Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mesa Proves to Be a Good Opening Act


Mesa
725 Baker Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Going through my day to day routine, I never really stop to think that I'm getting older. Most days I still have the mindset that I'm in my late twenties/early thirties, or after a long day at work, maybe pushing 35. The truth is, as much as I don't feel like it, I'm a lot closer to 50, than I am to 40.

I bring this up because Katie had gotten us tickets to see Culture Club, who were playing at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. I had told a number of my coworkers about going to the concert, but not too many of them knew anything about this 80's band, that featured Boy George. After some awful singing of some of their hit songs on my part, and my coworkers still having no clue as to who Culture Club was, I was left feeling like my parents probably did when they were shocked that I did not have any idea who Bobby Rydell was when I was a kid. Now a little dejected, I needed a good restaurant to head to before listening to "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me".

Katie had bought the tickets two days before the concert, (I know, I'm shocked there were still tickets available too), so I only had a day to make reservations. I quickly went to Open Table, which is my favorite spot for making restaurant reservations. I saw Mesa was available at 6 pm, and jumped on it.

I had heard some great things about this restaurant, and their very talented chef, Niki Starr Weyler. She has been at Mesa for two years now, and before that she had been working at Broadway in Laguna, and two restaurants that are no longer with us anymore, Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's and French 75. A pretty impressive list, and she's gotten glowing reviews at Mesa, which has been around since 2007.

Mesa is located in a corner of The Camp shopping complex, which has way too small of a parking lot for a retail center with this many in demand shops and restaurants. It's best to save the headaches of driving around in circles, or following leaving patrons to their cars, and just pay for valet parking at Mesa. We arrived a little before our 6 pm reservation time, and were met with a locked door. They don't open until 6, which I found to be a little odd, but they make up for it by being open late, until 2 am, and serving food almost until closing time.

I loved the feel of this 21 and over restaurant. We got here early, and got to watch this loungy, LA kind of vibe restaurant, fill up with the young, gorgeous people of the South Coast Plaza area. Even though this joint was way hipper than a 40's something guy going to a Culture Club concert, I definitely felt comfortable here, and it was great for people watching. The main attraction for me in the dining room, besides the clientele, was the retractable room, which was open on this mild fall evening, and made this restaurant even cooler than it already was.

The small, compact menu is not going to overwhelm diners with a wide variety of things to choose from. They offer three salads, some pizzas, nine entrees, and the largest section of this menu is the appetizer portion, which included a good assortment of things, including their signature item, the Cast Iron Skillet Mussels. I did not order this, because Katie would not eat it, but when we come back, I'm getting this for sure. For now, let's take a look at what we did order.


I have shied away from getting drinks in restaurants, so I could focus more on the food, but I felt like letting loose on this evening, and tried their version of a Moscow Mule ($7). No cooper mug here, but this beverage was still delicious. It came layered with vodka, ginger cordial, lime juice, and Angostura bitters. Different from others I have had, maybe due to the ginger cordial being used instead of a ginger beer. It gave this a little more depth.



For a month or so now, I have been on a real beet kick, and when we saw that a Roasted Beet Salad ($13) was offered at Mesa, we could not resist. This salad included roasted gold and red beets, a beet puree, champagne vinaigrette, burrata, pickled cherries, and croutons, which were really more like toast points. I don't think the menu described this quite right, or maybe I had envisioned something completely different. The beets were delicious, and the inclusion of the pickled cherries was a nice surprise. I did not get very much burrata here, and I felt six pieces of beets were more like a sample, than an actual salad. It was clean tasting and light, but I expected a little more substance.



Entree time and Katie had this Wine Braised Short Rib ($26). This Italian tinged dish featured some freshly made gnocchi, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and Parmesan cheese. The short rib was unbelievably tender, and what made this dish for me was the very well done sauce, which coated the meat and gnocchi perfectly. Real stick to your ribs kind of dish, and I could not get enough of that sauce. Luckily this was a pretty filling dish, so Katie allowed me to finish it. What a perfect wife.




I had some pretty mediocre experiences with pork chops growing up. My mom would get the really small ones at the store, and then fry the heck out of them, until they were made even smaller. They had such little meat on them, I would often just fill up on jarred applesauce and the boxed au gratin potatoeson pork chop night at home. This Berkshire Pork Chop ($29) is a very distant cousin of the pork chops of my youth. This had more meat than all the pork chops I had as a kid combined, and the pork on this one was tender and flavorful. I really enjoyed the cranberry mustard sauce way more than I thought I would when I saw it on the menu. Both the bacon braised Swiss chard and the butternut squash puree really rounded this out nicely. This helped get me over the trauma of overly done pork chops.




We had to get going to our concert, but there's always time for dessert, and I knew we had to give their Aunt Lauren's Fried Cookies ($11) a try. A few miles down the road is the home of everything deep fried, the OC Fair, but these were much better than anything you can get in July at the fairgrounds. These little balls of cookie dough were fried nicely, and were not overly greasy, so you got the full flavor of the dough, and they came with plenty of vanilla ice cream. Maybe a little more chocolate in the dough, or a dipping sauce would have made these even better.

Mesa was a total hit for dinner before the concert. Maybe the beet salad was not what we were expecting, but our entrees and dessert really hit the mark on this evening, and made our date night even better. We'd definitely come back to Mesa when we are going to see another 80's band that no one has ever heard of, and thus making us feel like we are older than we already are. From Assistant General Manager, Joshua Uhler, to our waitress, Ashley, and everyone else we encountered on this evening, we had fantastic service, and they really made us feel welcome during our stay. I even forgive Josh and Ashley for having no idea who Culture Club is, but they promised me that they would Google them.

Out of five chameleons, (in reference to Culture Club's most well known song), five being best to zero being worst, Mesa gets 3.5 chameleons.

For more information about Mesa, head to their website here: http://www.mesacostamesa.com/

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Back to Black Angus


Black Angus Steakhouse
1350 North Tustin Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92705

People ask me all the time where I'm going to be eating in the next few days. I guess that after doing this blog for seven years, my friends and family now know me as the restaurant guy. When I told people we were going to be eating at Black Angus, more than one person thought they had gone out of business. I think the main reason for this is based on where I work. I work in South OC, and our only Black Angus, in Lake Forest, shuttered about six years ago. After this lunch though, I can assure everyone that Black Angus is alive and kicking, and still serving some pretty impressive steaks and other items.

We were recently invited in to the Black Angus located on Tustin Avenue, right across from Western Medical Center. This partially hidden spot has been here for years, churning out steaks, seafood, salads, and starters for decades. In fact, my sister got her start bar tending in this very location, back in the Square Cow Fun Bar days, which were many years ago. I had some pretty good times coming here when I used to work nearby, and took full advantage of their great happy hour specials. Being back here really brought back a flood of memories.

Speaking of specials, they still have some good ones going on. Their coupons in the Sunday circulars are legendary, and offer many great deals. Black Angus also still has a killer happy hour, which runs from 3 to 7, Monday through Friday, and goes all day on Tuesdays and Sundays in their re-branded Bulls Eye Bar. Happy hour specials are plentiful here, with many options available in the $4, $5, and $6 price levels, while people with heartier appetites will want to take advantage of their Wagon Wheel Sampler Platter, which is $5 off during this truly happy time for your wallet.

Not much has changed in the dining room of your local Black Angus. They still have the western motif going on here, with some of my favorite booths in any restaurant. The high backed, southwestern patterned booths offer one of the most private, and comfortable dining experiences out there. A table where you can take a break from your hectic day, and immerse yourself in the aromas of steak wafting through the busy, yet quietly relaxing restaurant.

On this particular afternoon, I brought along my good friend Ozker, who had not been to Black Angus for a good many years. We were greeted by District Manager, Jeff Gadberry, who is a 40 year employee of Black Angus, and a man that knows this company inside and out. His excitement over the food and beverages we were going to be having was infectious. He really got both Ozker and I pumped up for what was in store for us.



Black Angus is really committed to overhauling their beverage program, by introducing cocktails made with seasonal ingredients, that will show new patrons, and long time customers that they are not just living on their storied past, but want to feature fresh and modern cocktails. These two hand crafted drinks are on their new fall  menu, which debuted earlier this month. The top picture was my favorite of these two, the Jack's Berry Margarita ($8.75). This is a different spin on your typical margarita. They pair Sauza Blue Reposado tequila, with Jack Daniels, a fresh lime agave mix, a splash of cranberry, and then garnish this with whiskey spiked cranberries. I really enjoyed this take on a margarita, because it did not feature the sweet and sour feel of humdrum margaritas. The Jack Daniels was front and center, but the tequila and the cranberry helped balance this out a bit. Not being a Jack fan, I was a little less enthusiastic about the straight forward Old Fashioned Jack ($11.25). This was a heavy pour of Jack Daniels, which was joined in the glass by some very flavorful orange-cinnamon bitters, which sweetened up the Jack. I loved the inclusion of the bitters here, which do not get used nearly enough. Glad to see Black Angus rectifying that.




Since we started with two drinks, we definitely needed to balance that out with some food, and out first for us were these Fire Grilled Fresh Artichokes ($9.99). This would be Ozker's first time having artichokes, and he's now hooked. Usually artichokes are too much work, for too little of a payout, but these had a lot of the pulpy portion of the pedal included, which was made even better by the sauces served with this. I could not decide which one of these house made sauces I enjoyed better. I alternated evenly between the lemon aioli and the pesto mayo. Really a good starter.



Since we had our first food at Black Angus, I guess it was time for another round of drinks. I felt like we were on vacation. This round of drinks was definitely way more up my alley. Lately I've been all about Moscow Mules, and at Black Angus they have different variations on the usual ginger beer, vodka, and lime beverage. I was given the Tennessee Mule ($8.25) to try. Again, I'm no fan of Jack, but this was a nice spin on your typical Moscow Mule, which used lemon instead of lime, substituted Jack for tequila, and then was finished off with Q Ginger Beer. For JD fans, this is sure to be a winner. I also got to sample the Tropical White Sangria ($8.00). White wine, spiced rum, pineapple, mango, and a hint of citrus brought to mind the tropics, and the earlier part of my day melted away, sip by sip.



So I was four drinks in, and had only had artichokes up until this point, so it was definitely time for some more food, and Black Angus delivered with this very solid BBQ Chopped Chicken Salad ($14.99). I'm always a little skeptical about chicken in restaurants, because most of the time they overcook it into shoe leather, but that was not the case here. This tender and juicy chicken was joined in this salad with diced tomatoes, black beans, corn, cheese, tortilla strips, chopped greens, ranch dressing, and a drizzle of barbecue sauce. I couldn't get enough of this southwestern inspired salad, and took a good deal of it home for dinner later on that night, and it held up perfectly.




Now this is what Black Angus is known for. Also on their fall menu, this Big Ranch 20 Ounce T-Bone ($32.99) will satisfy any meat eater you may know. You get two steaks for the price of one with this, as the New York strip and the filet are framed by the T-bone. Ozker and I could not get enough of this. It came to our table cooked perfectly medium rare, was well marbled, and full of flavor. With this dinner, you get to choose two sides, and we went with the grilled asparagus and the au gratin potatoes. Both of these sides were superbly done. I loved that the asparagus was grilled, and it really absorbed a lot of flavor from the grill. The potatoes had a real comfort food feel to them, and I enjoyed the crunch from the broiled bread crumbs on top of this. Added a nice textural component that went well with the rich and cheesy potatoes underneath.



My steak of choice when I'm in a steak restaurant, is the Ribeye ($28.99). This 16 ounce chunk of meat had all the characteristics that I love about this cut of beef. It had some fat running through it, which provided big bursts of flavor, and it was also made even better with the addition of bistro butter, which is offered for a dollar extra, and would be well worth it at double the price. For this entree we got their very satisfying Roasted Brussels Sprouts, which were done nicely in a brown butter, and the homey Mac and Cheese. Ozker would not stop raving about this mac and cheese version, and quickly claimed it when we were boxing up our leftovers.



It had been about five minutes since they had brought out a cocktail, so it was definitely time for another one. This was my favorite beverage of the afternoon, the Hand Shaken Mojito ($8.50). At Black Angus they offer four styles of this Cuban cocktail; mango, berry, ginger, and this one, the classic. It had a clean, refreshing tinge to it, and was one of the better versions I have had. Very well done by the bartenders at Black Angus.



Just when I thought we were done, we were presented with this Large Cold Water Atlantic Lobster Tail ($32.99). There's nothing like the audible gasp that you hear when a lobster tail is placed on a table, and Ozker and I could not stifle our excitement over this lobster. It was fork tender, had a slight sweetness to it, and went down like a warm blanket when dunked in the drawn butter. A very impressive end to the entree portion of our meals.



The last item on the Black Angus fall menu is a must for people who love pumpkin everything, and I know there's lots of you out there. This Pumpkin Cheesecake ($6.50) was heralded by Ozker as being one of the best he has ever had. The graham cracker crust is the base for the autumn inspired pumpkin filling. I liked that the pumpkin seasonings were all present, but were not all in your face. Very good, but next time I'm going to have to give their carrot cake a try.

So now you can see that the reports of Black Angus's death were greatly exaggerated. To be honest, I came in here not really expecting too much, but I was pleasantly surprised by our meal, and would not hesitate to return very soon. Black Angus is a great option for people that want to get more value for their money, than they would be able to get at one of the high end steakhouses that serves everything ala carte. Here, the 21 day aged steaks not only includes the beef, but also comes with two side items, and their legendary warm molasses bread as well. They even offer their Campfire Feast, which includes an appetizer and dessert for 2, for less than $30 a person. That won't even get you in the door at those high end steakhouses. This will definitely not be our last time at Black Angus.

We would like to thank everyone at Black Angus for this fun and delicious afternoon. It was great seeing everyone's passion for this restaurant that has been around for over 50 years, and it's very commendable to see that they are changing with the times, while still keeping lots of things the same. We would personally like to thank District Manager Jeff Gadberry for the wonderful hospitality, and taking the time out of his busy day to share his vision and passion for this iconic brand. We really enjoyed getting to meet you, and getting to know your team at this Santa Ana Black Angus location. We also would like to thank PR guru, Jill Fox at JCutler Media Group for coordinating this visit, and for setting this up. It was great working with you Jill.

If you would like to find your local Black Angus, or would like more information, you should check out their website here: https://www.blackangus.com/

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Does SmoKING Ribs Take the Barbecue Crown?


The SmoKING Ribs
14211 Euclid St. 
Garden Grove, CA 92840

When I told people I would be heading to Garden Grove for dinner, most just assumed I'd be having Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, or trying one of those Cajun seafood spots where you get the whole shebang. I got a bunch of double takes when I told them I'd be getting barbecue, and I had heard great things about the restaurant we were headed to. My Instagram feed has been filled with mouth watering pictures of the meats here, their Yelp page is filled with lots of positive reviews and five star ratings, and I have read some really good things in the press, so it was just a matter of time until we made it to The SmoKING Ribs.

The man behind this restaurant is Kenny Tran, who used to love grilling in his backyard, but found it to be pretty labor intensive, with all the flipping and making sure things were not getting too over done. He found that he did not have enough time to enjoy beer while grilling, so he started out smoking a chicken, which gave him plenty of time to enjoy a beer or two while the meat was in the smoker, and that's how he got his start as a barbecue master.

That was 1999, and in 2010 he started his own barbecue catering company, Bolsa Barbaque. They still do a lot of catering, but this was the springboard for his first and only brick and mortar restaurant. The SmoKING Ribs is the first restaurant Kenny Tran has ever worked at, and he's jumped in with both feet, since he's the owner, pit master, and almost every other job you can think of in a restaurant.

The location of this barbecue restaurant is a little odd, in the same sleepy shopping center as a Vietnamese coffee shop, a pharmacy, and a nail salon, and next to the more bustling strip mall that houses the ever popular Boiling Crab, which always seems to have a long line out the door. We arrived here at 5 pm on a recent Saturday to meet our good friends Duc and Minerva, who pen one of the more enjoyable reads, Much Ado About Fooding. At this early dinner hour it was no problem getting a table right away, but we've heard that this small, ten table eatery does get packed, so be advised of that.

The menu at SmoKING Ribs is pretty compact, but all the essentials are here. They offer six kinds of meat, a couple sandwiches, nine sides, and five starters, which are half price during their happy hour, which runs weekdays, from 2 to 5:30. I was a little disappointed that there are no combo meals offered here, as that's usually what I like to order to get a good lay of the land when eating at a place for the first time. Fortunately for us, there were four of us in our party, and we coordinated what all of us would be having, so we got a good cross section of the menu. Let's see if this restaurant is worth all of the hype it has been generating.



Since we were waiting for Minerva and Duc to arrive, because they were running a little late, Katie and I decided to order their much ballyhooed Candied Bacon ($2) to start off with. I've heard this runs out pretty early, so I was pretty eager to give it a try. I thought it was good, but I kind of missed the smokey flavor of regular bacon, since this was way more on the sweeter side. Different, but not something I would probably get again.



I guess we were really hungry while waiting for Minerva and Duc, because we also tried their Blueberry Cornbread ($4), which is also one of the choices that you can pick for your side items with an entree. I would definitely get this again. Part muffin, part cornbread, and totally delicious. This was like the best of a blueberry muffin and cornbread all in one. Plenty of blueberries in this, and not too crumbly, like a lot of cornbread tends to be. I did wish that the butter was a little softer, so it could spread more evenly, but other than that, this was a very good side, and made me eager to see what else was in store for us this evening.



Our food started making its way out to us in waves, the first of which was Minerva's selection on this early evening, the Pulled Pork ($13). This mound of shredded pork came with two sides, and she went with Corn on the Cob and Onion Rings. Minerva liked the pork, but since she went to school in North Carolina, she's used to the real deal barbecue, and she stated that this was good for OC barbecue, but not like anything she's had back east. She said it was a little too mushy, but I liked the pieces I tried off of her plate. I left the corn on the cob alone, but the onion rings were fantastic. Very crunchy breading, well fried, and the onion on the inside was prominent. I think these are one of my favorite onion rings around OC.





When Katie's dinner hit the table, there was an audible gasp of excitement. This Angus Short Rib ($24) is only available Friday through Sunday after 5 pm, and is made in a limited supply, so get here early enough to make sure they don't run out before you get yours. Short rib is always tender, and that was definitely the case here. I liked the understated amount of smokiness that attached itself to the beef on this evening. This good sized rib had a nice ribbon of fat running through it, which also helped boost its flavor profile. For her side items, Katie went with the Smoked Beans and Coleslaw, which were both winners. The beans were more soup like, than baked beans, which I thought I was not going to enjoy, but they turned out to have plenty of beef in them, and a great depth of flavor. The coleslaw had a great crunchy texture to the red cabbage used, and was liberally dressed, just the way I like it. Another winner of a plate.





The hits just kept on coming at SmoKING Ribs, with my plate, the Angus Beef Brisket ($21). I really enjoyed the brisket, but a few pieces were a little on the dry side, but for the most part, this was solid beef. I really enjoyed the barbecue sauce that they offer here. They have a sweet sauce, but the one that got me humming was their habanero sauce, which really packed a punch, without overwhelming the meat. My table mates thought it was a little too hot, but that was rectified by mixing it with the sweeter sauce. Really kicked this brisket up a few notches. The side items I chose rocked. The Mac and Cheese had the right consistency of noodles to cheese, and I liked the inclusion of the bread crumbs on top of this, which added a little texture. The Mashed Potatoes were a good, solid version of this classic side dish, which was not too lumpy or runny.




You can't come to a place called the SmoKING Ribs and not get ribs, so here's a shot of the Pork Ribs ($30). Besides the short rib, this was my favorite meat item of the night. The ribs were tender, had a great reddish hue from the smoke ring around the outside of them, and came with a slight glaze of barbecue sauce, which caramelized on the smoker. The two side items chosen with this plate were the French Fries and the Twice Baked Potato. I did not get a chance to give the potato a try, but it looked real good from across the table. The fries were done well here, with a crispy outer shell, and soft potato inside.



Both Katie and I added a Hot Link ($2) to our meals. This tube of meat had a nice slow burn to it, and  I liked the snap of the casing, along with the sausage on the inside. Well worth the extra two dollars, and this went well with the provided barbecue sauce.

I left SmoKING Ribs pretty impressed, and now understand why this restaurant gets so much positive press. So where does this restaurant rank in the hierarchy of barbecue restaurants in OC? It's pretty high up there in my opinion, with only Lillie' Q, Blake's Place, Smokey Fred's and Leadbelly's being better, but of course these rankings can change based on my next visit to any one of these spots. I do wish they offered combo plates here, as it would help make my decision on what to eat here next much easier. There were some very minor hiccups with the meats here, but the side items were all pretty stellar. Some might feel that the prices are a little on the high side, but you'll definitely have leftovers, so if you think about it like you're paying for two meals, it makes it much more manageable. The service on this evening was pretty good, and they definitely got busier as the night went on. With the addition of the SmoKING Rib, people might start thinking about the city of Garden Grove as a barbecue destination.

Out of five strawberries, (because I always think of this fruit whenever I'm in this area, since they hold the Strawberry Festival here every Memorial Day Weekend), five being best to zero being worst, The SmoKING Ribs gets 3.5 strawberries.

For more information about The SmoKING Ribs, head to their website here: http://thesmokingribs.com/
 
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