Sunday, October 28, 2018

Wondering If the Sun Will Shine on Sol Agave's New Location

Sol Agave
27741 Crown Valley Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92691

I was re-reading some of my old restaurant reviews of places we have visited at the Kaleidoscope in Mission Viejo. I always mention the shortcomings of this albatross of a shopping center in each of these reviews. I've decided for this review, I will reverse the trend and leave the poor Kalidescope alone, instead focusing on another new tenant setting up shop just outside of the Union Market. That new face on the upper level is one of our favorites, Sol Agave.

I started following Chef Manny Velasco on Instagram when my friend at work mentioned that he was his next door neighbor. Chef Manny got his culinary experience at Marie Calendar's, Savanah Chop House, Carmelita's, and Amoreila, which is an underrated Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa that you should definitely try out.

Chef Manny and his business partner, Jesus Galvez started their dream of operating their own restaurant when they got in the food truck game in 2014. From there, they opened their first brick and mortar restaurant in San Juan Capistrano the next year. That's when we got on board with their modern take on Mexican cuisine. They then moved Sol Agave to a bigger location in the same shopping center, which allowed them to stretch their wings a bit.

Fast forward two years and they have expanded once again, opening a second Sol Agave location in what used to be Anchor Hitch, the critically well-received seafood restaurant, which was unfortunately not the right fit for this area of town. Chef Manny has always wanted to showcase fresh and organic ingredients in his cooking, which results in what he hopes is healthier and more enjoyable Mexcian food. The times we have eaten his food we definitely found this to be the case. We were hoping that trend would continue at this new Sol Agave location.

For this dinner, we met up with our good friend Tom and his decent wife Daniele. I'm always curious how these two will view a new restaurant they have never been to before. They both love trying new places, and I feel that our tastes are quite similar. We had made 7pm reservations on a recent Friday and arrived at a pretty full restaurant. I liked the vibe of the restaurant. It's a little cramped, as the tables are pretty close to each other, but the modern decor was very relaxing in this rather busy space.

The menu at this new Sol Agave is a little different from the San Juan menu. There's some overlap, but there appears to be a little more on this Mission Viejo menu with the addition of dishes from the Michoacan and Vallarta regions of Mexico. There's no fundido on the Mission Viejo menu, which is a shame as it's one of our favorites, but as you will see below, they are very accommodating about making it for us. The other big difference between the two menus is that at Mission Viejo there's a taqueria section which offers six ala carte taco options, one for $7 or 2 for $12. Most entrees hover around the twenty dollar mark. Let's see how everything shook out for us on this evening.

While we were waiting for Tom and Daniele, (always running late), we were started off with this better version of chips and salsa. I always enjoy when a restaurant steps up their salsa and chip game by adding something unexpected, like this bean dip. At Sol Agave they bring out what I'd call tostada chips, a slightly spicy salsa, cotija cheese, and bean dip. The best part of this is the bean dip, which has a great earthy and smooth flavor that becomes more and more addictive as you wait for your friends to arrive. The salsa and cotija were fine, but kind of got neglected at our table. The tostada chips were okay, but I would have preferred the much better traditional chips that they serve at their San Juan restaurant.

I knew it was going to be a long night of listening to Daniele's long-winded stories, many of which I already knew about thanks to her Facebook page, so drinks were definitely in order. I had the Small House Margarita ($9), while Tom had the way more photogenic Strawberry Jalapeno Margarita. My margarita was fine, made with Moestro tequila and an agave mix. Pretty average, but it definitely did the trick of dulling my senses when listening to Daniele. I was way more interested n Tom's cocktail which used the same kind of tequila as mine but added muddled strawberries, jalapeno, and a salted chili rim. Predictably this had hints of sweet and spice but in muted tones. It did not overwhelm which I was afraid it was going to do. A very even beverage and one I would get on my next visit.

Guacamole ($10) is always the right way to go when dining in a Mexican restaurant. At Sol Agave they offer a guacamole sampler, which gives you versions with carnitas, lobster, and their classic, which we will try on our next visit. This time we just got the classic version only, which was a good sized portion. The avocado mash is mixed simply with roasted Serrano peppers and garlic and is then topped with a sprinkle of cotija cheese and some pico. Very creamy, and the peppers gave it a little spark of heat. Good consistency to this as it had some nice sized chunk to it. Very fresh also.

As I had mentioned earlier, we were bummed to see that one of our favorites from the San Juan location had not made the transition to Mission Viejo, but they were kind enough to make the Cazuela de Queso ($14) for us on this evening. They use a cheese blend of manchego, oaxaco, and a cheese fondue mixed with sour cream, serrano peppers, and homemade chorizo to create this appetizer. Since Daniele has a delicate palate she requested the chorizo be served on the side because she finds the crumbled pork to be too spicy. We let her have the first serving and then we dumped the chorizo in and mixed it around. It still ended up being very good. The inclusion of the sour cream makes this lighter and creamier than a regular queso fundido. The corn tortillas are made here and are an excellent vessel for this must order appetizer.

I love the carnitas at Sol Agave but have had them numerous times, so it was time for something different. The Tacos de Hongo ($20) was a good choice on this evening. I was presented with a bubbling skillet of cheese which was topped with skirt steak, portobello mushrooms and onions. As this sat for a while, the cheese got nice and toasted and reminded me of a cheese skirt that I've seen on some burgers on TV. The steak was good, but a little overcooked as I asked for it to be medium rare and it came out more like medium well. I did make a couple tacos with this, but I forgot to take pictures of the flour tortillas. Rice and beans were fair, but I prefer refried beans. Not a bad dinner option, but I might go back to my carnitas on my next trip to Sol Agave.

With my glowing recommendation, Tom ordered the Carnitas ($15). The guys at Sol Agave use organic Kurobuta pork for their carnitas. What I like about the carnitas is that there is a little bit of everything for everyone. The pork has some parts which are a little fatty, some crisp parts, and some that are in between both. Whichever bite you get it's going to be flavorful and go really well with the provided corn tortillas and guacamole. Tom liked this but did not seem as excited as I was about it.

Our little diva Daniele was torn between a few items on the Sol Agave menu and after much debate and many questions to our very patient server, she went with the Steak Fajitas de La Casa ($23). I thought this was the most generous portion size of all the entrees that we had on this evening. They also appeared to have cooked this steak to the perfect medium rare that Daniele requested. I liked the look of this from across the table because they did not bog down this fajita plate with lots of veggies, which is why I usually steer clear of fajitas in restaurants. Daniele only ate half of this and took the other half home for lunch the next day. She probably could have finished but she needed time to fill us in on her love for the chickens at her new workplace. Riveting stuff as always. Kidding of course D.

I think I ended up liking Sol Agave more than the rest of my dining partners on this evening. Yes, there were some minor issues with service, but not anything that would prevent us from coming back. I found it interesting to see the difference in the preparation of the food between the two locations and also what they chose to bring over to this much more visible location. I think the main issue I have with Sol Agave is that they do not serve big enough portions for what you pay, making this more of a once in awhile restaurant instead of coming here weekly. They are using better ingredients than most places, so if that's something that's important to you, this might be your new place for Mexican food. See, I can go through a whole review of a restaurant at the Kalidiscope and not talk about its shortcomings.

Out of five purses, (because not only is the Kaleidoscope the location for this restaurant, but Kaleidoscope is also a woman's catalog retailer based in England, and I'm sure they sell plenty of purses) five being best to zero being worst, Sol Agave gets 3 purses.

For more information about Sol Agave, head to their website here:

Friday, October 19, 2018

It's All Still Great at G Burger

G Burger
421 East La Habra Blvd. 
La Habra, CA 90631

In my quest to review at least 1000 restaurants on this blog, it is very rare that I go to the same place more than once. There's always a new restaurant to try or one that I have wanted to eat at, but haven't made it to yet. The four pages of my restaurant wishlist can attest to that. My point is, a restaurant has to be pretty special for me to make a return visit, but G Burger in La Habra is definitely one that is in the special category.

My first visit to G Burger was six years ago. It was the first restaurant that I ate at in La Habra, a city which some people still think is in LA County. 2012 was a magical time for burger lovers. It was an era when new burger spots were opening up all over the place. Chefs were ditching their fine dining roots and opening up burger spots to feed us. The burger was not just something you would pick up at the drive-thru anymore, it was elevated to an art form, something that chefs liked to showcase on their menus and prove they could do better than anyone else. I loved this time.

On my first visit to G Burger, I met the man behind the grill, founder of G Burger, George Makri. I remember him being very subdued, but passionate about the way he crafted his burgers. He told us that he went to the farmers market when possible for produce, made all of their sauces in-house, and was very picky about their vendors. The results were evident when you consumed one of their burgers. When asked today about my top burgers in OC, I still always mention G Burger.

Flash forward to the present, when Samie from G Burger reached out to me through Instagram to come to try some of their new menu items, I could definitely not say no to this very generous invitation. I grabbed my friend Jeffery, and we made the long trek from South OC to the northernmost city in OC,  La Habra for a late lunch.

Once up here we met with the current man behind the grill, Antonio, (sorry I did not get his last name). I inquired about George and he told me that they were on their third owner now, and George had left the area some time ago. I did a little internet sleuthing and found out he is now the owner of a bar and grill in Quebec, which does sell burgers, but the menu is in French, so I'm not sure if they are like the ones he made here at G Burger. I also asked about the heartbreaking closure of G Burger Irvine, which is closest to my house, and he claimed that it was a financial decision partly based on the overabundance of burger options available near the Tustin Marketplace. Good news though, there are no plans to close the Fountain Valley G Burger anytime soon.

G Burger is located on the corner of La Habra and Lemon, in the downtown district. It's a small restaurant, where you order at the register, and then you try to find one of the ten or so tables, or if they are occupied, there's counter seating facing the front window of the restaurant. We were here after the lunch rush, so we had no problem getting a table, the only problem for us was trying to narrow down what we wanted to eat, but we did so after some great inner struggle. Now, let's see if G Burger is still as great as it was back in 2012.

The first clue I had that the burgers were going to be just as good as they were was that they came out looking like works of art. First up was my Blue G's Burger ($10.50). This masterpiece was stacked high with an Angus beef patty, lettuce, tomato, blue cheese crumbles, BBQ sauce, butter pickles, candy cayenne bacon, and crispy red onion rings. I did end up taking half of the onions out of the burger to make it more manageable to eat. I really enjoyed the myriad of flavors on this one. The very crisp and well-seasoned bacon, the tang from the blue cheese, the slightly sweet touch of the barbecue sauce, and the texture from the crunchy onions made this a very balanced and well thought out burger. Even after I took the stick out of the middle of this, the bun did a great job of holding this half-pound burger and everything else together. Really impressive.

Jeffery's burger choice did not fail to impress when it hit the table either. He selected one of their new burgers, the Guacamole Burger ($11.95) as his lunch on this afternoon. This burger was listed on their specials board right next to the register. This colorful burger came with plenty in the way of creamy guacamole, swiss cheese, two strips of bacon, tortilla strips, chopped red onions, tomatoes, and peppers, and was crowned with a chili topping its bun. Jeffery really liked this burger and made it disappear rather quickly. They did not splurge with the toppings on this one. This definitely should make their regular menu.

Sides should not be ignored at G Burger. The G Style Fries ($5) are a much better version of the animal fries that you can get at In N Out. I've always thought that the only reason to order animal fries at In N Out is to try to make their awful fries go down much easier. Okay, sorry for my anti-In N Out rant. These fries stayed crisp even with the thousand island, cheese, red onion, and bacon bits covering them. If you want to jazz up your fries a little bit, these are the way to go. I've always loved the Onion Rings ($5.50) at G Burger. When I first came here they used to use red onions for their rings. Now they use the more traditional brown onion, which is buried inside one of the best breading to ever cover an onion. They went really well with some of the ranch dressing we were provided with. Still one of my favorite onion rings around.

I'm happy to report that all is well at G Burger, based on this visit. A lot of times after the initial owners leave, the quality takes a hit. I did not find that to be the case here. I sensed the same finesse when putting the burgers together, the ingredients were still fresh and chosen with care, and they still make their sauces, including one of the best ranch dressings around these parts. Full disclosure, we did try another one of their specials, Chicken Wings and Fries, which were in the testing phase while we were here, and they were not too good. The breading was way too thick and the sauces covering the chicken was not right either. Definitely stick with their burgers and sides and you can not go wrong. I'm still sad that the Irvine location closed, but that just makes every trip up here to La Habra that much more special.

G Burger does not have a website, but you can find out a lot about them from their Yelp page here:

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Hoping for a Sweet Time at the Sugar Shack

Rose's Sugar Shack Cafe
2319 S. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672

I love lists. If I see top Mexican restaurants in Laguna Beach or 5 great German restaurants in OC list, I almost always click to read more. I love the neat and orderly fashion of listicles. I have gotten some really good tips about restaurants from lists on the internet. It's what brought us to Rose's Sugar Shack in San Clemente on this past Labor Day.

It is very rare that Katie and I have a day off together anymore, thanks to a change in my work schedule. I knew we would start our day with our favorite walk, which is the San Clemente Bech Trail. We love the views, the passing trains, and the big selling point for Katie is that it is a relatively flat and easy stroll. I had just read a great article in the OC Weekly where they listed a bunch of old-time restaurants that serve great breakfasts. You can check out that article here.

One of the 11 restaurants highlighted in the article was Rose's Sugar Shack in San Clemente. Even with all of our frequent trips to this wonderful seaside town, we hardly ever make it to this side of El Camino Real, so I had never heard anything about Rose's. I'm not sure how long the Sugar Shack has been here, but I do know that the current owners, the Evingham family took over in 1987, and added Rose's name to the restaurant. In those 30 years, they have made some minor changes, like adding an outside deck and other small renovations to the old structure.

We got here at just after 10am and had about a five-minute wait for a table. Make sure you sign in at the door to reserve your spot. We were lead to our table, right near the front door of the restaurant. The place is very homey, just the kind of place that makes you feel comfortable with its great character. The menu is filled with just what you would expect from a restaurant that is breakfast focused but also serves lunch. There are a couple of sandwiches and burgers, but way more in the way of egg dishes, breakfast combos, specials, and even a section of their menu dedicated to vegetarians. Of course, I was not going to bother with that area of the menu, but let's see what we did end up with here at Rose's.

In most of the online reviews that I have read about this place, they always mention the Cinnamon Roll ($3.95) at Rose's. They make only 75 of them a day, and they are often sold out by 10. I was lucky that I got one as we were eating right around the usual deadline time. To be honest, this was more like a donut store cinnamon roll, than what I was expecting. Yes, there was plenty in the way of sugary sweet frosting covering this and the plate, but the insides of the spiral only had a little cinnamon inside and the roll was a little on the hard side. The inside guts were a little better, but not enough to warrant all of the heaps of praise the cinnamon rolls get here. 

I guess I should not have discounted the vegetarian section of the menu earlier, as Katie selected this Veggie Mixer ($10.95) for her first meal of the day. This scramble comes with three eggs, spinach, onions, tomatoes, and melted cheddar cheese on top of it. Katie thought this was a pretty basic breakfast, but suitable. She said it needed a bit more pop, but she would get it again if she was in the mood for a lighter breakfast. She did enjoy the hash browns here at Rose's, along with the rye toast which also came with her meal.

When eating at a breakfast spot for the first time, I usually just look for the thing that has the most breakfast items included in it. At Rose's Sugar Shack that item would be this Benny the Bum Omlete ($18.95). This came with a whole cavalcade of breakfast foods in this three egg omelet. Bacon, sausage, onion, avocado, Ortega chilies, Spanish sauce, and cheese are included here and is then finished off with a dollop of sour cream. Our server informed me that they were out of avocado, but she said they never put too much in it anyway, so I should still get it. Not exactly something you want to hear when you are paying close to $20 for an omelet. This was a fair omelet but did not knock my socks off. The breakfast meats kind of got lost here, but I did like the size of this and had enough to take home for dinner. This came with hash browns that needed to be seasoned a bit more and cooked a little crisper. They were kind of limp. 
We left Rose's Sugar Shack a bit underwhelmed with our breakfast on this particular morning. Yes, the portion sizes are very big, but so were the prices. The breakfast entrees that we had here just lacked the pizzazz that I was expecting. Service was warm and friendly when our server was around, which was not all too often. I did not get my cinnamon roll until I reminded her that I had ordered it. I feel like this is the kind of spot that you have to have extra patience to eat at because they go at what I'd call a beach-casual pace. Even though Rose's did not shine for us on this morning, I still look forward to trying more of the restaurants off of that OC Weekly list.

Out of five bottles of maple syrup, (because sugar shacks are often places where sap is collected and boiled into maple syrup), five being best to zero being worst, Rose's Sugar Shack gets 2.5 bottles of maple syrup.

Rose's Sugar Shack does not have a website, but you can find out plenty about them on their Yelp page, which you can see here:

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Upscale Mexican for Everyone

Playa Mesa 
428 East 17th St. 
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

The restaurant scene in OC has been booming lately. It seems that every time I read the newspaper, another blog, or a magazine, there's news about another restaurant opening that I need to include on my ever-expanding list of places we need to go for a meal. After reading some very positive press about Playa Mesa in Costa Mesa, we decided that this new spot would be the site of a much-needed date night for Katie and me.

Opened for only 3 plus months now, Playa Mesa is one of the hottest places to eat in OC. The month after they opened, they were booked weeks in advance. A quick search of Open Table now shows that it's easier to get a reservation, but most weekend evenings there is still a wait for walk-ins. I had anticipated a busy night on the Sunday before Labor Day, so I wisely made reservations and we were seated promptly in the very busy dining room at our reserved time.

Playa Mesa comes to us from the team that owns Stag Bar, Dory Deli, Newport Brewing Company, Country Club and Wild Goose Tavern, the last two of which are also both located on this suddenly restaurant-rich stretch of 17th Street. Playa Mesa is their family-friendly endeavor. In almost every interview I have read with owners Mario Marovic and Andrew Gabriel they talk about how they want this to be a restaurant where parents can bring their kids, which is something of a departure from their other projects.

With proven owners on board, the kitchen is helmed by Roland Rubalcava, who was recently at acclaimed Taco Maria as the sous chef. He was basically the number two guy there, right underneath James Beard nominee Carlos Salgado. His family owns the La Reina Markets, which are a pretty big deal in Anaheim and Orange for their tortillas and other Hispanic specialties. Needless to say, with an ownership group with a successful string of businesses and a chef in the kitchen with a great pedigree, I was very excited to give Playa Mesa a try.

The building that houses this restaurant used to be a Ruby's Dinette, which closed over two years ago. You would never guess that this used to be a chain burger spot. A complete overhaul of both the outside and inside was done. The center of the restaurant now is dominated by a large circular bar and the dining area surrounds it. There are large windows on two of the four walls, which allow plenty of natural light to enter the space. The tables are not right on top of each other, and the pleasing decor and colors of this restaurant really make you feel comfortable.

The one-page menu features plenty in the way of appetizers, salads, tacos, enchiladas, entrees, and desserts. Prices range between $13 to $32 for entrees, They also offer a meal, which I assume is for sharing, the El Patron, which goes for $50 and features spare ribs, chicken, and other things. I was intrigued by this plate, but I decided I'd get something a little more in my price range for dinner. So without further ado, here's how everything shook out for us on this evening at Playa Mesa.

Chips and Salsa are offered after you sit down at Playa Mesa, so I definitely want to include these in our review. The chips were very well made, crisp, and a great vessel for the salsa and the guacamole you can see below. The problem was that they were over-salted, almost to the point that the salt was all I could taste. It really overshadowed the very smooth, slightly spicy salsa that had a little smokiness to it. At first, I thought we just got a bad batch, but our second round of chips was just as salty.

True to form, as soon as we sat down, Katie zeroed in on the Guacamole ($8). This again was a very well made version of one of our favorite dips. Fresh, mashed avocado was mixed with serrano chilies, red onion, lime, pepitas, and finished off with a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Great guacamole, not trying to do too much with it, it did have a slight tinge of spice but nothing that overshadowed the main star here, the avocado. As we ate this with our chips, the salt eventually did take over, but it was not the fault of the guacamole.

When we saw Queso Fundidio ($11) on the menu, we knew we could not resist trying the version here at Playa Mesa. When it was set in front of us, it was a little different from other versions that we have had at other places. We are used to a fundido that uses whiter cheese and has a stretchy cheese pull when getting it out of the still sizzling skillet. This was a lighter version, which seemed to be a cross between a fundido and queso dip. They use Oaxaca cheese with this one and add pork chorizo and scallions to it. It ended up being nice and mellow, with bits of the chorizo shining through. Tasty, but we were hoping that this would be served with their homemade tortillas instead of the salty chips.

Entree time and Katie usually steers towards chicken when eating in Mexican restaurants, and true to form she had the Chicken Adobo Tacos ($13) on this evening. There are four taco options on the menu, and they come two to an order with rice and beans, but you can't mix and match them. The chicken was an excellent choice. I usually shy away from chicken in Mexican restaurants because it's usually overcooked and needs to be seasoned. Not the case at Playa Mesa. Some of the most tender and flavorful chicken we have had. The chicken had an undercurrent of citrus running through it and was dressed simply with some onions and poblanos. A very well done plate that had Katie singing its praises.

The standard by which I judge almost every Mexican restaurant is how good their Carnitas ($19) are made. I figure if they make my favorite Mexican food item well, the rest of their menu has to be good as well. At Playa Mesa, they use pork shoulder for their carnitas and it does not come shredded, but rather cubed. The pork was not overly oily and was nice and tender. They did not try to do too much with the pork, instead, letting the natural richness of the meat shine through. This came garnished with pico and salsa cruda, which were fine but I would have rather of had some more of their great guacamole. Entrees here come with roasted seasonal veggies, which on this evening were cauliflower and broccoli, a first for me in a Mexican restaurant. They were done well, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the rice and beans that other places serve with their carnitas. Still a good version of carnitas that has intrigued me about the rest of their food.

Tres Leches ($9) was our last hurrah at Playa Mesa. I've had some good versions and rather forgettable versions of this dessert. This was one of the better ones. The sponge cake was definitely damp, as it should be, but was not drenched into a total mess when cutting it with our forks. What made this for me was the very good frosting topping this, which gave this a subtle, sugary boost that a lot of tres leches cakes seem to leave as an afterthought.

Playa Mesa fits right in with the burgeoning restaurant scene on 17th Street and definitely holds its own. This first trip has definitely piqued my interest and warrants a return visit in the near future to explore more of their menu. I look forward to trying more of their entrees and maybe their chilaquiles off of their brunch menu. Service was excellent this evening. Our server Carlie kept great tabs on us, and the management team here was very active in the dining room running food and making sure every customer was happy with everything. The positive press is well deserved for Playa Mesa, and I look forward to seeing how they evolve further down the road.

Out of five crazy chickens, (because the top employer in the city of Costa Mesa is the fast food chain, El Pollo Loco), five being best to zero being worst, Playa Mesa gets 3 crazy chickens.

For more information about Playa Mesa, head to their website here: