5 favorite “repeat offenders” of 2014

This year, I’m doing something slightly different from previous years. Instead of my 10 best restaurants of the year, I will be featuring some of my favorites in specific categories.  I start with the five best “repeat offenders”, and these are non-Asian restaurants which I will return to over and over again just because I can’t get enough of it.

One of my San Diego favorites is Cafe 21, now in its new location just a few doors down. It is bigger, better and virtually impossible to garner a seat on the weekends. From breakfast, lunch, to innovative dinner items, the menu is eclectic and ever surprising. Chef Leyla is creative both in the kitchen as well as the dining room — she designed the dining room herself. Together with her husband Alex, Cafe 21 has become one of those places my San Diegan friends are now calling their to-go-spot. You can read about my last visit here.

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When it comes to Orange County favorites, Anepalco’s is always my suggestion whenever friends ask me where they should go for dinner. Although I did not do a post on them this year, I visit regularly especially when I have out-of-town guests and know the food will always be amazing and consistent. Chef Daniel Godinez is always adding new dishes to the menu and with the addition of the bar this year, you will find some delicious concoctions created by mixologist Cesar Cerrudo. Here is my last post from 2013.

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The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon never fails to impress when it comes to service and a menu that’s always consistently good. OC Restaurant Week is a perfect time to try them out if you haven’t already, but make sure you get your reservations in early because they fill up quickly. This restaurant has deserved a mention in my year end round-ups several years running because it simply is one of the best. You can read about our visit during OC Restaurant Week early this year by clicking here.

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Another repeat favorite is Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa. No words are needed! Chef Justin Miller turns out some of the best Italian cuisine Orange County has to offer. Here’s a post I wrote from their Valentine’s Day dinner this year.

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If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, Break of Dawn wins hands down and it is also one of those places we return to over and over again. Chef Dee Nguyen’s menu is ever changing, always innovative and creative. Bacon and eggs are served but not in the way you’re accustomed to. You can read my post from this year when the restaurant moved to its new location in the same plaza.

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Stay tuned to my next post where I will feature some of my favorite Asian restaurants in southern California.

 

 

 

Toast Enoteca — San Diego

On a recent trip to San Diego, we stopped by Toast Enoteca for some dinner. It is technically a wine shop/bar with a restaurant attached so you can either purchase the wine to take home, or enjoy the wine on the premises. If you decide to drink the wine at the restaurant, there is a $7 corkage fee, which is nothing when you compare the prices of the wines they offer. There is barely a mark-up, which works well in the diners’ favor. Or, if you just want to sample some wines at your leisure, there is a wine dispensing machine which you can peruse and pour yourself.

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We decide to have a glass of wine with our meal, and our server was nice enough to offer us a taste before committing. We didn’t have to ponder much before deciding to have a bottle instead.

The menu is simple and prices are extremely affordable. We begin with Crostone di Polipo ($12), an interesting dish which uses local Baja octopus, fresh arugula, roasted potatoes, black olives, capers and spicy vinaigrette dressing, served on top of crostone. The flavors are nice, but the crostone becomes soggy once the dish has been compiled on top of it. I was also fishing for the octopus which are cut way too small. I would really like to see the octopus be the star of the plate instead of hiding among the rest of the ingredients.

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I was impressed by the many made-in-house items on the menu so we decided to try as many as possible. We first try Pizza alla Calabrese ($12), topped with mozzarella, salami, caramelized onions and fresh mixed greens. It was a tad too sweet for my palate, but still, decent. I really like having fresh greens on top of pizza.

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For our second, we decide to go half half on the Pizza al Prosciutto  ($14/whole pie) with pomodoro sauce, mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma; Pizza al Gorgonzola e Peperoni dolci  ($12/whole pie) pomodoro sauce, organic sweet peppers, pine nuts, Tropean red onions, mozzarella and gorgonzola. We loved both of these, especially the latter. I really liked the texture of the pine nuts on the pizza. The crust is different as well, a little crispier rather than chewy.

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My favorite of the evening was definitely Tagliatelle alla Bolognese  ($14) which comprised homemade tagliatelle pasta and a rustic style bolognese sauce. It is hearty but not heavy.

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I also enjoyed Pollo Parmigiana  ($18) a different take on the usual chicken parmigiana. Instead of a cutlet, the chicken is served bone-in and oven-baked skin on. The chicken breast remains moist and even though I saw “dried fruit crust” on the menu, it wasn’t sweet on the palate. The tomato sauce and parmesan sauce is nice and light but packed with flavor. Very nice!

I like the concept of Toast Enoteca. If you want to meet a friend for a drink you will find an extensive selection of wines from varying price ranges to suit everyone. This is a spot where I will meet my friends for a drink after work, and if you decide you wanted something to eat as well, then there is that option. It is casual and the environment cozy and inviting.

Toast Enoteca
927 J Street
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-269-4207

TOAST Enoteca & Cucina on Urbanspoon

Brick Pizzeria: not just a pizza joint

I first encountered Brick Pizzeria at the Orange Coast Magazine’s 10 Best Restaurants event this year. There wasn’t any food to try that evening, so I moved along and didn’t pay much thought to it. Months later, a reader of mine was raving about this restaurant and I thought it was about time to try them out.

Over the course of several months, I have visited Brick a handful of times. It started because I was lunching with a girlfriend who lives in Oceanside and we were looking for a half way point to meet. We were blown away by how good — REALLY GOOD — everything was. Start with some cocktails, they’re pretty good too.

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I then returned with a group of friends for lunch a month later and managed to eat through an array of dishes before returning yet again for another round.

There is a wood-fire oven where a lot of things are prepared, including the hand-made pizzas. However, Brick Pizzeria is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, pizzas are a thing here, such as this Salsiccia ($16) topped with house-made sausage — house made is a word readily used on the menu because pretty much EVERYTHING is — caramelized fennel and fennel pollen among other things.

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But please don’t just stop at the pizzas. I know it is natural to automatically expect you’ll order pizza when you come to Brick Pizzeria, but let me just clear that up right now. It is MUCH more than just a pizza joint, SO much more.

If you’re in the mood for a salad to share, the Caesar Salad ($11) is insanely good. So simple and not overly dressed — one of my pet peeves — the leaves are left whole which adds an extra crispness to the mouthfeel. Of course, one of my favorite ingredients — anchovies — are also included.

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Right now, the autumnal produce are at its peak which means a lot of fall flavors and colors are showing up on menus across the board. I highly suggest starting with Roasted Acorn Squash Antipasti ($14), a dish I’ve had a few times, but definitely one to share. The squash is roasted until soft, then a dollop of burrata is placed inside. Crunchy roasted hazelnuts, crispy sage and a drizzle of balsamic are all this simple, yet satisfying dish requires.

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Ricotta and Farm Egg Raviolo ($12) had me at first bite. When you break into the raviolo, an oozing farm egg rushes out and creates an even richer sauce when combined with the truffle butter, spinach puree and grana spuma. There’s usually crispy pancetta on the plate but I don’t remember why there isn’t any on this one. Once again, so simple, but absolutely to-die-for.

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If you’re looking for a vegetarian offering, Crispy Zucchini Blossoms ($11) is incredible. Generally, after the delicate zucchini blossoms have been stuffed with an herb ricotta and fried, I find it a tad too heavy. But not here! The perfect amount of ricotta sits within, while the coating is so light it never overwhelms. Served with a house-made marinara sauce, you’ll find yourself sopping every last bit up with the foccacia they serve.

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What puts Brick in a category along with many fine restaurants in OC is that Chef David Pratt will take an entire pig, break it down, and use every bit of it on the menu. But that’s not all, he also hand makes all the pasta so I highly recommend ordering at least one of them.

Orrecchiette ($16/$23) is one of the first I try with house-made sausage, flowering broccoli, a medley of mushrooms and a sprinkling of pecorino cheese. I think this might be one of my favorites on the menu.

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But then again, there is the Pappardelle ($18/$26) tossed in a rich veal ragu and topped with grana padano parmesan. It is so satisfying we fight to get a second bite among our group. I love the mouthfeel of this pasta as it moves around my mouth. It is perfectly seasoned — just like everything else — which, most of you know, is of utmost importance to me.

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Don’t forget the Spaghetti Carbonara ($15/$22) — not like any carbonara I’ve ever made! The ingredients are few, but pork belly confit is one and that alone should tell you how this extraordinary this humble pasta will taste. There are no words when we are eating this, just ooos and ahhhs.

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I am so intrigued by Cocoa Buccatini ($17/$24), so on another visit, I try this. Cocoa is added to the pasta dough when Chef Pratt makes the buccatini and add to that duck ragu, hen of the woods mushrooms, mascarpone and marjoram and this is the best fall dish ever. If you didn’t know there was cocoa in the pasta, you probably wouldn’t be able to guess what it is, except for the fact that it is familiar. (I apologize I don’t have a photo for this).

But there is more! Brick Meatballs ($14/$21) is possibly one of the most popular dishes on the menu and rightfully so. The meatballs are hand-made, then seared in the wood-fire brick oven and then slowly cooked until done. A luscious marinara accompanies these texturally perfect meatballs topped with pecorino. I like them as is served with grilled house-made focaccia, but the kids might probably enjoy it with a side of pasta instead.

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David Pratt is not only one of the best chefs Orange County has, but one of the most humble. If you’ve ever visited Brick Pizzeria, you will find him quietly focusing on his craft in the open kitchen. He is a man of few words — until you get to know him — and stays very low key. I found out from one of my visits that he serves the needy a hot meal he personally prepares on Thanksgiving day every year. I volunteered to help.

On Thanksgiving morning, I brought my son to Brick Pizzeria where so many of Chef David’s family, friends, even the staff, showed up to greet, serve, bus and welcome the guests. My son helped serve and I know he was deeply touched and moved by the energy in the room that day. I know I was. We chatted to many of the guests who expressed gratitude towards the acceptance, generosity and kindness Chef David has shown towards them.

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San Clemente is a 30-minute drive from Irvine, but I will gladly do it just for the food alone. If you see Chef David in the kitchen, say hi and shake his hand. I don’t always agree with Brad Johnson, but when it comes to Brick, I concur 100%. Chef David is truly deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon him.

Brick Pizzeria
216 N El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
Tel: 949-429-1199

Brick Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

respectable Lao cuisine at Sang Dao – San Diego

It is rare to find Laotian food in southern California, let alone Orange County and San Diego. Therefore, when friends tell me how good Sang Dao is (I have bookmarked it for years!) it is time to visit. Situated in a strange little plaza, the parking can be frustrating, however, we get there early — they open at 10.30am — and have no problem finding a spot.

It is difficult for a restaurant to serve a completely Laotian menu mostly due to the lack of knowledge with the cuisines, so you’ll find most menus will lean heavily towards the more familiar northern Thai (or Issan) dishes as well. What I love about food from this region is that it is not sweet like that of central Thailand.

Of course the friend who brings me here gets right down and immediately orders Som Tum ($6.95), papaya salad Lao style. Shredded papaya is tossed together with chile, tomato, dried shrimp, green beans, lime juice but be careful Lao style is highly pungent with a fermented fish sauce that might be offensive to those who are uninitiated. If you aren’t sure, order the Thai style just to be safe. The papaya is nicely marinated but still retains a lovely crunch. It is indeed pungent.

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We quickly get down to business, ordering a table full of dishes. We all partake in choosing our meal and since everyone loves chicken wings, Golden Wings ($7.95) is a must. They are perfection, juicy and moist on the inside, so crispy on the outside. Be careful as they will scorch your lips. The sauce is a tad too sweet for me, so I use another which accompanies our next dish.

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Pla Tod ($9.95) is a crispy whole fried fish topped with cilantro and garlic. It is so flavorful we devour it, asking for more of the aromatic, tart dipping sauce we are using with everything. I end up buying some to bring home it is THAT good.

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One of my best friend’s mom makes jungle curry and it is so spicy and delicious, I have not found one as good as hers outside of Thailand. Jungle Curry Soup ($8.95) here is decent, definitely not as spicy, but still very good. It is filled with ingredients you will usually find in a curry, such as Thai eggplant, mushrooms, baby corn to name a few, but without coconut milk.

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Beef Salad is one of the staples whenever we visit a Laos/Thai establishment, but today, I order Neua Num Tok ($8.95), a similar dish but sprinkled and tossed with toasted rice powder. The charbroiled steak is packed with flavor while the salad is beautifully seasoned with chile and lime juice. The rice powder thickens and coats the entire dish when mixed in and combined with the juices. We want another but have so much food on the table.

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Khao Peak Sen ($6.95), a thick home made rice noodle soup with pork blood, chicken, green onion and cilantro is new to me, but one of my dining companions orders this because it is one of his favorites. The chicken soup is hearty and so packed with flavor. The crispy fried shallots take it to another level. That ubiquitous sauce we use on everything makes for a great seasoning when mixed into the soup, however, we later find out that the myriad of condiments on the table are yours for the taking to create your own flavors.

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I love southeast Asian cuisine and Sang Dao definitely hits the mark. Between them and Vientiane here in Orange County, I’m set when it comes to northern Thai/Lao cuisine.

Sang Dao
5421 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115
Tel: 619-263-0914

Sang Dao on Urbanspoon

Harlow’s Kitchen & Craft Bar

I’ve been watching my friends post photos of their meals at Harlow’s, month after month on Facebook, and those months have turned into more than a year, so it is definitely time to pay them a visit. The restaurant is cozy, with several dining rooms to suit your every occasion. We sit in the room adjacent to the bar which is bustling from the activity from the bar itself.

Our server Marc brings us a loaf of freshly baked bread with house-churned butter. Delicious and addicting, it is so hard to eat only one piece, but I do, and then, I push it away to the other side of the table. So dangerous!

DSC06036Almost everything is made in-house including the syrups and mixes for the craft cocktails on offer. We are intrigued by the house-made ginger beer and decide that a Moscow Mule is definitely the way to start. Besides the Mule, I opt for something with tequila in it and the Harlow’s version of margarita is suggested (cocktails range between $10 and $12).

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The menu is straightforward, featuring seasonal ingredients and simple preparation. Seasonal Oysters ($15/6pc) is a great way to start — well, not for me — and Kusshi from the Pacific Northwest is the featured oyster of the night. My dining companion relish them with delight!

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The Caprese Flatbread ($12) is a must try. The baby heirloom tomatoes are ripe and bursting with flavor, while burrata adds creaminess. The flatbread itself is lovely too, crispy and not at all dry, just the way I like my flatbreads/pizzas. Arugula pesto is an added bonus to an already delicious appetizer.

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I love Tuna Tartare ($17) and here, it is well-seasoned and topped with black tobiko. The quail egg adds an element of lusciousness to the tartare, but it is the housemade sriracha which wins my heart. Hints of ginger, a lovely heat with a touch of tartness adds a kick to the whole dish. Served with rounds of crispy taro chips.

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While I’m not usually fond of salads, Harvest Salad ($9) was rather pleasant. The spicy bitter flavors of arugula melded well with the sweetness of the roasted apples and pears. Add to that crunchy watermelon radish and you have a really lovely salad. The cider vinaigrette is subtle and never overpowers.

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For entrees, there is Seasonal White Fish ($26), which changes regularly. On this particular evening, it is grilled sturgeon accompanied with a sweet pea puree, radish arugula salad and a delightful tempura cauliflower which I wish I had the room to finish.

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However, it is the Colorado Rib Eye Cap ($38) which won me over. Yes, the sturgeon was delicious, and ordinarily, I will always choose seafood over meat, but the beautiful char on the steak is incredible and so utterly packed with flavor, I am not able to stop eating it. The charred tomatoes and Bloomsdale spinach are nice accoutrements, but it is the demi glace that is to-die-for.

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Not that we needed any extra food, but if you’re in the mood for sides, definitely order the Brussels Sprouts ($8) with house cured pork lardons!

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Harlow’s is not only a great neighborhood eatery, but also, one which offers a stellar menu which will definitely entice me to drive to. The dishes are simple, yet well thought out, and the generous portions means you’ll never leave hungry. Harlow’s is a south county gem worth noticing (if you haven’t already).

Harlow’s Kitchen
31111 Rancho Viejo Road
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Tel: 949-240-8100

Harlow's Kitchen & Craft Bar on Urbanspoon

Old Town San Diego’s El Agave

I remember the first time I visited San Diego’s Old Town. My son was little then, and I remember walking around, reveling in the historic buildings and most of all, lifting him up so he could watch the women making tortillas by hand through the window of a restaurant. What I also remember is that we ended up eating at a place with mediocre food and I vowed never to eat Mexican food in Old Town again.

That was a long time ago, and while on a recent trip to Old Town, we stopped by El Agave, an establishment which also serves as a tequila museum housing more than 5000 bottles of the agave spirit on display, an impressive 500 of which are available for order.

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I opted to sit on the enclosed patio to take advantage of the natural lighting.

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With all the tequila available, I asked our server to surprise me with a cocktail. I let him know I like spicy and tart flavors and he brought me this. I can’t remember its name, but spicy and tart it definitely is.

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We happily sipped on cocktails while munching on the complimentary chips and salsa provided. The black bean is our favorite, but I suggest not overindulging on this because it is so easy to do.

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One of my favorite things to eat is raw seafood, therefore, Ceviche del Mar ($16) absolutely appealed to my senses. Octopus, shrimp, cherry tomato, baby corn, onion, grilled red pepper, lemon, olive oil and chile morita sauce marry together to create a perfectly tart marinade for the seafood. I want more of the serrano pepper oil served alongside as it lent a lovely kick to the ceviche.

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I love the authenticity of the menu and Ensalada de Nopal ($12), or cactus paddle salad is one good example. Cactus is widely eaten in Mexico and here, it is roasted and then cut into strips before it is assembled into a ring form with diced tomatoes, cilantro, onion, oregano and topped with avocado. You may find it a little ‘slimy’ but no worries, that’s because it’s been tossed with olive oil. Cotija cheese is sprinkled on top to add a salty finish.

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Tlacoyos Cuitlacoche ($16) was probably my least favorite dish of our meal. It wasn’t bad, however, it didn’t stand out. Blue corn masa ‘cakes’ are stuffed with black beans and then topped with cuitlacoche (corn smut, sometimes referred to as huitlacoche),  salsa verde, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. Don’t let cuitlacoche scare you off, it’s actually really tasty, and we’ve eaten it many times before, including a topping on burgers among other things. There just wasn’t enough flavor on this dish for me to want to order it again.

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Therefore, it was just as well we ordered another dish with cuitlacoche in it. Crema de Chile Poblano con Cuitlacoche ($14) is served tableside. A creamy soup seasoned with chile Poblano and cuitlacoche, it is all blended together until smooth and enhanced with spices. A perfect amount of heat accompanied the gorgeous sage-hued concoction. It was so good we were all fighting for the last spoonful!

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I was very surprised by Tacos de Atun ($14) because I generally am not fond of cooked ahi tuna. Here, it is panko-crusted and lightly fried, then topped with parsley, cabbage, red onion and cilantro. The light habanero and agave nectar dressing does not overpower. Served with agave rice and poblano chile strips, these tacos were perfect both in textures and flavors.

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However, the biggest surprise was Enchiladas de Mole ($14). I am very picky when it comes to mole and more often than not, tend to dislike what’s put in front of me. The mole poblano sauce smothering these chicken enchiladas is actually very pleasant. I like its rich, robust flavors, without any of the sweetness usually associated with mole.

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If you’re looking for a unique destination while visiting San Diego, then El Agave is a respectable choice, especially if you’re down around Old Town. Authentic Mexican ingredients are skillfully used to prepare these dishes and present it to a mainstream clientele. I enjoyed my meal here and would love to return for that stunning soup sometime soon.

El Agave — Old Town
2304 San Diego Ave
San Diego, CA 92110
Tel: 619-220-0692

El Agave on Urbanspoon