Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Family Favorite Moves South

Rockwell's Bakery Cafe and Bar
101 Avenida Vista Hermosa #116
San Clemente, CA 92672

Rockwell's is a pretty well-known place in North OC. The bakery opened in Villa Park in 1987 and became pretty famous for their Chocolate Curl Cake. In those 32 years, my family has gotten cakes from Rockwell's sporadically for various family events that call for cake. My path crossed with this bakery again when we were eating at Jeff's Inviting Food and Spirits in Orange, and our server let it slip that her mother works for Rockwell's and she makes the cakes for Jeff's.

It was just about that time that I realized that there was a new Rockwell's located in the Outlets at San Clemente. Much closer to where I live, and another option for dinner after one of our favorite walking jaunts on the San Clemente Beach Trail. It was after one of those recent strolls that we made our maiden visit to Rockwell's.

Rockwell's is more than just a bakery, although the bakery case will tempt you with its brownies, muffins, macaroons, pies, cakes, and more. Located to the far right in the Outlets at San Clemente if you are coming from any of its entrances, I can imagine Rockwell's can get a bit overlooked with the high visibility of its restaurant rivals here, namely Slapfish, Blaze Pizza, and Ruby's Diner.

The menu is a little more elevated than those other casual spots, as they offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Their lunch and dinner menu has quite a few appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and even six more substantial entree options. Entrees go for $14 to $24, while sandwiches and burgers will set you back less than $15. There's also a happy hour for those of you making it here on weekdays from 2 to 6pm. They have specially priced appetizers and drink specials from their bar.

When we arrived at Rockwell's on a recent Thursday evening around half past six, we were met with a half-full restaurant, which seemed surprising with the lack of shoppers we encountered in the rest of the outlet stores. Since it was a pretty mild evening, with slight breezes coming off of the ocean, we decided to take a seat on their pretty good-sized patio area that sits in the front of the restaurant and overlooks the parking lot. Too bad they could not swing it around a bit to take advantage of the wonderful view that overlooks the hills and twinkling lights of San Clemente. Enough of the backstory here, let's see how the food turned out for us on this evening.

I have to admit that I've never really enjoyed pickles all too much. I have always felt that they overpower burgers and sandwiches, but I do enjoy pickle relish on my hot dogs, go figure. I do have an appreciation for fried pickles, or anything that's fried really. At Rockwell's, that means their Crispy Pickles ($8) would be the first thing we'd try on this evening. These were very slender pickles encased in a crunchy breading and served with an interesting dijon aioli. The pickles were a little on the mellow side, maybe because they were a bit smaller than we usually encounter with this appetizer. I was a little hesitant about the dijon aioli, but it worked out fine and I did not miss my preferred ranch dipping sauce.

Katie was in the mood for some carbs when she selected this Blackened Chicken Pasta ($18). Egg noodles are the base here, along with mushrooms, tomato, and a very spicy cajun alfredo sauce. There was quite a bit of chicken buried beneath the mound of noodles, but the sauce shined here when I stole a few bites off of her plate. It had a great spiciness to it and really woke up the plate. It was a little too spicy for Katie, but she weathered the storm to eat most of this. Our server alerted us that she could ask for the heat to be turned down a bit if she wanted to get this again, which she would.

I've been craving comfort food recently and when I saw Mama's Meatloaf ($17) offered at Rockwell's, I knew that's what I'd be having for dinner. This meatloaf came covered in gravy, which I think might have been mushroom-based. It was very tasty and helped the slightly overcooked meatloaf by boosting its flavor a bit. It was good, but I've had better meatloaf in other places. The mashed potatoes and green beans were both very solid, but I wished that the potatoes had some gravy on them as well. Still, a very comforting plate of food that was not too heavy.

Along with Slapfish, (which I also really enjoy), Rockwell's is the best option for lunch or dinner for the hungry shoppers that inhabit the Outlets at San Clemente. With what we experienced on this evening, the food is not going to blow you away, and it's probably not destination-worthy dining, but if you are near the area and looking for a solid lunch or dinner spot, Rockwell's will fit the bill nicely. I've also heard that breakfast is pretty good here, and we are definitely going to put that on our list to try in the very near future. Service was nice and relaxed, and our food came in a very timely manner. I'll give their good looking burger or the homey sounding pot pie a try the next time we are down this way. I'll also pick maybe one, two or ten things from their bakery case as well.

Out of five telescopes, (because every time I hear the name Rockwell, I think back to the 80's singer of the same name, and his big hit, "Somebody's Watching Me", and you'd be able to spy on someone with a telescope. I know I'm dating myself), five being best to zero being worst, Rockwell's Bakery Cafe and Bar gets 3 telescopes.

For more information about Rockwell's Bakery Cafe and Bar, head to their website here:

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Great OC Barbecue Shortage Is Coming to an End

Jav's BBQ
500 South Anaheim Blvd. #D
Anaheim, CA 92805

It's happening people! After a decade of writing this restaurant blog and lamenting the fact that there are very few above-average places to get barbecue in OC, we now have several places dotting our great county. Unfortunately for me, most of them are north of Irvine, a little bit more of a trek from where I live in South OC, but for good barbecue, I'll definitely drive.

As of right now, my favorite barbecue places are The SmoKING Ribs in Garden Grove,  Firestarter Barbecue in Lake Forest, Leadbelly's in Fullerton, Blake's Place in Anaheim, Meat Up Barbecue in Placentia, and the long-departed Lillie's Q in Brea. Guess they aren't coming back to OC after all. I was hoping that this visit to Jav's BBQ could add another restaurant to my favorite barbecue list.

I heard about Jav's from my cousin Kevin, who works at KTLA as a sound guy. I was not watching at the time, but he texted me and told me that the guys from Jav's were in the studio and made food for all the crew. Kevo told me that we had to check them out, that their barbecue was amazing. This coming from a guy that is very particular about his food. I'll leave it at that.

Anyways, it took us quite a few months to finally find the time to make it to Jav's BBQ. We combined this trip with a long-overdue double date night with our very good friends Rebecca and Martin. I've known them for over 25 years, met her at work, and they have become life long friends ever since. They had never been to this area of Anaheim, which includes the Anaheim Packing District, Farmer's Park, Center Street Promenade, and the Make Building which houses Jav's and a few other businesses situated on the corner of Santa Ana and Anaheim Boulevard, right across the street from the always busy Packing District.

Javier Gomez is the man behind Jav's BBQ. He was born and raised in Anaheim and has spent most of life studying barbecue from around the country. He's used what he's learned to bring what he hopes is great barbecue to the people of his hometown. Jav's BBQ started as a caterer and was selling their barbecue at the Anaheim Farmer's Market on Thursdays. They opened their brick and mortar spot in early 2018 and have gotten glowing reviews for their meats that are always cooked for at least 12 hours over an all-wood pit.

Their menu is like a greatest hits of the barbecue world.  They offer six proteins, which they sell by the pound or you can get them as a plate, and they come with two sides. There are three sandwiches to choose from and they also offer wings, pulled pork nachos, and fries. Sides are what you've come to expect at a place that serves barbecue. Their restaurant is really more of just a counter, and then you take your food and find a spot at one of the tables in the common area of the center of the building. Enough chatter, let's see if we would be able to add Jav's BBQ to our list of great barbecue in OC.

A Pulled Pork Sandwich ($12.48) was Katie's choice on this early evening and will lead us off. This was a pretty good-sized pulled pork sandwich, with a nice looking brioche bun. They did not skimp on the delicious pork here, as it was falling out of the sandwich when she picked it up. She described the pork as tender and juicy, with just the right amount of smokiness. Katie was also a fan of the coleslaw here, as it was a vinegar-based version, which had a nice tang to it.

My goal at every barbecue restaurant is the same, try as much of the menu as I can on one plate. I had the Two Meat Plate ($19.76) and added a Sausage Link ($3.64) just for good measure. These three portions of meat were pretty incredible. If I had to pick a clear winner it would be the brisket for the gold. One of the best I've had. Nice smoke ring running around the outside edge of each slice, just enough of a ribbon of fat to boost the flavor, and not dry at all. The pork back ribs nab the silver medal here. Each of the four ribs was tender and easily pulled off of the bone with a little tug. The outside had a nice crust to it, while the meat inside was just the right amount of moist. A lot of meat on these as well. The sausage link had a nice snap to its casing and a little bit of heat was present at the end of each bite. The sides should not be ignored at Jav's BBQ. I got the Brussel sprouts and the mac n cheese. The sprouts were honey glazed which was a good contrast with the earthy green bulbs. The mac n cheese was some of the best I have had in a long while. Elbow noodles were used here and they were coated with a very good cheese sauce that clung to the noodles perfectly. The cheese was not too runny, which is a big pet peeve of mine when it comes to mac n cheese. I almost went and got a pint of this to take home for lunch the next day. I really should have but I would have had to lug it around while we went to the Packing District after dinner.

Martin is a pretty straight shooter when it comes to what he likes. He did not really debate at all when he picked the Chicken Plate ($15.60). Chicken is never something that I'd eat when at a barbecue joint, but different strokes for different folks. Martin was generous enough to allow me to try a piece of his chicken, and it was surprisingly moist and juicy. For his two sides, he went with coleslaw and creamed corn. The coleslaw was alright, but the cream corn shined here. It was a tad sweet, but not like the famous one at Gulliver's. I liked the slight subtleness of this one and it conveyed a hominess that I enjoyed.

Last but not least, Rebecca finishes things off for us on this evening with her Tri-Tip Sandwich ($13.52). The meat was cooked just about medium rare, which allowed for it to be very tender and nicely spiced on the ends. Again, they did not skimp on the amount of meat included with this sandwich. Rebecca definitely had plenty to keep herself occupied with this rather large sandwich. For her side items, she opted for the Baked BBQ Beans and cornbread. I did not get a chance to try the beans, but she really enjoyed them. The only slight hiccup of the evening was probably the cornbread. It was a little on the dry side, too dense, and really did not have too much in the way of flavor. Maybe the jalapeno version might have been the better option.

If you've read this far, you might have noticed that I have not mentioned barbecue sauce yet. They have it, but as it says on their website, they urge you to taste the meat, not the sauce. The meats here are so good you will find yourself only using a little bit of their sauce. That's the mark of great barbecue, and this really is great. Yes, the prices are a bit high, but barbecue always costs a bit more than you'd expect, and this is definitely worth it. The serving sizes are pretty solid as well. Since it's open seating here for all the places in this building, I could imagine that peak times could be a bit of a hassle to find a place to sit, so be prepared for that. This was a good tip from my cousin who lives in LA, about what I think is the best barbecue I've had to date in OC. Thanks, Kevo.

Out of five catcher's masks, (because whenever I hear the name Javy, it brings to mind the Atlanta Braves catcher from the '90s, Javy Lopez), five being best to zero being worst, Jav's BBQ gets 4 catcher masks.

For more information about Jav's BBQ, head to their website here:

Friday, September 6, 2019

Welcome to OC Vaka Burger

Vaka Burger
1705 Flight Way 
Tustin, CA 92782

Nothing gets me quite as pumped as a new burger spot coming to OC. Okay, maybe a week off from work, but you get what I'm saying here, I really love burgers. Especially if that burger concept was really crazy popular somewhere else before they came to OC. That's the case with Vaka Burger, which came across my radar when I saw a review about their glorious burgers when they were serving them to the hungry people of Whittier.

Brad A. Johnson, who also really loves a good burger, wrote in the Orange County Register that the burgers here could be the best he has ever tasted. He has also named Vaka Burger as one of the top ten places for cheap eats in OC. High praise, but I have been burned a few times by some of his recommendations, so I had to check out Vaka Burger for myself.

If you haven't heard, there's a new food hall in the city of Tustin. Located pretty close to the corner of Barranca and Red Hill, Mess Hall is situated right next to three soon to be inhabited office buildings.  The two times I've been here the food hall was filled with plenty of people exploring the 9 stalls. I can only imagine that once these office buildings are filled with hungry workers, Mess Hall is only going to get even busier.

Vaka Burger started out as a popular food truck back in 2013. Two years later they set up shop in a Boyle Heights liquor store, where they grew to cult status. After a disagreement with the liquor store owners, they opened a spot in Whittier, where their iconic rise continued. That location closed as they went back to another liquor store in Boyle Heights. Then, lucky for all of us in OC, they took one of the stalls at Mess Hall and hopefully they will be here for a long while.

As I mentioned earlier, I have visited Mess Hall two times now, both trips at right about 11:30 to try to avoid the lunchtime rush, which I highly advise. Vaka is easily the most popular of all the food purveyors, which also include Slapfish, Big Parm, Sandwich Society, a Greek spot, a chicken sandwich stand called Fowl Play, Fonda Moderna, Saigon Kitchen, a coffee and tea spot, and a full bar. I've tried some of the other food stalls, but will probably review them later. For now, I was all about Vaka Burger.

The Vaka Burger menu features nine burgers, two sandwiches, sides, a salad, and wings. Prices range between $10 to $13 for their burgers and they come ala carte. Sides will set you back $3 to $7. Now that you've got the lay of the land here, let's see our thoughts on this much-hyped burger spot.

Starting things off on visit number one was my dad's pick, the Blu Burger ($13). This burger was right up his alley. It came with some soft blue cheese, mushrooms coated in a balsamic glaze, butter lettuce, and garlic aioli. My dad was in love with this burger. He called this one of the better burgers he has had in OC. He loved the way the blue cheese was present but did not overpower the very rich 6 ounces of grass-fed beef. The burger patty was the star of the show, and the condiments and toppings complimented it awesomely. Definitely a great start to our visit.

I kind of panicked when it was my turn to order at Vaka Burger. I showed up to Mess Hall knowing what I was going to order and then switched it up at the last moment. This El Porky Burger ($13) made me do an about-face when I saw that the menu said it contains two proteins; a hamburger patty and pork belly medallions. I was sold. Also added to the mix were sliced provolone cheese, caramelized onions, and a good amount of barbecue sauce. Definitely, a knife and fork burger, although I did give it a try with my hands at first. I think the barbecue sauce kind of overpowered everything here. It was hard to get an idea of how good the pork and beef were on this. The bread is worth spotlighting here. Even with this being a very messy burger, the bun maintained its structural integrity, while staying soft and pliable. A great accomplishment to whoever provides their buns at Vaka Burger.

My niece Lillie, like most kids, is pretty basic when it comes to the food that they like to eat. She got the Lencho Jr, Burger ($5) from the kid's section of the menu. This cheeseburger featured sharp cheddar cheese and she 86'd the ketchup that usually comes on this. Even though there were no condiments on this, it really showcased the quality of their burgers. The beef is ground nicely, comes out juicy, and is of very high quality. I thought the sharp cheddar was an odd choice for a kid's burger, but no complaints from very picky Lillie, who usually leaves half of her food uneaten, but that was not the case here at Vaka Burger.

Lillie's kid's meal came with fries, which were nice and thin, but kind of unremarkable to me. They were your basic fast-food fries, even though the menu states that they are twice-fried. The lone blemish on our first trip to Vaka Burger was the Dirty Fries ($6) I had ordered. Here they use the same fries as Lillie's meal but top them with feta cheese, Russian dressing, caramelized onions, and garlic aioli to finish them off.  These came out lukewarm at best and were not helped out any by an overabundance of feta cheese, which overwhelmed here. If the menu did not alert me to the fact that there was Russian dressing and garlic aioli included here, I never would have known. Again, this was my only disappointment with visit number one.

Visit number two started out with these Maui Rings ($6). These were the reason that two trips to Vaka were needed. We had these on our first visit, but my pictures of them were unusable. Not really a shame, since it gave me a second chance to have these awesome rings. They are huge and they give you plenty to share with anyone you choose to bring here. The outer portion has a nice crunchy beer batter, which breaks away easily from the large onion underneath when bitten into. I liked the smaller ones a bit better, as they were even extra crunchy. They gave me both housemade ketchup and garlic aioli for dipping sauces, both of which were good. Just wish they had ranch dressing, which I imagine would be even better with these definitely above-average rings. 

I went a little more subdued on this visit to Vaka, with the Truff Burger ($13). This burger featured arugula, sharp white cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, truffle oil, and garlic aioli. I really liked this burger. The truffle was very present, the cheese melted over the patty perfectly, and I could actually taste the garlic aioli on this. A little too much arugula, but it did help to cut the richness of this burger. Truffle lover? Then this one is all you.

Even though we did not have any kids with us on this trip, I had to order the Lechon Jr, ($5). I figured for five dollars, plus you get fries, it's a pretty good deal worth having. This time they gave me sharp white cheddar instead of the yellow sharp cheddar they had put on the earlier kid's burger. Maybe they were out of the yellow. This was a very good burger nonetheless. As you can see from the picture above, there was plenty of cheese on this, the ketchup added a nice and pleasant flavor, and the beef was again first-rate and coked to a delicious medium. Definitely the best bargain at this food hall.

Vaka Burger did not disappoint. It's easy to see why this is the most popular of all the food stalls here at Mess Hall. The burgers are in the upper echelon of the ones I have had in OC. I actually think that I'll include them in my mythical Mount Hamburgermore of OC Burgers, which now includes G Burger, Burger Parlor, Hopdoddy, and now Vaka Burger. The burgers are really excellent, but I do wish they were a little more flexible when it comes to customization when building your perfect burger. Reading their Yelp reviews, that's one of the things that people complain about the most, while the other is price. Which is really silly when you think about it. I went to Wendy's today for lunch, got a large-sized combo, and spent  $12 for a far inferior burger and fries there. I'd gladly pay the extra $8 for the quality of the burger and onion rings at Vaka when I'm near the Tustin area. No issues with the service on either of these two visits. Glad the hype was warranted, and I hope Vaka Burger has a very long tenure in OC.

Out of five outriggers, (because the term vaka is used to describe the multihull seafaring vessels popular in the South Pacific), five being best to zero being worst, Vaka Burger gets 3.5 outriggers. 

Vaka Burger does not have a website, so check out their Yelp page for more information by clicking here: