Friday, March 24, 2017

A Night of Firsts at Hai Di Lao

Hai Di Lao Fusion Shabu
1065 Brea Mall 1031A
Brea, CA 92821

When restaurant invites roll around, it makes me feel very popular all of a sudden. My friends suddenly return my phone calls, they might even get me a doughnut at work without me even asking, and I hear from people I only usually see in Facebook posts. Okay, maybe this is a little over-exaggerated, but when I get a restaurant invite, it makes me feel like I've got a golden ticket, and get to share the experience.

Most of the time I carefully pick someone that I know will enjoy the restaurant or someone that I haven't seen in awhile. I had it all lined up to take my friend Ryan, but surprise, surprise, he made another lame excuse to cancel, so I scrambled to find someone on short notice. Enter my good friend Danny. He seemed up for it, and since we both had never had shabu or hot pot before, both of us did not really have any indication of what to expect from our visit to the new Hai Di Lao at the Brea Mall.

Hai Di Lao is not new to the restaurant game. Started in China in 1994, they now have over 200 locations and opened their first US spot in Arcadia in  2013. That location is also in a mall, the Arcadia Westfield Mall. Judging from the pictures I have seen on Yelp, the Arcadia venue is bigger, with a bigger decor package, and a dancing noodle guy. We were told that this Brea spot may get a dancing noodle guy, but they are still trying to work out the logistics of it in this smaller space.

Danny and I arrived at this new Hai Di Lao last Wednesday at 7 pm. If you are familiar with the Brea Mall, this restaurant is located right across the way from Red Robin, and right next to the entrance to the Macy's Men's Store. The are in soft opening mode until this Saturday, March 25th, when they will hold their Grand Opening Celebration, and offer guests buy one entree, get one entree free all day on Saturday. For being in soft opening status, Hai Di Lao was one popular spot to be at on this rather slow Wednesday night at the mall. Every table was occupied and most of the bar seating was taken up as well during our stay.

Our waiter Kareem and the rest of the staff did a great job of explaining the menu and process of eating at Hai Di Lao to novices Danny and I. Basically, this is one part shabu restaurant and one part hot pot. It's a three-step ordering process. You pick the style of broth you want. they have different flavors and heat levels for you to choose from. Then you pick the size and the proteins that you desire from a list of nine offered. The last step is to pick your dipping sauce, some of which are add-ons of 99 cents and were created by Michelin Star Chef Joachim Splichal. Let's take a look at what came out for us.

Before we had the chance to order, Kareem had brought out some Japanese Mashed Potato and some Kimchee. He also brought this to other tables as well. I'm not sure what made the potato dish Japanese, as it tasted just like a more dense and cold mashed potato. Different, but good. I actually liked the kimchee better, as it had a good flavor to it, and tasted freshly made. Plus I was pretty hungry after driving from South county on an empty stomach.

Since both Danny and I were pretty hungry, and because Kareem had suggested it, we ordered two appetizers to start but had differing opinions on which one we liked better. Danny was more partial to the Gyoza ($4.99). I felt these needed to be filled with a little more meat, but Danny scarfed these down rather quickly and enjoyed dipping them in the soy sauce provided. Since he was preoccupied with the gyoza, it freed me up to take down a good amount of the Potato Shrimp ($6.99. These good sized shrimp were wrapped around stringed potatoes and then deep fried. Kind of like a shrimp wrapped around a hash brown, which I never would have thought would work, but it totally did. I used the ketchup that was provided, which gave this kind of a breakfast tinge to it. I'm getting these again for sure on my next visit to Hai Di Lao.

When we were about half way done with our appetizers, Kareem brought out our pots of broth to get them heated up on the table top burners. Mine was the lighter colored of the two, the Pork Bone Kimchi, which was touted on the menu as being the second most spicy of all the broths. Danny went with the House Spicy broth, which was listed as the mildest of the spicy broths offered. They also offer some that are not spicy at all.

As our broths were approaching boiling temperature, we were brought out this good looking Vegetable Plate, which comes with every entree. Danny, who works with produce on a daily basis was pretty impressed with the quality of the veggies here. He said there were not dark spots on anything, they were very fresh, and some of the best produce he has seen in a long time. This plate included tofu, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, napa, baby bok choy, and green onions. I agree with Danny's assessment of these vegetables, but wish that there was a little more broccoli and carrots involved here. I gingerly dropped all of my veggies in the boiling broth at the same time so they could soak up all of the flavors from the spicy broth.

Right on the heels of our veggies simmering away in the broth, the proteins that we ordered made their appearance at our table. I got the Large 6 Ounce Kurobuta All Natural Pork ($19.99), while Danny had the Large 6 Ounce USDA Prime Ribeye ($25.99). Then as a special treat, we added on to our order, the Regular 4 Ounce Wagyu Beef ($18.99). Our first few tries of cooking our curled meats in the broth were a little bit of trial and error, but we finally got the hang of it. The thinly sliced meats really cooked quickly. All three of the meats we chose were great, but the Wagyu was very special and well worth the extra money to experience it. Unbelievably tender.

After the meat was done cooking, you could choose to dip it into one of the aforementioned sauces, which of course I had to try them all. I was very partial to the Roasted Garlic Sauce, Peanut Sauce, and the Spicy Roasted Red Onion Sauce. I really liked the uniqueness of each of these, and it made my meal all the more memorable having different sauces to dip my meat into. Danny was more traditional, just using the Sudachi Ponzu sauce as his chief dipping vehicle. Such a creature of habit.

Since it was a little chaotic cooking our own food and getting the timing down, I did not take pictures of the finished product, but just know that we were completely satisfied with our meals, and even pretty big eaters, like ourselves left here comfortably full. Both Danny and I were a little shocked that we could get so full from a plate of veggies, six ounces of meat, and some dipping sauces, but we have to admit that to be the case.

Of course, we are never too full to ignore dessert, and this would be the first time either of us had tried Mochi Ice Cream ($6.99). I think we would describe this as ice cream wrapped in a gummi flavored type casing. This came with three flavors, mango, raspberry, and vanilla. I liked the vanilla one the best, but all were pretty solid.

I'd say that Hai Di Lao was a great introduction to this style of restaurant for both Danny and I. Going in we really did not know what to expect, and on the way home we eagerly made plans to come back very soon with our wives. I was most impressed with the cleanliness of the restaurant and the freshness of every item we had here. As the night went on, it did not really feel like we were eating in a mall, as the passing shoppers faded deep into the background, as the food really became front and center during our stay. I'm so happy that I could share this experience with my friend Danny, as we both experienced our maiden voyage into shabu and hot pot, and it will definitely not be our last.

For more information about Hai Di Lao, head to their website here:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Istanbul Grill Take Two

Istanbul Grill
18010 Newhope St. #D
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Doing what we do, reviewing restaurants, we do not often get back around to repeat visits to restaurants. There's always something new to try, and we want to give our take. It usually takes a special circumstance for us to make a return visit to a restaurant, and this trip to Istanbul Grill in Fountain Valley is one of those special trips.

Our original visit was early last year, and not to let the cat out of the bag, but we really enjoyed the food here. I was all set to write my review, and then my computer hemorrhaged, and I lost all of my photos. Yep, that's right, no backups either. So a year and a few months later, my new computer is working like a champ, and we finally made a return trip to Istanbul Grill

Istanbul Grill has been open in this easily accessible shopping plaza for going on four years now. Located right across the street from Costco, on the corner of Talbert and Newhope, right next to the Flame Broiler and Cancun Fresh restaurants. Istanbul Grill is a Turkish restaurant, but much like the city of Istanbul, which sits on the Bosphorus Strait, which straddles both the continents of Europe and Asia, most people will recognize items on the menu here as something they have had before in a Mediterranean restaurant. Enough of the geography lesson, let's check out Istanbul Grill.

Istanbul Grill is a very comfortable restaurant. Both times we had been here, we got sat right away. There's probably about twenty tables and a patio area with a few more, but we haven't seen anyone sit out there the two times we've been here. Through the decor here you can tell that they are very proud of Turkey, with plenty of pictures on the walls and a large flatscreen flashing pictures from that unique country and some shots of their food. The wait staff is very good answering questions about their menu. Let's see what came out for us on this second trip to Istanbul Grill.

Starting things off would probably be the Turkish equivalent of chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant. The bread is a little thicker than most pita bread slices we have had but tasted very fresh. I did not catch the name of the sauce that came with this, but I'd guess that it was oil based with some Turkish spices included. It was mild, with an earthy feel to it. Katie seemed to like it a lot better than I did.

When dining in a Turkish restaurant, or any Mediterranian restaurant, it's a must to give their Hummus ($6.95) a try. This one at Istanbul Grill had a very smooth consistency to it. One of the smoothest I have had. Unfortunately, the tradeoff was that it kind of lacked in the flavor department. The tahini, garlic, and lemon did little to lift this hummus anywhere above average. Next time I'm going to ask if they have a spicy version.

After being up in the valley a few years ago for a party, I've been on the lookout for a Falafel ($7.95) that rivaled the one I had all those years ago. This one was fine, but not even close. These small balls of chickpeas flavored with garlic, parsley, and cilantro were a little on the dry side and packed a little too dense, so they lacked a lightness that I appreciate in my falafel. This came with a very good tahini sauce, which helped these out a bit. Katie's a big fan of garlic sauce, and liked this one, but was not blown away by it, like the one she had by her former workplace in Ontario.

Entrees are where Istanbul Grill really shined for us. I had the Kebab Combination ($15.95) and could not have been happier. The only difficulty was picking the two that I wanted. I settled on the Lamb and Ribeye Steak Kebabs. Not a bad bite out of the bunch. The lamb was strong here, with a good amount of spices included, and the meat itself really lacked the gaminess that most people complain about when eating lamb. I really liked that they asked how I wanted the ribeye to be cooked when I ordered it. I had it come out medium rare, and that's how they made it. Tender and juicy. Not that it needed it but I alternated using the garlic sauce and the humus with each bite of meat. This also came with rice pilaf and veggies, which also were pretty solid for side items. A very satisfying meal.

Katie was also pretty pleased with her dinner selection on this evening, the Chicken Shish Kebab ($13.95). I'm alway very wary when she orders chicken in restaurants because a lot of times it's way overcooked. Not the case here. This was some very tender cubes of chicken that were marinated nicely in their special sauce and then chargrilled. She was extremely happy with this meal.

When it was time for the check to come, a man, who I assume is the manager or owner came by and asked us how everything was. We told him it was great, and he offered us a piece of Turkish Delight and a Turkish Coffee. Katie took the coffee and I had a piece of the Turkish delight. After this encounter with Turkish delight, I can now confirm I am not a fan of this gel encased, licorice-flavored candy. It reminded me of a candy that grandmothers would have sitting out to trick their grandkids. Katie was a fan of the small, but powerful Turkish coffee, which was strong, and packed a mean caffeine punch, which kept her up even longer than usual on her phone.

Our second trip to Istanbul Grill was just as good as our first and really showed us why this restaurant is always mentioned in the upper echelon of Mediterranian restaurants in OC. Yes, I expected a little more from the falafel and the average hummus, but the entrees were excellent, and even a better value at lunch, where you get a starter, entree, dessert, and pita bread for $8.95. A savings of over 50 percent, and the perfect opportunity to try this Turkish restaurant, without a large investment. Even if you are here for dinner, you'll still enjoy it. The kebabs are some of the best we have found in OC and the service has been warm and friendly both times we've been here. I'm still not happy that my computer crashed, but it did necessitate a return trip here, which we will have to make more of a habit of doing.

Out of five tubs of popcorn, (because the first movie theater debuted in Istanbul in 1896, and has lead to this city becoming the hub for the Turkish film industry), five being best to zero being worst, Istanbul Grill gets 3.5 tubs of popcorn.

For more information about Istanbul Grill, head to their website here:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hurry! King Crab Combos Are Ending Soon

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

Your choices for a reasonable steak dinner are shrinking. With the closure of Lone Star Steakhouse earlier this year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a good steak dinner, without breaking the bank. Yes, there's still Outback and Sizzler, but I haven't been to either of these two chains for a long time now.

I hadn't been to Black Angus either, until late last year. Before that visit, it had probably been about ten years since I had been inside a Black Angus. Part of the reason for this was because the location nearest my house had closed years ago. I ended up being pretty impressed with that visit late last year and had eagerly awaited a chance to return.

That return trip came last week when my sister and I had made plans to meet up for a long overdue happy hour session. This was a sort of homecoming for her, as she used to tend bar at this very Black Angus location in the mid 90's. We both had some pretty good memories in this building, which is situated right across the street from Western Medical Center.

Our happy hour date turned into more of a dinner date when we ran into District Manger for Black Angus, the very personable Jeff Gadberry. He insisted that we try their wildly popular special going on right now, the King Crab Combos. With these combos, you not only get a good amount of crab but also get your choice between a Top Sirloin, Filet Mignon, or their very good Prime Rib. Who are we to resist crab and steak on the same plate?

 We took a seat in their very comfortable lounge, which is accented with some nostalgic pictures of sports stars from yesteryear. The open seating bar area filled up rather nicely during our stay, as people took advantage of the great happy hour deals. Happy hour goes from 3 to 7 Monday through Friday and all day on Tuesday and Sundays. They offer beer, wine, cocktail, and appetizer choices anywhere from $4 to $7 during these times. A great deal where you have a few drinks and two appetizers and still won't spend $20.

We started things off with the Crispy Fried Garlic-Pepper Zucchini ($4). I've always had a soft spot for the zucchini here, which comes with a wonderful housemade cucumber dip. The combination of the very good panko crusted breading and the consistency of the dip goes great together and makes this a winning choice for starting out any visit to Black Angus. Very well done.

Since we were going to be gossiping about some family matters, a couple of cocktails were definitely in order. We tried the Irish Winter ($8.50) and the Tangerine Drop ($8.50). These are both on their featured cocktail menu and are available for a limited time. The Tangerine Drop was a favorite of my sister, as she had two of these during our stay at Black Angus. This more refined take on a lemon drop starts out with Absolut Citron Vodka, then a fresh tangerine and a lemon elixir is added. It's then finished off with a splash of champagne. My sister enjoyed the citrus explosion this provided, and would not hesitate to get this on her next visit. I was a little hesitant when the Irish Water was put in front of me, as I'm not really a big fan of Jameson Irish Whiskey, but it was downplayed in this beverage. This is their Texas tea with a shot of Jameson and a splash of cranberry. Very refreshing and delicious, but be advised, this could sneak up on you if you have too many.

Now the focal point of our experience at Black Angus on this particular evening, the King Crab Combo with a Filet Mignon ($34.99). This was a good amount of food, which I happily tackled earnestly. The three crab legs provided plenty of sweet and fresh meat. I was informed that these crab legs came from the Pacific Ocean, near South America. So maybe these were centolla crab, but I'm not sure. Whatever they were, it ended up being fantastic. My sister, who is not really a fan of crab really enjoyed the tiny bite I gave her. I did not really want to share.  The six-ounce filet was done to a perfect medium rare, and was very tender, while the caramelized shallot and bleu cheese butter added an unneeded, but welcome flavor boost to my steak. With this meal, you also get your choice of two classic sidekicks, and I went with the Mac and Cheese and the Roasted Brussels Sprouts. The mac and cheese was a tad on the runny side, but I liked the breadcrumbs topping this and the creamy cheese covering the elbow-shaped pasta. The brussels sprouts were very good, with some good caramelization included here, which added some sweetness. A very good end to this wonderful meal.

My sister is pretty basic when it comes to her meals, and that held true at Black Angus on this evening. She opted for the Top Sirloin Center Cut ($19.99) with the same shallot and bleu cheese butter I had on my filet.  As is the case with lots of top sirloin steaks, there were a few bites that were a little on the fatty side here, but the majority of this steak was done nicely, and extremely tender for a top sirloin. For her sides, she went with the Grilled Asparagus and the Au Gratin Potatoes. The asparagus was done nicely over the grill, which helped this vegetable pick up some extra flavor. The potatoes tasted almost the same as my mac and cheese, but with a better consistency. Definitely the better choice between the two.

My sister had just ordered her second Tangerine Drop so I could not let her out drink me, so I ordered one of my all-time favorite cocktails, a Montana Mai Thai ($8.50). Drinking this automatically brings to mind a tropical island out in the Pacific. Malibu Coconut Rum, Captain Morgan's, orange and pineapple juices, and a splash of Meyer's Dark Rum as a floater combined to bring a little touch of the South Pacific to Santa Ana. Dessert had to be ordered as well, especially when I heard they had Peanut Butter Cup Pie ($6.50) as their seasonal dessert. Any Resse's fan will get behind this pie. It starts with a peanut butter and graham cracker crust, and is then layered with chocolate ganache, peanut butter mousse, whipped cream, both chocolate and peanut butter drizzles, and finished with a miniature Reese's peanut butter cup. That's a lot of peanut butter, and perfect for a self-professed peanut butter fiend like myself. Make sure to get into Black Angus soon, as this is a limited timed item.

Speaking of limited time things, like I stated earlier, the King Crab Combos are only available for a very limited time now, so if you want to experience them, it would probably be best to get into your nearest Black Angus this week. Fret not if you don't make that deal because a little bird told us that they are going to be having a lamb special coming up next, and a lobster and steak promotion which is one of their most popular of the year. Once again, Black Angus proves that you can still get good steak dinner at a value price, and that's probably why they are sticking around while their competitors are falling by the wayside.

We would like to thank everyone that we encountered during our visit to Black Angus. Our waitress Lindsay could not have been nicer, even if she did stump me on one of the world capitals that I profess to know all of. She made some great recommendations and kept excellent care of us. General Manager Jennifer Sarte was a whole nother story. She and my sister ganged up on me more than I care to remember. Even she could not dampen this visit. Kidding, of course, Jennifer, or am I? Lastly, we would like to thank the graciousness of District Manager Jeff Gadberry, who not only shared his passion for what they do and serve at Black Angus, but he's an equally great man who we enjoyed reconnecting with. We hope our paths cross again soon Jeff.

To find your closest Black Angus, head to their website here: