Thursday, November 29, 2018

Letting Our Taste Buds Run Wild at Free Range Cafe - CLOSED

Free Range Cafe
501 Park Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92662

I'm one of those weirdos that don't mind going to the dentist. Sure, I have only been to the regular doctor a handful of times in the last 20 plus years, but I never miss my two dentist appointments a year. One reason for this is that I want to keep my teeth for as long as I can, but the real reason I keep coming back is that I really enjoy the people who work on my teeth.

They not only keep my smile looking great, but they have also given me some pretty good restaurant tips. If you are a frequent reader of this restaurant review site you know that my dentist gave me a suggestion for an Italian restaurant that we went to for my birthday this year. It turned out pretty well. So when my dental hygienist, Karilyn suggested a place, I came home and put it on our restaurant wishlist. It would sit there until my vacation, but we finally made it to Free Range Cafe on Balboa Island.

It was the first full day of my vacation and my parents wanted to join Katie and me for a walk around Balboa Island on a recent Monday morning. Free Range Cafe is situated blocks away from the hustle and bustle of the main drag of Balboa Island's Marine Avenue. On the corner of Park and Agate, you will pass this unique restaurant on the way to and from the Balboa Island Ferry. Kind of on its own island, Free Range Cafe could almost be mistaken for another of the fabulous houses on Balboa Island. It definitely fits right into its neighborhood surroundings.

Entering the space I was immediately struck by the white walls, dark wood flooring, and of course, the bakery display case near the register. Our server told us, with the exception of the donuts, everything was made on the premises. We were seated in the spacious dining room, as it was too breezy to be out on their very inviting patio this morning. With the Pinterest vibe that the dining room conveys, it's easy to forget that Free Range Cafe got its beginnings as a food truck.

I never had the opportunity to try their food truck, but they do have a section of their menu dedicated to their original food truck offerings. The rest of the menu is focused on breakfast, which is served all day, sandwiches, appetizers, salads, plates of pasta and entrees. Free Range is open all week and is ready to serve you from 7am until 9 in the evening. We arrived just before 10am and were met with a half-full restaurant. We quickly made our selections and this is how everything came out for us on this particular late morning.

I told you that I was mesmerized by the bakery display as we entered the restaurant. After ordering, I got up and took a closer look at what they offer behind the glass. I can never resist a Chocolate Chip Cookie ($2) and this was a pretty solid representation. I always enjoy a cookie that has a little crunch along the outside and a softer, chewier center. This cookie had that, along with a pop from the salt on top. This cookie whetted my appetite to try more of their baked goods, but it will have to wait until next time since my breakfast was on its way.

Katie was feeling like something pretty light, so she channeled her inner millennial and tried out the Avocado Toast ($14). This was not simply avocado and toast though. There was a fried egg hidden underneath the creamy avocado which also was spiced up with some Sriracha, pickled red onions, and parsley. The bread used on this was very sturdy, with a thicker than I care for the crust. The egg was a tad overcooked, as I like more of a runny egg but Katie likes her eggs this way and it was her breakfast after all. She also got some Twice Baked Potatoes ($5) which were addictive. Some were crunchy, while the bigger ones were a little less crunchy. A little something for everyone, I preferred the crunchier of the cubed spuds. Even though Katie imagined this was going to be a lighter breakfast, she still found herself taking half home which I ate for dinner later that same evening.

There are a couple things you can count on in life. Death and taxes of course, and that my mom will get a breakfast sandwich when eating out for breakfast. That means my mom got the Avocado, Egg and Cheese Biscuit ($12) at Free Range Cafe. One problem though, the kitchen forgot the avocado, which my mom pointed out rather quickly. They made it right by taking it back and adding plenty of avocado to this upgraded Egg McMuffin. Once the avocado crisis was averted my mom really enjoyed this breakfast sandwich. She did sub out mayo for the honey mustard that this usually comes with. The egg was done nicely and the cheddar cheese was nice and melty. This also came with a large pile of those twice baked potatoes which I grabbed off of my mom's plate with great regularity.

My dad went pretty basic at Free Range Cafe with his selection, the Breakfast Plate ($16). This came with two eggs, three strips of bacon, more twice baked potatoes, toast and arugula for some reason. This was a good-sized breakfast plate for my dad. The eggs were cooked to his desired over easy, the bacon was nice and crisp, and the toast was thick and hearty. Not sure why the need for the arugula, as it was left pretty much untouched by my dad. A very basic, but well-executed breakfast plate.

My first pick for breakfast was the biscuits and gravy, but I was told they had no gravy on this morning, so I had to pick something else from the menu. I once had a Croque Madame at Bouchon in Las Vegas and fell in love with this rich French sandwich. I try to order it every time I see it on a menu, so I went with it this morning at Free Range Cafe. This Croque Madame is listed under the sandwich portion of the menu, probably the reason I did not see it when I initially scanned the menu. Ham, Swiss cheese, a sunny side up egg, bechamel sauce, and a little dijon are piled on top of a sturdy piece of sourdough. This was a good one, just not as good as the one I had at Bouchon. The ham, egg, and cheese were all great here, but what held this back a bit was the bechamel sauce, which was a little on the heavy side, which I didn't mind, but it was not backed up with a big flavor boost. Good stick to your ribs sandwich though. The french fries were fantastic here. I believe they are made here, and even if they are not they were fried nicely, crunchy, and, and very hard to keep my hands off, even though I was pretty full from my sandwich. Make sure to get the fries here.

I was pretty happy with our visit to Free Range Cafe. I was a little perplexed with the three-star rating on Yelp and then after reading some of the reviews, I think I get why some commenters have a problem with this restaurant. Yes, the prices are probably a little high by a couple dollars on each item, but I get the feeling they are using better quality ingredients than their competitors. The other complaint people online have about  Free Range is that they automatically include a sixteen percent service charge on the final bill. This is in lieu of tipping, and some people do not like to lose control of how much they want to give to their server. I usually am right around the sixteen to twenty percent tipping range, so this did not bother me as much as others, but I can see both sides of the argument for and against this service charge. In the end, I loved the food here, find it to be worth the couple extra dollars for better quality food, and think it's one of the better breakfast options in the area. I can't wait for my next dental appointment to see where they send me next.

Out of five frozen bananas, (because other than the expensive beachfront homes that dot the island, the most famous thing Balboa Island is known for is their frozen bananas), five being best to zero being worst, Free Range Cafe gets 3.5 frozen bananas

For more information about Free Range Cafe, head to their website here:

Friday, November 23, 2018

Getting in Line for Breakfast from My Comfy Bed

Cafe De Olla
2315 W. Victory Blvd. 
Burbank, CA 91506

So we made it through another raucous family get together. After getting to bed just before 2am, the last thing you want to do is wake the sleep out of your eyes, check out of your hotel, find parking, and fight the crowd at a popular breakfast spot. Luckily, we found Cafe De Olla that helped alleviate a little of the hassle of waking up after far too many cocktails the night before.

Cafe De Olla has an online check-in system through Yelp, which allows you to place your name on their waitlist from your comfy hotel bed. This seems to be necessary because Cafe De Olla is a very small restaurant and they are very popular, especially on Sunday mornings. When I woke from my slumber at 9:45, they already had an hour and a half wait for their ten table restaurant. I quickly put our name in and we were all set to meet our good friend Rosanna at the restaurant just after our checkout time.

Cafe De Olla has been in business for three years now. In that time this family owned business has been mentioned as one of the best breakfast spots in Burbank and amassed a very respectable four and a half stars on Yelp with well over 1,400 reviews and counting. Their website describes their cuisine as traditional Mexican and American food, which I feel has definitely resonated with the citizens of Burbank, as the nearly two hour wait times can attest to on weekends.

Unlike a lot of breakfast-centric spots, Cafe De Olla does serve dinner Wednesday thru Saturdays, but of course, we were here for a breakfast that we hoped would give us enough energy to battle the traffic back down the 5 Freeway home to OC. The menu features plenty in the way of omelets, french toast, egg sandwiches, breakfast burritos, pancakes, and what I had zeroed in on Mexican breakfast staples. Let's see if what they say is true, is Cafe Olla really a great breakfast option in Burbank.

Our fantastic friend Rosanna started things off for us with her selection on this morning, The All In One Burrito ($7.75). This three-egg burrito also included hash browns, avocado, bacon, sausage, ham, cheese, and salsa on the side. I always enjoy when a breakfast burrito includes avocado and as an added bonus the holy trinity of breakfast meats. This was a pretty good sized burrito, maybe a little too much potato, but otherwise pretty solid. Not very greasy at all, this started Rosanna's morning off right, which was already going great because she got to have breakfast with two of her most favorite people.

Katie was feeling like something light for her first meal of the day, so she gave their Yogurt and Fruit  ($8.50) a whirl. This was an item from Cafe De Olla's green menu, which featured lighter fare and items that are geared towards the more health conscious among us. Katie's meal came with plenty of cut fruit, yogurt, honey, and granola. This totally hit the spot for her. She loved the fresh fruit and the contrast between the smooth yogurt and the crunch from the granola. She rounded out her meal with a Side of Rye Bread ($1.50).

I definitely needed a little more heft to my breakfast than Katie, and I love Mexican breakfasts, so after some inner debate, I got this Machaca Con Huevo ($11.25). This version of one of my favorite dishes included three eggs, shredded beef, tomato, jalapeno, and onions. This was a very mellow machaca. There were no big pops of flavor that I was anticipating from the jalapeno and this machaca was in finely shredded pieces. I like bigger pieces of beef so you can taste it better, but still, this was pretty good, just not great. The rice was mediocre, but the beans shined at Cafe De Olla. Obviously made here, they were smooth and silky and the cheese on top went well with them.

I left Cafe De Olla feeling pretty good about our visit. It was not earth-shatteringly great food, but a very solid breakfast joint. I'd definitely come back and maybe try their chilaquiles or pancake breakfasts next time. Service was fair for how busy they were on this particular late Sunday morning. What I really enjoyed the most about Cafe De Olla was the reservation process, and how I could check in online from our hotel room, which allowed us to get a few extra winks. Until next time Burbank.

Out of five route canals, (because the city of Burbank is named after David Burbank, who originally was a dentist but when he bought 9,200 acres in the city that now bears his name he left dentistry to become a sheep farmer), five being best to zero being worst, Cafe De Olla gets 3 route canals.

For more information about Cafe De Olla, head to their website here:

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Chili Dog 50 Years in the Making?

Larry's Chili Dog
3122 West Burbank Blvd. 
Burbank, CA 91505

When I started dating Katie over nine years ago now, she was absolutely amazed that I had never been to the San Fernando Valley, or as it's more commonly known as The Valley. I'm not sure why she was so shocked by this. I did not have any family or friends up this way, I really had no business to attend to up here, and there was just no reason for me to be in this part of Southern California.

That was until Katie came into my life. She has a very large extended family that dots almost every city up in The Valley. One of our first trips up here was for a family function where I met at least 50 aunts, uncles, cousins, and longtime family friends. It took me a little bit of time to get to remember all of their names, but I eventually got them all down. One person I never had a problem remembering was Katie's cousin Bridget.

We immediately had a connection due to hockey, but we also enjoyed having a few cocktails, reminiscing about cheesy love songs from the 80's, and of course our love for Katie. So when we were invited to come up to the Valley to celebrate her 50th birthday, I made sure to take the weekend off since I knew it would end up being very hard to get up the next morning due to our excessive celebrating. I also knew this would be an excellent opportunity to try a few places that I have wanted to try for a while.

One of those places was Larry's Chili Dog. This place is pretty iconic in the Burbank area and has also been mentioned in numerous, "best of" and "top ten" lists as having some of the best hot dogs in LA. Larry's has been here since 1952 and has been serving hungry patrons for many generations now, with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Not only do people get pretty pumped for their dogs, but the breakfast burritos have also reached cult status here. Unfortunately, we were not able to make it here before they stop serving breakfast at 11am, but I was still amped up to give Larry's a try.

Larry's is located on the corner of Burbank and Ontario, and if that doesn't help you out, look for the large neon sign with a dog laying across the top of a hot dog. You can't miss it. There's limited parking in the back of the restaurant, but plenty of street parking in the surrounding neighborhood. We arrived here at just after 1pm on a Saturday, and there definitely was a very steady stream of people getting their hot dog fix. Ordering is done at the window, and then you take a seat at one of the ten or so tables and wait for your food to be brought out to you. Let's see if Larry's is worthy of being mentioned on the list of great chili dogs in LA.

I know I promised you hot dogs, but Katie was a little worried about how her body would react to hot dogs and wanted to try something lighter since she knew we would be up rather late for Bridget's big party. She decided on this Turkey Wrap with Avocado ($7.55). Not sure why they did not include the avocado inside the wrap, but she really enjoyed this a lot. Sliced turkey, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard were wrapped around a garlic pesto tortilla for this one. Fresh ingredients and a solid wrap, but nothing really made this pop. A good alternative for people that want to eat a little lighter at Larry's and don't want to order a salad.

Now, this is much more representative of what Larry's is known for. Chili-palooza was in full effect with my order. I got the #5 Chili Cheese Dog Combo with Chili Cheese Fries ($8.99). The chili dog came with a little bit of mustard, onions, and of course chili and cheese. I did a little bit of research online and found out that they use Hoffy brand for their hot dogs. It had a good initial snap to it and a good beefy flavor. The chili tasted exactly like the chili at Tommy's, but maybe a tinge lighter. The bun was sturdy and kept everything together well. The chili fries came out scaldingly hot. As much as I wanted to dig right in and try them, they did not stop steaming for a good five minutes. The fries were obviously from the freezer, but they were fried nice and crisp and kept their crispness even under the ladled chili and grated cheese. The chili was evenly dispersed so every french fry got a little of the chili and the cheese. Again, these reminded me almost exactly of the chili fries at Tommy's, but not as heavy as the chili at Tommy's. Really good and a good base for all the cocktails I would be enjoying a little later in the evening.

Just for good measure, I had to give the Louisiana Hot Link ($5..75) a try. If the chili cheese fries came out hot, this hot link was on fire. I let it cool off for a long while before attempting my first bite of this. It had a good casing with spicy meat beneath it. The hot link came dressed simply with mustard and onion. Pretty good sized and I think I might get this next time with chili and cheese for the ultimate Larry's experience.

Larry's is right up there with some of the best chili dogs I have had. If you are a fan of Tommy's, you will definitely enjoy the chili dogs at Larry's. I still have to give the chili dog crown to Fab Hot Dogs, which is home to the Texas Burrito Dog which is two chili cheese hot dogs wrapped in a tortilla and is still one of the best things I have eaten n the last nine years of writing this restaurant blog. Back to Larry's though. I thought the prices were more than fair here and the service was pretty good. There was a pretty big lag time from the time we ordered to our food arriving at our table, but luckily we were not in a hurry. You could also call your order in ahead of time to combat this from happening to you. Larry's was an excellent spot to lay the groundwork for what I knew was going to be a long night celebrating Bridget's big 50.

Out of five potatoes, (because the year this restaurant opened for business, 1952, was also the first year that the popular toy Mr. Potato Head was first sold), five being best to zero being worst, Larry's Chili Dog gets 3 potatoes.

For more information about Larry's Chili Dog, head to their website here:

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Time Is Flying by as We Swing by Stacked

7490 Edinger Ave. 
Huntington Beach, CA 92647

The years are just rolling by now. It seems like we just went to out last Ducks game a few weeks ago, but in reality, it was mid-April when they were swept out of the playoffs against the hated San Jose Sharks. A sure sign for me that the holidays are right around the corner is when we get the chance to get together with my parents and my good friend Steve to pick the games we want to see our Ducks play in the upcoming year. As is our custom, we always meet near Huntington Beach, and it's always my job to pick the restaurant. This year I selected Stacked as the place we would hold our season ticket draft spot.

Stacked is located right across the street from the busy Bella Terra Shopping Center in Huntington Beach. The Edinger Plaza, which is anchored not only by Stacked but Nordstrom Rack and Dick's Sporting Goods is a lot more convenient to find parking, which is already a big plus for me before we even reach the front door of Stacked.

Stacked has been open for nearly three years now in Huntington Beach. There are also locations in Torrance, Cerritos, Thousand Oaks, and San Diego. This HB location is the only one that serves breakfast, and I hear it's amazing, and their Instagram feed gives some good glimpses of this. Stacked was one of the first to primarily use a tabletop ordering system to order your food. They really want you to build your food from the ground up, or in this case stack your entree the way you want it. Customization is what it's all about here. Not handy with anything with a screen, like my parents? Don't worry they will assist you in placing your order through the tabletop tablet.

When you are sat at Stacked you will be presented with a menu that features plenty in the way of appetizers, salads, burgers, sandwiches, a build your own mac and cheese option, and desserts. Since customization is the thing here, there are no prices listed on the hard copy of the menu, which was a little disconcerting at first. The prices are displayed prominently on the ordering tablet, and as you add ingredients for your perfect meal the price will show exactly what you will be charged after each item is upgraded. Before we got to the business at hand of picking our tickets for the upcoming Ducks season, we ordered some food. Let's see how it all came out for us at Stacked.

Chili Cheese Fries ($3.60) was first up for Katie and I. They offer two sizes here, and we opted for the small size, which was perfect for the two of us. Fries are topped with plenty of cheddar and jack cheeses, a beef and pork chili, green onions, and a sour cream drizzle. Not a bad version at all. These had plenty of cheese on them, the chili, even though it had beans, was tasty with a little spark of spice, and the fries stayed relatively crisp during the short life of this appetizer.

My mom was pretty eager to try this Margherita Flatbread ($9.33) as she had looked at the menu before we got here. Guess I'm not the only one that pre-scouts the restaurants where we will be eating. This was a large-sized flatbread for my mom. She only managed to eat half of this and took the rest home for lunch the next day. This came with plenty of sliced tomato, basil, mozzarella, and dollops of burrata covering each of the tomatoes. I was sitting quite a distance from my mom, but she seemed to like this a lot.

My dad is very particular about pastrami when he eats out. It always has to be sliced paper thin for him to be happy, and he doubles and triple checks with the server to make sure he can see through it once it reaches the table. He got exactly what he wanted when he received this Pastrami Sandwich ($13.16). This sandwich was started off with some very solid marble rye and joining the pastrami between the two sliced of bread was some coleslaw, pickles, and a spicy brown mustard. My dad loved this sandwich. It had a good crunch from coleslaw, the brown mustard added some zippiness, and the marble rye held everything together wonderfully. He would not hesitate to get this sandwich again.

Katie got something that I have not been able to find on the online menu at Stacked, and she can't recall what it was called, so we'll call it a Pulled Pork Grilled Cheese (?). It came out with shredded pork, a light barbecue sauce, melted cheese, and grilled sourdough. She described this sandwich as very moist and rich, and a good representation of a pulled pork sandwich. She liked it but is eager to try something else when we make a return visit to Stacked.

I have been in a blue cheese mood for the last few weeks, so when I saw the Stack N' Blue ($10.04) on the menu, I knew it was going to be what I was going to have. It must have also gotten to our good friend Steve too because that's what he got as well. Great minds apparently do think alike. This Angus burger was stacked high with plenty of crispy onion strings, blue cheese crumbles, two slices of bacon, a roasted shallot mayo, and a finishing touch of balsamic glaze To get my mouth around this thing I took out almost all of the onion strings and ate them solo. This was a pretty tasty burger, but I'd definitely ask for extra mayo next time, which I think would tie everything together better and help tone down the stronger than I expected blue cheese. I'd also probably explore more of their sauce options, with maybe some garlic aioli, chipotle mayo, or even their curry ketchup. Good solid burger though.

Not that we needed them after our chili cheese fries, but we also tried the Garlic Parmesan Fries ($3.29) and Onion Rings ($3.95). I had a love-hate relationship with these garlic fries. I thought that they were way too strong in the garlic department, but my love for garlic kept me picking at these until they were almost gone. They could be the strongest garlic fries I have ever had, as I think they use a garlic paste on these instead of the little specks of garlic that other places use for their garlic fries. Definitely a must for people that love everything garlic. The onion rings were done very well. They use Spanish onions for these and the breading was nice and solid and did not break away from the onion, which is what I look for in my onion rings. I'd definitely get the onion rings again.

We had no time for dessert as we had to get down to the business of picking out the Ducks games we were going to be heading out to this year. Stacked turned out to be an excellent meetup spot, way better than the BJ's we had met at the last few years. I was a little worried that the ordering was going to be a problem, but our server was more than amicable about showing us how to use it, and even used it for us to order our beverages. I do look forward to returning to Stacked to customize my perfect meal using the tablet. The food was pretty solid, and I'd equate it to a much better version of BJ's, which is probably no coincidence since Stacked was founded by former co-CEOs of BJ's. Stacked might just become our new spot for picking our Ducks tickets for years to come.

Out of five old books, (because this restaurant is located in Huntington Beach, a city named for Henry Huntington, who also lends his name to the excellent Huntington Library in San Marino which is named after him as well), five being best to zero being worst, Stacked gets 3 old books.

For more information about Stacked, head to their website here: