Thursday, January 30, 2020

Ono Grinds at AI Pono Cafe in Costa Mesa


Ai Pono Cafe
283 East 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

If I could pick one food trend that I hope would hit it big this decade, it would be plant-based proteins. Okay, I just wanted to make sure you were actually reading this, instead of just checking out the pictures. It would definitely be Hawaiian food. I've been to a number of Hawaiian restaurants, and even the worst, (King's Hawaiian) had some redeeming value.

A few reasons I'm all in when it comes to food from our 50th state. I love all Hawaiian meats, they also improved on boring potato and macaroni salad by combining the two, and even though the mai tai was invented in Oakland, the Hawaiians improved upon it to make it their own and it's impossible to go to the islands and not partake in one or a bunch of them.

So, I get a little pumped up when I hear about a new Hawaiian restaurant opening in OC. I get even more excited when I have read numerous reviews about how great it is. Full disclosure, I had Ai Pono Cafe's food once before when they were renting space at The Hood Kitchen, which is in an industrial park right near John Wayne Airport. I loved what I had that initial visit, but their hours and days they were operating were too limited, so I decided to wait until they had their own spot, and were open more hours.

I had no doubt that this would happen for Ai Pono Cafe, and nearly three months ago it did. They now have their own stand-alone restaurant on the restaurant rich 17th Street in Costa Mesa. They are right across the street from Sidecar Doughnuts and Mi Casa, and in the same shopping plaza as Burger Lounge and Ross Dress For Less. They replace the now-departed Aloha Poke Company. Their hours have greatly improved, as they are now open for lunch from 11 to 3, and then open again for dinner service from 5 till 9 every day except for Sunday.

Started as a meal prep spot, the owners of Ai Pono and Hawaiian natives, Gene and Dana feel that Hawaiian food has gotten a bit muddled these days. They want to share what true Hawaiian street food entails. Dana is in charge of the front of the house operations, while Gene, who previously worked as Executive Chef and Partner at Roy's, is manning the kitchen. He's created a menu that features plenty in the way of bowls, salads, plates, and a variety of chicken dishes.

Unlike their space by the airport, this spot is much roomier and features plenty of artwork along the walls that showcase their passion for their home state. Ordering is done at the register, you grab a seat at one of their picnic tables, and the food is brought out to you. I had no doubt that the food was going to be just as good as what I had at their other place and I was pretty excited to share it with Katie and her brother and his fiancee. Let's dig into their real Hawaiian street food.


Starting things off will be beautiful Rachel's selection on this evening, the Hawaii Famous Fried Chicken ($13.80). Before my trip here I did not know that Hawaii was famous for fried chicken, but apparently they are. These two big chicken thighs are dipped in their guava chili pepper sauce. Rachel is not overly talkative when it comes to gushing about food, but she really seemed to enjoy this. The chicken looked really good from across the table, and I will probably get this the next time I visit. This was also served with a scoop of both mac salad and hapa rice, and a little green salad dressed with a vinaigrette.


Ai Pono has combo meals, which they call Utu Bang Bang ($16) Not sure what that translates to, but this option allows the indecisive like Katie to create their perfect meal. Katie went with the Shoyu Poke and Kawai As Why Chicken Katsu as her picks. She was extremely happy with her meal. The chicken katsu was lightly breaded, tender, and with the little drizzle of a sweet soy reduction over the top, it was perfectly balanced. The poke was some of the freshest she has had and not overdressed like you get at all of those assembly line poke spots that have invaded almost every shopping center in OC. The plate was rounded out with fried noodles, mac salad, and a scoop of hapa rice. Even though she enjoyed this meal, she'd maybe try one of the seven other options next time. 



I approached my visit to Ai Pono Cafe as I do almost any restaurant I go to, pick the item that allows you to try the most things on one plate. At Ai Pono, that means I got the Mento Bento ($18.50). This is basically the greatest hits from their kitchen. You get tastes of their Portuguese sausage, ahi katsu, spam, muy Thai shrimp, and teriyaki chicken. My favorite of the bunch was the sausage, which had a crispy casing and an excellent flavor to it. The chicken teriyaki was also superb, and way more elevated than what you could ever get at Flame Broiler of your bowl restaurant of choice. I was a little surprised by the ahi katsu, which came with a pleasing tinge of hot mustard that I was not expecting but still enjoyed. The shrimp was great as well, but beware that they leave the shell on, so take it off before eating. This comes with rice, which was okay but was overshadowed by the fried noodles and the mac salad, one of the best I have had. This is definitely the way to go if you are unsure of what to have on your initial visit to Ai Pono Cafe. 



I added a Spam Musubi ($3) to my meal. I must confess that this was my first time having one. I know, late to the party as usual. I thought it was okay. The rice really overwhelmed here, and I ended up just taking some of the rice out and it was a lot more enjoyable. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Spam, and I suggest that if you're like me, don't turn your nose up to it like I did for all these years. It's not so bad.

At Ai Pono Cafe, you can taste and feel the authenticity of their food. It's not gimmicky, just good honest Hawaiian cuisine that I could see being served anywhere in the Aloha State. During our visit, I observed a good amount of people, many of whom I assumed to be Hawaiian enjoying their meals and thanking Chef Gene for a little taste of their home that's nearly 2,500 miles away. Be on alert for some specials that they run occasionally, which are featured on their Instagram page, here. They have had a fusion taco and a burrito offered, both of which looked awesome. Service on this evening was pretty low key, but still a warm and inviting atmosphere. Definitely, the aloha spirit is alive and well here in Costa Mesa.

Out of five Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A-Pua'a's (which just happens to be Hawaii's state fish), five being best to zero being worst, Ai Pono Cafe gets 3.5  Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A-Pua'a's. 

Ai Pono Cafe does not have a restaurant website, but you can find info about them here: https://www.yelp.com/biz/ai-pono-cafe-costa-mesa

Friday, January 24, 2020

Wonderful Sandwiches, Wine, and Weeping in Temecula


Meritage Restaurant at Callaway Winery
32720 Rancho California Road
Temecula, CA 92591

I told some of the people from work that I was going to be going on my first wine tasting trip to Temecula recently. Most were shocked that I had never been before. To be honest, I'm not really a big fan of wine. I do not appreciate it as much as I know I should. I also know that wine and food complement each other, but I'm more into hard liquor than either beer or wine.

The reason for my maiden voyage to wine country Temecula? It was my good friend Cynthia's 40th birthday, and her fantastic husband had rented a party bus from OC to shuttle us and twenty of her other friends to three wineries. As with most booze trips, things started out kind of slowly, but by the second winery, everyone was feeling pretty buzzed. We were even treated to a breakup and reuniting by one of the couples on our bus. This breakup/makeup cycle happened probably six times and was the train wreck that we, unfortunately, could not take our eyes off of, well, because we were on a bus with them.

Luckily, our bus pulled into the Callaway Winery, where we had reservations at their Meritage Restaurant for a late lunch. It was not only a chance for all of us to sober up a bit but a chance to get away from the constant bickering of the couple that was ruining what was supposed to be a great day for Cynthia as she joined the 40-year club. Lunch was definitely what we all needed.



After we got off the bus, I was awestruck by the beauty of the Callaway Winery, which sits on top of a hill in the heart of the Temecula wine country. Impossible to take a horrible picture with these views. The Meritage is basically a tiered, climate-controlled patio. On this rather chilly day, we were actually pretty comfortable sitting near the window, with the views washing away the drama of the bus ride.

From what I've been able to learn in doing some research, Meritage has been at the Callaway Winery since 2008 and replaced a restaurant called Allie's. They suffered from some pretty stinging reviews in their early history, but a change of chef has benefited them recently. The reason for the turnaround can be attributed to the arrival of Chef Anthony Bar, who came aboard a few months ago. He went to culinary school in France and has worked in fine dining restaurants in France, St. Martin, Texas, and Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles. He also has done some consulting, which is where his OC connection comes in, as he provided support and guidance at Moulin in Newport Beach.

The new menu is very compact. There are eight starters, three sandwiches, seven entrees, and five salads to choose from. I was a little surprised that they had the same menu for both lunch and dinner. Entrees are definitely on the pricier side, with them ranging between $28 to $40. The appetizers run from $16 to $22. Enough of the background here, let's hope this lunch helps us get a little sober and helps decrease the tensions between our two bickering lovebirds.



Even though it's only 22 miles away in a straight line, it seems like the ocean is a long way from Temecula. I sometimes feel a little uneasy getting seafood from what I perceive to be so far from the ocean. Katie and I decided to chance it since we were both very hungry and I spied these Lump Crab Cakes ($20) on another table when we walked in. Glad we did. The tender white crab meat was placed on a very good citrus dijon aioli. The crab cakes were delicious, fresh, and not overwhelmed with any filler. I was afraid that the dijon was going to overpower, but it paired nicely with the crab. Very well done.



Out of the three sandwiches offered, the Chicken ($18) sounded like it would be the most to my liking. The organic chicken breast was joined by crispy bacon, creamy avocado, tomato, lettuce, and a balsamic drizzle. The menu states that the bread used here is pain de mie, but it was not as soft and reminded me more of a ciabatta instead. Nonetheless, it was a good sandwich. The bacon was prominent and the chicken was not overcooked. I wish they had provided maybe an aioli or some mayo as a condiment, but still a solid chicken sandwich. The fries were fine but could have been a little crisper. 



I think Katie had really wanted the chicken sandwich as well, but she knew that I was going to be writing a review of this restaurant, so she had to get something different for varieties sake. The sacrifices a restaurant blogger's wife has to make. Thanks so much, Katie. Her second option was the Fish Salad Sandwich ($18). I believe this fish sandwich was made with yellowtail, but I could be wrong about that. Whatever it was, it was definitely better than I had imagined. This elevated tuna sandwich came with hard-boiled eggs, tomato, guacamole, and what I wish was on my sandwich, a housemade mayo. The fish was fresh and mellow, the hard-boiled egg seemed weird but worked well, and guacamole is never a bad thing. This came with a side salad which I did not try. 

Sadly, dessert was not going to be an option on this late afternoon, due to a scene that one of the fighting lovebirds made in the restaurant and the fact that we were going over our allotted time with our bus driver, who had another trip planned later in the evening. Even with all the chaos going on with our fellow party guests, both Katie and I really enjoyed the food we consumed at Meritage. Just based on the lunch that we experienced, they are definitely going in the right direction here. If we are out this way again, we'd for sure come back and try Chef Bar's entrees. Make note that they are only open for dinner Friday through Sunday. Service was great, considering how challenging it is to serve 20 people who have been drinking all day. The lovebirds? They broke up about three more times on our way back to OC and when we were dropped off, he was last seen walking home by himself. Yes, they got back together the very next day. True love. 

Out of five hot air balloons, (because Temecula is famous for their Balloon and Wine Festival held the first weekend in June), five being best to zero being worst, Meritage at Callaway Winery gets 3 solid hot air balloons.

For more information about Meritage at Callaway Winery, head to their website here: http://www.callawaywinery.com/page-332683/Restaurant.html

Thursday, January 23, 2020

History Lesson and Dinner at El Cholo


El Cholo 
8200 East Santa Ana Canyon Road
Anaheim, CA 92808

Yes, I know this is my third straight Mexican restaurant review. No, I am not turning this into Orange County Mexican Restaurants, although I do wish Christian would come back and write some new reviews, but, I guess he's a little busy with Naugle's comeback. It's just as the weather turns a bit cooler, it makes me yearn for some Mexican food to warm me up. Also, it was my mom's birthday, and she was looking for a place we haven't been to for a long while. Enter the historic El Cholo.

I say historic because El Cholo has been operating since 1923, with only a short break when they shut their doors due to food rationing during World War 2 and did not want to sacrifice food quality. They may have been the first Southern California restaurant to feature nachos on their menu (1959), added combo plates way back in 1938, and at one time were the world's largest user of Jose Cuervo 1800 tequila.

All of this as they remained a family business, now in their third generation of family ownership. OC restaurant legend Ron Salisbury is the grandson of the original owners of El Cholo #1 in Los Angeles. They have now grown to six locations, with three of these in OC, (La Habra and Corona Del Mar are the other two). Ron also picked up three other restaurant concepts to join the El Cholo family; Louie's on the Bay and The Cannery, both situated in Newport Beach, and the legendary Cat and the Custard Cup in La Habra.

This Anaheim Hills spot opened in 2013 and used to be the site of another Mexican restaurant, Chevy's. Remember them? Anyways, back to the present day, we arrived here on a Monday evening around 6. This big restaurant was half full, and our party of 9 was seated comfortably off by ourselves in a corner of the restaurant. The menu is pretty much just like every other Mexican restaurant in Southern California. Appetizers, enchiladas, combo plates, and specialties of the house are listed here. What I enjoy most about their menu is that they list the year that they started selling that particular item right next to it. Like they did not start selling fish tacos until 2001, fajitas made the menu in 1984, and it took until 1977 that they added a burrito. It's kind of a history of when different kinds of Mexican food became popular. Enough buildup, let's see how my mom's birthday dinner choice turned out for everyone.



First, a shot of the Chips and Salsa we were served on this evening. The chips were light, but not much to them. The salsa was kind of the same. Not enough spice to it, but I did like the consistency that it had. Lots of chunk to it, but it needed a pop of flavor to be considered good in my book.


Katie and I were a little bit late to dinner, so we missed the tableside presentation of this Guacamole Molcajete Style ($12.95). Just like the salsa, this needed some seasoning to make it taste anything better than bland. It's a shame really because the consistency was there, but it failed to stand out.


The combo meals started coming out for us fast and furiously and Katie got hers first. She went with the No. 1 ($17.95) which is a Rolled Beef Taco and a Chicken Enchilada, which was a two-dollar upcharge. She had heard this was the thing to get at El Cholo. Katie thought the rolled beef taco was better than the enchilada, which she thought was bland. Combo meals are rounded out with Spanish rice and refried beans.


My dad got the No. 2 Combo ($15.95) which comes with a Chili Relleno and a Cheese Enchilada. He liked the relleno a lot, as it had a little kick to it and was filled with plenty of cheese. The cheese enchilada was good, but he wished it would have had a little extra sauce. Beans were fine, but he called the rice just filler. He was not a fan of it.


The birthday girl went with a One Item Combo ($9.95) and picked a Cheese Enchilada as her one item. She seemed pretty pleased with this. It had plenty of cheese and she really enjoyed the cheese topping the refried beans. Glad this plate could make my mom happy on her big day.


My sister and brother in law broke our streak of combo plates when they split this Fiesta Platter ($15.95). This comes with a big mound of nachos and is then surrounded with chimichangas, crab and beef taquitos, quesadilla segments, and sour cream and guacamole on the side. Predictably they had plenty to take home.


As usual, when I'm eating at a place for the first time, I'm going to get the plate that allows me to try the most things. At El Cholo that would be the Taste of History ($19.23). This came with four of their most popular items; a Chile Relleno, Cheese Enchilada, Pork Tamale, and a Rolled Beef Taco. All of them were kind of average. I think they all kind of tasted like each other, which is a little bizarre to me. Nothing really stood out on this plate for me. The rice and beans were just hanging out. I was not overly impressed, but on the bright side, I was not overly disappointed either. I guess that's something.


Not the most adventurous of eaters, like she is with boyfriends, my niece Kaylie got these two plain Chicken Soft Tacos ($5.95). She requested just chicken and cheese and they complied with her wishes. They looked really boring from across the table, but this was the way she wanted them and it seemed like she was pretty happy with the result. Glad I grew out of my picky eating phase by the time I was her age. Maybe someday she will like other things on her tacos like hot sauce or even lettuce. Here's hoping that she grows a little more courageous in her food exploration in the next few years.


Another picky eater is my niece Lillie. I took a quick shot of her Kid's Taco Plate ($6.95) before it was whisked away because she had wanted her taco with no lettuce and tomato. Man, this younger generation. I did not bother taking a picture when it came back, but she seemed pretty content and even ate a good majority of her beans and rice. Great job Brownie Booster.

El Cholo was not horrible, but nothing I had here would make me want to come back anytime soon. I'd put this restaurant right there with El Torito and Alcapulco's based on their food, and just a tad below what you can get at El Ranchito or Rodrigo's. I love the history here and how they celebrate it, but the meals themselves were pretty average. We live in an area where great to very good Mexican food is readily available, so I'm not entirely sure why people like these chain Mexican restaurants so much. Maybe it's familiarity or convenience, which are my guesses. Service was good on this evening, as our server made sure our party of nine had everything that we needed during our stay. Sorry again for the three Mexican restaurant reviews in a row, but anything for mom on her birthday.

Out of five traffic signals, (because not only was 1923 the year that this restaurant opened, it's also the year that the traffic signal was invented), five being best to zero being worst, El Cholo gets 2.5 traffic signals.

For more information about El Cholo, head to their website here: https://www.elcholo.com/

Thursday, January 16, 2020

X Marks the Spot?


Xclusive Taqueria Moderna
1701 Corporate Drive Suite C-8
Ladera Ranch, CA 92694

We all have that one friend that is always updating their social media accounts. They post tons of pictures and share with the online world how their day is going and their thoughts on everything. It's always in the back of my mind how they ever get the time to get any work done, watch a movie, or even go to the bathroom. I could never be like that because I'd be afraid that people would become bored with my pretty routine life, and unfollow me rather quickly. 

I know this is a weird way to start a restaurant review, but it's what I thought of when I heard who is one of the owners/partners of Xclusive Taqueria in Ladera Ranch. Chef Chris Tzorin, who is one of the most real and dare I say entertaining people that I follow on Instagram. I've met him a couple of times and because his life is an open book online, I feel like we are a lot closer than what we actually really are. 

I know all about his passion for the culinary industry, the love he has for his family, and his gregarious personality that landed him on the Food Network a handful of times. He has worked in more kitchens than anyone I can think of at the moment; The Beach House, Tortilla Republic, Kutsi, Tempo Urban Kitchen, Savannah Chophouse, Oak, Cafe Tu Tu Tango, Sol Agave, and I'm sure I'm missing a few but my fingers are starting to get tired from typing out the list. At Xclusive, he's now reunited with Manny Velasco and Eddie Perez and they not only have this Ladera Ranch restaurant, but a food truck, and have been doing a steady dose of private chef events. From what I have seen on Instagram, he's happier and busier than ever. 

Now to this trios latest venture in Ladera Ranch. They took over the old Jerry's Dog spot, which is a little hidden, but people seem to have found this place. They have a four and a half star Yelp rating with close to 200 reviews in their short four months in business. Xclusive is a bit of departure for these guys as they shed their fine dining backgrounds and run this as a quick-service restaurant with what they call elevated Mexican food.  Ordering is done at the register and then the food is brought out to the hungry patrons. 

The menu definitely hints at elevated Mexican food with calamari, cazuela de queso, seabass, and pork belly dotting the menu. Stuff you don't normally see at quick-service Mexican restaurants, especially in this area. Prices are a little elevated as well, with tacos going from $4 to $7 and enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas hovering around the $11 mark. Chef specials like fajitas, braised pork or short ribs go for $18. Let's take a look at what we went with on this rainy Friday evening. 



When Chef Manny was at Sol Agave, he not only had some pretty solid chips and salsas, but he featured an excellent bean dip. I was very happy to see it here at Xclusive. It was just as good as I remembered, but it's very hard to not fill up on it while waiting for your food. The red salsa was also pretty good with a decent amount of spice to it. 





Our food started to come out in waves, so let's see what Katie was up to this evening. She started with two tacos, the Barramundi Seabass Taco ($6) and the Chicken Mole Taco ($5). Out of the two, Katie liked the chicken taco the best. It was dressed with Oaxacan cheese, refried black beans, and pickled habanero onions which gave this a slight kick. The mole had a great flavor to it, a little smokey, then sweet and savory at the end of each bite. The chicken did get a little lost here with everything else that was going on with this taco. The first few bites of the seabass taco were fine, but with the chipotle aioli, avocado mousse, cabbage, mango pico, and the seabass, the tortilla fell apart halfway through eating it. A shame really because these were some really good handmade tacos, but they could not withstand all the weight that was heaped upon them. Katie claims that she's going to get the simpler street tacos next time, as she thinks they will highlight the proteins a lot more. She was impressed with the Side of Rice ($3) she got to round out her meal. She enjoyed the roasted corn in it, which lifted this side dish up. 




I tried one of their tacos as well. I'm a big fan of anything from a pig, so the Pork Belly Taco ($6) would be my selection this evening. The pork belly here was very moist, almost too much. With the mango relish, pickled onion, and lime crema this was one of the wettest tacos I have ever had. I wish the pork belly was in cubed pieces so it would have been a bit more prominent. The tortilla was good but did get soggy near the end. I really enjoyed my Carne Asada Burrito ($12) much better. It came with plenty of carne asada, refried beans, rice, pico de gallo, and guacamole. I'm always a big fan of when they grill the outside of the burrito a bit to provide a nice crispy outer covering. The insides of the burrito were pretty good as well. All the ingredients meshed well together, although they could have used a bit more guacamole in this. I'm looking forward to having another burrito but with the pastor next time. 




Every time we ate at Sol Agave when Chef Manny was there, we'd get a very good version of one of our favorite appetizers, the Cazuela de Queso ($10). We were hoping that it would be the same as the one we had there. Sadly, it wasn't. I think the difference is the cheese blend that they use here. Sharp cheddar, jalapeno jack, and manchego are mixed with chorizo at Xclusive. A quick glance at the Sol Agave menu shows that they use manchego as well, but also Oaxaca and a fresco cheese fondue mixed with sour cream. The consistency was off, as this cazuela de queso was too liquified and the taste was not as good as others we have had. Even the good tortilla could not help save this for us. I also wanted to share the Side of Guacamole ($3) we got as well. Very fresh and it went perfectly with everything we had this evening.

Even with the misstep of the queso dish, I think Xclusive is a welcome addition to the dining scene in the desolate Mexican restaurant landscape that is Ladera Ranch. An area where Jalapenos and Taco Mesa are the only game in town unless you consider the very mediocre Casa Ranchero. The food at Xclusive will cost a few dollars more than those other places mentioned, but they are trying to bring a more gourmet product to the marketplace. Since we live so close I look forward to coming back and finding my perfect meal here. Chef Chris was very welcoming in the front of the house, making sure that everyone was enjoying their food and had everything that they needed. No surprise that he even gave us a shout out online before we even had finished our meal.

Out of five social media networks, (because as mentioned before, Chef Chris is a master at all forms of social media), five being best to zero being worst, Xclusive Taqueria Moderna gets 3 social media networks.

For more information about Xclusive Taqueria Moderna, head to their website here: https://www.xclusiverestaurants.com/

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Hoping for a Friendly Meetup at GuacAmigos


GuacAmigos
2607 Pacific Coast Highway 
Newport Beach, CA 92663

Katie and I are pretty much similar except for one glaring difference, I'm definitely a morning person and she would prefer to sleep in until 11am. I'm fine with it most of the time, but it does put a crimp into one of my favorite meals that we don't get to have enough, brunch. By the time she gets moving, gets dressed, stops at Starbuck's for her twice-daily dose of caffeine, and fight traffic to get where we are going, most restaurants are wrapping up brunch service and getting ready for dinner.

Katie made a real effort to wake up "early" on a recent Sunday when we actually made a jaunt out to experience brunch with our very good friend, Becky. Becky suggested that we try out one of her favorite places as of late, GuacAmigos in Newport. I had only heard of this restaurant when I read a blistering review about it in the OC Register. Brad A. Johnson called it one of the worst new restaurants to open in 2019. I was definitely intrigued to see if it was as bad as he made it out to be.

GuacAmigos comes to us from the duo of skateboarding legend, Tony Hawk and former Playboy Playmate, Nicole Dahm, who along with her sisters formed the famous Dahm Triplets, who were featured in numerous issues of the magazine at the turn of the century. They took over the old Joe's Crab Shack spot in April of last year. 

The Guacamigos team has made great strides in opening up this restaurant from the old days when it was Joe's. It's a lot less cluttered from what I remember, with very comfy booths lining the large windows overlooking beautiful Newport Harbor. I was a little afraid that this being a celebrity-owned restaurant that there would be way too much memorabilia busying up the place. There is a surfboard from Kelly Slater, a snowboard from Saun White, plus other action sports items from others, including Tony Hawk himself, but they are spread out enough, and I think most visitors might not even notice them.

The brunch menu is pretty compact here, with only six entree options available, plus 2 kids meals. Prices are not too crazy when you consider the rents in this area of town. Nothing will set you back more than $17. Drinks are about the same, but there is a  cocktail appropriately called the High Roller, which goes for $40. A little rich for my blood, but let's take a look at what we did end up having on this Sunday Funday.



The obligatory Chips and Salsa shot is up first. The chips were pretty light with a slight dusting of chili powder. The salsa was very mild and needed to have a little more chunk to it for my tastes, along with some spice. Not awful, but nothing that blew us away.



One of the things that almost every employee pushed for us to get was the Tableside Guacamole ($15). We would have probably have gotten it anyway, even without the gentle upselling suggestion. With this one, they roll out a cart and you build your own guacamole with the provided 12 ingredients and 2 avocados. Both Katie and Becky let me be the shot caller in building our guacamole. I went with red onions, garlic, jalapenos, bacon, cilantro, and red pepper. The grilled pineapple intrigued me, but I left it out. The result was a pretty solid version of guacamole. I should have added a bit more bacon and red pepper for a slightly spicier zing.




Both Katie and Becky got the Cali Classic Breakfast Burrito ($13), but with different meats in them. Becky got hers with sausage, while Katie went with chicken tinga. The burritos also came filled with hash browns, cheddar cheese, and sour cream and salsa served on the side. I did not really question Becky about her burrito since we were catching up on how things are going for her, but Katie felt hers was just okay. She liked that they held it on the flattop for a little bit to give the tortilla a little crunch. The inside was a little overwhelmed by the amount of potato included here. She'd probably also get bacon next time, as the tinga lacked the pop of flavor she was hoping for. Kind of just an average breakfast burrito.



I'm crazy for Chilaquiles ($14) and was excited to have them here at GuacAmigos. They start this off with a layer of seasoned tortilla chips and then add ranchero sauce, black beans, chicken, sour cream, a small scoop of guacamole, and two sunny-side-up eggs. Again, this was not anything that blew me away, as it was a pretty pedestrian version of my favorite Mexican breakfast dish. The tortilla chips were pretty limp, the chicken was not present, and this needed a tad more spice to wake up my taste buds.

My opinion of GuacAmigos was not as dire as what I read in that scathing OC Register review, but they do have a lot of work to do if they want to compete with the other Mexican restaurants in the area. The food here was not even close to as good as what we have had at nearby Sol Cocina, Playa Mesa, El Ranchito, El Matador, Red O, and Mi Casa, to name a few. The nice views of the harbor will get people to visit once, but the food and a good beverage program are what they need to have people make return visits. Based on this visit, both of these things need to change. Add some spice to the food, upgrade the ingredients, and make the cocktails a little more affordable are a few of my suggestions. People online have not been kind about the service they have received here, but we experienced none of that. Everyone we encountered was very friendly and seemed to genuinely care about our visit, which was nice. Maybe the food at GuacAmigos was not the best choice to get Katie out of bed, but at least we had the chance for a long-overdue meet up with Becky and got to experience a beautiful view. No need to fret, Katie did get a three-hour nap afterward.

Out of five video games, (because owner Tony Hawk not only is a legendary skateboarder, but he's also put out close to 20 wildly popular video games since 1999), five being best to zero being worst, GuacAmigos gets 2 video games.

For more information about GuacAmigos, head to their website here: https://guacamigos.com/