Lantern Cafe has decent oxtail pho

Aside

My friends and I are always thrilled to check out a new restaurant. My girlfriend who lives in the area spotted this new Vietnamese restaurant and we decided it was going to be our next lunch destination. I meet up with these gals once every few weeks and it’s not only a time for us to share a meal, but also, share the on- goings in our lives we wanted to talk about. Lantern Cafe was a no-frills place located in the same strip mall as The Meat House. The decor is sparse but it was clean and service attentive.

We started with Spring Rolls (Gỏi cuốn $4.50), fresh rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, vermecelli rolled in rice paper. The accompanying hoisin based sauce is good, topped with crushed peanuts.

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The Spring Rolls (chả giò $4.95) are fried perfectly crispy and I like them rolled with the lettuce and cilantro they provide you with on the plate. The nuoc mam dipping sauce is mild and subtle but sufficed especially with a squirt of sriracha.

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I saw Lotus Stem Salad (Gỏi Ngó Sen $9.95) on the menu and was immediately excited. Unfortunately, this was the only disappointing dish we ordered (or should I say, “I ordered”) as the lotus stems were scarce and there was a ton of daikon cut the same size as the lotus stem tossed in to make it look like there was more. They were generous with the cha siu (barbecued pork) and shrimp, but I wanted more lotus stem and there wasn’t much of it — yes I picked through it!

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We were very excited about Oxtail Pho (Phở Duôi Bò $7.75) on the menu. Very few restaurants outside of Westminster serve oxtail pho, and having said that, only a handful of the thousands of restaurants in Little Saigon offer oxtail pho. The one here is decent and the broth is flavorful. There wasn’t much MSG detected either so that’s a plus!

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I’m a huge fan of Claypot Rice (Cơm Tay Cầm $8.75) so to find it here was great. The toppings on the rice were flavorful with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables including baby corn. I was hoping for some crispy rice on the bottom of the claypot but there was none to be found.

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Combination Chow Fun (Hủ Tiếu Xào Thập Cẩm $9.50) was actually very tasty albeit some of the noodles were clumped up. One thing I noticed is they do not skimp on ingredients. There was ample chicken, vegetables and cha siu (barbecued pork) on the plate.

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The food here is decent. Little Saigon it definitely is not, but when I don’t feel like driving out there, this place suffices, especially when I’m in the mood for oxtail pho.

Lantern Cafe
103 E 17th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Tel: 949-515-9090

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fusion fare at Little Sister Manhattan Beach

The start of my birthday celebrations brought us to Manhattan Beach. My friends and I are huge fans of the restaurant scene in the area but this time, we wanted to check out something we hadn’t tried before. Just across the street from two of our favorite Manhattan Beach restaurants — Chef David Lefevre’s two incredible offerings, MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite — is Little Sister.

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I actually had no idea the restaurant belonged to Tin Vuong, formerly of Sapphire in Laguna Beach. I had met Chef Vuong at the Kitchen Takeover event at Abigail’s early this year and knew he had opened WildCraft Sourdough Pizza, but I didn’t know he was affiliated with Little Sister as well.

We arrived early for our 5.30pm reservation and immediately ordered a large bottle of Shimizo-No-Mai Pure Snow ($24) chilled sake. It arrives in an earthen serving vessel which continued to keep the sake cold throughout our meal. The milky rice wine was very palatable and had a slight hint of sweetness to it.

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Ma La Beef Tartare ($12) was our first dish of the night. I love “ma la”, the flavor and sensation attributed to the Szechuan peppercorn. The numbing effects of the peppercorn is exhilarating, perhaps a little intoxicating even. The tartare had only a hint of the “ma la” and although I wasn’t able to taste the pear, I detected the pine nuts here and there. The bone marrow vin and quail egg helped elevate the flavors, however, the beef was a bit too chewy and could have been diced smaller.

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XO Pea Tendrils ($8) was absolutely perfect. Crazy how I’ve never thought to use conpoy (dried scallops) shards when I make my pea tendrils. I didn’t care for the crushed almonds because its flavor overpowered the delicate tendrils, but the addition of lime juice was a very nice touch.

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I was excited to try Confit Duck “Goi Vit” ($14), a Vietnamese style salad with red cabbage, sweet onions, carrots, green papaya and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander). The salted apricot vin it was tossed in needed more heat and more acid. I asked for lime wedges and more chilis and added them to the salad. At this point, Chef Vuong stopped by the table and asked us how everything was tasting — I didn’t think he remembered me. I told him that the salad lacked the heat and tartness I was accustomed to. We had a quick discussion and I guess the clientele dictates the flavors. So when you visit Little Sister, tell them you want it hardcore if you want it authentic.

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If you like spices make sure you ask for some sambal. Our server Jessica brought out four for us to try.

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Vietnamese Crepe “Banh Xeo” ($14) is a favorite of mine and this did not disappoint. Stuffed with pork belly, prawns, bean sprouts, various herbs and greens, it was a refined version of the banh xeo I eat regularly in Lil Saigon. The nuoc cham house dressing, made with nuoc mam (fish sauce), was garlicky, tart with a hint of sweetness and absolutely perfect in every way.

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We didn’t know which direction to take next. There were two items on the menu with curry, but I didn’t like the idea of curry overpowering scallops so we went with Vietnamese Coconut Chicken Curry ($18). I enjoyed the tartness of the broth as it lent a freshness to the entire dish. Confit potatoes tasted like regular potatoes, while the pineapple and kabocha squash added a touch of sweetness. The chicken tasted like it had been roasted or flash fried as the skin was crispy, but the curry flavor did not penetrate the meat itself, but rather, coating the exterior.

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I really liked the Master Stock Jasmine Rice ($2) which we paired with the curry — although Chef Vuong gave us a sesame baguette to go with the curry an option you can have with curry in Lil Saigon. The rice had wonderful flavors and was elevated by the fried shallots and green onion toppings. Whether you go for rice or bread, both are good ways to sop up the remaining curry sauce.

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Salt & Pepper Lobster ($38) was the piece de resistance of the entire meal. A whole lobster is topped with butter fried shallots, fried chilis and garlic. I relished in the flavors enveloping the shell and chose the pieces requiring the most work. I wanted to suck all the flavor off as many crevices as possible. The accompanying salt and pepper lime dipping sauce was not necessary but tasted great if you wish to use it.

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We had no room left for dessert but they offer an array of sweets served trio style. A list of items ranging from macarons, panna cotta and profiterole as well as souffle allows you to mix and match three of your favorites to complete your meal. My meal ended the minute I ate the last piece of lobster on the plate.

Little Sister
1131 Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Tel: 310-545-2096

Little Sister on Urbanspoon

Starfish won me over with soup … and more

I’ve never been a fan of Asian fusion, but something happened this year. I found myself surprised by some non-traditional Asian cuisine and even liking some of the westernized food on offer. Starfish Laguna is one of those places.

I recently visited again and was drawn to the Hot and Sour Soup ($5), filled with organic pressed tofu,bamboo, shiitake mushroom and finished off with egg drop. I added a spoonful of sambal oelek for more heat, but it was a stellar bowl of hot and sour! — lunch specials come with soup and egg roll.

I was enticed by the description of the Singapore Bamboo Roll ($7) — soy seasoned bamboo, carrot, jicama, cilatro, thai basil served with a roasted peanut hoisin dipping sauce. I was so happy that it tasted exactly as I’d expected it to! The rolls are so refreshing with crunchy vegetables stuffed inside. I can eat two orders of these on my own — easily!

Another item I enjoyed were the Korean Galbi Tacos ($9), served three to an order. The barbequed sesame soy seasoned natural angus beef was flavorful and the spicy gochujang aioli added a nice kick to them. Pickled daikon soothed out the flavors by adding some crunchy tartness.

I love eggplant and insisted on ordering Japanese Eggplant ($10) slow braised with house made sambal, Sichuan peppercorns and bell peppers. I was disappointed. Not only was there no hint of the Sichuan peppercorns’ numbing effects, but the dish was surprisingly bland. We all agreed this was our least favorite item.

Garlic Noodle ($10), priced the same at the one at AnQi was a much larger portion dotted with wild mushrooms, vine ripened tomato and bean sprouts and was so much more flavorful. I will take this over AnQi’s “famous” garlic noodles any day even though the noodles here are much thinner and not as garlicky.

One of my favorite dishes was Beef and Coke Farms Broccoli di Ciccio ($12) a sauteed item with garlic, rice wine and soy. I can eat this with a bowl of steaming hot rice and call it a day.

We ended with Thai Fried Rice ($12), a quite tasty combination of wild gulf shrimp, Chinese sausage, edamame, egg and cabbage. Not your traditional fried rice by any means, but will appeal to both kids and adults alike!

Yes it’s not traditional or authentic Asian fare, but if it’s tasty I’ll eat it AND enjoy it. Just like PF Chang’s, Starfish Laguna has definitely caught my attention with their twist on food I grew up eating. I will be back again for those Bamboo Rolls, hot and sour soup and the beef with broccoli!

I have a $50 giftcard to giveaway to one lucky reader. Tell me what your favorite Chinese dish is and make sure you include your FULL name & email address. “Like” Starfish Laguna and diary of a Mad Hungry Woman‘s Facebook pages, leave a 2nd comment to let us know and you will be entered for a 2nd chance to win.

Starfish Laguna
30832 Pacific Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9200

Starfish on Urbanspoon

A gem so hidden you’ll never find it

I had seen this place when I went to Doner G and I thought it had an interesting name, but didn’t give much thought to it until several people mentioned it to me. After that, I had to check it out! This little Vietnamese deli is in the same plaza as Doner G and sits behind the car wash and is a mom and pop business serving both as a small grocery store as well as a restaurant.

I asked my friend who lives in Anaheim to join me for an early lunch seeing I wanted to try a bunch of things and there was no way I would be able to finish it all on my own.

As soon as we enter, we were greeted by a very friendly lady who asked us what she could get for us. I’d wanted to try several things and after I perused the board and ended up getting more than what I had originally planned. Thank god Gerry was there to help me polish all this food off.

We started with banh mi, a foot-long Vietnamese sandwich, filled with shredded rotisserie chicken ($2.89), In true banh mi style, there was do chua (pickled julienned carrots and daikon), cilantro and jalapeno (if you asked for spicy).

They make the rotisserie chicken in-house and is flavored with an Asian style marinade consisting mainly of soy sauce and other seasonings. The sandwich is good, but needed a even more of a kick than what the jalapeno was doing, so I squeezed some sambal oelek into it which did the trick.

Ca Ri Ga or chicken curry ($5.50) is served with your choice of rice or bread and arrives in a bowl swimming with carrots and potatoes. The curry is mild and although the sauce is on the watery side, the flavors are good. I can really taste the coconut milk in here. The bread soaks up the sauce pretty well and we do this until all the bread is gone. We didn’t want to waste any of it.

The same shredded chicken used in the banh mi is also served with sticky rice ($3.50) and I thought tasted more flavorful than when eaten as part of a banh mi. Fried shallots are sprinkled on top of this dish giving it an additional southeast Asian flavor to it. It is a filling meal for a very small price.

They’ve recently added lemongrass beef banh mi ($3.99) and I highly recommend this if you want a tasty Vietnamese sandwich! The meat is very aromatic, flavorful and very delicious. If you don’t want to eat a sandwich, you can also have the beef with rice, eggs and soup for $6.50.

Although I didn’t try the chicken udon noodles ($4.75) the table next to me ordered it so I asked if they would let me take a photo. They kindly allowed me to. The broth used in the udon is house-made chicken stock so you know it is just like home-made.

The store also sells fresh poultry and eggs. I brought a chicken home and made chicken soup with it, plus 2 dozen eggs. I loved the eggs because the yolks were so plump, but the chicken was just okay. I still prefer the ones at Dakao Poultry. The rotisserie chicken used in the dishes we ate are also available to take home whole.

If you live in the area, this place is a great place to stop by for great cheap eats and pick up a dozen eggs while you’re at it. For me, it’s quite a trek to just drive on over for banh mi and chicken curry, but if I ever find myself in the area craving a banh mi, I’ll definitely think of this place! The owners are friendly and lovely and I am always a firm believer in supporting small independent businesses! Go check them out!

OC Poultry & Rotisserie
2117 E Ball Road
Anaheim, CA 92806
Tel: 714-780-0225

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East Borough

I love lil Saigon and I go there at least twice a month, sometimes, once a week, which is why when I saw this place at The Camp, immediate skepticism hit me. I love Vietnamese food! I’m just not sure I love having a shi shi Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of, well, THE CAMP!

I was certain it was going to be over-rated, mediocre, hyped up and just to prove myself right, I got two of my friends together and went down there just so we could order the whole menu.

Holly, Selene and I arrived early and well, although we didn’t order the entire menu, we ordered plenty! As you might have guessed, I arrived already pre-judging the place and I was determined to dislike it.

The gal at the counter was very pleasant! Drats! Why can’t you be surly like everyone else in lil Saigon? After ordering, we found an available table, took a seat and chatted while waiting for the food. My plan wasn’t working — the staff is friendly and we certainly liked the atmosphere…. I mean what’s not to like? But how about the food?

We ordered Traditional Spring Roll ($4.50/2 rolls or $6.25/3 rolls) with pork and shrimp (although there are also chicken and shrimp or tofu) and is accompanied with the pre-requisite hoisin sauce like you get in lil Saigon.

Of course, these were pricier than what you will find in Westminster, by about 50 cents to $1 more, but I remind myself that rent is higher and I’ve saved on gas. They were decent and I liked the hoisin sauce a lot.

Grapefruit Lemongrass Salad ($7.35) was innovative, tasty and refreshing, especially if you are watching your carb intake. Lemongrass infused chicken is served over carrots and cabbage and topped with grapefruit and cilantro. The dressing is awesome — a citrus vinaigrette which is similar to nuoc mam but without the obvious taste of fish sauce and the sesame cracker added a nice crispy component to the salad. It is simply delicious.

For the bun, or Vermicelli Noodles ($7.35), you can go vegetarian by choosing tofu instead of grilled pork,  but we wanted meat! There was a good amount of lettuce, cucumbers, mint leaves and crushed peanuts, but just a little too much noodles when compared to the accompaniments. You also get a small egg roll with this entree but it wasn’t enough to offset the massive amount of vermicelli.

Banh Mi were $4.35 for an 8-inch and $6.40 for a 12-inch. We ordered grilled pork which is beautifully seasoned with bits of do chua (pickled radish and carrots) and cilantro in between the baguette — which, incidentally, isn’t hard and didn’t cut the roof of my mouth like it usually does when I eat banh mi. My only gripe is that there isn’t enough filling, but otherwise, very tasty indeed.

Beef Stew ($6.95) was piping hot when it arrived, a bowl of hearty, rich broth with tender beef, sweet carrots and potato.

Garnished with cilantro, lime and onions, the stew isn’t greasy at all and possessed a heady star-anise flavor which I so love. It is served with a baguette, and the best part is that the beef isn’t fatty or grisly at all, nor was the baguette hard and dry.

There were other items on the menu such as curry which I’ve yet to try but for now, East Borough is a definite “like” for me. Service is great, food is stellar and I can get there in 10 minutes! As long as I can find parking at The Camp, it’s all good!

East Borough
2937 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-641-5010

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Pho Ellie — diamond in the rough

I rarely go to Fullerton but on this occasion my BFF Sunny and I were attending to some business in the area and lost track of time. By the time we realized, our stomachs were growling, and needed food STAT, but neither of us had the energy to venture far from where we were in search of a place to eat. What to do?

Luckily, within walking distance of where we were at was a Vietnamese place and even though I didn’t have time to check on Yelp (they have a 3 and a half star average) we decided to give it a shot anyway, at least to satiate the hunger pangs for the moment.

BFF is from Indonesia so she commented on the sign outside Pho Ellie stating they serve “halal” meat. This means the restaurant caters to Muslims who ordinarily aren’t able to eat the beef served in regular restaurants. There is also no pork on the menu.

I am always skeptical when it comes to really clean and new looking Vietnamese restaurants. I guess I’m just used to getting great food at hole-in-the-wall joints in lil Saigon and most of the nicer places tend to cater to the masses rather than staying true to their roots.

We were famished and ordered a lot. I figured if we don’t finish it, we can just take it home. What’s the big deal, right?

We started with Ellie’s spring rolls ($3.95), two rolls arrived looking rather dismal because they were limp and uninspiring, not tightly wrapped like they normally are. We took a bite and were surprised at how good they tasted.

Filled with chicken, lettuce, shrimp and served with a not-too-sweet dipping sauce, they were definitely a tasty start even if they weren’t as aesthetically a work of art. We laughed about pre-judging them on their looks and devoured them rather quickly.

Rare steak and brisket pho ($5.75) is next and comes piping hot. The broth is dark and the aroma of star anise fills the air. I took a sip of it marveling at how flavorful and rich it tasted without being greasy.

They are not stingy on the meat either and a plate of fresh herbal condiments graces the table to add to the al dente pho noodles. We were both surprised that pho of this caliber can be found outside of lil Saigon (why can’t that be the same for Irvine?).

Grilled shrimp and egg roll rice vermicelli ($6.95) or bun, is smaller in size than places I frequent, but again, everything from the grilled shrimp and the fried eggrolls are cooked to perfection and seasoned well.

Vegetables such as cucumbers, cilantro and lettuce add a great freshness, while pickled daikon and carrots tasted homemade. The crushed peanuts are ample and together, created a really delicious plate!

Our final dish of lemongrass chicken rice plate ($6.95) is a stir fry of chicken strips in a lemongrass sauce, served with a deliciously fragrant butter, garlic and parsley rice.

Although the soy dipping sauce is great over the rice, it is not needed to help enhance the already flavorful chicken and caramelized onions.

Not surprisingly, BFF and I polished off EVERYTHING. This always happens whenever we’re together — she’ll say she’s not hungry so don’t order a lot, or she’ll say “that’s too much”, but ends up eating more than I do and she’s half my size!

Pho Ellie is a hidden gem. I’m glad we gave it a shot, otherwise we would’ve missed out on some very tasty fare.

Pho Ellie
765 S State College Blvd
Fullerton, CA 92831
Tel: 714-879-1004

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