, avocado, and a streak of a sweet Thai chili sauce across the plate. She really liked this starter, as the tuna was fresher than she imagined it would be, she liked the different layers and what they added as far as taste, but she was not really too big of a fan of the tuiles, the baked wafer that this came with. It was too sweet, and a bit awkward to go along with this appetizer.


Back to the salads, and of course my choice on this evening would be the Caesar Salad ($6). This might look like a pretty boring version of a Caesar, but it left me satisfied. It had good sized pieces of shaved parmesan, crunchy croutons, and just the right amount of Caesar dressing. Nothing too crazy or out of the norm, but I enjoyed this and would order it again.


Not content with just a salad alone, I was the only one at the table to order an appetizer as well. There were plenty of options but I zeroed in on this House Made Meatball ($8). This 4-ounce meatball was made with ground beef and then is doused with marinara and some parmesan. Not bad, but nothing really made this stand out either. The meatball was not crazy tender or seasoned enough to make it stand out. The marinara was fine and I liked the inclusion of the shaved parm, but this meatball was nothing that got me too excited.



Entrees were up next and we'll start with the Pappardelle Carbonara ($11) that Katie got. I was surprised that the small sized portion of this was as big as it was. It was the perfect size for Katie. This was a classic presentation of a carbonara; bacon, egg, and grated parmesan cheese topping the pappardelle noodles. Katie felt this was fine, but it lacked a pop of flavor and the egg was overcooked in this. She would get something else on her next visit to Legado.


Chicken Piccata ($12) is a favorite on menus across our county, and this was what Katie's mom went with on this evening. Not to ruin the rest of this review for you, but as far as the rest of the entrees went, she was the only one of the four of us that loved her entree. Again, this is the small sized portion, which was a very large chicken breast with a lemon cream sauce and capers covering it. She found the chicken to be tender and was a big fan of the interaction between the lemon sauce and the capers. She might have found her go to item at Legado on her first visit.


I've never really been a fan of Beef Stroganoff ($13),(too many experiences with my mom's lackluster version growing up, sorry mom), but Katie's dad is very fond of this comforting dish. The version here is served with pappardelle noodles, mushrooms, and cut up steak. I'm not sure what kind of steak they used in this, but it was not the most tender of beef. The sauce was okay according to Dennis, but it did not really overwhelm him as being the best stroganoff he has had.


I took advantage of the small-sized entrees at Legado, and ordered two different things, the first being this Homemade Meatloaf ($11). This meatloaf gets a lot of praise on Yelp, but this was overcooked and rather dry. The crust of the meatloaf was pretty tough to get through and the center parts were not much easier. The brown gravy did not add too much flavor and did little to moisten this up. The best part of this plate was the mashed potatoes, which were fine but nothing special. I used alternating forkfuls of the potatoes to help me finish off this disappointing meatloaf.


I was hoping for a better result with my second plate, the Short Rib ($15). It didn't happen. It's really a shame when short rib is not tender and flavorful, and that was the case with the one on this evening at Legado. The beef was tough and the same gravy that was used on the meatloaf failed to give this an extra pop. The mashed potatoes were okay, but the best part of this plate was probably the crispy onions topping the bland short ribs. Beef might not be the thing to get here.




Dessert would be our last hurrah at Legado, and we tried two of their six house-made offerings. The better of the two was the Chef's Bread Pudding ($10). Bread pudding is a tricky dessert, as a lot of them are either too moist or to dry. This one was just right. It kind of reminded me of the cinnamon roll that I love at the OC Fair. A nice crust and softer inside. I was sad that Katie's mom had picked this, as I would have abandoned my selection, the Peanut Butter Mousse ($7) for it. The mousse was heavier than it should have been and the peanut butter flavor kind of got tiresome after a few bites. Maybe a drizzle of chocolate would have helped keep me interested in this dessert.

Our visit to Legado started out promising, but after the salads, the meal went downhill fast. Maybe they were having an off night, but the entrees that we got were nothing above average, and not anything that we are excited to return for. I liked the variety of the menu and the fact that you have the option to pick your entree size, I just wish the execution was better. Service was spot on this evening, even with a pretty full house. Our food came out in a timely manner and our server could not have been nicer. Even though Legado failed to impress it did not damper one of the few traditions that I enjoy about the holidays.

Out of five masks, (because there used to be an annual professional wrestling event in Mexico called Legado, and many of the wrestlers participating wore masks), five being best to zero being worst, Legado Kitchen + Bar gets 2 masks.

For more information about Legado Bar + Kitchen, head to their website here: https://www.legadobarandkitchen.com/