Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bella Cuba Restaurant- Santa Ana, CA

Bella Cuba- Santa Ana, CA: Exterior

Recently, we were looking for another restaurant to try out near South Coast Plaza, and stumbled upon Bella Cuba. It happened to receive positive reviews from social media as well as from Gustavo Arellano from the OC Weekly, so we decided to check it out. Conveniently, it was just across the street, and housed in the same plaza as Inka Mama's, a restaurant we had just recently visited. What a coincidence!

Bella Cuba- Santa Ana, CA: Interior
Bella Cuba- Santa Ana, CA: Specials

Inside, we were met with a festive interior and plenty of hungry lunchgoers, even though it was already approaching 2 in the afternoon. Though we were first immersed in the large-printed lunch menu, a specials board was also boasted on a nearby wall. I found the addition of lomo saltado to be interesting; besides it, however, Bella Cuba does have some other Peruvian influenced items.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sagami- Irvine, CA

Sagami- Irvine, CA: Exterior

Sagami is "beloved among actual Japanese people" and is "quite possibly the only place in Orange County" that serves hitsumabushi, said Edwin Goei of Monster Munching. It didn't take much after that for me to add Sagami, a 24 year old Japanese restaurant located in the Crossroads Shopping Center in Irvine, CA, to my Orange County restaurants to visit list.

Sagami- Irvine, CA: Interior

Thoughts to try the hitsumabushi that Goei raved about in his review, however, were slightly complicated after we were seated in the cozy interior. For, a weekend lunch special page presented an additional appealing option: uni and ikura bowl. Furthermore, additional dishes to try out were posted on menu boards as seen in the above photo.

Sagami- Irvine, CA: Green Tea

Luckily, after some thought, we ordered both of those appealing dishes, and some more. In the meantime, we enjoyed the complimentary hot green tea, whose flavor was especially apparent thanks to the use of reverse osmosis water.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

DeLuscious Cookies & Milk- Hollywood (Los Angeles), CA

Deluscious Cookies and Milk- Los Angeles, CA:

DeLuscious Cookies + Milk is a "luxury bakery in Hollywood" that aims to provide "pure indulgence" to their customers through "incredible desserts, impeccable service, and personalized care."

Deluscious Cookies and Milk- Los Angeles, CA:

With that said, when Katie of DeLuscious Cookies & Milk asked whether I would like to sample their new line of VeLuscious cookies (vegan cookies!), I was definitely curious! Just a few days after I said yes, a sampler box of their products arrived in my mail.

Opening the box was like opening a gift-- ribbon on the outside, a personalized letter, pink wrapping paper to present the cookies, individual packaging of the cookies with round, simple labels-- very fancy, and definitely an impression!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cheval Bistro- Pasadena, CA (CLOSED)

NOTE: Cheval Bistro is CLOSED as of May 2014-- This restaurant has been replaced with the White Horse Lounge.


Cheval Bistro- Pasadena, CA: Exterior Signage

I wanted to try a cuisine that I haven't had in years--French--so recently, we visited Cheval Bistro in Pasadena, California, to check out what traditional French dining in the United States was like. Yes, Cheval Bistro is operated by the Smith Brothers, a restaurant group that primarily offers American cuisine, but this experience was quite French.

Cheval Bistro- Pasadena, CA: Interior

Though Cheval Bistro is conveniently located right next door to a parking structure, inside the restaurant, all thoughts of parking were removed. Instead, we saw a classy, dark wood interior, with fine dinnerware and plenty of french paintings/ magazine cover posters on the walls.

Our seating, unlike what you see in the photo, was bright, with plenty of light right above the table. Look for the booster seats to the right of you as you enter the restaurants if you want those seats!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Derby- Arcadia, CA: dineLA Dinner

The Derby Sign

DineLA Restaurant Week came around and as usual, the two higher-end restaurants in Arcadia-- The Derby and Sesame Grill-- were participating again. Since we've visited Sesame Grill recently, we decided to switch it up and re-visit the Derby. After all, from our last visit, the owners have changed, there's now a giant sign on the exterior proclaiming 15+ USD early bird dinner specials, among other changes. 
 The Derby- Arcadia, CA: Garlic Cheese Bread

We were slightly surprised to see that we had to wait for an inside spot, and unwilling to wait the 30 minutes advised for indoor seating, we asked for outdoor seating. This contributed greatly to taking better pictures for this post, even if it meant viewing all the cars entering/leaving the valet parking lot!

The menu didn't change much from its past, but there was definitely an emphasis on quality of ingredients, with one page dedicated to explaining their poultry and beef suppliers. After ordering, our waiter brought us a complimentary platter of garlic cheese toast, but first let us pick a piece off the platter before setting the platter on the table-- interesting touch. The toast had a thick crust, crisp exterior, soft interior, and background garlic and cheese flavors-- a nice start, if a bit oily.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Great Maple (Fashion Island)- Newport Beach, CA

Great Maple (Fashion Island)- Newport Beach, CA: Exterior

On yet another recent trip to the Orange County area, we found ourselves in Fashion Island hoping to eat yet again at one of our favorites, True Food Kitchen. However, it, as well as other notable options in Fashion Island, happened to be full. Not desiring to wait, we went to Great Maple instead, seeing happy customers enjoying giant noodle-sized bowls of salad and being satisfied with the menu options.

As the outside of Great Maple alludes, the interior was likewise rustic, with dark wood tones and minimal light. It was in fact, extremely difficult to take the pictures, and all of the pictures have been post processed so that you can actually see the food-- in person, this would be pretty dark, and very yellow hued.

Great Maple (Fashion Island)- Newport Beach, CA: Crispy Calamari

Dinner began with an appetizer of crispy calamari (12 USD), accented with chili flakes, fresh olives, and lemon caper mayo. (No bread and butter was provided-- perhaps this is only on request.) We enjoyed the freshness and creativity with the dish-- the chili flakes and seasoning added an interesting take to the fresh, lightly battered squid. Moreover, we found ourselves liking the lemon caper mayo, which had more than the three ingredients described-- we tried to decipher the other ingredients under the orange light, but to no avail. On the other hand, the olives were briny and salty-- quite an enjoyable contrast. With such a delicious appetizer, we hoped our entrees, which our waiter seemed to be happy with, would just be as good.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Inka Mama's- Santa Ana, CA

Oh that delicious aji sauce--a "spicy, green puree of herbs and chili,"said Edwin Goei of Monster Munching; good enough to eat pretty much anything Peruvian, "once again, with that wonderful aji," said Kevin of KevinEats. That "Chinese influenced" lomo saltado--a beef stir fry with "onions, tomatoes, and french fries! Golden-tinged Inca Kola?

Suffice to say, Peruvian food has certainly been a cuisine of interest since I started reading food blogs. Yet, it happened to be chance when I actually decided to visit one. During another recent trip to the Orange County, I stumbled upon Inka Mama's when looking up restaurants nearby South Coast Plaza. Then I read a glowing review of it from Goei. It was definitely settled-- I had to fulfill this 5+ year old desire that day!

Inka Mama's- Santa Ana, CA: Exterior

Inka Mama's is a small, Orange County family operated chain of Peruvian restaurants. Located right across South Coast Plaza from Magiannos in a large strip mall, Inka Mama's is easily accessible for nearby residents, shoppers, hotel visitors, employees, and tourists alike. Its own spot in the strip mall, though, is slightly covered-- it's in a lower floor of a multi-level structure, covered primarily by shade. Look for the Men's Warehouse nearby, and in our case, the flow of incoming and outgoing customers to Inka Mama's, to find the restaurant.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

True Food Kitchen (Fashion Island)- Newport Beach, CA

True Food Kitchen- Newport Beach, CA: Restaurant Entrance

It happened to be Easter on a recent trip to Irvine (coincidentally, we did this also three years ago), so was it the time to take chances and drive to an unexplored area of town for lunch? Not really. So, we headed to a familiar location --Fashion Island-- and finally tried out True Food Kitchen, which was under construction back when we visited its next door neighbor, Flemings.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sesame Grill- Arcadia, CA: A Comeback

Sesame Grill Exterior

I've written about Sesame Grill probably too many times, each time discussing a new iteration or feature. Yet never did I expect that it would veer off its successful path that it has been taking for many, many years. There may have been the Chinese dishes, Japanese ramen, American burger experiments, yet time again they would revert back, perhaps improve upon, their old dishes.

So it was definitely a shocker when Sesame Grill completely changed itself and became "S.G. Cajun Seafood" for about the first half of 2013. Sure, Japanese ramen may have been different (it came from a Japanese chef exchanging cooking techniques with Sesame Grill's executive chef), but Cajun seafood a la Boiling Crab? Other than the burgeoning Cajun seafood scene around the San Gabriel Valley, there was little context. A revamped interior, environment, and clientele replaced the old, but unfortunately, the changes didn't bring success, with middling reviews coming in from new customers and complaints from the former.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Gulfstream, Century City- Los Angeles, CA

Gulfstream-Los Angeles (Century City), CA: Exterior

Recent lurking on Kevin's Kevineats.com prompted me, well, to think about Gulfsteam's crabcakes! After an event in Century City, I happened to stumble upon Century City's own Gulfsteam, located in the Westfield Century City mall. Quickly reviewing the menu, my companions and I immediately went in for a late lunch.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fortune Dumpling- Monterey Park, CA

Fortune Dumpling- Monterey Park, CA: Exterior

What happens when my writing queue becomes so long? Restaurants change: they close, change owners, or have new menus and pricing. Dumpling 888, for example, had already changed owners when I visited it in El Monte. Now, the original owners have moved to a new, larger location: Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Exterior

Some time ago (March 2012, actually), Eat Drink + Be Merry's (EDBM) post on Flavor Garden and its beef noodle soup and its potstickers awed me. Through the photos and vivid descriptions, I knew I just had to visit!

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Spicy Pork Stomach

I was personally a bit surprised the first time we came here, as the blinds (as seen in the first picture) were completely shut--was the restaurant closed? Most of the other restaurants, unusually, also closed their blinds. The reason behind this though, was due to the harsh direct sunlight; as the sun set and it became dinner service time, all of the restaurants progressively opened the blinds!

Inside, we met a simple interior: completely white and adorned with beige furniture and some decorations. We proceeded with ordering quickly, hoping to sample a large number of different dishes. Our meal began with Spicy Pork Stomach (2.50 USD), which came directly from the cold plate fridge. Garlicky and slightly spicy, the chilled pork stomach was a competent start to the meal.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Boiling Vegetables (Baby Bok Choy)

Boiling Vegetables (3.50 USD) surprised us; how could just for 3.50 we could receive such a large plate of vegetables? (typically 5+ nowadays) The vague name in the menu, by the way, is intentional: the vegetable choice varies depending on what Flavor Garden has available. In this case, we had baby bok choy, which was cooked till soft then dressed with some sesame oil--a unique touch.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Green Onion Pancake

Likewise, we were extremely impressed with the Green Onion Pancake (3.50 USD).

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Green Onion Pancakes

Look at those flaky layers and the amount of freshly chopped green onions! This was like a hybrid of Earthen's and House of Mandarin Noodle's green onion pancakes; they had the light crunch of Earthen's  while having the thicker chew of House of Mandarin Noodle's. They go along fabulously with Flavor Garden's vinegar dipping sauce (provided for all their bread items and dumplings), which cuts down on the greasiness while adding sweet and tangy flavor. Like most of Flavor Garden's items, this were freshly made. A fantastic rendition, and my current favorite.

If you're complaining that the pancake doesn't look golden brown enough, that is because we specifically asked them to do so this time as one companion wanted it to be that way. Subsequent visits without making the request have resulted with golden brown, fragrant exteriors.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Flavor Beef Tendon Noodle (Thick Noodles)

Per EDBM's recommendation, we ordered the braised beef noodle soup with wide noodles, and for our own personal preference, ordered the Flavor Beef Tendon Noodle (5.99 USD) instead of the Flavor Beef Noodle, effectively swapping beef brisket and flank for beef tendon. Like the pancakes, these noodles were hand made and prepared right when we ordered: chewy and bouncy, with variances in texture and thickness. The beef tendon was gelatinous and soft, but what impressed us most was the broth; it struck a balance, being not as strong as May Cafe's, but more flavorful than that of Mandarin Noodle House and Din Tai Fung's, with a simple beef flavor accented with tomato, chili oil (to your liking--they ask for spiciness levels when you order), and other spices. This is my preferred beef noodle soup now!

On other visits, we have tried the regular Flavor Beef Noodle; the beef pieces are tender, yet May Cafe's beef is just even more tender and also gelatinous. I do, however, prefer the handmade noodles here.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Flavor Steamed Pork Ribs
Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Flavor Steamed Pork Ribs Detail

The Flavor Steamed Pork Ribs (fen zhen pai gu, 3.50 USD), or pork ribs steamed with rice powder, were also quite a steal. Not only was the steamer basket packed with flavorful, mildly spicy pork ribs, the bottom of the steamer also had a couple of potatoes, which soaked up the flavors and extra juices.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Chinese Leek Pancake (Chive Pockets)

Flavor Garden takes yet another unconventional approach with the Chinese Leek pancake (5.99 USD), or more commonly referred to as "chive boxes" or "chive pockets." Instead of being like large semi-circles, these are like individual, flat dumplings.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Chinese Leek Pancake Interior (Chive Pocket)

Inside, the filling was fresh, with zingy chives, puffy eggs, and little filler of the glass noodles. The thin, dumpling skin was crisp and also chewy. Tasty, yet different! The vinegar dipping sauce made yet another appearance here, and the chive pockets certainly went well with those.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Shrimp Pork & Sea Cucumber Dumpling
Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Shrimp Pork & Sea Cucumber Dumpling Interior

Since we had actually pre-ordered some frozen leek pork dumplings and napa cabbage and pork dumplings, we ordered the Shrimp Pork & Sea Cucumber Dumpling (5.99 USD) instead. No, these weren't the potstickers that EDBM ordered, but they were delicious nonetheless! Opening the thin, chewy dumpling skin led to an outburst of juice similar to that of xiao long bao, a pleasant surprise. The golf-ball sized filling was delicious-- tons of crisp, fresh shrimp, gelatinous sea cucumber, and tender pork. 

On a side note, we've had similar experiences following with the frozen dumplings, and have continued to order them! They're a great deal considering how packed these dumplings are.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Sweet Rice Ball
Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Sweet Rice Ball (Sesame + Peanut) Interior

Ending our first visit to Flavor Garden was a bowl of Sweet Rice Ball (2.99 USD). These are actually handmade sesame and peanut glutinous rice balls served in plain, hot water. Why plain water? The filling is quite sweet, with bits of sugar and crushed peanuts and black sesame; the water serves as a palate cleanser.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Spicy Auricularia (Wood ear)

On subsequent visits, we've tried other dishes and appetizers, like the Spicy Auricularia (Wood ear) (2.50 USD). The wood ear wasn't spicy, but it was mild and tender, with bits of garlic and other vegetables.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Flavor Dry Tofu Slice

The Flavor Dry Tofu Slice (2.50 USD) was a typical bean curd thread salad, with bean curd threads mixed with green onions, carrots, and celery with sesame oil and seasoning. It was refreshing, however, and even prompted us to make our own version at home!

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Flavor Sauce Bean Pork Noodle

Trying to branch out from our usual favorites, we ordered the Flavor Sauce Bean Pork Noodle (5.99 USD). Simmered green beans, spicy ground pork, and numbing sichuan peppercorns made for quite an interesting experience! There was plenty of oil on the surface of the noodles, however (as seen to the left of the photo).

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Flavor Beef Soup Noodle (Clear)

We also like the Flavor Beef Soup Noodle (5.99 USD), or the "clear" beef noodle soup. Instead of the bold flavors of braised beef noodle soup, this one is simple, with distinct beef flavor and richness. It's a lighter option that's pretty well received; several times we've come to Flavor Garden and find that this has already been sold out!

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Ton Ton Pan-Fried Bun

Each visit, we like to order either the Regular Steamed Pork Bun (5.50 USD) or the Ton Ton Pan-Fried Bun (6.50 USD) seen above, which is simply the "regular steamed pork bun" pan-fried. These are large, fresh buns that have tons of juice--a soup spoon's worth--and a ground pork filling flecked with the white parts of green onions. It's imperative to savor these buns fresh for the juice, and for the pan-fried buns specifically, the fragrant and crunchy bottoms.

There's not much filler; the bread exterior is thin on the sides and thicker on the tops, and it's delicious by itself or dipped with the vinegar sauce.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Chinese DanDan Noodle

When a friend came to visit us, he ordered the Chinese DanDan Noodle (4.99 USD). It was like the Flavor Sauce Bean Pork Noodle minus the beans and plus a sesame/peanut sauce and some preserved vegetables. The sichuan peppercorn flavor could still be tasted here, but was subdued by the sesame sauce.

Flavor Garden- Alhambra, CA: Spicy Beef Roll Cake

We were so stuffed by the many other items we ordered that most of us didn't try the Spicy Beef Roll Cake (6.50 USD), essentially niu rou juan bing or the Chinese beef pancake roll/ wrap that recently gained popularity through the restaurant, 101 Noodle Express. By the time I got to this dish, the pancake was cold, rendering a less than ideal response: chewy, thick pancake that could use a slight bit more of hoisin sauce. The amount of beef to green onion/cilantro was balanced to me, however. I'll have to order it again for a more accurate review!

That was a lot of items, wasn't it? That's actually 15 of 52 items on the menu. Although it seems like I've tried the entire menu, I've left a number of sections uncovered. The "pies" are quite popular with customers and there are couple of other dumplings, noodles, appetizers on the menu!

I wish Flavor Garden were not so far away; the emphasis on quality (food-wise, service, and servingware--porcelain, with barely any melamine items) always leaves a good impression after visiting here, and has made me look at my previous favorite restaurants in a different light. The very reasonable prices are even more icing on the cake!

*Note: As the majority of Flavor Garden's items are freshly made, you'll need to wait usually around 10-20 minutes for your food with the exception of the prepared cold plates.

Flavor Garden (Facebook)
1269 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Tel: (626) 284-3549

Flavor Garden on Urbanspoon

P.S. Happy 2013 and to the fifth year of the blog! The past few months have been loaded with major events and deadlines, which is why I couldn't post major reviews like this (I was looking to post this during the end of summer, which was when I started to visit the restaurant) for longer than I expected.

Some recent news: The Guardian has featured my eggette picture in its Hong Kong City Guide map feature and also its article, "Top 10 dishes to try in Hong Kong." You'll see the picture in the article; on the map, you'll see the picture when you click the the food recommendation, Lee Keung Kee! The original post with the picture can be found by clicking HERE.

Thanks for reading!