Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Warm Welcome to OC for the Taco Stand

The Taco Stand
240 West Chapman Avenue
Orange, CA 92866

Downtown Orange has done it again. They have lured another out of town restaurant concept to add to their already fantastic collection of eateries. Recently, the city was lucky enough to hook the Denver based, hot breakfast spot, Snooze Eatery, celebrity darling Urth Caffe opened up the first of this year, and Chef Ryan Adams left the cool ocean breezes of Laguna Beach and brought his fried chicken concept inland. These three join an already impressive established list of restaurant options in Old Towne Orange, which include; Gabbi's, Bruxie, Burger Parlor, Zito's Pizza and others. Now, you can add another soon to be packed restaurant to that list, San Diego's own The Taco Stand.

The Taco Stand comes to us from Julian Hakim and his uncle, Aram Baloyan, both Tijuana natives that lamented the fact that there was no place in San Diego to get the tacos they grew up with across the border. They decided they needed to open up a spot, and that's how The Taco Stand came to be. Their vision was for a place that had homemade tortillas, a trompo for al pastor, and a fun and inviting atmosphere. This formula must have worked because since they started out in La Jolla, they are now operating six locations, including one in Miami. Look for another to pop up later this year when you are visiting Las Vegas.

This Orange location has been open for less than two weeks now. They hit the gold mine location wise. They are situated right in between Snooze Eatery and Buttermilk, and less than a block away from the newly constructed parking structure that makes parking in this always packed area way less challenging. Since we parked with relative ease, I could not wait to enter what I hoped would be the city of Orange's next great restaurant.

Here are some quick shots I took of the interior of The Taco Stand. The registers and menu board are directly in front of you when you enter. The production line was something to definitely key in on when visiting here. There were so many people back there, like organized chaos. It was great watching the team put together each order. The trompo, which is the spinning tower of al pastor was mesmerizing., as it basted in its own juices and pineapple. All of the salsa and sauces are made daily, and I liked the variety they offered. The bright and colorful murals on the walls added to the atmosphere nicely.

The menu is broken up into sections; tacos, burritos, quesadillas, sides, five breakfast burritos, which are offered until noon, and then beverages. We met up with V.P. of Restaurant Operations Mike Roels. Mike has been very busy commuting between OC and San Diego, but you could sense his excitement of showing off the food of his restaurant. We could sense that we were in very capable hands, so we allowed Mike to bring out the items he thought we should try. We quickly found a table in the rapidly filling restaurant and waited with baited breathe to see what Mike and The Taco Stand had in store for us.

I mentioned that all of the sauces and salsa was made fresh here, and after tasting it, it really showed. I'm a real sauce guy, and all of these were pretty stellar, but my favorites were the Chipotle and the Cilantro, which both added another layer of flavor to the items we tried here. I must not have been thinking because I did not try any of their Habanero, and I love spicy. Next time for sure.

Since we were situated at our table with our sauces, we became pretty excited when Mike brought out our first plate, The Taco Stand's famous Al Pastor Tacos ($2.99 each). These are a must try when visiting here. Rotisserie marinated pork sliced off the trompo and joined in the homemade tortilla with cilantro, sliced pineapple, onion, and cilantro sauce. The first thing that caught my eye was that these tacos were really filled up with pork. The pork was rich and tender and I liked the way the pineapple cut the richness. What makes this al pastor better than others? Mike claims that they leave it on the trompo marinating longer than other places. Another highlight is the corn tortilla. Definitely not a dry taco, the corn tortilla held everything in place right through the final bite. One of the best al pastor tacos I have had in OC.

Next up were these beautifully constructed Spicy Shrimp Tacos ($3.79 each). Not only was I pretty excited by the looks of these, but I know Katie is not too fond of shrimp, so I knew both of these would end up being mine. Thank you shrimp allergy. The menu calls these spicy shrimp, but I did not really get too much in the way of spiciness, but they were very flavorful. Plenty of shrimp, a slice of avocado, cheese, cabbage, tomato, and their awesome chipotle sauce round out these tacos. Each bite included the crunch of the cabbage, brininess of the shrimp, the creamy avocado, and everything was tied together with the chipotle sauce. Again, I'm glad I did not have to share.

When Mike brought these Mar Y Tierra Fries ($9.89) to our table, I could not help but notice all of the eyes following this basket as it was placed on our table. Other customers were definitely drawn to it. It was almost too beautiful to eat, but not wanting to let it go to waste, I felt it was our duty to scarf it down in record time. Some very nicely fried and crisp fries were buried underneath plenty of grilled shrimp and carne asada, cheese, guacamole, and chipotle sauce. What made this for me were the sauces and the higher than average quality of fries that they use. Most places would skimp on the fries, probably figuring that most people would focus more on the toppings, but The Taco Stand used some of the best fries I have experienced in a loaded fries dish. Another must try when visiting here.

Lastly, Mike brought us out the Corn on the Cob ($3.25). I have to admit, I'm not much of a fan of corn on the cob, but I found this to be very tasty. This elote style corn was brushed with a light touch of mayonnaise, cotija cheese, and chili powder. The corn was nice and juicy, and I was not sure that the mayo and cotija cheese were going to interact well, but it turned out to be a very nice side item to close out our meal at The Taco Stand.

Both Katie and I were very impressed with our visit toThe Taco Stand. It's easy to see why they have lines that strech out the doors of their San Diego spots, and I predict the same for this new Orange store very soon. They have done no advertising and had only been open for 10 days when we were here, and they still had a full house of diners when we were here. I'm looking forward to coming back soon to try their Sonora Taco, California Burrito, a Breakfast Burrito, and one of their Hot Churros, which they make to order. It appears to us that Downtown Orange has another delicious hit on its hands.

We would like to thank Mike Roels and his team at The Taco Stand for their warm hospitality and their delicious food during this visit. It was very apparent that everyone that works here is very proud of the food they are serving, and loves showing it to the people of OC. We also would like to thank the fantastic Casey Sorrell of Alternative Strategies for introducing us to The Taco Stand and setting up this visit. 

For more information about The Taco Stand, head to their website here:

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Au Revoir to Pascal in San Juan Capistrano

31451 Rancho Viejo Road
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

I'll let you in behind the scenes of this little restaurant blog that I love to write for all of you. When I finally get around to posting the restaurant review, it usually has been about a month since we visited the restaurant. Give or take a week or two. There are a few major major reasons for this. One, is I have a real job, which takes up way too much of my time. Family and friends are another worthwhile distraction. I also have a Netflix/Amazon Prime addiction which also takes some time away from me writing my restaurant reviews in a timely manner. Lastly, I'm not the worlds quickest writer. It takes me far too long to get my words down, but I knew I had to get this review done quickly, so any of you that wanted to visit this restaurant could do so before they closed for good.

In case you have not heard, Pascal in San Juan Capistrano is closing as of March 30th. Chef Pascal Olhats is pretty much the most legendary chef in OC history. That is not just hyperbole, it is a fact, and I'd be willing to debate this with anyone dumb enough to disagree. Chef Pascal had been a chef in our great county for 35 years. In that time he has worked tirelessly at his own restaurants, mentored too numerous to list head chefs, he has won plenty of awards and accolades, teaches French cuisine at Saddleback College, raises money for worthy causes, donates his time and energy to plenty of food events we have had the pleasure to attend, and if all of that was not enough to convince you that Chef Pascal is treasure, he also was invited to cook at Julia Child's 80th birthday party. Some pretty big stuff there.

Unfortunately, in September of 2018, Chef Pascal was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. He is doing six rounds of injection chemo. It does seem to be working, as so far 80 percent of the lymph nodes have receded, which is a very encouraging sign. The decision to close Pascal was a difficult one, but lucky for all of us, we all still have opportunities to try Chef Pascal's cuisine. He's still going to be involved at the Cafe Jardin at the Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona Del Mar and plans on having favorite dishes from Pascal available for lunches. There's even talk of special dinners, so stay tuned for that.

Back to the present though, we really wanted to get to Pascal before they shuttered for good, so we quickly made a reservation via the Open Table website. Pascal is located a little out of the way, in a shopping plaza nestled on the other side of the freeway, very removed from the busy downtown corridor of San Juan. His restaurant is one part storefront, with bakery items, prepared meals, sandwiches, and salads available for takeout, and then on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings they offer sitdown dinners in their tiny, yet comfortable 24 seat dining room starting at 5:30.

The menu is broken up into 4 courses and lets the guest create their perfect sized meal. They also have Prix-fixed pricing, which allows you to have a selection from each category for a set price. There was also a special farewell offer, which limited you to two entree options, along with a soup or salad and a dessert. Both Katie and I decided we were going to forgo the first course, which was appetizers, but we ended up hitting the rest of the menu. Let's see how our first and last visit to Pascal ended up for us.

What would a French meal be without bread? Luckily, we did not have to find out since our meal started out with this very generous basket of sliced French Bread. Wow, this stuff was fresh, and the butter that came with this was rich and creamy. None of those cold, hard to spread butter packets here. Katie and I both plowed through this bread in record time. 

I had really wanted to have the French Onion Soup ($12), but since Katie had her heart set on it, and in the spirit of showcasing more of the Pascal menu, I let her order it. This was quite simply the best French Onion soup I have ever had the pleasure to try. It came out scalding hot in an iron bowl, had a delicious Swiss cheese topping, fantastic onions and broth underneath, and was finished off with a white port which Katie was instructed to pour into the soup. She called this magical. She was right on the mark with this statement.

So, even though I was a little disappointed that I let Katie have the wonderful soup option, a few bites into this Lyonnaise Salad ($12) almost made me forget the soup she was happily slurping away across the table. This classic French salad included butter lettuce, frisee, which is curly endive, croutons, smoked bacon, poached egg, and a Dijon mustard dressing. I'd call this a breakfast salad, as it had some really good cubes of bacon and the yolk from the poached egg added a nice richness to the salad. The dressing was evenly distributed here as if each piece of green was individually brushed with the slightly tart dressing. Very good balance with this fresh salad. 

Katie was back and forth on what she wanted for dinner but finally settled on this Beef Filet ($38). Even though she always requests that her beef come out medium well, this still ended up being very tender medallions of beef. A sign that they know what they are doing in the kitchen. The beef was pepper crusted lightly, with a very nicely prepared Roquefort port wine sauce. The sauce was not over-bearing, but the Roquefort hung out in the background, allowing the beef to shine. It was accompanied by a sweet onion fondue and a roasted smashed potato. A very comforting dish in Katie's opinion and I definitely concur. 

I never get duck nearly enough, and I wasn't going to let this Duck A L'Orange ($38) slip through my fingers. This was my first time having this very classic French dish. The sauteed duck was sliced and served in a pool of an orange sauce. The duck was very fresh and not musty like some. The sauce was definitely citrus inspired, but not overpowering. This came with some sliced Periguord potatoes and broccoli. It was a very deceptive dish, as it had way more duck than it looks like in these pictures. Very well executed.

Dessert would be the last thing we ever ate at Pascal, so we carefully decided on the Chocolate Chestnut Tart ($13). This tasted just like a chocolate souffle, but with a little more structure to it. It was topped with some very good vanilla ice cream and surrounded by sliced strawberries that I left for Katie. I liked this dessert, but wish it was a tad sweeter. I've learned that desserts from around the world are not as sweet as what we like in the US. Different palettes for sure.

Even though you only have a couple of more days to visit Pascal, you should totally do so if at all possible. This is the kind of restaurant that has become a dying breed, and that's a real shame. A lot of people would call the French food served here old fashioned and a little out of date, as people these days seem to like lighter entrees. I loved the artistry and the presentation of the food that was presented here. Yes, it was definitely a special occasion place, as the prices were a little too rich for our blood to splurge for on a regular Thursday evening out. Service was very cordial, but due to the fact that there was only one waiter for the 10 or so tables, this meal ended up being a two hour plus long affair, which is way too long. It did give us time to savor our first and last time at Pascal and has gotten us very excited for a visit to Cafe Jardin in the near future. We also wish continued success to OC culinary legend Pascal and hope his health continues to improve.

Out of five leopards, (becasue Chef Pascal was born in Normandy, France, and their provincial flag has leopards on it), five being best to zero being worst, Pascal gets 4 leopards.

For more information on Chef Pascal and his culinary pursuits, head to his website here:

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Exploring the Enchanting Food of Puerto Rico

Senor Big Ed
5490 Lincoln Ave. 
Cypress, CA 90630

Well, it finally happened. We are getting rid of our good friends Sabrina and Anthony. They have decided to take the plunge and move to Washington. They decided they did not want to battle the traffic on the 91 Freeway for two hours plus each day, wanted to live where they have actual seasons, and move closer to her sister. To celebrate their big decision we decided to meet up for one big dinner before they had to pack up and head to the great Northwest.

In another shocking twist on things, they actually picked the restaurant we'd eat at. They had recently had a very positive experience at Senor Big Ed in Cypress. I had never heard of this Puerto Rican place before, and I have to admit, I really had no idea what Puerto Rican food entailed. I imagined it would be like Cuban food, and then I glanced at a map and found out that nearly 800 miles separate the two islands in the Carribean Sea, so I really had no idea what to expect.

I did do a quick search of Puerto Rican food online and found that the cuisine is influenced by the people of Spain, Africa, America, and the Tanio Arawak, the indigenous inhabitants of the island. The menu at Senor Big Ed is full of Puerto Rican favorites; mofongo, arroz con gandules, guisado, and plenty of plantains are all represented here. I had no idea what I'd be trying when we drove up to the restaurant.

Senor Big Ed is in an area of OC that we do not get up to nearly enough. The only other spot we have visited in this North OC city was Joe Schmoes nearly 5 years ago. Way too much time between visits and we will try to rectify that going forward. Senor Big Ed is situated in a strip of shops on the corner of Walker and Lincoln, a block away from Cypress College.

The restaurant has been in business for over twenty years, if not significantly more. I could not find an exact date online, but I place it between 20 to 30 years based on some of the Yelper reviews. Puerto Rican pride is evident inside the restaurant with plenty of flags, a map of the island, and pictures highlighting the beauty of the island adorning the walls. There's also a claw machine, which got lots of use by the kids eating here. They were pretty good at it also, getting plenty of stuffed animals out of the machine. I wasn't hoping for a stuffed animal, but a great meal. Let's see if I got lucky also.

We started out our journey of Puerto Rican food with their Sampler Plate ($14.50). Sampler plates are always the way to go so you can get a good lay of the land. This one included a Puerto Rican Tamale, a Meat Turnover, a Cheese Turnover, an Alcapurria, a Relleno de Pappas, Tostones, and Fried Yellow Plantain. I really enjoyed the two turnovers and the relleno de papa, which was a potato ball stuffed with ground beef. The turnovers were definitely reminiscent of empanadas that I have had at other places. The plantains were pretty solid, and I could not decide if I liked the smashed versions or the sweeter ones better. The alcapurria, the long thin brown item in the upper right of the photo, was a green banana fritter filled with ground beef. It was okay, but a little over fried. I was not in love with the tamale. It was made of plantain I think, and nothing was inside, so it was a bit boring to me. It also had a pretty damp texture that I was not expecting. A good sampler platter though.

Sabrina kept the sampler platter vibe going with her entree on this evening the Combo #2, which was a Relleno de Papa and a Cheese Turnover. She seemed to like both but only ate half to save for lunch the next day. Very thrifty Sabrina. Combo plates come with your choice of rice and plantains. You could go with regular plain white rice, but we all selected the much more flavorful guisado with grandules, which is the national dish of Puerto Rico and is Spanish rice with pigeon peas. Very flavorful and comforting. You can get your plantains both smashed and fried or soft and sweet, or a combination of the two which is what we all did. The menu also stated that you get beans, but none of our plates included them, a fact that we didn't notice until we had finished our meals.

Probably the most famous of all Puerto Rican foods, and the most fun to say is the Mofongo Relleno ($13.99). Green plantains are mashed tightly and then topped with your choice of meat. Anthony got the beef version. I tried a bite of the beef and it was very tender with a nice sauce covering it. Anthony has been here two times, and this is what he's gotten on both visits. I guess if it's not broke, don't deviate from the plan.

I also went with the Mofongo Relleno ($13.99), but I selected the pork version. When I read up on the mofongo before coming to Senor Big Ed's, I thought this dish was going to be too dry, but it was moist and flavorful. The pork was nice and tender and made even better with some of their garlic sauce, which you need to ask for when you visit.

Katie went with the Canoa De Platano Maduro ($10.99) as her first foray into Puerto Rican food. This was an open-faced plantain filled with ground beef and then covered with cheese. She loved the mix of the savory and sweet with this dish. A very comforting dish for this colder than average evening. She would not hesitate to get this one again

I felt pretty good with our visit to Senor Big Ed. I admit that when Sabrina and Anthony first picked it, I was not that enthused. I did not think I was going to enjoy it as much as I did. What I learned is that plantains are way more versatile than I ever knew. They use them in so many ways. I liked the different spices and sauces of Puerto Rican cuisine. They made this food very unique. Service was not the best this evening. Our server left us for long stretches of time, and we had to ask numerous times for garlic sauce and refills. Even with the subpar service, if you are looking for something a little out of the norm from what you are used to, definitely give Senor Big Ed a try. One last meal with Sabrina and Anthony, but we look forward to exploring the restaurant scene with them when they move to Washington.

Out of five telescopes, (because the largest telescope in the world is located in Puerto Rico, and you should definitely get a closer look at the cuisine of this island), five being best to zero being worst, Senor Big Ed gets 3 telescopes.

Senor Big Ed has a very limited website, which you can access here:

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Warming up with Some Italian Food

Ristorante Genovese 
214 North Tustin St. 
Orange, CA 92867

Italian food is always a good choice during the colder months. In case you are not reading this in Southern California, for the last month and a half we have been hit by a series of rainstorms that have freaked a lot of people out. We are getting three days of rain pretty much every week and for us Californians, that is a big deal. People are planning their days around the light to moderate rain storms by doing all of their errands on the four days a week it is not raining. We were pretty lucky to dodge the raindrops on a recent restaurant meetup with my parents to a spot I had never heard of before, Ristorante Genovese in Orange.

I must have passed this place hundreds of times since they opened their doors in 1984. Situated right beside the Sky Palm Motel and breakfast favorite Arthur's, Ristorante Genovese is a small, white, green trimmed restaurant with plenty of signage facing busy Tustin Avenue. The Genovese's are a restaurant family. They operated Genovese Steak House in Santa Ana from 1947 to 1984 and then reopened as an Italian restaurant in their present location. Their website lists three generations of family members that have worked here, along with a list of employees that have put in at least 10 plus years at this establishment.

The menu at Genovese's is slanted towards Sicilian style Italian. There's a good assortment of appetizers, pasta dishes, house specialties, Italian seafood offerings, and last but not least, they have their chef's extraordinary specials, which are big-ticket items like Osso Bucco, bone-in ribeye, and a veal dish. These all go for right around $30. Checking out the menu beforehand, I still was undecided when I was driving up for our dinner with my parents.

Ristorante Genovese was packed on the recent Friday evening we were here, but we were lucky to be seated rather quickly in a pretty spacious booth near the back entrance of the restaurant. There's plenty to take in here. There are lots of knickknacks all over the place, plenty of Elvis pictures lining the walls, and a small eight-seat bar in the front of the restaurant. There's also a patio out back, which would be ideal for the warmer months. They also were fully decorated for Valentines Day, with plenty of hearts all over the place. Love was definitely in the air, and I was hoping that was going to carry over with a love for the food. Let's see if that would be the case.

The menu at Ristorante Genovese makes a point of stating that only two servings of Garlic Bread will be served per guest. I guess they had a bunch of deadbeats sitting there all day scarfing down their garlic bread. Can't really blame them, as this was a pretty solid version. This is probably going to sound like a diss, but it's not. This bread really reminded me of the garlic bread my mom used to make when we were growing up. She would spread some of the Lawry's Garlic Spread on some bread and place it under the broiler for a bit. I loved it as a kid, and that's what was conjured up in my mind as we found ourselves each having our allotted quota of bread.

Most dinners come with your choice of soup or salad, and the two of us that had got that option went with the Dinner Salad ($3.95). This basic salad came with some fresh greens, a few shredded carrots, and just enough blue cheese dressing. Nothing earth-shattering about this, but I always enjoy when a dinner salad is included with a meal.

Let's start the entree portion of our meal off with Katie's selection, the Tortellini ($16.25). The fresh tortellini was meat filled and came bathed in one of the better Alfredo sauces we have had. The bite that I tried was good, but I would not have known that there was meat in the tortellini, if it were not stated on the menu. The Alfredo sauce was definitely the star of the show with this entree, as both Katie and I scraped her bowl clean with our allocated garlic bread before her bowl was taken away. 

My mom was torn between the spaghetti and the lasagna. As you can see from the above pic, the Lasagna ($17.25) won out. This came out of the kitchen on fire, with noticeable steam rising from it once it was placed on our table for a good amount of time. My mom liked this at first but then thought it was a little too soupy. It lacked the structure and crisp edges that are some of her favorite parts of other lasagnas. The bite that I had was fine, and I could see what she was talking about with it being soupy. The cheese really took over here and made the noodles and inside guts of this lasagna kind of insignificant. Not awful, but she's had better.

My Dad got the Chicken Piccata ($23.50) for his meal at Ristorante Genovese. The chicken was topped with plenty in the way of mushrooms, capers, garlic, white wine, and some lemon. The big guy made quick work of this, which he thought was pretty good. The chicken was tender and he loved the mushrooms and sauce this came out with. It also was accompanied by a portion of spaghetti with meat sauce and the vegetable of the day, which when we were here was green beans. Both were fine. 

I don't order veal nearly enough. I decided I was going to rectify that situation by getting the Veal Saltin Bocca Alla Romana ($28.50). With this one, medallions of veal are topped with prosciutto, provolone, and mushrooms. I was pretty unimpressed with this dish. The reason you get veal is that you want it to be very tender, and this was not that. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say they made a mistake and had given me chicken instead. The veal in this was lost in the shuffle and was outshined by the mushrooms and cheese. My dish also came with spaghetti with meat sauce and green beans.

Because my meal was a little on the small side, I definitely had room for dessert, and apparently so did everyone else, since we got two. The first was a Gelato Truffle ($5.95). This ball of gelato came out hard as a rock. We had to let it sit a few minutes until it got softer to break into it. It was fine, but not very noteworthy. I did not even write about it in my notes. The Chocolate Fudge Cake was better. It was joined on the plate by some streaks of raspberry and chocolate and three piles of whipped cream. The cake was moist and the icing was not sickeningly sweet. I would have liked this even better with ice cream, which would have made this more like the hot fudge cake at Bob's, one of my childhood favorites.

Our visit to Ristorante Genovese was fine, but not mind-blowing. My meal was a real let down, as it was not what I expect when ordering veal and the serving size and price were all out of whack. I was still hungry after leaving the restaurant and definitely did not feel like I got $30 worth of food. In fact, I thought all of the meals were a little on the puny side. Not one of us took food home for the next day, which is rare when my light eating mom is eating in a restaurant. The garlic bread and Katie's meal were standouts, but that's all I think I'll remember about these meal months from now. Service was pretty good, especially considering how busy they were. Since we probably only have another month before we start heating up in OC,  I do look forward to more Italian food on these frigid high 50 degree evenings.

Out of five palaces, (because the surname Genovese means a person from Genoa, and one of the most popular attractions there is a small street lined with giant palaces, the Via Garibaldi Palaces), five being best to zero being worst, Ristorante Genovese gets 2.5 palaces.

For more information about Ristorante Genovese, head to their website here:

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Stag Pizza Party

Stag Bar + Kitchen
121 Mc Fadden Place
Newport Beach, CA 92663

This is a review a long time in the making. I have been wanting to try the pizzas and other items at the Stag Bar for a long while now. It just seemed that every time we came down to the Newport Beach Pier, they were packed. There was always a big game going on, or a bar crawl was passing through and there was nowhere to sit in the rather small dining section of one of the oldest continuing operating bars in Southern California.

The building that houses the Stag Bar was built in 1908 and became a bar six years later. That puts them at serving the people of Newport Beach beer and cocktails for the last 105 years, minus of course those dark times when prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933. During that time the Stag Bar survived by serving sarsaparilla and the popularity of billiards. Of course, there were rumors of beer being served upstairs, but that's none of my business.

The Stag Bar became an upscale martini bar after prohibition ended, and it was at around that time they installed a 100-foot long bar, which is still the longest in the city. In 2006, Stag Bar was bought by Mario Marovic, of the Lounge Group, and renamed The District Lounge. It stayed the District for eight or so years, and then Mario, who has had a good string of adding impressive restaurant and bars to his portfolio (Malarky's, Blackie's, Playa Mesa, Country Club, and Matador Cantina to name a few), decided to go back to this building's roots and bring The Stag back with a huge makeover to its early 20th-century look and feel.

Back are the antlers, pool tables, and taxidermy above the bar. They darkened things up a bit and decided to specialize in whiskey, of which they feature 75 different kinds, including some specialty small batches. The menu here also got a complete overhaul. They are known for their meatballs and pizzas at The Stag Bar, but there's also hamburgers, salads, and even tacos offered on Tuesdays.

We were lucky enough to find a table near the back door of the long and narrow Stag Bar, right near the kitchen, and a little removed from all the craziness that is the bar area. We still had a good view of the Sunday Funday crowd winding it down before they had to get back home to get ready for work or school. We were here on the last day of Newport Beach Restaurant, Week and The Stag Bar was offering a three-course dinner menu, plus a beer or cocktail for $20. Such a deal, it got us out of the house on a Sunday evening. Let's see if it ended up being worth it.

The first course for us was this Half Antipasto Salad ($5). This was a very generous serving size for it being a half and it included a whole cavalcade of stuff in it; feta, provolone, olives, prosciutto, capicola, pepperoni, pepperoncini, tomato, artichoke hearts, and greens dressed in a red wine shallot vinaigrette. The produce in this was very fresh and I really liked the variety here. I do wish they would have dressed this with a heavier hand, as a lot of the items had little to no dressing included.

Personal pizzas were the option for course number two. At The Stag Bar, they have 18 kinds of pizza for you to choose from, and I did not see that they had a build your own pizza, but I can not see why they wouldn't do that for you. I definitely always veer towards the pizza that has the most meat on it, which was the appropriately named Meat Coma ($10). This one included prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage, and capicola, along with red sauce and mozzarella cheese. I liked the slightly sweet crust here, which was thicker than I usually enjoy, but it was not too obtrusive. The thick crust held all the contents of the pizza well. The meats were nicely spaced out and delicious, but I could have done without the big slices of prosciutto, which came off all in one bite. Katie and I are definitely opposites when it comes to pizza. She never veers towards pizzas with meat, as was evident with her choice, the White Knight ($8). This pizza uses white sauce and mozzarella as its base and then adds artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and ricotta to it. Katie also liked the crust and felt it had a homemade kind of feel to it.

Not part of the restaurant week menu, but we could not resist trying a Skillet of Meatballs ($8). We had tried their meatballs at various food events we had the privilege of covering and they were good then, but even better on this evening. At Stag Bar it's a three-step process ordering your perfect meatball. First, you pick what kind of meatball you'd like to have, the sauce you desire is next, and lastly, you select the cheese you desire. Our fantastic server Stephanie suggested that we trust her to doctor up the four meatballs the way she likes them. We got the house grind, which is a blend of beef, pork, prosciutto, and mortadella, and then had marinara and provolone cheese blanket each of the four meatballs. This meatball masterpiece was finished off with a good amount of habanero pesto, which definitely gave this a kick. Good call on letting Stephanie pick how we wanted our meatballs. The meatballs were very flavorful and fork-tender. The cheese and sauces kind of took over here, but no complaints from me about that. Both the marinara and the pesto were excellent and made these some of the best meatballs we've had in a really long time. Made me wish that they had a meatball sandwich on their menu, instead of just sliders. Maybe I'll just sneak in my own bread next time.

A sweet ending to our restaurant week adventure was this Beignet and the Jets ($6). These come six to an order, even though the menu states eight, and are more like fried dough than a beignet. They were fine but got a little boring near the end of the three that I had. They needed a little more powdered sugar and the caramel sauce was okay but needed to be a tad thicker. Fine, but not earth-shattering.

I was pretty pleased with our visit to Stag Bar for Newport Beach Restaurant Week. A salad, personal pizza, dessert, and a cocktail for $20 was a pretty solid deal in my opinion. The best item we had was the meatballs, which were fantastic. If you are lucky enough to have Stephanie as your server, definitely trust her suggestion to have the meatballs her favorite way. The pizzas here were better than most, and I look forward to trying others on future visits. I have my eye on the sausage, Mexican, and the breakfast pizzas. Service was pretty solid, especially considering how busy they were. Not only was Stephanie great, but the manager on duty, (sorry I forgot your name) checked on us numerous times, and we had a great conversation about the restaurant business. Glad to see that The Stag Bar has made a return to its glory days, and hopefully it will not be so long before a return visit is warranted.

Out of five antlers, (because large male deers are called stags, and they grow antlers each year), five being best to zero being worst, The Stag Bar gets 3 antlers.

For more information about The Stag Bar + Kitchen, head to their website here: