Saturday, January 30, 2016

Orange County: Poki Monster

We took advantage of being in SoCal by spending a few days in Irvine after Death Valley.  During that time, we hit up all our favorites, such as spring rolls at Brodard, green Thai tea at Seaside Bakery, and grass jelly shaved ice at Meet Fresh (twice, of course).

Speaking of Meet Fresh, I have really exciting news.  Meet Fresh is coming to the Bay Area!!  AHHHHHH!

This just shows that dreams really do come true.

Anyway.  It's not open yet, so I should try to control myself.  Once it is, however, there will be no stopping me.  Muahahaha!!

Back to our time in Irvine.  On our last night there, we treated our hosts to a meal at Poki Monster:

Our hosts are longtime family friends of ours.  They love trying new things, so my sister and I figured it would be fun to introduce them (as well as our parents) to a poke restaurant.

Like all the other poke joints out there, Poki Monster follows the Chipotle format:

First step, choose what size you want your bowl to be.  A regular costs $8.99 and includes three scoops of fish.  A large costs $11.99 and gets you five scoops of fish.

Next, decide what your base will be.  Your options include white rice, brown rice, salad, or nacho chips.

Then, the fun step, picking your fish.  There's tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, spicy salmon, bay scallop, albacore, and cooked shrimp.

After the fish comes a free for all of toppings.  If you get a bit of everything, your bowl will have crab meat, masago, avacado, seaweed salad, red onion, cucumber, green onion, ginger, wasabi, nori, sesame seed, and furikake.  (If you want extra scoops of crab meat, masago, avocado, or seaweed salad, be prepared to pay and extra $0.75 per scoop.)

Finally, it's time for sauces.  You can choose from poki sauce spicy mayo, sesame oil, volcano #1, volcano #2, and volcano #3.  I stayed away from the spicy sauces, so I can't tell you whether or not they really are spicy.

Here's what my final product looked like:

Poki Monster also offers miso soup ($1.50):

Skip it.  The poke is great, but the soup is not worth it.  Save that money and go next door to 7 Leaves for a Vietnamese coffee instead.

This post concludes my food adventures of 2015.  Stay tuned for more awesome things to come in 2016!

Poki Monster
13771 Newport Ave #10
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 838-8029

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Beatty: Mel's Diner

Over the holidays, my family spent three days in Death Valley.  We drove down on the 23rd and left the day after Christmas.  Winter is high season in Death Valley, but right around Christmas, the only tourists around were mostly non-Americans.  There were moments when it honestly felt like we were the only people in the valley.

When we checked into our hotel, we were asked whether we would like to make reservations for Christmas dinner.  $30 per person?  Ha!

As per usual, we went Chinese-style on this trip and packed enough food to feed a clan.  My parents prepared 23 soy sauce eggs (the only reason why it wasn't 24 was because one cracked in the carton), a bag of soy sauce chicken, soy sauce peanuts, and soy sauce chicken hearts.  (Sensing a theme here?)  On top of that, we also brought three boxes of cup of noodles, a bunch of bananas, a bag of Cuties, and two pineapples that my father cut in advance.  For lunch on the go, we had a Costco-sized bag of Hawaiian buns, two packages of cheese, and two packages of cured meat.

Definitely more than enough food for our family of four as well as my father's cousin's family of three who joined us for one day.

Before my father's cousin arrived the afternoon of Chistmas Eve. we spent the morning exploring the Mesquite Sand Dunes and then Rhyolite ghost town.

From Rhyolite, we crossed into Beatty, Nevada, where we heard the gas is cheap, cheap, cheap.  Which it was.

We could have eaten our Hawaiian bun sandwiches for lunch, but we decided to treat ourselves with a meal at Mel's Diner:

There aren't a lot of restaurant options in Beatty, even less that are open on Christmas Eve.  Not only was Mel's Diner's open, it was also recommended by the lady at the gas station.  That was good enough for me.

Mel's Diner's interior was very cheerful and covered from top to bottom with old photos depicting the history of the area:

My father ordered the steak with two eggs and hash browns ($10.50):

While my mother got the 8oz ham steak with two eggs and hash browns ($7.99):

They both chose to get wheat toast with their entrees:

Meanwhile, my sister got the two pancakes, two eggs, two bacon, and two sausage links ($8.99):

I'm a sucker for gravy, so I ordered the chicken fried steak and eggs ($9.99):

It came with hash browns and unlike my parents, I went all the way in and chose a biscuit with gravy over toast:

I don't really understand why anyone would settle with toast when there's biscuits and gravy available.  So strange.

Mel's Diner is everything that you would want from an old fashioned diner.  Friendly faces, affordable prices, HUGE portions, and food that warms you up from the inside out.  No diets allowed.

No credit cards either.

If you haven't been to Death Valley before, you really should make the trip.  It's breathtaking.  There's simply no other word to describe it.

Here are three tips to maximize your Death Valley experience:

1) Escape the crowds by starting your days early.
2) Take advantage of the free ranger talks.  You'll learn so very much.
3) Get gas in Nevada.

You're welcome.

Mel's Diner
600 US-95
Beatty, NV 89003
(775) 553-9003

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New York: Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle

Most of my colleagues had their own plans, so after the first day of the conference, I set out to find dinner on my own.  I wasn't in the mood for anything fancy and I wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn't feel out of place dining alone.  Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle in Chinatown perfectly fit the bill:

The place was tiny.  The counters made it perfect for solo dining and the view into the kitchen was pretty neat too:

Nobody greeted me at the door, so I had to observe other patrons for a bit while "studying" the menu posted on the wall to figure out how things worked.  Following the example for the guy in front of me, I placed my order with a woman in the doorway of the kitchen and then randomly picked a chair to plop my butt down in.

The beef tendon noodle soup ($6.50) came first:

I really should have stopped there, but I wanted to try their boiled dumplings too.  For the sake of self control, I went with six pieces ($2) rather than 10 ($3):

The funny thing is the when they first brought me a platter of dumplings, I counted nine on it.  Which was strange because they only come in six or ten.  The only possible explanations I could think of were that they were either 1) very generous with me or 2) had gypped someone else a dumpling.  It turned out to be door number two.  The same waitress who gave me the platter returned a few minutes later to shift it over to the gentleman sitting to my left.

The guy never counted his dumplings.

He should have.  He was cheated of one of these babies:

Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle is exactly what you can expect of a no frills Chinese hole in the wall in Chinatown.  Not much service, cramped quarters, no decor to speak of, and loud thumping of noodles being made by hand in the next room.  And cheap.  So cheap.  So cheap that being cash only isn't a problem.

The noodles were spot on.  The dumplings tasted like home.  If I lived in New York, I would go back again and again.  Either with friends (but no more than two) or (gasp!) alone.

To work off all the food that I really shouldn't have finished, I walked back to Brooklyn via the Manhattan Bridge.  It was my first time crossing the bridge at night and while the views were gorgeous, I'm not gonna lie, I tensed every time the subway train rumbled past.

The conference was packed with special last minute guests over the course of the next two days.  On Monday, Governor Cuomo brought his own podium, but was then overshadowed by Hilary Clinton who brought not only her own Secret Service, but also her own metal detectors.  On Tuesday, Martin O'Malley reminded us that he was still in the running and Bernie Sanders let us feel the Bern via Skype.  Apparently the Republican candidates were also invited, but declined to show.

Too bad.  It would have been beyond interesting to see Trump speak at a conference about immigrant rights.

I am sorry to say that I have no other posts for my time in New York.  Breakfast and lunch the following days were provided by the conference.  Instead of going out Monday night, Nana and I opted for a night in at her apartment watching "Criminal Minds" while trying to stuff down all the food Nana ordered from Harlem Shake.  (Really, Nana?  Three burgers, chili cheese fries, AND chicken fingers?  Are you trying to kill me?)  And then I left for the airport immediately after the conference ended Tuesday afternoon.

Though short, I had a great time exploring New York on my own and catching up with Nana.  I can't wait for my next trip back!

Oh, and the conference was good too.

Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle
144 E Broadway
New York, NY 10002
(212) 566-6933

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New York: Pies 'n' Thighs

The conference started at 1:30pm on a Sunday, which gave me more than enough time to get in some good photographs on the Brooklyn Bridge (before the swarm of tourists could get there) and also swing by Pies 'n' Thighs for brunch.  A friend had recommended it to me years back when I was still living in Chicago.  I've been to New York a few times in-between, but just never had the chance to make it out to Brooklyn.  I was determined to make it happen this time around, even if it felt awkward as hell going alone.

Pies 'n' Thighs opens at 10:00am on weekends.  I was standing outside by 9:30.  I wasn't the only one either:

Being third in line meant that I was able to immediately be seated the minute the restaurant opened.  Thank goodness for that.  The place was pretty small, with maybe enough tables to seat 8 parties:

If I'd arrived just 20 minutes later, I would have had to wait for second round.

As it was, I was directed to a table right next to the donut display:

Which meant I had to order one, of course.  At the recommendation of my server, I got the butter pecan crunch ($3):

Um.  Hello.  That was one delightful donut.  Subtly sweet, with a nice crunch outside, and insanely soft inside.  I ate a third of it before I realized I should stop otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat the rest of my meal.

That's what sucks about eating alone.  You end up having to decide between ordering only what you can realistically handle or over-ordering even though you know you won't be able to finish just to be able to try multiple things.

I fixed my dilemma by giving the rest of my donut to a nice couple visiting from out of town who I chatted with a bit while waiting outside.  They later ordered another donut for themselves and offered to give me first bite, but I was too stuffed by then to even consider it.

Even though it did look delicious.  Sigh.

I made myself stop eating the donut because I knew this was coming:

The chicken biscuit ($7.50) at Pies 'n' Thighs might be their most popular item.  I wavered for a while over whether I should get it because of my dislike of hot sauce.  But then I figured I would regert it if I went all the way there and didn't try it.

I love it when I'm right.  Ordering that biscuit sandwich?  Best decision ever.  I don't even know where to start.  That buttery biscuit?  That freshly fried chicken cutlet drizzled with honey?  That hot sauce?

Ohmygawd, that hot sauce.  I can't believe I am saying this, but that sandwhich would not be as amazing as it is without that hot sauce.  And that's saying a lot because I hate hot sauce.  I don't know what kind of hot sauce Pies 'n' Thighs uses, but it's magical.  Period.

I could have used some on their cheese grits ($5):

I read good things about it on Yelp, but they were a bit bland to me.  I should just accept that 9 times out of 10, I will find grits to be a waste of stomach space.

Pies 'n' Thighs.  I strongly recommend it.  But learn from my experience and go with a friend.

Pies 'n' Thighs
166 S 4th St
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(347) 529-6090

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New York: Bien Cuit

Back in December, I had the opportunity to attend the National Immigrant Integration Conference.  Once I found out it was to take place in Brooklyn, I may or may not have said "Pick me! Pick me!" to my executive director as she was asking who wanted to represent the organization there.

No shame, remember?

Anyway, I was picked.  (Yay!)  And I flew into New York via a red eye flight and arrived bright and early Saturday morning.  As the conference didn't start until Sunday, I had a whole day to kill.  Whenever I've gone to New York in the past, I've always stayed with my very good friend, Nana.  She offered to let me crash with her this time as well, but because I knew she would be busy all weekend with maid of honor duties for a friend's wedding, I decided to just stay at the hotel where the conference was held.  It's not like I had to pay for it.

Since Nana was unavailable, I didn't really have a solid plan that first day in New York.  I figured I would just walk.  And walk.  And of course, eat.

Nana recommended a couple places in Brooklyn to check out.  Bien Cuit was really close to my hotel, so I stopped there first:

It was everything I expected from a neighborhood hipster cafe:

I didn't feel like walking around the city holding a pastry, so I ordered at the counter, collected my goods, and then ducked into the back corner of the cafe, where I claimed a small table for myself.

Nana specifically said to get the almond croissant, so of course I had to obey:

So glad I did.  Almond pastries can often get too...fragrant, for lack of a better word.  Almost perfume-y.  I'm not a fan of that.  This croissant was crackly and flaky on the outside and oozing with almond paste inside:

The filling wasn't overly sweet or flowerly, which I appreciated.

What I would have appreciated even more would have been someone to share it with.  I actually had a bit of a hard time finishing that croissant.

On top of that, I detest eating out alone.  It was painfully awkward sitting there by myself.  I didn't even have a laptop to make me look productive and purposeful.  Instead, I just sat there avoiding eye contact and fiddling with my phone in hopes of appearing less...lonely.

My personal hang-ups aside, I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere at Bien Cuit.  And the yummy croissant.  It was a tad pricey though.  A pastry and a small chai latte set me back slightly over $8.  Yikes.

After scarfing down the entire croissant, I walked from Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal to the Met and then back down to Bryant Park.  I stopped by The Halal Guys cart for an early dinner, but almost died when I decided to be adventurous and try their red sauce for the first time.

I quickly learned that red sauce should only be added in miniscule drops...if at all.  After two bites of my chicken over rice, my mouth was on fire.  I shadily returned to the cart, squirted a shit ton of white sauce into my tin, and then fled the scene like the moron I was.

I didn't get really far though.  I became caught up in the masses of Santa Con revelers and tourists gawking at the Christmas lights.  For a few seconds there, I despaired and thought that I would never be able to escape the crush.  I couldn't move forward and I couldn't move back.  Luckily, me and my over-sauced tin of chicken over rice eventually made it back to the hotel in Brooklyn in one piece.

Back in the safety of my hotel room, I discovered that even a shit ton of white sauce and two cups of tea with powdered creamer are not enough to cure the flaming hell that is The Halal Guys' red sauce.

My taste buds will never be the same again.

Bien Cuit
120 Smith St
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 852-0200

Saturday, January 9, 2016

South Bay: Milkcow

When we found out that the Korean franchise, Milkcow, had just opened recently in the plaza across from Food Talk Cafe, we knew we had to make a stop even though we were feeling full after our late lunch:

My sister almost killed us when she made an unprotected left turn, but we made it inside in one piece:

Thank God.

The four of us were so full that we couldn't stomach the idea of ordering more than one ice cream.  We stood there like a bunch of dorks not really wanting to order anything, but feeling like we shouldn't leave without at least trying one thing.

In the end, we went with the most basic and ordered the milky cube, which is just milk soft serve with a piece of honeycomb:

Two observations right off the bat: 1) the large ($5) was actually quite small and 2) that piece of honeycomb was much, much, MUCH smaller than we imagined.

We were a little disgruntled at first, but then we figured out that a tiny bit of honeycomb goes a long way.  And the milk soft serve was deliciously subtle.  It tasted like...milk.

Quelle surprise.

Walking out of Milkcow, I still thought that it was overpriced.  However, I can see myself going back.  I've never been a fan of honey, but I've discovered that I enjoy honeycomb with ice cream.  A lot.  Next time, I'll try one of the fancier combos.

5657 Auto Mall Pkwy
Fremont, CA 94538
(510) 657-8890

Monday, January 4, 2016

South Bay: Food Talk Cafe

It takes the promise of lunch to get me out hiking with my friends.  The problem is, we're an indecisive bunch and it typically takes forever for us to finally decide on a place.

It took us a while, but CL, T, my sister, and I finally made our way to Food Talk Cafe after a morning of hiking at Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve:

Given that it was a bit late for lunch, the place was pretty empty:

As always, the four of us split everything.  We started with fried pig's intestines ($8.99) at my request:

The reason why we ended up on Food Talk Cafe was CL's endorsement of their XO pork dumplings ($7.99):

We requested two orders since they came in sixes.  I was very excited about these dumplings because it's not very common to find dumplings made with XO sauce inside:

I was a bit disappointed though.  I expected more XO flavor.  More oomph.  Just...more.

The salted fish and chicken with eggplant clay pot ($12.99) was pretty good though:

The beef brisket noodle soup ($8.99) was just kind of meh:

The noodles themselves were executed well, but the soup?  Nothing to write home about.  Or in a blog post about.

Overall, I just felt a bit underwhelmed.  And that everything was rather overpriced.  You can definitely find better Chinese food at better prices elsewhere.  You don't even have to look very far.  In fact, you can find a couple places just in the same plaza.

Sorry, Food Talk Cafe.  I'll be sticking with your neighbors.

Food Talk Cafe
43755 Boscell Rd
Fremont, CA 94538
(510) 668-0898

Friday, January 1, 2016

San Francisco: Alice Chinese Bistro

Ever since my sister took my parents to Alice Chinese Bistro for Shandong food, they have been talking about how the chicken there is so good that it might even be better than the chicken at San Tung Restaurant.  Now this I had to see for myself.

So I made them go back again with me.

We almost gave up on Alice Chinese Bistro because parking was such a nightmare in the area, but luckily my mother insisted that we keep trying until we finally scored one a few blocks away:

The interior of Alice Chinese Bistro is divided up rather strangely:

The dining area we were seated in felt like a convered garage space.  It was freezing, so they set up some heat lamps.  INSIDE.  Giant outdoor heat lamps right next to the tables.  I felt like half of my face was going to catch on fire until my sister was kind enough to trade seats with me.  The scorching heat didn't seem to bother her, so maybe it was just me being sensitive.  Sigh.

Creative indoor heating aside, the food at Alice Chinese Bistro was pretty standard.  And when I say standard, I mean it was pretty darn good.

We started with a beef roll cake ($6.95):

The English translation makes it sound weirder than it actually is.  It's basically a pan fried crepe with thinly sliced beef and veggies in it.  Super delicious when the crepe is nice and crisp on the outside, which it was.

The whole point of the excursion was to get this, the original dry fried chicken wings ($10.95):

Omigawd.  So.  Freakin.  Crispy.  That crunch.  That glaze.  That burning hot chicken.  I can totally see this as the perfect late night snack.

We could have stopped there, but of course we didn't.  We also got the lamb noodle soup ($7.95):

Handmade flat noodles, of course.  The lamb noodle soup was good, but the one at King of Noodles is better.  The lamb was a bit tough, which wasn't pleasing.

As usual, my mother had to order the da ru mien, translated at Alice Chinese Bistro as combination spicy seafood, chicken (pork) noddle ($7.95).  Yes, noddle.  That wasn't a typo.  Noodle or noddle, my mother always feels like she has to order da ru mien whenever she sees it on a menu:

Something about chasing a childhood memory, which by this point my sister and I believe she's made it all up in her head.  I wasn't a fan of the da ru mien.  I never have been.  Every time my mother has ordered it, it's been rather lackluster.  I don't know why she persists in thinking that it'll ever turn out good.

As if that wasn't enough food, we also ordered the Xinjiang noodle with chicken ($7.95):

We asked for flat noodles and they were perfect with just the right amount of chew.  Or as we say in Chinese, Q.  They were super Q.  Definitely my favorite noodle dish of the night.

Because my sister checked in on Yelp, we also got complimentary hot soy milk around the table:

Unsweetened, exactly the way it's supposed to be so that you can tailor your own soy milk by adding the sugar yourself.

For the chicken alone, I would go back to Alice Chinese Bistro again and again.  Between San Tung Restaurant and Alice Chinese Bistro, I can't say for certain which one is better.  But given that the wait at San Tung is always crazy, I would go with Alice Chinese Bistro for the convenience factor.  Also, because there's less people, the service feels at Alice more attentive and less rushed.

We had a lot of fun at Alice Chinese Bistro that night.  One of the other parties present was obviously a son bringing his girlfriend to meet his family for the first time.  We kept one ear on their conversation so that after we left, we could discuss what was so awkward about it.  We all agreed that the most awkward part came after the son left with his girlfriend.  First of all, why would they leave before the family in the first place?  But then the coup de grace, the mother concluding the night with: "Well, she was alright.  But I guess in the end it's our son's decision."

Ouch.  Not the most effusive praise for sure.

Happy New Year, everyone!  Here's to more good food in 2016!

Alice Chinese Bistro
420 Judah St
San Francisco, CA 94122
(415) 665-1388
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