Sunday, November 27, 2022

Refueling at Dick Church’s on Race Day


 Dick Church's

2698 Newport Blvd. 

Costa Mesa, CA 92627


We were fresh off our second 5k of the year and needed some nourishment after we had probably burned ten calories by leisurely walking 3 miles at the OC Fairgrounds. My sister, brother-in-law, and one of my nieces joined us for this race. After we collected our participation medals and gulped down some water, they left it up to me to find a place to get breakfast. I suggested the nearby Dick Church's

This was my first time ever at Dick Church's, which is incredible since I lived nearby for over ten years and because this place has been open for business since 1972. Even before that, this location has been a couple of different restaurants since 1948, which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating restaurant locations in OC. 

Dick Church's sits at the corner of Fair Drive and Newport Boulevard, across the freeway from the OC Fairgrounds. It could best be described as a diner with vintage decor, which attracts a wide range of clientele. The wood paneling, orange upholstered furniture, and brightly colored walls bring to mind what I always wanted for my game room while growing up. 

The breakfast and lunch menus at Dick's are pretty straightforward. Egg dishes, griddle items, and breakfast faves are available for people who enjoy the day's first meal. The lunch portion of the menu features sandwiches, salads, burgers, and small plates. Nothing on these menus is over $20, with most items hovering around the $15 mark. The dinner menu is a bit more extensive, with salmon, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, and steak available at just over $20. 

When we arrived at Dick Church's at half past nine, we were met with about a ten-minute wait for a table, which was not too bad. We were seated in the roomy booth at the front of the restaurant, with a window looking out onto their makeshift front patio. Our server was friendly, taking our drink order and coming back promptly to see what we wanted for our meals. So let's see if Dick's was a good choice for our post-race meal. 

My sister is not the biggest fan of breakfast foods, or maybe she was just trying to be a trendy millennial by getting this Avocado Toast ($11). The toasted sourdough was smeared with plenty of avocados mixed with garlic and perched atop some arugula and pickled red onion on the side. She enjoyed this tremendously. I have never really gotten the fascination with avocado toast. Yes, it's okay, but it's not over-the-top fantastic, and its upcharge is unreal. Maybe 20 cents to half a dollar for the bread, avocados are going for $2 in the markets, and the rest is profit. No wonder almost all restaurants have this on their menus. They make a killing on it. 

Katie, of course, loves breakfast, and she selected the Westside Scramble ($15). Two scrambled eggs with bell peppers, bacon, ham, and sausage, then finished with a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. The plate was rounded out by some hash browns and her preferred choice of toast for breakfast, rye bread. She felt this was a very well-done classic breakfast plate. She liked the crispiness of the hashbrowns and the unique marbled rye bread option. 

People love a Monte Cristo ($14), and my brother-in-law Jarrod can be added to that list. This sandwich comprises two slices of french toast with ham, melted swiss cheese, and fresh preserves. The only problem was that they were out of their fresh preserves, so Jarrod had to settle for packets of Welch's strawberry jam. He enjoyed this sandwich nonetheless, as it had plenty of ham and cheese, and the french toast added to the richness of this sandwich. He splurged for the $1 upcharge to get sweet potato fries instead of regular fries. Monte Cristos are disappearing from menus across OC, so if you are a fan of this sandwich, bookmark this place as another spot where you can get this sandwich. 

My niece Kaylie is not the world's biggest eater, but maybe she needed to refuel after our race. She selected this French Toast Combo ($14) to do just that. Two slices of french toast dusted with powdered sugar, two scrambled eggs, and two strips of bacon made up this plate. She ate most of this, and I was strategically seated beside her to sample what she did not finish. I found the french toast to be pretty good but heavy. The bacon was nice and crisp. A well-deserved breakfast plate after walking three miles. 


When eating breakfast, I like to have a savory and sweet part to my first meal of the day. It's almost impossible to take a bad picture of Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs ($18). The beef was nicely breaded and topped with a slightly chunky and delicious sausage gravy. It was just tender enough and paired well with the breakfast potatoes. The Short Stack of Chocolate Chip Pancakes ($9) satisfied my sweetness requirement for breakfast. It might not look like it, but a good amount of chocolate chips were included here. I liked these pancakes better than the french toast, but I'm always more partial to pancakes over french toast. 

We all left here very satisfied. No, this is not a destination-worthy breakfast spot, but if you are in the area and craving breakfast, it's worth your consideration to visit  Dick Church's. The food was good, with the chicken fried steak and the Monte Cristo as highlights, and everything else was solid. However, what might have been even better than what we consumed here was the service we experienced. Our server was friendly and on top of things, even though she was pretty busy with numerous tables. I'm glad I finally made it to Dick Church's after all these years, and now it's off to our next race.  

Out of five Plinko chips (because the same year this restaurant opened up, 1972, was also the year that The Price is Right premiered, and probably the most popular game on that show is Plinko), five being best to zero being worst, Dick Church's gets 3 Plinko chips. 

For more information about Dick Church's, head to their website by clicking here: https://www.dickchurchs.com/

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Burger Time at Cassell's in Downtown LA


 Cassell's

421 West 8th Street

Los Angeles, CA 90014


It was another wild Saturday night up in Burbank with Katie's family. Since we knew it would be a late night, we were lucky enough to snag a hotel room, so we didn't have to drive back to OC at a late hour. It also gave us a chance to wake up fresh for the long trip back to OC. Not wanting to let this opportunity go to waste, it was also a chance for me to cross another LA restaurant off of my restaurant wishlist. I knew just the place, the fabled Cassell's. 

Cassell's made my list because it's pretty legendary. It's been around since 1948, with only a brief closure of two years between 2012 to 2014. Al Cassell opened his lunch counter at the corner of 6th and Berendo serving up what many people at the time called the best burger in LA. He ground his own beef daily, used quality ingredients, and made as much from scratch as possible, including his mayo, potato salad, and pies. After 40-plus years in business, Al sold, and his place stayed open for a while but ultimately closed. 

Enter Chef Partner Christian Page and Jingbo Lou, an architect, who at the time had recently bought and begun renovations of the Normandie Hotel a mere five blocks from the original Cassell's. Lou felt this hamburger concept would be perfect for the ground floor of his hotel project. Chef Page had worked at Short Order at the Original Farmer's Market. Page and Lou felt protective of Cassell's concept to the extent that they bought all the old recipes, retained the signage, and even kept the old meat grinder from the original location. 

People must really enjoy the revamped Cassell's. They have four-star ratings on Yelp and added another location, the one we visited, in Downtown LA near the corner of Olive and 8th. It's a bi-level restaurant with a fifties vibe going for it, but without the over-the-top kitsch of a Ruby's or Johnny Rockets. The menu is expanded with burgers, melts, sandwiches, sides, desserts, and even breakfast offered. Our good friend Ed found his way to meet us, even though he was mistaken, and went first to the Hotel Normandie location. So, let's see if Cassell's is still one of the best burgers in LA. 


Katie is definitely a breakfast person, which is funny because she's asleep almost all the hours when breakfast is served. She's lucky that Cassell's serves breakfast all day, so she could try this Breakfast Burger ($16.50 plus $2.50 for bacon). This unique burger had two crispy hashbrowns patties substituted for the bun, with a fried egg, some avocado, and cheddar cheese blanketing the hamburger patty. I'm not sure how most people eat this, but Katie mashed it up and ate it with a fork. It seems like it would be too messy to be eaten with your hands. Nevertheless, she enjoyed this and thought it would be greasier than it actually was. 



Part one of my meal at Cassell's was this Patty Melt and Fries ($17 plus $3.25 for the fries). As you can see from the picture above, this was probably the best-looking patty melt I've had. It was cooked perfectly to a nice medium rare, and the outer layer of the patty had some nice caramelization going on with it. The swiss cheese was nice and melty, and the caramelized onions added a tinge of sweetness. The toasted rye bread was sturdy and had a great crunch to it. A classic patty melt and one of the best I've had in a long while. The fries were good but needed a little more seasoning to make them more enjoyable. 



I also ordered this 1/3 Pound Cheeseburger and Macaroni Salad ($15.50 plus $3.25 for the Mac Salad) for research purposes, of course. The burger was just like a smash burger, with its crispy outer crust and more substantial middle area. The lettuce, tomato, and onion are served on the side, along with the condiments. I really enjoyed the way the cheddar cheese melted over the patty. I suspect it was Tillamook cheese, but I could be mistaken about that. This burger came with a very well-made thousand island dressing, but I should have experimented with the other seven sauces they offer. Again, a very clean and tasty burger, but the bun-to-meat ratio was a little off. The bun overwhelmed in most bites. The macaroni salad was good, with a thick mayo-based dressing covering the macaroni and some diced red peppers and olives. I should have probably gotten the potato salad, as it seems more popular online. 


As you can tell from above, Ed is much more health-conscious than Katie and me. He went with the Chicken Sando ($13.25) and a Market Salad ($10). At Cassell's, they use Naked Truth organic chicken breast and add cheddar cheese, plenty of lettuce, tomato, and ranch to complete the sandwich. Ed's not one to express his views on food, but he seemed to enjoy his sandwich. His salad contained mixed greens, celery, cherry tomatoes, onion, and ranch dressing. A basic but fresh salad. 

I had read somewhere that Cassell's had some pretty good pie baked daily on the premises, so we all split a slice of Apple Pie Ala Mode ($9.50). They used the traditional granny smith apples mixed with cinnamon sugar and a caramel streusel sprinkled on top. The pie was good, but I liked the one from Pie 'N Burger better, but this one was way better than the one we had at The Apple Pan a few years ago. They also get bonus points for serving Fosselman's ice cream.   

I think the folks behind Cassell's revival have done things right. I got the sense that they have taken great care in preserving the heritage of what Al Cassell had built. The quality of the food and the way they make things from scratch while expanding their menu to cater to the tastes of the modern consumer is reason enough to visit. I'm sure a good number of you are looking at their prices and thinking they are way too high, as I was walking out of here $72 poorer. Still, this is a great place to get one of the better patty melts in LA and a nice treat for when you just got paid. 

Out of five speeding tickets (because 1948 was not only the year that Cassell's opened, but also when Porsche was founded, and I'm sure drivers of those sportscars have gotten their share of speeding tickets), five being best to zero being worst, Cassell's gets 3.5 speeding tickets. 

For more information about Cassell's, head to their website by clicking here: https://www.cassellshamburgers.com/

Friday, October 28, 2022

In Full Phlight to Whittier


 

Phlight

6724 Bright Avenue B

Whittier, CA 90601


We are in Whittier visiting our good friends Melissa and Kyle. Melissa is my former boss who made the trip from her hometown of Whittier to Aliso Viejo five days a week for nearly two years. 75 miles round trip a day and at least three hours of commute time. That's a lot of driving. I was sad to see her leave but was happy that her new commute would only be about five minutes. Katie and I decided she had driven enough, so we tried a restaurant in Whittier. 

It's crazy to think that after 13 years of writing this blog that this would be our first restaurant in this city.  Whittier is not exactly very convenient to get to, though, especially for people living in OC like ourselves. The only freeway that skirts its city limits is the 605, which only hits OC way down in Los Alamitos. That's a lot of surface street driving to get here, but Melissa and especially Kyle are worth it. 

They are not the only reason we made this trek. Don't let them know, but I also heard Whittier's dining scene is worth the hour-plus drive from our place. I've read plenty of articles on the LA Eater website that mention Whittier as having a burgeoning restaurant scene, and they predict it will only get better in the future. One of the restaurants that get a lot of credit for kicking off the restaurant renaissance in Whittier is Phlight, which seemed like the perfect spot to be our first review here.  

Phlight opened for business in 2005 when this street was underdeveloped, and the area was much bleaker than it is now. It's brought to us by restauranteurs Jay and Nikomi Arroyo, Whittier natives and Whittier College alumni, who also run the nearby Deli Up, and ran Otra Taqueria, which closed back in 2018. 

The concept for Phlight can best be described as tapas style, with a Spanish/Mexican influence on most menu items. Speaking of the menu, there are plenty of things to choose from. By my count, there were 36 items listed, which ranged from sweet potato fries all the way up to lamb chops and a ribeye. Prices per plate range between $7 to $39. Their wine and beer lists are almost as extensive as their food menu, with wines available by the bottle, glass, and, yes, "phlights." 

When we arrived at Phlight on a Saturday in the early evening, the restaurant was sparsely occupied but filled in as the night went on. The restaurant's focal point is the open kitchen that runs alongside the right-hand side of the rectangular space. The high ceilings and the windows allow natural light to pass through from the entrance, conveying a pleasing openness. Enough build-up. Let's check out the food. 

The most talked about item online at Phlight is these Bowie's Bacon Wrapped Dates ($11). People go crazy for them. The dates are wrapped in bacon with some manchego cheese and placed in a tamarind-honey glaze. I'm not a big fan of dates, but even I was a fan of these. They reminded me of the rumaki that my mom used to make on New Year's Eve, but better. I was afraid the date and the glaze would be too sweet, but adding the manchego cheese cut the sweetness nicely. 

Grilled Bread ($4) has been sprouting up on menus at a quickening rate lately, and Katie's a big fan. This bread was grilled well, as it was not too hard but still had a nice crunch. I was also glad that they provided plenty of butter to go along with this. There's nothing worse than holding back on the butter because you have three other people you have to share with. Fortunately, that is not the case here. 

I was not expecting to enjoy these Patats ($7) as much as I did. These fried cubed potatoes were all different sizes, so each bite varied. Also, keeping things interesting was switching between the well-made aioli and the bravas sauce, which is a traditional Spanish sauce that had a slight spiciness to it. A simple dish and a welcomed break from fries. 

Melissa must know my affinity for Caesar Salad ($9), as she suggested we get one to share. From the picture, it might not look like it, but this Caesar was pretty darn good and unique. The romaine was chopped finely and mixed with some manchego and substituted the usual tangy caesar dressing for a macadamia dressing that was a little smoother. Looking at this when it was sat on our table, I thought it would need more dressing, but it ended up being the perfect amount. This is probably misnamed because it's not a caesar, but delicious nonetheless. 

Not to ruin any suspense, but this Corn Esqutte ($10) might have been one of the best tastes of the evening for me. They nailed the Mexican street corn feel with this unique dish. The sweet corn was joined on the plate with a cotija foam and a delicious chipotle aioli. It was finished with a chili powder sprinkle and a lime squeeze. A nice take on one of our favorite Mexican snacks. 


Adobo Chicken Wings ($18) were next up for the four of us. I've been having a lot of buffalo wings as of late, and these slightly sweetened marinated wings were a nice change of pace for me. They had plenty of meat on them and were moist. Not a dry bite of chicken in the bunch. 

Again, when we ordered mac and cheese, I was not expecting what was sat down in front of us. Satchel's Mac and Cheese ($10) was made with not macaroni but with what I think was orecchiette or ear-shaped pasta. It utilized a vibrant cheddar bechamel sauce and some prominent Spanish chorizo. The chorizo is cured and has a good flavor burst to it. Very rich, but I enjoyed this more than I expected. A very grown-up mac and cheese. 

A rare miss for us on this evening were these Benson's Brussels Sprouts ($10). The menu promised garlic, brown sugar, and olive oil, but it tasted like they left the kitchen without any of these things. The charred sprouts lacked any detectable sauce and were relatively dry. The provided lemon wedge could only do so much to save this. 


There seemed to be some dissension between Melissa and Kyle the last time they were here about these Pork Belly Tacos ($6 each). She seemed to like them, but he was not a big fan. So, I was happy to be the arbiter in their little disagreement. The pork belly was a little too overcooked and lacked the spongy quality I look for when having it. I liked the tomatillo puree and the pickled onion, but the red cabbage was a little intrusive in this taco. Not awful, but I'd have to side with Kyle on this one. I'd probably skip this next time. 


The last dish for us was this Albondagus ($13). I was again thrown a screwball at Phlight because I did not have their menu in front of me and was expecting soup. So instead, this was grilled bread with a golf ball-sized meatball perched on top, with a little chili flake, capers, manchego cheese, and a white dijon sauce. The meatball was pretty tender, and I liked how everything worked together nicely. A delicious savory end to our meal at Phlight and another dish not to be missed. 


Not that we needed it, but we finished off our night with this Creme Brulee ($8). From what I remembered, it was fine, but I did not write anything about it in my notes, and as I recall this dessert, I don't really remember too much about it. I'd probably try their banana donuts next time. 

For our maiden voyage to a Whittier restaurant, Phlight set the bar relatively high. I really enjoyed the uniqueness of this restaurant. The tapas format is a great way to eat with friends and try a good amount of their menu offerings. Except for the brussels sprouts, and our dessert, everything else was above average here. The service was pretty solid and unobtrusive. We never felt rushed and had plenty of time to catch up. A perfect night with friends, even if one of them is Melissa. 

Out of five poets (because the owners of this restaurant both went to Whittier College, and their athletics teams are named the poets), five being best to zero being worst, Phlight gets 3.5 poets. 

For more information about Phlight, head to their website by clicking here: https://www.phlightwhittier.com/

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Our Reward for Finishing the Race, Poached in Irvine



 Poached Neighborhood Kitchen

17595 Harvard Ave Unit A 

Irvine, CA 92614


Katie and I have a new endeavor that we have taken on. We are doing a 5k race monthly for the next twelve months. It actually sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is. We are not necessarily running the 3.1 miles, instead, I'd categorize our style at these races as more of a casual stroll than a run, but the main thing is that we are getting out and being active. Even if that means we have been soundly beaten by people nearly double our age, at least we get a participation medal to display on our wall at home. 

All these races have allowed us to try some breakfast spots that we'd typically not get to because Katie sleeps until 10am on most Sundays. Our first race was at Irvine Valley College on the Fourth of July. The race was over at 9am, and we were predictably ready to add to our caloric intake after the taxing three miles we had just endured. This allowed us to try a notoriously busy breakfast spot a few miles away from our race, Poached Neighborhood Kitchen. 

Poached opened right in the middle of the pandemic, in August 2020. This is their second location, with the first one launching in Downey in the spring of 2017. They make everything from scratch here and hand-pick their suppliers to know where their ingredients come from. They use organic produce when available and meat free of GMOs and nitrates. 

We have driven by Poached a couple of times in the past, but the long line of people scared us off from even getting out of the car. There was a short line this time, so we gave it a shot. While in line, they get your name and how many are in your party. Once a table is available, you order at the counter and are directed to your table. I wish Stacks Pancake House would employ this system because it's awkward to hover around waiting for a table to open up. 

Poached is open for service seven days a week from 7am to 2pm. Their menu is predictably breakfast focused, but there are six options for people that are averse to breakfast foods. I'm sure there are a few of you out there. The rest of the menu is dedicated to the day's first meal. Their menu is divided into breakfast classics, benedicts, scrambles and omelets, hand-held breakfasts, griddle favorites, and a couple of bowl options for lighter eaters. Only one item on their menu is over $16, and that's the steak and eggs, which will set you back $25. A little rich for my blood, but let's see what we did end up trying at Poached. 

Katie must have been exhausted from the walk we just had because she selected the first thing on the Poached menu, the Morning Scramble ($15). Okay, maybe it was just a coincidence, but she did suck down two iced teas and water while waiting ten minutes for our food to arrive. Anyways, back to her scramble. With this three-egg scramble, you get to choose your protein, she went with bacon, and it's finished with cheddar cheese and comes with hashbrowns and toast. She liked the straightforwardness of this scramble. It was lighter than most, not relying on much bacon and cheese to overwhelm the eggs. Her hashbrowns were a little undercooked as they were limp in some forkfuls. The toast was sturdy and better once she asked for a little extra butter.  

I'm always one to pair sweet and savory together for breakfast, and this Churro Waffle ($13) satisfied the first part of that requirement, or did it? These two waffles came with a house-made caramel sauce, cinnamon butter, and a trio of sugars; powdered, cinnamon, and turbinado. As you can see from the shot above, they used the caramel sauce sparingly, especially since there was another waffle under the top. They also must have forgotten the sugars because this was devoid of any sweetness besides a few flecks of visible powdered sugar. It's a shame because the waffle here was really well-made and promising. The churro feel of this was definitely missing. 



As much as the waffle disappointed me, this Korean Short Rib Benedict ($16) almost made up for it. The English muffin is the base and then layered with pulled short rib, a perfectly poached egg, hollandaise, and a sprinkle of paprika. I liked the slight twist of using the gochujang, a red chili paste, with the short rib. It made this a little different from the other benedicts out there. The hollandaise sauce was well done, and the runny yolk in the poached egg tied everything together wonderfully. Even my hash browns were more well done than the ones that Katie had. 

A little mixed bag for us on this visit to Poached Neighborhood Kitchen. The waffle failed to impress, Katie's scramble was fine, and my benedict was the best thing we tried here. Even though things were all over the board here, I'm intrigued to revisit and try their chilaquiles, chile verde benedict, and some seasonal menu items. The dining room tables are pretty close together, but the atmosphere at Poached is rather fun and high energy. Even though you don't have a dedicated server, we found the food runners willing to help with anything we may have needed. It's easy to see why there's a long line most weekend mornings. Now, onto the next race for us. 

Out of five Olympic medals (because now that Katie and I have taken up 5k races, an Olympic medal has never been more within our reach), five being best to zero being worst, Poached Neighborhood Kitchen gets 3 Olympic medals. 

For more information about Poached Neighborhood Kitchen, head to their website by clicking here: https://www.poachedkitchen.com/

Monday, October 24, 2022

Hickory and Spice We Hope Everything Is Nice


 Hickory and Spice BBQ

2143 North Tustin St. 

Orange, CA 92865


Trying to get to all the barbecue restaurants popping up in OC these days is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole. Almost every time one closes, we have another one that springs up. In the last few months, we have lost Meat Up BBQ, Leadbelly's, Fire Breather BBQ, and Jav's BBQ, all of which were among my top ten barbecue restaurants in OC. Unfortunately, this seems to be the way with barbecue joints. They seem to have a limited shelf life. 

Luckily, these days there seems to be no shortage of barbecue spots willing to throw their hat into the ring to showcase what they think are some pretty good barbecued meats and sides. One such place that piqued my interest when I started following them on Instagram was Hickory and Spice BBQ in Orange. 

Hickory and Spice took over the old Colleary's location in May. They are situated in the back of the Target anchored shopping center near Meats and Tustin in Orange. It's a little hard to find, but just head toward the back of this center, and you won't miss it. Please be advised that they are currently only open Thursday through Sunday from 11:30 to 7:30 or when they sell out. 

The man behind this restaurant is Pitmaster Rick Mysse. He was on the national bbq competition circuit, where he won over 200 trophies in just four years. The travel became tiresome, so he looked for something where he could be closer to home. You can now see his trophies proudly displayed throughout his very comfortable restaurant. 

Ordering is done at the counter, and the food is brought to your table. The menu at Hickory and Spice is pretty standard. They typically offer four types of meat, which are available in sandwich form, as plates, or by the pound. Six sides, one salad, and chicken wings round out the menu. With the great smell wafting through the air and all the awards proudly displayed around the restaurant, I was excited to get my first taste of what they were serving here. So let's take a look. 

Both Katie and my mom got the Pulled Pork Sandwich ($14), which is a win for all of us, as it limits you from having to read even more of my awful writing. This sandwich contained plenty of pulled pork, slaw, and house sauce. Katie enjoyed this sandwich, especially the pulled pork. It featured different textures, was not too mushy, and had a nice subtle smokiness. Both my mom and Katie would get this sandwich again.  

I was pretty bummed that they don't offer combo plates, which is my favorite thing to order at a barbecue restaurant on my initial visit. It gives a better overall picture of what they are all about. This fact led me to try this Beef Rib Special ($32) they were offering on this particular Sunday afternoon. I had mixed feeling about this rib. It was really fatty, which I usually don't mind, but when you pay over thirty dollars for one rib, you want a little more meat. The pieces of meat I got from this were terrific. There just weren't enough bites like that. The bark was seasoned well, but as I ate it, the saltiness of it really overwhelmed me. It was not the best beef rib I have had. 

As my dad has gotten older, his tastes have really changed. So it did not surprise me that he tried the Turkey Sandwich ($15) at Hickory and Spice. Again, they did not skimp on the amount of meat they included in their sandwiches. This one had three thick pieces of turkey included here. Completing this sandwich was some bacon, cabbage, and a maple-cranberry sauce. According to my dad, the turkey was moist, but other than that, it was kind of bland. He did not get anything in the way of smokiness, and the maple-cranberry sauce was applied too sparingly to make much of an impact. 


Sandwiches and my meal did not come with sides, so we picked four to try. They were all delicious. My favorite was the Sweet Potato Casserole ($6). The mashed-up sweet potato was topped with a delightful pecan crumble that sweetened things up and made this a great compliment to the savoriness of the meats. A must-try. Also, a must-try was the Adult Mac and Cheese ($7). They use a blend of gouda, jack, and cheddar to coat their noodles and add some diced sundried tomatoes, adding a bit of sweetness. Very nicely done. The Ranch Beans ($6) utilized a trio of black, white, and pinto beans to this mix and rounded it out with some bell pepper and onion. Not too bad. We completed our grand slam of sides with their World Famous Onion Rings ($10). These sweet onions are panko battered and sprinkled with something they call fairy dust. These are very solid onion rings. The outer crust did not pull away from the onion underneath, which is a plus in my book. Very crunchy breading and is well crafted. 

As I was writing this review, I felt that I needed to revisit Hickory and Spice to fully understand whether this place was good or not. Based on the turkey, pulled pork, and beef rib, I'd say it is very average, but these are not items that I usually judge a barbecue restaurant on. I need to come back and try their brisket and ribs to get a clearer picture. Their sides were all nicely done, but you don't come to a barbecue restaurant for sides. The service was pleasant and cordial. I'll make it back here soon, as there are always other barbecue restaurants sprouting up all the time.  

Out of five beer steins (because the tallest hickory tree in the world is located in Germany, a county that just hosted Oktoberfest where a lot of beer steins were used), five being best to zero being worst, Hickory and Spice BBQ gets 2.5 beer steins.  

For more information about Hickory and Spice, head to their website by clicking here: https://www.hickoryandspice.com/

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Hoping the Hits Keep Coming at the Former Break of Dawn Spot

 

 Balvina's

24291 Avenida De La Carlota

Laguna Hills, CA 92653


When I started this blog in 2009, any foodie, food journalist, or best-of list for breakfast restaurants had Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills ranked as one of the must-visits for the first meal of the day in OC. The food was excellent and unique, and the back story of the restaurant added to the delightfulness of Break of Dawn. Unfortunately, they closed in September of 2021, but the word on the street is that they may reopen soon in Old Towne Orange. 

That's not the only good news that I have to share. Break of Dawn's old location transitioned quickly into Balvina's, a Mexican restaurant owned by Alejandro Cuellar, the former general manager of Break of Dawn. This Puebla, Mexico native moved to California in 1994, working his way from dishwasher to owner. Balvina is his mother's name, and it is a tribute to her because she's the one that taught him the culinary techniques that have become the cornerstone of the food he has created at Balvina's. 

The restaurant is open seven days a week from 8 to 2pm for breakfast and lunch, then reopens for dinner service from 5 to 9pm. Since Katie is always a late riser on Sundays, we made a quick reservation online for 11am about an hour and a half beforehand. Upon arrival, we were seated promptly on their shaded patio at the front of the restaurant. Besides the stringed lighting hanging from the ceiling and the signage, not much had changed to the interior from the days when this was Break of Dawn. 

The breakfast menu features a dozen options, plus a section of the menu that will excite fans of the former tenant of this space. Five of the Break of Dawn dishes are offered here. They include two of my favorites, the Sausage and Rice and the Pork Belly. But, unfortunately, those would have to wait, as I was here to try what Balvina's had to offer. So, let's see if they can keep the wonderful food coming out of this same kitchen. 


Katie had ordered the breakfast burrito, but our server brought her the Huevos Con Machaca Sonora ($17) instead. It's basically the same thing, but this is the deconstructed version. Both plates had beef machaca, refried beans, green salsa, and flour tortillas, so really, the only difference was that she ate this with a fork instead of with her hands. It also saved us a dollar by getting this instead of the burrito. For the most part, she was pretty happy with this meal. She loved the green salsa, which boosted the flavor of everything it touched. The beans were top-tier as well. Her one complaint was that the balance between the eggs and the beef was heavy in favor of the eggs. Still, this was a winning first meal of the day. 


I have become obsessed with Chilaquiles ($16), and I try it almost every time it's listed on a breakfast menu. Balvina's version is very high quality and one of the better ones I have had this year. It starts with a base of corn tortillas sauteed with very flavorful salsa ranchera, then is topped with sunny-side-up eggs, cotija cheese, a wedge of avocado, and a drizzle of crema. It was artfully constructed and a pleasure to eat. I wish the tortillas would have been a little crisper, but I'm just being nitpicky. 

Since they did not offer the option to add meat to my chilaquiles, I got extra protein by getting this Hawaiian Sausage ($6.24). This casing had a nice snap, and the pork inside had a tinge of pineapple, which contrasted nicely with the savory pork. 


We ended our meal at Balvina's with Buttermilk Pancakes ($12). They offer these with either a pear compote or bananas. We chose the latter. These were kind of lackluster. I like it better when the bananas are incorporated into the batter, but these had them on top with some whipped cream. A very light pancake but also a little bland. The syrup that they served with this followed in the same vein as the pancakes. It added no sweetness, and we were not given too much of it. 

Besides the pancakes, Balvina's is a worthy replacement for Break of Dawn. Yes, the food is different, but it's made with the same care as this building's former tenant. The Mexican breakfast options are the stars of the show, and for those that miss BofD, I'm sure their menu items that showcase Dee Nguyen's cuisine are just as good. Service was a little hit or miss on this later morning, as our server left us for long periods, and there also was that snafu with Katie's entree. I'm looking forward to returning soon to try their offerings for dinner. Balvina's continues to extend a good run at this address. 

Out of five library cards (because Puebla, Mexico, where the owner of Balvina's is from, is home to the Palafoxiana Library, the oldest library in the Americas, which was founded in 1646), five being best to zero being worst, Balvina's gets 3.5 library cards. 

For more information about Balvina's, head to their website by clicking here: https://www.balvinas.com/