Thursday, September 25, 2014

Italian Dinner at Barolo Cafe with an Assist From Penner

Barolo Cafe
13771 Newport Ave. #9
Tustin, CA 92662

Most of the time when I write down a restaurant for us to try, it comes from one of the blogs that I have read, or maybe a magazine article, or sometimes I get readers tips. This restaurant is a little different. I jotted this one down after reading through Dustin Penner's tweets. Who's Dustin Penner? Some of you hockey fans might know that he has played with the Ducks two times now but was traded away in the middle of last year. He lives in OC during the offseason and mentioned one of his favorite restaurants was Barolo Cafe in Tustin. His glowing accolades made me take notice, and it finally worked out where we could try this restaurant.

For those of you not familiar with Barolo Cafe, like me, it's located in the same shopping plaza as Wahoo's and Gen Korean BBQ House off of Newport Avenue. Their website tells me that they have been open in this spot since 1992, and somewhere along the way, they opened a second location, Barolo By The Sea, on Balboa Island. Owner and Head Chef at Barolo's is a man named Giuseppe, who is from Italy, but honed his craft in many countries across the globe, as well as stints on cruise ships.

We arrived here on a Friday night, and this little restaurant was packed. Make sure you have a reservation because we were almost out of luck when we showed up at 6pm. Barolo is a tiny neighborhood Italian joint, with tables that are too close to each other, an open kitchen which allows customers to glimpse a professional chef working hard, and it has an upscale Italian menu, with many favorites listed on it. I had a hard time making a choice, and so did the rest of my fellow dining partners, but we finally decided, and this is what we came up with.

We were presented with this Bread Basket to start things off. The bread here was fresh, and when dipped in the provided oil and vinegar, it made this even better. I tried to limit myself to eating only two pieces of this, but that was not to be on this night, as I went way over my quota.

Entrees at Barolo Cafe come with Dinner Salads. This is your typical house salad, which had just from the farm greens, grated carrots, and a flavorful vinaigrette. This was dressed a little on the light side for me, but Katie and my parents had no complaints about their salads.

I had wanted a Caesar Salad instead of the house salad that came with my entree, and they were gracious enough to just charge me the difference, which was only $2. I was happy I upgraded my salad, as this was a pretty good version of a Caesar. It had plenty of dressing, which was a creamier dressing than what is on most Caesars. Almost like a mustard-based dressing, but with just a hint of mustard flavor. There was plenty of croutons and Parmesan on this salad too.

Katie carefully perused the menu before ordering this Tortellini Boscaiola ($18.95). Joining the tortellini on the plate were peas, mushrooms, and a very nice cream sauce. This was a pretty good dish, even without a protein added. The cream sauce was light but flavorful, the pasta was definitely made in house, and the mushrooms added a nice earthiness to the plate. Katie described this as, "perfect Italian comfort food." One of the better pasta dishes Katie has had in a while.

My Dad wanted to have seafood on this night, and I had heard good things about the special they were offering on this night, the Sea Bass Piccata ($27.99), and it did not disappoint. The sea bass was cooked wonderfully, fork tender, and the sauce had just enough flavor to delicately balance out the fish. Not the most beautiful of plates because it was all one color, but it was probably the best plate of the night for our party of four.

When my mom sees arrabbiata on an Italian menu, she almost always gravitates towards it. The Penne Arrabiata ($17.95) would be her choice on this night as well. This spicy red sauce really hit the spot with her. The sauce had a punch of heat to it but did not overwhelm the taste buds. The fresh pasta clung to the arrabbiata sauce perfectly. If I would have ordered this I would have wanted to add a protein to this plate, but my mom liked it just fine as it came out of the kitchen.

I went a little out of my comfort zone when picking my meal at Barolo Cafe. I can't remember the last time I ordered a dish with eggplant in it, but here I was having the Veal Sorrento ($20.95). It had also been a while since I had veal as well. Here it came sliced thin, then layered with eggplant, mozzarella cheese, and tomato sauce. The veal was very tender, but kind of got a little lost here with the other flavors on top of it. The eggplant in this dish has got me thinking that I should order it more than I do. The side of pasta was just like the others at the table, freshly made, and with a very nice red sauce poured over it.

We wanted some dessert, but nothing really struck our fancy on their dessert menu, so we just went with this Chocolate Truffle ($6). This is not like the truffles you can get at See's Candies. This is chocolate gelato dusted with cocoa powder, surrounded by candied hazelnuts, with a zabaione cream center. After biting into this I learned that zabaione is a light custard made with a sweet wine. This was a good dessert, but not enough to split between four people.

Barolo Cafe is the kind of Italian restaurant that you wish was in your neighborhood. If we lived closer, I could see this becoming an every other week kind of place for us. The menu is not going to blow you away with its creativity, but you can bet that the items that are on it are going to be fresh, made correctly, and satisfy your appetite. The prices here are a little on the high side, but I'd argue that it's definitely worth the splurge every once in a while. Even though the restaurant was filled to the brim, we experienced very good service. It's obvious our waitress was used to the big crowds here. Even though Dustin Penner has moved on to the Washington Capitals, I definitely thank him for mentioning Barolo Cafe on Twitter, and I hope he has a great season, except when he plays against the Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals.

Out of five lumber mills, (in honor of our tipster Dustin Penner, who is from Winkler, Manitoba, which was named after Valentine Winkler, operator of a lumber business in the area), five being best to zero being worst, Barolo Cafe gets 3.5 lumber mills.

For more information about Barolo Cafe, go to their website here:

Barolo Italian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Restaurant #500 is a Master of the Steak

Mastro's Steakhouse
633 Anton Blvd. 
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

This is a pretty big post for our blog, so I thought we should go to a big time restaurant. Yes, for those of you counting at home, this is our 500th different restaurant that we have covered on this blog. 500 restaurants in 557 blog posts, and this big round number deserves a restaurant as big as that number, that's why we headed to Mastro's Steakhouse in Costa Mesa. Well that reason, and also because it was Costa Mesa Restaurant Week. Can't pass up a great bargain at a pricey restaurant.

Costa Mesa Restaurant Week always takes me by surprise. Most restaurant weeks are early in the year, right after the holidays, when restaurants are normally less crowded. In January and February, most people overspent on the holidays, and are probably having to cut back by eating Cup O Noodles for a month or two, while they build their bank accounts back up. I briefly looked at the other restaurants participating in restaurant week, but I knew where I wanted to eat. The pre fixe menu at Mastro's offered your choice of salad, entree, two sides served family style, and a choice of dessert, all for $40.14. Basically you are paying for the entree, and getting the rest for free. A big time bargain. I hurriedly made a reservation.

We arrived at  Mastro's at 6pm on the Monday of this particular restaurant week. I had been here one time before, but that was only for dessert, which we will get to later. We met my good friend Ryan in the bar. True to form he was already on his second cocktail when we walked in, but that's to be expected since he was watching a preseason game involving his woeful Redskins. We had a quick drink before heading to the dining room. The bar area was dark, with muted conversations going on between business clad people discussing what I imagined to be the days activities at their workplaces. After downing our libations we were lead to the dining room by one of the hosts.

The dining room was actually a lot more lively than the bar area. It was still quite dark, but the louder conversations really livened up the place. There was a good mix of customers here. Most were older professionals, but there was also some younger people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. We had no need for the regular menu, but I was curious to see how much things cost here. Most steaks are in the $50 range, with the most expensive one being the 48 ounce double cut porterhouse for $96. Just like at all upscale steakhouses, the entrees come with just the meat, and sides are extra. That's why this restaurant week menu was so strong. Let's see if the food here is worth it or not.

Always have to snap a quick shot of the Bread Basket when trying a place. This was a pretty good one at that. Both Ryan and Katie were pretty fond of the pretzel bread, while I liked the more traditional slices. I was also pleased that they gave us plenty of slightly chilled butter for easy spreading.

The first of the two salads offered on the restaurant week menu was Katie's selection, the Mixed Greens Salad. Supporting the mixed greens on the plate were cucumbers, tomatoes, shredded carrots, and a vinaigrette dressing. Katie liked this lightly dressed salad.

Of course when I saw Caesar Salad on this menu, I knew I would have to order it. I really enjoyed this version at Mastro's. The produce was fresh, the croutons were crunchy, there was plenty of Parmesan cheese on here, but the dressing is what made this for me. It was creamy, and they had the perfect amount on here. One of my pet peeves when it comes to salads is that a lot of them are under dressed, but this one had the right balance going on here. Not too much dressing where it overpowered, and not too little so you could not even notice it. It got me excited for what was to come.

I know this is a steak place, but Katie wasn't feeling like red meat tonight, so she opted for the 10 Ounce. Scottish Salmon. She was pretty impressed with this fish. It lacked any kind of seafood odor, so she knew it was fresh, and it was cooked perfectly, with a very nice tenderness. One of the best pieces of salmon she has had in a long while.

It doesn't look like it in the pictures, but there is an Eight Ounce Petite Filet Mignon on these plates. Both Ryan and I chose to upgrade our meals by adding Oscar Style ($16) to the tops of our filets. The Oscar style is of course Bearnaise sauce and shredded crab, which can never be a bad combination. They were very generous with the amount of crab placed on top of the tender filet. The filet itself was pretty solid as far as filets go. I'm more of a ribeye kind of guy, as filets tend to be the most tender, but they also sometimes lack in the flavor department. That was not the case here at Mastro's, where the steak had a nice beefy flavor, and it was helped along by the Oscar style presentation.

The two side items that came with the restaurant week menu were the Creamed Spinach and Garlic Mashed Potatoes. I was way more partial to the creamed spinach here. It had a very nice cream sauce, that played nicely with the spinach, while sharing the spotlight with it. Sometimes it can be so creamy that the spinach really gets left behind. The mashed potatoes were okay. Needed more garlic, and they were a little too firm for my tastes. I like a little more moisture to my mashed potato. Ryan and Katie both enjoyed these more than the creamed spinach, so what do I know?

Since we were already getting such a good deal at Mastro's on this night, we decided to splurge a little more and have the Lobster Mac and Cheese ($35) as well. Yes, you saw that correctly, thirty-five dollars for mac and cheese. A new record for us, and one that I'm not sure we will break anytime soon. This did have plenty of lobster in it, and the mac and cheese came out scalding hot. I liked this, but was not in love with it. There was plenty of cheese, but it kind of fell flat for me. The lobster is what made this dish for me. Going to have to try their more popular lobster mashed potatoes on my next visit.

Now to the item that brought us here for our first visit a few years ago, the Personal Warm Butter Cake. A dessert so great, it even has its own Twitter handle. That's when you know you have made it. Anyways, this is one of my favorite desserts that we have had during the run of this blog. I'd describe it as a crumb cake on steroids. It is deliciously sweet and rich, and with the addition of the ice cream, it pushes this dessert over the top with deliciousness. Even though I was quite full, I had no trouble taking this butter cake down. Well worth the visit to Mastro's.

This visit was a great one at Mastro's, and even better because it was restaurant week. I added up everything on the restaurant week menu that we had, minus the add on's that we splurged on, and it came to $84 a person, so we saved $43 a person by coming during restaurant week. A real bargain. Not that paying full price here is not worth it, but because it was so cheap, it made this less of a special occasion restaurant, and more of a, "just because" kind of spot. I'd definitely put Mastro's in the upper echelon of steakhouses in OC. The steaks were all very good, and I look forward to coming back here to try their ribeye on future visits, (when someone else is paying). The service we experienced on this night was attentive, but not stuffy. Glad we decided to go big for our 500th restaurant, and look forward to the next 500 plus.

Out of five race cars, (because race cars are involved in races that are 500 miles, and this is our 500th restaurant), five being best to zero being worst, Mastro's Steakhouse gets 4 race cars.

For more information about Mastro's Steakhouse, go to their website here:

Mastro's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Going to Town at Spicy City

Spicy City
5555 E. Santa Ana Canyon Rd.
Anaheim, CA 92807

It had been well over a year since we had Chinese food for the blog. Yes, I had to look it up, it had been that long. Both Katie and I have been craving some good Chinese food, but we live in an area where it's hard to come by. There's a fast food style joint by our place, but it's not that good, and we have grown tired of it. Lucky for us, we were invited to try Spicy City in Anaheim Hills, so we would definitely get to satisfy our Chinese food cravings.

Spicy City is located in Anaheim Hills, across the street from the Automobile Club, and in the same shopping plaza where one of my favorite cookies hails from, Campitelli's. I grew up in this area, and this is one of those restaurants that has probably been a good dozen restaurants in this same building. The building has been here 30 years, but Spicy City recently took over just over a year ago. They have another location in Irvine, which we hear gets quite busy.  This location had its fair share of customers when we arrived at 7pm on a recent Wednesday, and that continued during our one hour stay.

The interior of Spicy City is bright and lively. Lots of splashes of the color red, which symbolizes good luck and fortune in China. There are also numerous well maintained fish tanks throughout the restaurant. You can tell that this is an older restaurant, as the wooden floor boards do creak a bit when walking on them. The booths were comfortable, and semi-private. The menu is large, with tons of American-Chinese favorites in the front of the menu, and more traditional, less western cuisines towards the back. The menu also features lunch specials and a variety of family dinners, which include soup, appetizers, and entrees. We wanted to try a wide array of items, so we just ordered off of the ala carte menu. There were some difficult choices, but we managed to make our picks. This is what we came up with.

Starting things off was this Pepper Beef ($13.99). One of my favorites of the night, this came with plenty of tender flank steak, onions, bell peppers, dry red chili, and a pepper-garlic sauce to top things off. The sauce here was not as sticky as at other Chinese restaurants. The sauce did not overpower, but let the natural flavor of the beef shine through. One of my favorite versions of this dish.

Another staple in Chinese restaurants is Combo Fried Rice ($8.99). This was a lighter version, which lacked greasiness, and still included shrimp, pork, and chicken. It was a more than ample serving size, and had plenty of pork and chicken in here, but it might have needed a little more shrimp, but I'm a shrimp fiend anyways. Another good version of a classic dish.

The lone misstep for me on this night was the Scallion Pancake ($3.99). Katie saw this on the menu, under the more traditional Asian specialties, and exclaimed that she had always wanted to try one. It was on the greasy side, and really lacked any kind of flavor. I did get a hint of scallion, but expected more. I had one slice of it, and let Katie have the rest of this.

My favorite item to get in a Chinese restaurant is Walnut Shrimp ($15.99), and at Spicy City, it's listed as one of their chef specials. I usually use this dish to judge how good a Chinese restaurant is, and after trying their version, I knew I was in for a treat the rest of the evening. The shrimp here were lightly battered, and topped with a sweet mayonnaise and honey sauce. I liked this plate because the sauce was not too thick, but it did not sacrifice flavor. The shrimp were pretty good sized, with plenty of walnuts that provided an earthiness. It's easy to see why this is one of their most mentioned plates online.

Another item that we ordered from the more traditionally Asian area of the menu, was this Shredded Pork with Peking Sauce and Lotus Buns ($12.99). Katie fell in love with this plate. I was almost jealous. I'd describe these as a build your own taco kind of thing. You take the doughy bun, and fill it with scallions and the sweetened strings of pork. I'm not really into the lotus buns, much too doughy for my tastes, but Katie was fond of them. I did like the pork though, and just ate it without the buns.

The last thing we tried on this night was the Orange Flavored Chicken ($11.99). This is way better than what they serve at Panda Express. All white meat chicken was lightly fried, and topped with a very well made tangerine sauce, that was sweet, but not overly so. I liked the nice crispness to this chicken, but the sauce still allowed the tender chicken to shine.

After we waved the white flag, and declared that we were done, they brought over these orange slices. We ate a lot of food at Spicy City, but the Chinese food here is not heavy like at other Chinese restaurants. Both Katie and I felt pretty good after all of this food that we ate. If you live in north OC, and are looking for some pretty solid Chinese food, you may want to try Spicy City. We are looking forward to trying their Irvine location when Chinese food cravings hit us again.

We would like to thank everyone at Spicy City for making our visit so enjoyable. We really felt welcomed, and could not have been happier with the service we received on this night. Most of this was due to our very personable server, Ken. He made sure we had everything we needed, and was very knowledgeable about the menu and the restaurant.

If you would like to learn more about Spicy City, visit their website here:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Finding Our Way to El Maguey

El Maguey
31481 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

I have been on a quest to find my favorite south OC Mexican restaurant. Ideally, it will be very comparable to my favorite OC Mexican spot, El Farolito in Placentia. Since we live in Mission Viejo, it's not always convenient to drive to northern OC for dinner. We have found some pretty good Mexican spots south of Irvine, like Cocina de Ricardo, La Sirena Grill, and Tacos Ensenada, but these have not made me forget about my love for the legendary El Farolito.

Both Katie and I were craving Mexican food on a recent Saturday night, so it was off to Yelp we went to hopefully find our new favorite spot. Yelp lead us to El Maguey in San Juan Capistrano. El Maguey is located directly across the street from J Serra High School, and about a block and a half away from the famous Mission San Juan Capistrano. They get 4 stars on Yelp, with over 120 reviews, so we were pretty excited about our trip to El Maguey.

This restaurant looks like it used to be a house in a former life, and it has now been converted into a restaurant. There are two rooms, both with very nice TV's hanging on the walls. The night we were here, they were tuned to preseason football. El Maguey has a very comforting feel to it. Kind of old school, with many comfortable old booths, and a nice patio, which seemed to be the seating preference of many of their patrons on this warm southern California evening. We made our choices from the rather large menu and waited with bated breath for our food to come out.

Starting things off are the customary Chips and Salsa that hit the table while we were deciding on what to order. This was a pretty good version. The chips were fresh, with little greasiness, and the salsa was mild in spiciness but had a decent flavor profile. The salsa was a little on the runny side, with little to no chunks of tomato in it. Not a bad start to our meal.

It is almost always a done deal when eating with Katie in a Mexican restaurant, she will always order Guacamole ($6.98) to start. I surmise that Katie learned this from her parents, as I have observed them ordering this almost every time we go out for Mexican food as a family. This was a very good version. It was chunky, and not overly seasoned. My one complaint about this guacamole was that they are a little stingy with the portion size. For seven dollars, I'd expect enough of this to be around for our dinners, but it was gone by the time our entrees hit the table, and I was using this sparingly.

We went big on this night, as we ordered another item from their appetizer section of the menu, the Chorizo and Queso ($9.98). Known on other menus as queso fundido, this came served with a side of tortillas. If you have never had this appetizer, make sure you order it with a group, because it's very rich, and expands once ingested. This was more than enough for Katie and I. The cheese, of course, was great, and I liked the larger chunks of chorizo in this. They only provided two tortillas for this appetizer, which was not nearly enough. We should have asked for more.

El Maguey gets lots of love from their mole online, so I was pretty happy when Katie ordered the Enchilada en Mole ($13.25). She ended up being happy as well. The mole sauce here is fantastic. Not an overly sweet mole, but still rich in flavor. She selected a cheese enchilada and a chicken one. She liked the chicken version better, as the chicken was very tender, and went well with the mole. She would definitely get this again on future trips here.

I went with my standard item when judging a Mexican restaurant for the first time, Carnitas ($11.98). This plate of pork was spot on. Some of the pork was crispy, some fatty, but all were flavorful and tender. Not a bad bite in the bunch. One of the best versions I have had in a while. The beans and rice are worth noting here as well. I'm not really into the rice as much, but this version was seasoned right and held my taste buds attention. The beans were good and creamy but lacked the heaviness of other refried beans. Very impressive plate.

We left El Maguey very full and satisfied. I'd say this is our new favorite Mexican spot in south OC. It's not as great as El Farolito, but when we don't feel like tackling the freeways, El Maguey will definitely fit the bill. Everything we had food-wise was pretty solid and made very well. Even though El Maguey's food is stellar, they could use a little help when it comes to their service. It was inconsistent, to say the least. Drinks were left empty for stretches at a time, and it took quite a while to get the bill and get it back after it was paid for. I noticed other tables having issues as well, but none of this would keep us from coming back here anytime soon. Glad we finally found an adequate substitute for our beloved El Farolito, in south OC.

Out of five flowers, (because maguey in Spanish is an agave plant that flowers once in a hundred years, and then dies after flowering), five being best to zero being worst, El Maguey gets 3.5 flowers.

For more information about El Maguey, check out their web site here: