Thursday, January 31, 2019

Finally a Trip to Din Tai Fung


Din Tai Fung
3333 Bristol Street #2071
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Okay, get ready to judge me. This was the first time I had ever visited Din Tai Fung. On Yelp it is the eighth most reviewed restaurant in Orange County. Wait times have been documented of three hours or more, and almost everyone that eats here really enjoys it. It's one of those restaurants that has just languished on my restaurant wishlist forever because let's be real here, it's not the most convenient of restaurants to eat at. There's way too much waiting involved, especially when we ate here a week before Christmas.

Well, the time was finally at hand that I would be trying the famous Din Tai Fung, thanks to an assist from my aunt and uncle. My aunt works at South Coast Plaza and it's a tradition that my uncle and cousin visit her at work every year during the holidays. I had mentioned numerous times that I had wanted to eat at this world famous dumpling and noodle restaurant, so as they got to this busy mall, they put our name on the two-hour waitlist as I finished off my work day and drove up to Costa Mesa to have a much-needed catch up with my extended family, and finally try what so many people rave about.

Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese restaurant that has won a legion of fans for their Shanghai style dumplings and noodles. Originally started as a cooking oil company in 1958, they rebranded in 1972 as a restaurant and the rest is history. They now run outposts in many Asian countries, Australia, and at 13 spots dotting the Western US. This Costa Mesa location is their only OC establishment.

High praise for Din Tai Fung is well documented. In 1993 the New York Times rated them as one of the top ten gourmet restaurants to visit in the world. They rose to further prominence when their Hong Kong branch received a Michelin star in 2010, the highest honor a restaurant can receive. Our own OC Register restaurant reviewer, Brad Johnson has had Din Tai Fung on his annual top 75 restaurant list multiple times since they opened for business in OC in 2014. The pedigree was definitely there, and I had a sense I was going to be in for quite the treat on this evening.


The timing of Katie and I arriving at South Coast Plaza on this evening could not have been more perfect, thanks to my aunt and uncle. Because they had put us on the list two hours earlier, we got here just as we were being seated. The restaurant was packed, with plenty of hungry guests milling around the hostess stand, the waiting area, and in front of the restaurants. It was organized chaos though. There definitely seemed to be an order to this madness.

As we were walking through the dining room to our table, every employee we passed by welcomed us and seemed genuinely happy that we were there. Thanks to a recent expansion, Din Tai Fung now can host 250 guests in their sleek looking dining room, and they seem to do so with ease. The dining area also features a glassed-in area of their kitchen where the masked kitchen staff is filling, folding, and weighing dumplings with incredible accuracy and speed.

The menu features appetizers, soups, noodles, fried rice, a few veggie dishes, and of course steamed dumplings and buns. I was taken a little by surprise that the prices here were pretty reasonable, or at least more reasonable than I was expecting. Most items listed hover right around the $10 to $15 mark, with only the truffle and pork dumpling listed at $23 for five of them. I let my aunt lead us as to what we should try, and this is what she came up with for this long-awaited dinner.


First up, was this beautifully presented Cucumber Salad ($5.25). This is the first thing listed on their menu, and as not the biggest cucumber fan out there, I actually enjoyed this. Not really what I'd consider a salad, but sliced cucumbers are dressed in sesame oil and rice vinegar. Each cucumber slice was nice and crunchy and the sauce provided a flavor boost from the drabness that usually comes with cucumbers. Refreshing and it went well with the other items we had coming our way.


The first of our entrees to hit the table were these Shanghai Rice Cakes with Chicken ($11). For novices of Taiwanese cuisine, like me, this was a great easy introduction to the food, which was not that far from the Chinese food I grew up with. The rice cakes tasted like gnocchi to me, with a pleasingly chewy texture to them. This dish was not as heavy as the Americanized Chinese food that I grew up with. They used a light-flavored sauce instead of the heavy, sugary sauces that I was used to.  The chicken could have been more prominent if it was in bigger chunks, but this allowed the rice cakes to be the star of the show.


The plates started coming out rather quickly now. This Noodles with Kurobuta Pork Sauce ($10) kind of got pushed to the side by our party of seven, but I found myself always coming back for it. The noodles were some of the freshest I have ever had, and minced pork is never a bad thing. A little more sauce on this might have made this one of my favorite dishes of the evening.


Pork Chop Fried Rice ($13) was not exactly what I was expecting when we ordered it. I always just assume that the rice and pork would have been incorporated with each other, but the way it was plated it was more like a main course and a side. The fried rice was nice and light, without the greasiness I expected. The pork chop was nicely breaded with a touch of garlic and very tender on the inside. A really comforting dish.


I'm definitely no fan of green beans, but it's easy to see why these Sauteed String Beans with Garlic ($10.75) get so much love online. Each bean had a nice crunch to it and the garlic and salt boosted the flavor of the usually humdrum string bean. Way better than the awful green beans out of the can that we had when I was growing up. 



The menu states that these Sweet and Sour Sticky Baby Back Ribs ($8.25) are a new menu item. Originally tested in the Seattle branch, they have now made the menu at this location. Not surprising, since they were pretty solid. I'd describe these as small but mighty. They were definitely on the smaller side but had plenty of meat on them based on their size. The sauce covering these was more on the sweet side, but with hints of sour poking through in short bursts. 





Now for the main event, the item that brings most people through the door, the famous Din Tai Fung dumplings. We tried both the Kurobata Pork Dumplings ($11.50)  and the Chicken Dumplings ($11.25). I had a fear that these were going to be real rubbery, but the skin was lighter than I was expecting. It took a while before I got the hang of eating them, you have to dress them the way that you like, place them on your spoon, puncture the dumpling, slurp the soup out first, and then eat them. They were good but did not blow me away with how awesome they were.


A kind of variation of the dumplings above were these Vegetable and Pork Wontons with a Spicy Sauce ($10.75). These had a slightly thicker skin, but not obtrusively so. They were filled with plenty in the way of veggies, but not enough pork for my taste. These were better than the dumplings to me because they came in a very good sauce, which was not really spicy but did add flavor. I'd get these sans veggies next time for sure.


One last thing before we'd throw in the towel for the evening. These Chicken Fried Noodles ($11) would be our last hurrah at Din Tai Fung. I liked this dish but it was a little too similar to the rice cakes and chicken that we had earlier. The noodles were fresh with a good chew to them, but there was not enough chicken on this for me.

I'm very happy to have eaten at Din Tai Fung finally. I'm by no means a Taiwanese food expert, (this is my first Taiwanese spot), and I'm sure there are better dumpling and noodle places out there, but I can definitely see why there is a hype surrounding this restaurant. It's not churned out Chinese food that I grew up with. This is fresh and lighter than that, and you get the sense that they take great care in picking their ingredients and preparing them in an exact way so that all of their restaurants have the same consistency. Now that I've got the lay of the land here, I'd for sure like to explore more Taiwanese restaurants and more of the menu here at Din Tai Fung. The service on this evening was polished and very professional. I was pretty impressed with how in control the restaurant was for it being as busy as it always seems to be. A great nod to all of the employees and management at this branch of this famous restaurant. Now if they could just add another location in OC to help alleviate the wait for a table here.

Out of five garbage trucks, (because I recently learned that garbage trucks in Taiwan play music to let people know it's time to bring their trash to the truck), five being best to zero being worst, Din Tai Fung gets 3.5 garbage trucks.

For more information about Din Tai Fung, head to their well-designed website here: https://dintaifungusa.com/

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Our Quest for Good Carnitas Brings Us to Q Tortas


Q Tortas
220 South Bradford
Placentia, CA 92870

People are not too keen on going to the dentist. I get it. It's uncomfortable having somebody poking around in there, leaning back in the chair, and heaven forbid the guy has to break out the needle or pull out some teeth. Yikes. I've been lucky up until this point, knock on wood, I haven't had any big teeth issues. That's probably why I'm always pretty happy to head to my dentist twice every year. Another reason I'm not bothered about going to the dentist is that I usually treat myself to a meal directly after my appointment. This time I headed to Q Tortas in Placentia.

Okay, I did not head directly there, because Old Town Placentia was preparing for the 24th annual Tamale Festival and several of the streets around Q Tortas were closed. I worked my way around the street closures, found a place to park about three blocks away, and made a brisk beeline for Q Tortas.

If you are unfamiliar with this part of town, Q Tortas is situated just south of  Chapman and Bradford Avenues, in what I like to think is one of the best Mexcian food corridors in all of OC. All in one square block resides El Farolito, El Cantarito, and Tlaquepaque. Some of the most prolific Mexican restaurants I have been to. Talk about a hard decision for dinner when you are in Old Town Placentia. I was hoping that my first visit to Q Tortas would rank right up there with these Mexican restaurant heavyweights.

Q Tortas has been around forever. I could not find out precisely how long, but most of the accounts I have found online say they are right around 30 to 35 years of being a family-owned business. The previous owner of the building had been Q Burgers, and instead of changing everything, they kept the Q part of the name and added tortas to it.

There's not much in the way of atmosphere here. The building and booths are definitely dated, I hear the drive-thru speaker doesn't work, the menu board is more reminiscent of an NCAA basketball tournament sheet you'd fill out for March Madness, with its brackets pointing to grouped menu items that are the same prices, and ordering is not done at the walk-up windows facing the street, but just inside the doorway.

The menu is what you'd expect to find at a lot of other places. Tacos, burritos, tostadas, combo meals, and even burgers are offered here. Nothing on the menu breaks the $8 barrier, with most items going for about $3. Definitely one of the most affordable spots I have been to in a while. I ordered a few things to go but took my pictures real quick before making my way back down the 5 Freeway to eat my selections at home.



When torta is in the name of the restaurant, I felt it might be a good idea to give one a try. They offer six varieties, and I picked the one that I found to be the most exotic, the Adovada Torta ($4.95). I learned online that adovada, also known as adobada is cubed pork marinated in a red chili sauce that also uses vinegar and other herbs. This torta then had onions and plenty of cilantro added to it. The telera roll used here was nice and crunchy due to a slight grilling it received. I expected the pork to be in little bigger pieces and a little more tender than it actually was. The adovada sauce was very good, with a tinge of spice, but nothing that made this anything more than mildly spicy. I ate only half of this and had the rest the next day, and maybe because it had even more time to marinate, it tasted better the day after.




Since the sign out in front of Q Tortas shows a man in a chefs hat shoving a pig into a big pot, it's a big hint that carnitas rule here. Numerous reviews on Yelp state that these are the best carnitas in town, which is a big statement to make with El Farolito situated mere steps away. So, a Carnitas Combination Plate ($7.50) was a natural choice for me. They forgot my flour tortillas, which is fine since I did not really plan on using them anyways.  The carnitas were fine, but not better than the ones at El Farloito. A few pieces were on the dry side and I missed the crispy tips that you get at other places when you order carnitas. They could have been a little more flavorful as well. The rice was okay, but the refried beans were delicious, rich and flavorful. Double beans for sure next time.

Even though I was not overwhelmed with the food that I had on this visit to Q Tortas, I'd definitely come back if I didn't have time for a sit-down meal at El Farolito or El Cantarito, and just wanted to grab some food to go. Their hard-shelled tacos look delicious and I'd probably get a different torta on my next trip, along with an extra side of refried beans to add to it. Service was fine on this early afternoon, as the lady took my order and the food was out within five minutes. I'm already looking forward to my next dental visit, but more importantly, where I'll be eating right after it.

Out of five martinis, (because the most famous "Q"  I could think of is from the James Bond movies, and 007's favorite cocktail is a martini, shaken not stirred), five being best to zero being worst, Q Tortas gets 3 martinis.

Q Tortas does not have a website, but you can see pictures of their food and find out more information on their Yelp page by clicking here: https://www.yelp.com/biz/q-tortas-placentia

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Getting Away from It All at EATS Kitchen and Bar


EATS Kitchen and Bar
Hotel Irvine
17900 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA 92614

I always kind of feel bad for chefs at restaurants in hotels. I feel that they often get overlooked by locals. I think the general public thinks of hotel food as being safe, and maybe not really anything worth stopping by for. In the nearly ten years of doing this blog, we have experienced some pretty good meals in hotels. Dinners at the Hotel Fullerton, The Silver Trumpet at the Wyndham in Costa Mesa, and Splashes at the iconic Surf and Sand in picturesque Laguna definitely make the list as some of the best, but now you can add another to that list, EATS Kitchen and Bar at the Hotel Irvine.

I had not been to the Hotel Irvine in a long while, and pulling up to this vibrant property, I could sense that this was a different kind of hotel from when I had been here when this was managed by Hyatt. There was a liveliness that you just don't get at other hotels. The eye-popping orange hues, which dominate the lobby, lounges, and other common areas are very welcoming. The layout and the color scheme seems to encourage guests to leave their comfy rooms and mingle among other guests and be part of the many activities that the Hotel Irvine offers.

We arrived at EATS on a rainy Wednesday night right before 7pm and were met with a pretty raucous scene at the bar in the front of EATS. It seems the Hotel Irvine was hosting a corporate event for an IT company, and their employees had just been released from their meetings before we got here and had made a beeline for the bar. I was pretty impressed with the speed of the bartenders and service staff as they hustled to provide much-needed libations to their guests after what I'm sure was a long day of meetings.

We were greeted warmly at the hostess stand and shown to our table. The dining room was a little quieter than the bar area, which was ideal for this date night with Katie. I was happy to see the upbeat decor that we experienced as we walked into the Hotel Irvine extended to the dining room. Comfy tables and chairs were nicely spaced, wood flooring and citrus-colored accents immediately put us in a relaxed vacation mode after our rain-soaked drive up the 405 Freeway.

The man in the kitchen at EATS Kitchen and Bar is Executive Chef Jeff Moore, who is closing in on his second year anniversary at EATS this month. Chef Jeff had previously worked at  Hopscotch in Fullerton, The Loft at the Montage in Laguna Beach, and was employed by the ever-expanding Lounge Group, which has numerous properties in and around Newport Beach, such as Dory Deli, Stag Bar, Country Club, and Playa Mesa to name a few.

Chef Jeff's menu at EATS is self-described as modern California cooking, which I feel is a fair description for this compact, but crowd-pleasing selection of offerings. Even though the menu is limited to seven entrees, two burgers, three salads, a couple of pizzas, and seven starters, anyone coming here for a bite could easily find something to pique their culinary cravings. As we were sitting at the table with menus in hand, I found myself having a major debate going on inside my head as to what I was going to try. Let's see how all this inner conflict worked out for me.


No debate that I needed a cocktail after Katie's harrowing driving in the rain on this evening, and I zeroed right in on this Blackberry Mule ($12). This fruity, but not overly sweet beverage was exactly what I needed to help calm my nerves and get me ready for the ride back home with Katie. This was a more flavorful take on a Moscow mule, with its blackberry infused vodka, ginger, and a kiss of lemon to cut the sweetness. It was very refreshing and mellowing. It is easy to envision myself sipping on one of these by the firepit on the EATS patio when it gets to be a lot warmer outside.



Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm not fond of hard boiled eggs, but these Freid Deviled Eggs ($9) are the exception to my rule now. Maybe the fact that they are breaded and fried has helped with the textural element that has blocked me from enjoying regular deviled eggs. The fact that these also came with Italian chorizo and manchego cheese probably also helped me get over my deviled egg phobia.


Truffle Mac and Cheese ($12) can be a bit hit and miss in restaurants. It's usually a balancing act for chefs to get just the right amount of truffle oil in here, so it does not get too overpowering while keeping this comfort food staple from becoming boring. Chef Jeff achieved this rare balance with his version. It was both mellow and rich at the same time. Yes, it could have used a little more of the cheese blend, but I liked the textural element that the parmesan bread crumbs added. Just what we needed on this rainy evening.


Katie kept the comfort food train rolling with her entree selection, the Garganelli Bolognese ($18). The garganelli pasta was cooked to perfection and topped with a very well done ragu made of beef and veal and finished off with a dollop of ricotta cheese. This plate of pasta also had the added surprise of a thick cut of pork belly, which added a fantastic smokiness to the dish. Katie had planned to eat only half of this, and take the rest of lunch the next day, but she could not control herself and ate every last bite before she knew it.



My inner dilemma when trying to decide what to get when perusing the menu at EATS was between my love of a good burger and the satisfaction of savoring a well-crafted steak. As you can see from above, the Cast Iron New York Steak ($34) won out. The steak was tender and seasoned well, but what made this for me was the unusual chili bearnaise sauce that came with this. It added a nice component to the beef, but I wished it was covering the entire steak. I should have asked for more. The meal was rounded out by some red potatoes and some excellent spinach, which had some kind of spice added to it, which made it pop.


A sweet ending to our evening at EATS would come to an end with two of their three selections off of the dessert menu. Katie is always fond of Bread Pudding ($6) and this seasonal version during our visit was coconut-orange with a blueberry compote. When I first thought about the combination of flavors with this I thought it sounded a bit odd. It worked, but the prevailing flavor of the bites I had was of coconut, which brought to mind the old Mother's Cookies macaroons of my childhood. The blueberry compote was used sparingly, which was fine with me because it allowed the fresh whipped cream and ice cream to showcase the coconut.


I'm always drawn to cookies and had to select the Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie ($6) as my dessert to cap off this evening. This was not a skillet cookie like I was expecting, but a thick and perfectly textured chocolate chip cookie topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream with salted cookie crumbs and house-made marshmallows scattered about and then finished off with a hot fudge drizzle on top. I liked the slight crunch of the outer edge of the cookie and the softer inside. The salt helped cut the sweetness and there was plenty in the way of ice cream. I'm not really a fan of marshmallows, so they kind of got ignored.

Both Katie and I really enjoyed our time at EATS Kitchen and Bar. Like I wrote earlier, it's easy for locals to overlook hotel restaurants, but this is one that you should keep in mind. Chef Jeff has got a crowd-pleasing menu, and the execution of the food he prepares is on point. Much like the atmosphere when we walked in the Hotel Irvine, there's always something happening here, whether it's $3 tacos and $5 margaritas on Tuesdays, all you can eat mussels on Wednesdays, specially priced tapas on Fridays, or the over the top brunch on weekends, which also features build your own mimosas and bloody marys. When locals visit you get that pleasant little tinge that you are on vacation, which is one of the best feelings in the world. This was just the date night we needed to recharge our batteries for the rest of the week.

The meal in this post was generously provided by EATS Kitchen and Bar, but the opinions expressed here are solely my own. I would like to thank everyone we encountered at EATS for a great experience, including our very personable server, Jacquelyn who took great care of us during our stay and was always more than ready to answer all of our questions.

For more information about EATS Kitchen and Bar, head to their website here: http://www.eatskitchen.com/#home

Thursday, January 17, 2019

German Food That Will Make You Say Oom-Pah!


Jagerhaus
2525 East Ball Road
Anaheim, CA 92806

We are always on the hunt for places to eat before we go to a Ducks game, but coming from South OC we are usually relegated to picking up fast food and eating it in the parking lot quickly so we can make it inside to see the puck drop. The traffic gods were especially kind to us on this particular Wednesday early evening, as we made it up to Anaheim in a record 35 minutes during rush hour, which allowed us plenty of time to try Jagerhaus.

Jagerhaus has been here as long as I can remember. I did a little research and found out that this restaurant has been in business since 1979, so this year marks their 40th anniversary of serving the people of Anaheim, which is a big milestone for any place of business. In that time they have only had two owners. The original owner retired in 2000, and Sandra Schwaiger has been at the helm ever since. She mainly handles the front of the house duties, while three chefs, who were trained by the original owner take care of the cooking duties.

With only a handful of German restaurants dotting OC, I always found it odd that Jagerhaus and the Phoenix Club, another restaurant serving German cuisine, are within two blocks of one another, but there must definitely be a market for it since they have both been in business for so long. Breakfast is the busiest meal at Jagerhaus, with their most popular items being the German pancakes and an omelet that features sauerkraut and bratwurst, something I will definitely need to come back for.

For now, it was dinner that I needed to help give me the energy to cheer on our hometown Ducks. Jagerhaus, which sits at the end of a long strip mall right near the Ball Road exit of the 57 Freeway, has quite an impressive menu. They offer plenty in the way of German favorites and items you just don't see on menus anymore, think rabbit, elk, deer, boar and a roast ham hock that you need to call in a day in advance to have it held for you. It had been a long while since I last had a proper German meal, so I was excited to see how I'd enjoy Jagerhaus and their German cuisine.


I always get excited when a bread basket arrives at our table, usually because I'm very hungry and this is not something that you have to buy. Okay, I'm a little cheap. The bread or I guess  I should say in this case, rolls, were very good and soft, but what made these for me was the European butter that came out with them. European butter with its richness always makes everything taste better. They were really nice about asking if we wanted refills of the rolls, but we politely declined because we had our food coming and I did not want to be overly full at the Ducks game. 


You can't get more German than a Large Soft Pretzel ($3.50). I'm not really into pretzels because I find them hard and dry, but this was not like an American pretzel. It was soft and pliable, lightly salted on top, and made even better with their special blend of mustard. This pretzel will ruin you for anything you call a pretzel from your local mall.


Entrees come with two sides, and Katie selected this Dinner Salad as one of her selections. I have to say, for being such a simple salad with iceberg lettuce, some shredded carrots, and red cabbage, this was very tasty. It came out very cold, was good sized, and what I liked the best was that it was dressed well, with plenty of blue cheese incorporated on each item. One of my biggest pet peeves about salads is that there's never enough dressing. I know I'm probably in the minority on this point. Dressing just makes veggies taste better and this was a very well made blue cheese dressing. 


We might as well finish with Katie's meal this evening. She selected the Stuffed Chicken Breast ($20.95). This very tender, fried chicken was filled with broccoli and cheese and then perched on top of gravy. Katie was pleasantly surprised with how great this tasted. For her side item, she went with Spatzle. This was both of our first times having this German staple. Spatzle is pasta and at Jagerhaus it's covered in a mushroom gravy. Katie said it took some getting used to, but once she did it was very comforting.


When I see that something on a menu is listed as the most popular, I'm usually drawn to it. That's what happened when I spied this German Combo ($21.95) listed as their most requested entree. I had to have it. This plate contains a trio of sausages, a Nurenberger bratwurst, knackwurst, and polish sausage, and is rounded out with a grilled pork chop. All of the meats were delicious here, with their different flavors and textures. I liked the polish sausage the best, with its rich meatiness and slight smokey tinge to it. The other sausages were terrific as well. The pork chop was nicely grilled and tender, not anything like what my mom used to cook for us growing up. Those chops were fried to a crisp. I went a very traditional route with my two side items, sauerkraut, and German potato salad. The sauerkraut was fine and helped cut the richness of the meats. I believe this was the first time I've had real German potato salad, which is served warm with bits of onion and bacon in it. This has ruined me for the cold potato salads I've had my entire life. This warm version is so much better. I'm now a convert.


Dessert was our last hurrah at Jagerhaus, and I needed to give their German Chocolate Cake ($6.95) a whirl. This was fine, obviously, homemade but with a lot of desserts from around the world, it was not as sweet as I would have liked. The cake was moist, but the icing is where this lost me. It was kind of drab and did not have the sweetness I was looking for. Maybe apple strudel or bread pudding next time.

Even though we did not finish with a bang at Jagerhaus, I have a feeling that we will definitely be back before Ducks games, traffic willing, and for sure breakfast sometime. After our visit, it's easy to see why Jagerhaus has been around for so long. German food is the real deal of comfort food, with its delicious sausages, gravy, and side dishes. Service on this evening was very attentive and things kept progressing well enough that we had plenty of time to see the puck drop at the Ducks game.

Out of five hunting lodges, (because the name of this restaurant translates to hunting lodge), five being best to zero being worst, Jagerhaus gets 3.5 hunting lodges.

For more information about Jagerhaus, head to their website here: http://www.jagerhaus.net/index.html

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Real Deal Italian Comes to Rancho Santa Margarita


Cibo Italiano
29941 Aventura Suite 1
Rqncho Santa Margarita, CA 92688

I used to have a policy that I'd wait a year before reviewing any new restaurant. My main reason for this was because I had heard the misleading stat that 90 percent of all new restaurants closed within the first year of being in business, and I did not want a blog full of restaurants that you'd never get the chance to try because they had all been shuttered. This stat is, of course, false, because who would take a chance on something when you only have a ten percent chance of success. Okay, besides the millions of people that play the lottery.

The real percentage of restaurants closing in the first year is only 17%, the same as new insurance agencies and brokerages. This has to be good news for the owner of the latest restaurant we visited, which had only been open for a week when we walked through the door. We were out this way picking up the mail for Katie's vacationing parents and decided that we'd give the new Italian place in town a try, Cibo Italiano.

Cibo, which means food in Italian, is run by Chef Gisella Kaplan. She's been in the catering game for a long while, and also had a stint working at the Honda Center, in the food and beverage department with the excellent Chef Jojo Doyle. Chef Gisella was born in Italy and her cuisine explores the many regions of Italy, not just focusing on one part of her beloved homeland. She has some big plans for her place, envisioning it as part Italian deli and bakery, gourmet Italian grocer, and of course cafe. She's also offering a take and bake option, which on the night we were here was lasagna, but I see now on their Facebook page that Cibo is offering a good looking Beef Braciole, which you rarely see on menus in OC.

Speaking of the menu, the early menu at Cibo Italiano featured lunch and dinner items. Lunch was available from 11 to 2 pm, and dinner service begins at 5. I'm not sure if they close in between the two, or if you can order off the lunch menu at dinner, or vice versa, but I'm sure that will all be sorted out as this restaurant grows and matures. The lunch menu has a good number of salad options, along with six sandwich choices. The dinner menu features a quartet of appetizers, pasta and risotto dishes, and the more substantial chicken, meat and fish entrees.

Ordering is done at the counter, and then the food is brought out to you at one of the ten or so tables that dot the comfortable and well-lit dining area. Let's take a look at what we had on this, one of the first weeks of Cibo Italiano being in business.


Everything is made from scratch here at Cibo, and that includes their bread, which we got to try two pieces of. The bread was very fresh, had a good hard crust around it, and was soft and pliable on the inside. According to their Facebook page, Cibo is now offering their baked bread for sale, and it comes out of the oven fresh at 4 pm.


A Side Salad came with my upcoming entree. This came nicely plated with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, shredded carrots, red onion, and mixed greens. Very nicely plated and fresh produce, but there was barely any dressing on this. It was as if they added the dressing with an eye dropper. I should have gotten more dressing, but our entrees came out rather quickly after our salads, and the salad got pushed to the side when our entrees arrived.


Katie was really torn between either the carbonara and what she eventually got, this Homemade Pappardelle Pasta with a Bolognese Ragu ($16.95). I really enjoyed the couple of bites that Katie allowed me to have of this. The ragu is made with grass-fed ground beef and organic pork and takes hours to make. The pasta is fresh and the combination of both the pasta and ragu made this plate a winner. Katie called this heavenly, and would not hesitate to get it again.




Unlike Katie, I had no doubt what I was going to have for dinner on this evening. The  Porchetta Wrapped in Pancetta ($18.95) would be sat in front of me on my initial visit to Cibo Italiano. This plate came with three slices of porchetta, some asparagus, baby red potatoes, and what I believed to be a fig sauce spooned over the porchetta. On the whole, this dish was very tasty, but there were some bites of the porchetta that was a little dry and the temperature of the meal itself was lukewarm at best. Even with these minor issues, I'd still get this entree again.

Cibo Italiano is, of course, going to go through some growing pains, as they had only been open for such a short time when we visited, but I believe there's enough promise at this restaurant/Italian grocer to warrant future visits. The food here is authentically Italian, and freshly made, which is something that is very rare in these parts. I can't help shake the feeling that Chef Gisella might be a little too ambitious with her restaurant starting out, as she's making fresh bread, grab and go dinners, serving both lunch and dinner at the restaurant, baking Italian cookies and desserts, as well as stocking Italian groceries. It made me tired just typing all of that. With all that being said, it will be interesting to see how this restaurant evolves in the near future, and if she'll find people that will help her with the workload she's created for herself. I think it's going to be a delicious ride. 

Out of five laptops, (because in Australia there is a mini-chain of coffee shops with the same name as this restaurant, and most people use their laptops in coffee shops), five being best to zero being worst, Cibo Italiano gets 3 laptops. 

For more information about Cibo Italiano, head to their website here: https://www.ciboital.com/

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Leaving Las Vegas...After a Great Breakfast


Eggslut
3708 South Las Vegas Blvd. 
Las Vegas, NV, 89109

Our 24 hour trip to Las Vegas was coming to a quick end. After the drubbing that our Ducks took the evening before, at the hands of the hometown Vegas Golden Knights, not to mention the bad luck we had in the casinos, we could not get home soon enough. Breakfast was needed to be eaten first though, and I dragged everyone to a place I have wanted to try forever, Eggslut.

Eggslut is located at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Just take the escalator from the casino to the second floor, and you'll be in foodie heaven. The Cosmo is becoming the premier food destination on the strip. Very well known restaurant concepts, such as Momofuko, Milkbar, Holsteins, Hattie B's Hot Chicken, Lardo, and Ghost Donkey are all situated near, or inside the hip Block 16 Urban Food Hall, which like Eggslut is situated on the 2nd floor of the Cosmo.

Founded in 2011 at the Grand Central Market in LA, Eggslut is a chef-driven, gourmet food concept inspired by the egg. Their goal appears to be to make the best egg sandwiches out there and show that these sandwiches are not just for breakfast. The long lines at all of their five US locations, along with their lone international spot in Beirut, Lebanon seem to suggest that they have met their goal and it has really resonated with consumers. Needless to say, I was growing very excited for my initial visit.

When we arrived at the Cosmo at half past nine on a recent Thursday morning, we were met with a rather intimidating line of people that wrapped around the front of Eggslut and went halfway down a long hallway. We waited for twenty minutes to a half an hour, which gave us plenty of time to review and make our selections off of their rather compact menu. 

They offer six sandwiches and two specialty items, (a buttermilk biscuit and their namesake item, The Slut, which is a coddled egg served on top of a potato puree in a mini mason jar). Items hover around the $10 mark, but the tri-tip and egg sandwich will set you back $15. We ordered at the counter and then waited in awe as we watched the busy kitchen workers cranking out an endless amount of breakfast sandwiches for their hungry customers. It was really quite an impressive process to see and gave me an even greater respect for the kitchen workers that provide food to a very hungry public. After receiving our food, we searched for a place to sit and finally found a spot on the couches right near the giant crystal chandelier. Let's see what all the hype was about at Eggslut.


My mom will start things off for us on this morning with her Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Sandwich ($8.50). This sandwich usually comes with chipotle ketchup, but my mom subbed it out for mayo. The cage-free over medium egg, applewood bacon, and cheddar cheese combined to make this sandwich a winner in her book. She found this to be a very enjoyable sandwich, one that was worth waiting in line for, and she does not like waiting in lines.


Apparently, my parents want to get in the hand model game. Don't quit your day jobs guys. My dad tried the Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Sandwich ($8.50). For this one, they use a turkey sausage patty, which had a very good smoky flavor to it. The over medium egg and sausage is also joined by a slice of cheddar cheese and honey mustard aioli. No complaints from the big guy on this one, which is a good sign since he's a pretty picky customer.


Katie and I both got the same sandwich but made different modifications to it. Katie got her Fairfax ($13) with bacon and avocado added, hence the four dollar upcharge. She called this the perfect breakfast sandwich, with its fluffy eggs, crisp bacon, creamy avocado, and a sriracha mayo which did not overpower but had just the right amount of flavor to add. When I pressured her to come up with something she did not like about this sandwich she could not do it. Pretty high praise.


I also added bacon to my Fairfax Sandwich ($11.50). Quite simply, this sandwich was magical. I was really blown away with the lightness of the scrambled eggs, the crisp bacon, and the Sriracha mayo that came on this. I was so enamored with the way the eggs were done here that I scoured the internet when I got home to find a copycat recipe for the way they do their eggs at Eggslut. Thanks to the website Chowhound I found a good recipe here but have not tried it yet. The bun was well crafted, stayed together, and did not get in the way of the insides of the sandwich. I really found myself savoring this sandwich, eating it way slower than I usually do.

I have to admit that the hype for Eggslut is definitely warranted. This was the best breakfast sandwich I have had, and I do look forward to coming back here and eating my way through their entire menu in the very near future. Even though this is not the most convenient of restaurants, with its long lines and lack of seating, I think even my parents will be back here when they make it back to Vegas. Yes, the prices are way higher than what you'd normally pay for a breakfast sandwich, but this is Vegas and when you are on vacation you feel a little better paying a few dollars more for a higher quality product that you can't get just anywhere. This breakfast made the Ducks loss to the Knights the evening before way more palatable. 

Out of five shrimp, (because Las Vegas goes through 60,000 pounds of shrimp a day, more than the rest of the US combined), five being best to zero being worst, Eggslut gets 4 shrimp.

For more information about Eggslut, head to their website here: http://www.eggslut.com/

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Bewitching Breakfast at HEXX


HEXX Kitchen and Bar
3655 South Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109

It was time for our annual trip to the desert to watch our beloved Ducks take on the upstarts from Las Vegas, the Golden Knights. Last years trip with my parents did not go exactly the way we had planned. Not only did we have to deal with watching the Ducks lose in overtime, but we also had the displeasure of having to eat at Wahlburgers, per my mom's request.  She's a big fan of the reality TV show, we were not a fan of their below average burgers and tourist trap surroundings.

This trip was going to be different. Even though our Ducks had started off with a bunch of injuries, I had a feeling they were going to beat the Knights, who themselves had been struggling near the bottom of the standings. I also made the executive decision that I'd be picking the places we ate on this trip, so that meant no chance of getting caught in a restaurant that would wind up being one of the worst we ate at last year. At least that's what I had hoped.

We got into Las Vegas a lot earlier than we did last year, so I decided that a brunch spot would be an excellent choice, as we could walk it off getting back to our hotel and get the added bonus of taking a quick nap before the hockey game. I had never heard of HEXX before, but it intrigued me because it had over 2,500 reviews and a four-star rating on Yelp. Pretty impressive on Yelp, where most people just like to rant and complain.

HEXX is located at the Paris Hotel, right across from the Bellagio Fountains, and right next door to another of my favorite Vegas restaurants, Mon Ami Gabi. HEXX is in the former Sugar Factory space, and the kitchen is helmed by the former Sugar Factory Executive Chef, Matthew Piekarski, who developed the menu at HEXX along with Chef Matthew Silverman. They came up with a menu that features American classic cuisine and integrates contemporary influences into them.

They definitely had their work cut out for them, as HEXX is open from 6am until midnight seven days a week. They serve brunch until 4pm, and also feature lunch and dinner menus during the day. We had no problem getting a table at this sometimes very busy restaurant because it was midweek when we were here, and I had quickly made a reservation on OpenTable once we landed at the airport.

We loved the vibe once we were seated in this very large restaurant. It kind of felt like it had an updated country club feel to it. There were a lot of white fixtures and walls, a nice patio that I imagine would get a lot more use when the weather was a bit warmer, and comfy tables and chairs. The menu is separated into starters, entree salads, sandwiches, brunch items, and pizzas. Prices hover right around the $20 mark for most entrees, with the most expensive thing on the brunch menu being the Steak and Eggs, which will set you back $25. Pretty reasonable prices for an upscale breakfast joint on the strip. Let's see if the food impresses as much as the atmosphere did.


As I have stated numerous times on this blog, I love having both a sweet and a savory item for my first meal of the day. At HEXX that meant that I'd definitely be trying the Twisted Sticky Bun ($9) to start off with. This pastry featured toasted pecans, a very light cream cheese frosting, and a generous drizzle of caramel sauce on the roll and on the plate. This was a nice start to our meal here, and yes, I did share. One of the lightest breakfast pastries I have had. The roll itself was light and airy, the cream cheese did not overpower, but still had a sweet taste to it, and the pecans added a nice crunch. Really solid, and way better than what you can get at your local Cinnabon.



My dad and I are usually pretty similar as to what we like to order, so I always have a backup entree just in case he orders what I really want. This happened at HEXX, as he got the Chilaquiles ($17) before I did. This version of my favorite Mexican breakfast came with chicken, sliced jalapenos, two eggs, avocado, sour cream, and asadero cheese, which is an off-white Mexican cheese, kind of like mozzarella. My dad got a little full and let me finish the rest of his meal. I liked this but felt the chips could have been fried a bit more and it was a little on the dry side. Maybe more of a sauce to tie it all together? The eggs were done over hard like my dad had requested and these particular jalapenos really packed a punch on this morning. Very spicy, just the way I like them. 




Both Katie and my mom got the same thing on this morning, which is a bonus for you, as it's less reading. They both got the Breakfast Croissant ($14 plus $2 with an egg). This breakfast sandwich usually comes with ham, but both Katie and my mom opted for bacon instead, and the kitchen at HEXX complied big time with their request, as they added at least four strips of bacon, if not more to this sandwich which also included some aged cheddar cheese and excellent home fries.  Not sure why they don't just automaticlly add an egg to a breakfast sandwich, but this was one of the better ones that my mom has had. She loved it, as did Katie.


With my dad taking my first choice, that left me with my second one, the HEXX Benedict ($16). This pretty traditional benedict came with two perfectly poached eggs and a good, but understated hollandaise sauce sitting on top of Canadian bacon, asparagus, and scalloped potatoes. This dish was delicious and well crafted, but I was hoping for a big pop of flavor. Probably my mistake for picking the most benign item on the menu. Next time the corned beef hash, meat omelet or HEXX burger will be my pick for brunch.


When I made our reservation online, I had made a note of letting HEXX know that it was my mom's birthday. They, in turn, gave her a  nice and festive Chocolate Mousse Cake. This was a very nice surprise, and an excellent send-off for our long walk back to our hotel, and our much-needed nap before the game later in the evening.

I was pretty impressed with HEXX on this morning. When we are in Vegas, Bouchon is usually our go-to place for breakfast. Bouchon is better, but it's also more expensive and a little more stuffy, so HEXX might become our spot on some of our visits to this desert oasis. I'd also like to come back here and give their dinner a try. See how they cook their steaks, and maybe give their burger a go. Service on this particular morning was very solid, as our server kept things moving along and checked on us regularly. This part of our short stay in Las Vegas started out better than when we had to eat at Wahlburgers, but the hockey game? Not so much.

Out of five chocolate bars, (because HEXX also makes bean to bar chocolate, which is available for sale at their adjacent retail space at the Paris Hotel), five being best to zero being worst, HEXX Kitchen and Bar gets 3.5 chocolate bars.

For more information about HEXX Kitchen and Bar, head to their website here: https://www.hexxlasvegas.com/