Wednesday, December 13, 2017

You Won't Be Called Skinny After Eating at Tio Flaco's

Tio Flaco's
18959 Magnolia St. 
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

It was another rare weekend day off for me, and since Katie has a regular job, with both Saturdays and Sundays off, it was a chance to get out, do a little walk, and cross a restaurant off of our restaurant wishlist. So we hightailed it up the 405 to Fountain Valley to give Tio Flaco's a try.

I had read a very positive review about this small restaurant in the LA Times, and another two in the OC Weekly, so of course it had to be put on my list. Both articles mentioned that they cook their meats over wood. Very intrigued, we decided to park at a nearby junior high school, walk through a couple of pocket parks, and arrive at just before lunchtime at Tio Flaco's.

Tio Flaco's has been open for two and a half years now, and it replaced a deli, but it appears that this might have been an old Wienerschnitzel, judging by the A-frame building it occupies. Caesar Ruiz and Steven Dabic, both local boys who graduated from Fountain Valley High, wanted to create a place where you could get tacos like the ones they had down in Tijuana. They wanted their place to have homemade tortillas, fresh salsas, and the proteins had to be grilled over wood. Lucky for them, Fountain Valley is one of the few OC cities that permits this kind of cooking.

The menu at Tio Flaco's is very basic. They offer four types of meat, and you can have them as tacos, a mulita, which is best described as a quesadilla with stuff inside of it, or you can choose to have a taco salad. They also offer a cheese quesadilla and tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. That's basically it. Once you open the door to the small restaurant you are hit with the sweet smell of the meats cooking. With a menu as simple as this, we quickly ordered, grabbed a seat on their outdoor patio and waited for our number to be called. Here's how everything came out for us.

Starting things out for us is Katie's meal. She almost always opts for chicken when eating out, and that was definitely the case at Tio Flaco's. She had both a Chicken Taco ($2.29) and a Chicken Mulita ($3.79). Way to mix it up. Anyways, she liked the chicken but was not in love with it. She thought it could have been a little more flavorful, and the chicken did not seem to pick up too much from being cooked over the wood. She did jazz things up with a trip to the salsa bar, which features five kinds of red and green salsas ranging from mild to extremely hot. Katie was impressed with the tortillas and the juiciness of the chicken. She did say she'd probably skip the chicken next time in favor of one of the other meats. 

With Katie getting two chicken items, it freed me up to try the other three types of meat available at Tio Flaco's. I had a Carne Asada Taco ($2.68), a Carnitas Taco, ($2.29), and finished off my taco trio with the Al Pastor Taco ($2.68). All of these were great, and I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but the one I remember the most was the Asada. You could definitely tell it was cooked over wood, as it picked up a smokiness and was very tender. It did not need any salsa, but of course, I used a little bit of the hot ones, and they were excellent. The al pastor and carnitas were fantastic as well and worth getting. The tacos at Tio Flaco's come with onions, cilantro, and guacamole, and they did not skimp on either the meats or the toppings. Some of the best tacos I have had to date.

Round two of food came out next, and this included a Carne Asada Mulita ($4.18) and a Cheese Quesadilla ($1.69). Having the carne asada in the mulita made me fall in love with it even more. I almost hated letting Katie have a bite and wanted to drench it in hot salsa so she wouldn't want any, but I'm a good husband and let her have some. The mulita was filled with cheese, guacamole, onion, cilantro, meat, and a smidge of mild salsa. Again they were not shy about the amount of Asada they used here, as it escaped the mulita, and I eagerly ate it after the mulita disappeared rather quickly. The quesadilla was a classic. Two of their very good flour tortillas were sandwiched with some gooey cheese, which also had some crispy parts hanging out, which made this quesadilla even better. 

Not to be overlooked, the salsa bar here is pretty impressive at Tio Flaco's. As I mentioned earlier they have five salsas ranging from mild to extremely hot. I tried the hottest of the bunch and found it to be good and spicy, but it did not overwhelm, which is what I look for in a salsa. I like it hot, but I still want to be able to taste the food that I put it on. A very delicate balance that this restaurant nailed. 

As we walked back to our car parked about a mile away at the junior high school, I could not stop thinking about our visit to Tio Flaco's. Even as I write this review a few weeks later I have an incredible craving for their tacos and mulitas. I think these are the best tacos I have had in a real long time, with the exception of the chicken. Such a simple menu and the food was done with such precision, I can not wait to return very soon. I'd say that the owners at Tio Flaco's have nailed what they were going for here, creating a great taco just like the ones they had across the border. The restaurant inside is a little small, and because of the wood burning cooking going on in there, it does seem a little steamy, so a seat out on their patio seems like a way better spot to enjoy your food. This was a great place to spend our day off together.

Out of five octopuses, (because the mascot of this restaurant is Templeton the Octopus), five being best to zero being worst, Tio Flaco's gets 3.5 octopuses.

For more information about Tio Flaco's, head to their website here:

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crack Shack Is No Joke

Crack Shack
196 East 17th St. 
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

We recently were invited to the VIP opening party of Crack Shack. For those of you that are not aware, this is the chicken-focused restaurant of CEO Michael Rosen and his business partner, celebrity chef Richard Blais, famously of Top Chef. I don't bring this up to brag about getting invited to a restaurant opening party,  I mention this because I want to convey how much we liked this restaurant.

Usually, when we are invited somewhere, I enjoy what they have to offer, take some pictures, and then come home and write about our experience at the event. We usually don't return for an extended amount of time. Not because we didn't like it, but to keep the content fresh on this site. You guys probably don't want to read two posts about the same restaurant within the span of a few weeks, or a month or two.  Plus we have lots of restaurants we need to try, without doing too many return trips to a place we have already been.

The party was, of course, a great time. We got a quick tour of the restaurant, which is located on the corner of 17th Street and Orange Avenue, in what used to be a Chase Bank. It's unrecognizable from when it was a financial institution though. They poured a lot of work into this restaurant, which features a retractable roof, utilized reclaimed wood from Torrey Pines down in San Diego, where they started and have two locations, (one in Little Italy and one in Encinitas), and there are also large chicken themed murals on the outside of the building, as well as a large chicken statue greeting guests as they enter the restaurant.

Another highlight of the party was getting a chance to meet the Crack Shack team, including both Michael Rosen and the star of the evening, Richard Blais. I have to admit that I have never watched an episode of Top Chef, but I did recognize him from some other TV shows I happened to have clicked by. He was really a great guy and took the time to mingle with his guests. He did not even bristle when I asked him a few questions of my own. I found out he was an Islanders fan growing up, but then all the cool kids in high school started liking the Rangers, so he switched too. Also, since he's a Long Island resident, I asked which famous Long Island celebrity would he most like to have dinner with. He answered Billy Joel, which is a great pick.  I'd go with Jerry Seinfeld myself.

The food was another highlight, as there was plenty of tray passed items off of their menu making their way around the room. We pretty much tried almost everything on the menu, but I wanted to go back to share with you what the full-sized items look like, instead of the mini versions we were given. Plus I really enjoyed what I had consumed and was ready to try the one or two things on the menu we had missed.

Katie and I met at Crack Shack on a recent Monday evening, and the restaurant was very lively. Ordering is done at a walk-up counter alongside 17th Street. A large majority of the menu is different versions of chicken sandwiches, but they also feature salads, sides, milkshakes, and fried chicken by itself. After making your selections you go inside and find a seat and your food is brought out to you. I was excited to see what we had in store for us on our return trip to Crack Shack.

I'm not really a fan of Deviled Eggs ($4) but Katie really wanted to give these a try. These come four to an order and are topped with french toast crumbles and candied bacon. They must have been pretty good because Katie did not hesitate to eat all four rather quickly.

We might as well stay with Katie's choices on this evening, as she selected this Senor Croque ($12). I was a little surprised when she selected this breakfast-centric sandwich. It starts with a fried chicken breast, and then is topped with bacon, fried egg, white cheddar, miso-maple butter, and is sandwiched between a brioche bun. Katie called this her favorite chicken sandwich ever. She loved the different flavors that came through in each bite and felt this was one of the juiciest chicken sandwiches she has ever had. She now knows why they call this place the Crack Shack because this sandwich is so addictive.

The first of the two sandwiches I tried was the Firebird ($11). They use thigh meat for this spicy sandwich, plenty of pickles, crispy onions, and ranch, all on a potato roll. I loved the heat on this sandwich. It was the right balance of heat, as it did not overwhelm, but lingered even after I was done with my last bite. They had just the right amount of ranch on here, and the crispy onion strings added a nice crunch. I did take the pickles off of this, as I always find pickles take over anything that they touch. An excellent sandwich, which has got me excited to try other spicy chicken sandwiches.

I had some pretty high hopes for this Royale ($9). This is not like any Sausage McMuffin you have ever had. The word that came to mind when I was eating this was sturdy. This was a very sturdy breakfast sandwich. They make their own English muffins here, which are the vessel for their chicken sausage, sunny side up egg, and smoked cheddar. I had a few qualms about this sandwich. The English muffin was a little too hard and made eating this rather difficult. The chicken sausage was on point, but the egg was way overcooked and did not provide any runny yolk that I think would have bound this together very well. The cheese also got lost here. I'm going to get this with a side of their lime mayo next time, which I think will make this sandwich better.

One thing that really stood out from the opening party that we attended was the Schmaltz Fries ($5), I was curious if they would be just as good on our return trip. They were. The fries are an all day process. They are hand cut, soaked for 24 hours, and then they are fried twice in chicken fat, which leaves the fries crispy on the outside and pillowy soft inside. A must get when visiting Crack Shack.

Even though I was not totally in love with the Royale sandwich I will be back to have the Firebird sandwich again. I think it was one of the best chicken sandwiches I have had, right up there with my other favorite of the moment, the one at Two Birds at the Trade Food Hall in nearby Irvine. Both use Jidori chicken, which seems to make for a tastier and moist chicken. My only minor complaint is about the sauces here. I wish they were a little bolder, and they had a little more variety. The ranch dressing and the Sriracha 1000 Island were probably the best of the bunch, but they did not really stand out too much to me. Even with that one minor quibble, we will be back soon. I really liked the vibe here, as it was kind of hipster-ish, but not in an uncomfortable way. Thanks to all involved in the invite to the opening party, and we're happy to report that the food was just as good as when we returned two weeks later.

Out of five clowns, (because Richard Blais is from Uniondale, New York, which was the last stop by the Ringling Bros. Circus after a 146-year run earlier this year), five being best to zero being worst, The Crack Shack gets 3.5 clowns.

For more information about Crack Shack, head to their website here:

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Living the Burger Dream in HB?

The American Dream
21058 Pacific Coast Highway #130
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

It's been quite some time since we have reviewed a burger spot. Okay, it was only two months ago, but that's a long time between burger reviews on this restaurant review site. Needless to say, I was craving a burger, and it didn't help that the Orange Coast Magazine's edition of best burgers has been sitting on my desk, staring me in the face for weeks now. My burger cravings have gotten so bad that I had to turn the magazine over.

The American Dream was not listed in the Orange Coast article of best burgers, but that doesn't mean they don't get some very high praise. They nabbed the number 2 spot on the OC Register's best burgers of 2017 list by famed Restaurant Critic Brad A Johnson. He also called their fries the best in all the county. Very high praise for a guy that has written over and over about french fries. I was pretty excited to give this place a try, and we took my parents along as well.

This would be my parents first trip to Pacific City, which is situated just south of the Huntington Beach Pier. Pacific City is a pretty impressive shopping center, with a good many shops and restaurants that we have wanted to try. The American Dream is situated in Lot 579, which is the food hall here, but they have their own seating area.

I don't really know too much about who started The American Dream as their website is pretty much bare bones. They list their address and have a few pictures of their burgers, and that's pretty much it. No menu, no history, or other locations listed. Very rare these days to not have a functioning website, but I did check out their menu on Yelp. They offer fries and appetizers, six burgers, a chicken sandwich, and three salads. They also feature about 60 beers on tap and 10 wines to choose from. No drinking for me on this evening, even though I was with my parents. Let's check out the food we had at The American Dream.

I was a little surprised to see Buffalo Cauliflower ($8) on the menu here, as fried cauliflower is a mainstay on most Persian restaurant menus, and one of our favorite things to get when we are having Persian food. We had to give it a try for sure. This was a big serving size and the four of us had a hard time finishing it off. The fried cauliflower was tossed with some buffalo sauce and served with some carrot and celery sticks. I really enjoyed this appetizer, although some of the pieces of cauliflower needed to be cut down in size so we could dip them into the provided ranch and blue cheese dressing. Not as greasy as I was expecting, this was a good start to our meal.

The burgers do not come with fries at The American Dream, so we got these Truffle Fries ($7) as another appetizer. The fries are definitely hand cut and not frozen, which is a big plus in my book. They kind of reminded me of the fries at Islands, but a little crisper, and with bigger sized fries than you get at Islands. These fries came with black truffle salt, truffle oil, garlic, parmesan, and parsley. I'm always a little too worried that the truffle is going to be overwhelming, but that wasn't the case here, as the garlic was the prevailing flavor. The fries come with your choice of their dipping sauces. We tried the ranch, garlic aioli, and blue cheese, all of which were pretty solid, but did not stand out any more than any others we have had. I liked that they allowed you to have as many sauces as you would like to try. I'll be trying their spicy aioli and their thousand island dressing on my next visit. 

After our apps disappeared rather quickly our burgers were up next starting with my mom's choice, the 55 Chevy ($12). This is their most basic burger on the menu. It comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onion, and cheddar cheese. It was not as big as I was expecting, but was the perfect size for my mom, who split this and another sandwich you'll see in a bit with Katie. My mom liked this simple burger well enough, but Katie thought it was kind of average, and nothing about it really stood out. She admits she's not really a burger person though.

This Pastrami Burger ($14) is the burger that Brad Johnson had rated as the number two burger in all of OC, and this would be my dad's pick on this evening. He loved this burger, calling it one of the best he has had. My dad is really particular about his pastrami, needing it to be sliced really thin for some reason. I personally like a thicker pastrami so you can taste it better. Along with the pastrami on this burger was some cheddar cheese, pickles, mustard, and some rather spicy horseradish cream that caught me a bit off guard. I really liked this burger as well. The spicy condiments, the salty pastrami with the cheddar, and the very good chuck brisket patty made this a winner for me. Also, a very solid toasted bun held everything together well.

Since my dad had gotten the pastrami burger I decided to try this Chorizo Chili Burger ($15). With this one, it starts with their signature chuck brisket patty and then is topped with some chorizo chili, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, avocado, and spicy aioli. I'd probably get this without any of the produce next time and maybe add some red onion. I'm not really a fan of lettuce and tomato on a chili burger. The chorizo chili had a little kick to it which I appreciated. I also thought it was a little weird to have avocado on this, but it worked out nicely. The toppings overshadowed the burger, but I was not complaining after eating this one. 

I guess Katie did not get the memo that we were all having burgers on this evening, as she selected this Buffalo Fried Chicken Sandwich ($12). The lone chicken sandwich on the American Dream menu comes with some blue cheese slaw, pickles, and a buffalo sauced fried chicken breast. Katie was pretty pleased with this one. She liked the slight spiciness from the buffalo sauce, the chicken was tender, and the slaw added a nice crunch. She had wished that the blue cheese was a little more prevalent. Still, she would definitely get this again and maybe ask for a side of blue cheese dressing for dipping.

After leaving The American Dream I started thinking about our visit. This is a very solid burger spot, one of the upper echelons of burger venues in OC, but it can't crack my top four list. Close though. American Dream reminded me a lot of Hopdoddy, but just not as good in my opinion. I usually get the chili burger there, and I like it a smidge better than the one I had at Ameican Dream. I'd definitely come back here when I'm at Pacific City though. Service was pretty good on this evening. No major issues at all. Glad I could break my burger drought, and I now look forward to tackling more of the best burgers in OC.

Out of five white picket fences, (because the American dream for some people is a home with a white picket fence in front of it), five being best to zero being worst, The American Dream gets 3 white picket fences.

For more information about The American Dream, head to their website here: or for way better info about this restaurant, go to their Yelp page here:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Inhabiting Citizen Kitchen

Citizen Kitchen
1500 South Raymond Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92831

I always feel sorry for chefs that operate restaurants in hotels. Yes, they have a captive audience of ever-changing guests, but it has got to be a challenge getting locals to find out about your restaurant. With tourists, you never really get the loyal following that other restaurants require to survive. For travelers you also have to kind of dumb down the menu, or should I say make food that appeals to the masses. Executive Chef Zach Geerson is attempting to break that mold.

For those of you that are not aware, Citizen Kitchen is located in the Hotel Fullerton, which can be seen as you crawl along the 91 Freeway going westbound. For the past two-plus years it has been home to Chef Zach Geerson, a Florida native who left the Sunshine State to pursue a degree from the Culinary Insitute of America. OC diners might remember him as the Executive Chef at Tempo Urban Kitchen in Brea, a position he attained after just two months at that restaurant.

Now firmly entrenched at Citizen Kitchen, Chef Zach is pretty much the man in charge of everything here. He, of course, oversees the menu and the food but also has taken charge of the cocktail menu and handling the rest of the staff. As if there's not enough on his plate already, he's also got another restaurant opening up on the other side of the hotel, but more on that later.

For this media dinner, I had the wonderful opportunity to invite my sister along. I always enjoy sharing with my friends and family a little of what I am lucky enough to experience on a semi-regular basis. We met in the spacious parking lot and found Citizen Kitchen by walking through the lobby and listening to the other guests already enjoying their plates. Chef Zach's menu can best be described as global, with many influences from around the world. Even if something looks like it's pretty pedestrian, there's a pretty good bet that there's a twist in there somewhere. Let's see what Chef Zach had in store for us on this evening.

Since it was a trek coming to Fullerton from South OC, a drink was definitely in order. The first of my two cocktails was the Canned Heat ($10). I'm always drawn to a spicy cocktail and this one did not disappoint. It uses Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur and some Illegal Mezcal as its base and then is softened just a bit with some orange and lime, and then finished off with some chili powder streaked across the rim of the glass. A very smooth beverage, which had a good balance between spice, sweetness, and the alcohol in it. 

The Bread Service at Citizen Kitchen had us food people raving, and not just because we were hungry. The bread is made in-house, and it was light and airy. I overheard that the butter is left out for an extended amount of time, but I'm not sure for how long. It was some of the creamiest I have had, and it spread very nicely over the bread. I had more than my fair share of it on this evening.

The plates started coming out of the kitchen at a furious pace now, starting with these Kimchi Crab Rolls ($9). For kimchi lovers, this starter is a must order. These rolls were filled with kimchi crab, a light touch of cream cheese, and topped with yuzu teriyaki and green onions. I liked these, even though I'm not really a big kimchi fan. The crab was kind of overpowered by the kimchi, but the yuzu kind of balanced things out for me.

I really enjoyed the Truffle'd Fries ($6) at Citizen Kitchen. They were smashed fingerling potatoes dusted with parmesan Reggiano and parsley and then served with a house ketchup and one of the better chile pesto aiolis I have had the pleasure of consuming. The potatoes were fried perfectly with a nice crunch to the outer shell and a fluffy potato underneath. The parmesan was a nice touch that helped the truffle to not overpower. 

When this hit the table I did not really know what to make of it. My immediate thought was how we were going to cut it in fifths so we could all try it. We somehow managed, This Stuffed Crepe ($10) was filled with sweet potato and served on top of a lemongrass and grapefruit salad. Not something that I would normally order, but I'm pretty glad I got to try it.

Much more to my liking was this Short Rib Agnolotti ($14). Short ribs are one of those things that you see on a menu and you just know it's going to be good. That was the case with this short rib and noodle dish. Very comforting, and accentuated with some fennel and garlic to round it out. I could definitely see some hotel guests eating this after a long day of sightseeing.

Chef Zach put a different spin on the usual mac and cheese dish with his creation, the Sweet Potato Gnocchi ($11). The gnocchi was bathed in a parmesan fondue sauce and then seasoned with some lemon and rosemary with breadcrumbs added for texture. I thought the sweet potato was going to be odd, but to tell the truth, I think he could have put an old shoe in there with that excellent cheese sauce and it would have tasted great. He could have had a lighter touch with the breadcrumbs to allow the fondue to shine even more.

Shrimp is always a favorite of mine, so I was pretty excited to see this Shrimp Escabeche ($15) make its way out to us. The shrimp was done simply with some fennel and thyme and accompanied by a grilled piece of bread that was excellent for dipping into the sauce after devouring the shrimp. 

A first for my sister, this was her first time having boar, which she was not too excited about trying, but we finally got her to give it a whirl. With this Wild Boar Pipian Rojo ($13) Chef Zach takes us south of the border with this Mexican inspired dish. The boar was coated in a red mole sauce made with what I believed to be pumpkin seeds. Also thrown into the mix were some red onion, roasted grapes, and coriander. I liked the multi-layered flavors of this dish. The boar was fine, but I could not really get a good handle on it with everything else going on here. It just kind of tasted like pork to me.

Octopus, in my opinion, is one of the most underused items on menus in OC. Chef Zach has tried to rectify this with his Grilled Spanish Octopus ($14). This was presented wonderfully and the octopus came with a very well done black garlic barbecue sauce, some chile, and some pressed fingerling potatoes. The octopus reminded me of one I had at Splashes in Laguna a few years back but at half the price.

With all this food coming out, it was definitely time for another cocktail. This time I went for the Sour Skittle ($12). This one used a mixture of Spirit Works Gin and 329 Lager and was then finished with some pomegranate and lemon. Usually, when something on a menu says spicy, sweet, or sour it's kind of muted. That was not the case with this beverage, it was sour. The only thing that broke up the sour was the candy coating the rim. This might be more for those people that enjoy really sour things, so I'll stick with my Canned Heat cocktail that I had earlier on future visits to Citizen Kitchen. 

Pizza was next on our agenda. The Ham and Cheese Pizza ($13) was the better of the two. A mellow parmesan cream and burrata teamed up with some thinly sliced serrano ham to top this good quality pizza crust. I liked the creaminess of the cheeses and of course the saltiness of the ham, but what made this pizza for me was the pizza dough. It was crisp and light but still added to the pizza, instead of detracting from it. I'm definitely biased against fruit on pizza, so I already had dismissed the Orchard Pizza ($10) when it was sat in front of us. Sliced apples, a fig jam, and hazelnuts made this feel more like a dessert pizza than an entree. It was fine, but I still stand by my thoughts that fruit does not belong on pizza. I'm looking at you pineapple.

I really enjoyed the look of this Citizen Burger ($17). It kind of reminded me of a fancier version of a Big Mac. Chef Zach has two burgers on his menu, this Citizen Burger ($17) and his base model, which he calls a boring burger. This burger is kimchi focused with kimchi mayo and house-made kimchi included, and then it's topped with a fried egg. I liked the burger but found the kimchi overwhelmed here. The fries were of course still outstanding, especially with the provided pesto aioli. Good stuff.

The last entree of the evening for us was the Braised Beef Short Rib ($29). The short rib was predictably tender and flavorful and bathed in a very good sauce. It was ringed around a moat of polenta which went well with the beef. A nice finish to our evening.

As I mentioned earlier, Chef Zach has a new passion project in the works, and it is also going to be located at the Hotel Fullerton. His new restaurant is going to be called Journeyman and it's taking over where a Chinese restaurant was located a few years back. The owner of the Hotel Fullerton has given Chef Zach full range on what to do with this restaurant. While we were there a couple weeks ago it was still going through the construction phase, but we were told it was going to be ready for opening in December. They were pouring the flooring the next day we were there, and so far everything looked great.

Chef Zach gave us a little taste of what to expect from his Journeyman menu. I'd describe what we tried as very daring and a little out of the box. Guests are in for a very interesting evening at Journeyman. The food here is not like anything else we have had in the area, and it will be exciting to see how it is received once it is open. It kind of reminds me of how Tempo Urban Kitchen used to be when they first opened. They had a menu that changed daily, so you never knew what was going to be on it next. I'm very eager to see how Journeyman evolves once they are open for business.

We'd like to thank Chef Zach Geerson and the rest of his team at Citizen Kitchen for this wonderful opportunity to experience their food and get a special sneak peek at the new Journeyman Restaurant, which will be opening in December. We loved your passion and it was a real pleasure getting the chance to meet you and see you in your element. I'd also like to thank my tablemates, who are some of the best food influencers around, and live up to the saying that food people are some of the best people around. Very true with this group. Also thanks to my sister for joining me on this food adventure, it's always a blast to hang out with you.

For more information about Citizen Kitchen, head to their website here: