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Audrey Claire Lives Up To The Hype

It’s been over a month since my Restaurant Week meal at Audrey Claire, but I still find myself reminiscing about it, even now.  I was skeptical going into the meal, convinced that Audrey Claire would not live up to the high praise it had received from foodie friends of mine.  But, I will happily admit that I was wrong, and that Audrey Claire did, in fact, live up to the hype.

Located on a quiet corner near Rittenhouse Square, Audrey Claire appears low-key and unassuming.  There is no sign displayed outside; just a small, nondescript white building, usually with a line of people waiting to score one of the coveted tables.  Despite the minimalism, Audrey Claire still manages to be warm and inviting.  Large bowls of green granny smith apples provide a touch of color to the otherwise monochromatic interior, and low-lit candles give the small dining room an even more intimate feel.  And every now and then, a burst of flame or a loud sizzle will come from the (tiny) open-air kitchen, located in the back of the dining room.

Given the tiny kitchen, I was impressed by the quality and volume of food turned out by Audrey Claire.  Almost every dish was presented beautifully and executed perfectly, a testament to the skilled cooks manning the kitchen that night (and if I remember correctly, there were only 2-3 people in the kitchen).

Because I went with a large group for Restaurant Week, I got to sample several dishes (restaurant week 3-course prix fixe, $35).  All of the appetizers were outstanding.  Grilled tiger shrimp with baby arugula was certainly a crowd pleaser, as was the baby arugula salad with fresh berries, french lentils and warm goat cheese.    Though simple in preparation, both dishes really showcased the freshness and quality of the ingredients.  Bosc pear and gorgonzola flatbread with toasted sunflower seeds was very pungent from the gorgonzola, but balanced out nicely with the sweetness from the pear and crunch from the seeds.

But my favorite starter had to be the seared haloumi with candied dates and sesame seed compote.  Haloumi is a hard Mediterranean cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk, and is very similar to Indian paneer.  The exterior of the cheese was crisp and golden, while the interior was pilllowy and soft.  I especially love anything with dates, and here they imparted a nice fruitiness and sweetness to the dish.

The award for prettiest entrees of the night definitely goes to the chicken milanese topped with arugula and the potato crusted ahi tuna with crispy beets and black truffle vinaigrette.  As with the starters, both entrees really highlighted the high quality of the ingredients and excellent execution in the kitchen.  The chicken milanese was lightly breaded and lemony, and I loved taking a bite of the cold arugula after a bite of the hot chicken.  The tuna was seared to a perfect medium rare, served atop a bed of Israeli cous cous.  Though I was skeptical of the crispy beets and black truffle vinaigrette, they provided an earthy flavor that accentuated the tuna.

Desserts, unfortunately, were uninspiring compared with the rest of the meal.  Maybe I was expecting too much–that I would be blown away by the dessert, just as I had been by the previous dishes.  Regardless of my high expectations, I was disappointed with both the warm chocolate cake and white chocolate bread pudding.  Neither was decadent or very memorable, and both seemed a little dry to me.

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend Audrey Claire.  Its understated elegance, congenial atmosphere, and refreshingly simple cuisine have won over legions of fans.  And now, they can count The Unpaid Gourmet as one of them.

Audrey Claire
276 S. 20th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
(215) 731-1222
Open for dinner 5pm nightly, BYOB, cash only
Audrey Claire on Urbanspoon

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Aksum: A Hidden Gem in West Philly

Apologies for the lack of posts as of late, readers.  After 2 weeks stuck in bed with the mother of all colds, I am finally well again, and doing some much-needed catch up on blogging before heading off to spring break.  Reflecting back on the many meals I’ve had over the past few months, one that continues to stand out in my mind is brunch at Aksum, a new(ish) Mediterranean BYO in West Philadelphia.

As a resident of West Philly, I think Aksum is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.  The space looks polished and new, brightening up an otherwise nondescript block of Baltimore Ave.  The Mediterranean-inspired menu is also very appealing, as are the BYO and hookah options.

But what really drew my friends and I to Aksum was the promise of brunch–with free mimosas, as advertised on a sign outside the restaurant.  And Aksum delivered on both those promises.

I ordered the shakshouka ($11), a Middle Eastern brunch dish that I’ve been dying to try.  Shakshouka features eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, served with pita bread to soak up all the deliciousness.  I’m not yet a connoisseur of shakshouka, as this was my first taste of the dish, but I was expecting it to be much spicier.  I thought the sauce could have used some extra heat, and the eggs a little less cooking (as the yolks were powdery).  But overall, it was a pleasant, albeit mild introduction to shakshouka, a dish I hope to be having more of.

My friends ordered the egg mezze platter ($9) and the sweet corn griddle cakes ($13, not pictured).  The mezze platter looked very refreshing, and from the bites that I stole sampled from my friend, it tasted that way as well.  My other friend really enjoyed her sweet corn griddle cakes, which were not overwhelmingly sweet and came topped with a blueberry compote.  And best of all, the three of us were able to wash down our meals with delectable complimentary mimosas.

I will definitely be back for more mimosas, and perhaps for a BYO dinner and some hookah.  With an appealing menu, inviting atmosphere, and affordable prices, Aksum remains a hidden gem in West Philly–and hopefully with more buzz, it won’t be so hidden anymore.

Aksum
4630 Baltimore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19143
(267) 275-8195
Aksum on Urbanspoon

ShopHouse & BONMi: Southeast Asian Wave Hits DC

Photo credit: flickr user tedeytan 

I’m a total sucker for Southeast Asian cuisine, especially banh mi–Vietnam’s ingenious interpretation of a sub that combines its French colonial history with indigenous Vietnamese flavors and ingredients.  Encased in an unbelievably crispy, porous baguette made from rice flour, banh mi usually features various meats and offal (like pate and head cheese) as fillings, topped with slices of pickled carrots and cucumber for sweetness, and cilantro and jalepenos for heat.  The combination is beguiling, with each bite revealing different flavors and textures.  Best of all, banh mi definitely qualifies as a cheap eat; I’ve seen it as cheap at $2.50 in some places, but never more than $6.  In short, it may be the best sandwich ever invented.

So imagine my delight in finding out that two new restaurants, specializing in banh mi, recently opened in DC:  ShopHouse in Dupont Circle and BonMi in downtown.  Prior to these restaurants’ arrivals, banh mi fans like myself would have to travel all the way to the Eden Center to get a authentic version.  I set out to try both, in hopes that I would finally get a decent banh mi fix in the District and save myself the pain of 30+ minute WMATA ride to Virginia.

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen

ShopHouse got a lot of buzz prior to opening, as the first new concept from Chipotle owner Steve Ells.  Media and bloggers descended on ShopHouse as soon as it opened, and greeted it with mixed reviews.  The set-up is very similar to Chipotle, with its signature quick assembly line filled with Southeast Asian ingredients such as long beans and eggplant with Thai basil, rather than guacamole and corn salsa.  Diners start by choosing a noodle bowl, rice bowl (brown or white available), or banh mi, and then continue down the line choosing their toppings and sauces.

My boyfriend and I shared a steak noodle bowl with spicy red curry sauce ($7.50) and a grilled chicken satay banh mi ($6.59).  First, I must say that I was particularly impressed with the quality of ingredients: everything looked very fresh, with toppings on the assembly line constantly being replaced with fresh-made batches.  The dishes themselves, however, disappointed a little.

The steak noodle bowl was intensely flavorful, in a not-so-pleasant way.  There was no balance to the dish; everything from the charred (albeit chewy) steak, to the pickled veggies, to the salted peanuts, to the fiery red curry sauce, seemed to compete with, rather than complement, each other.  My bowl was also doused in the red curry sauce, which even for a spice fiend like myself, was just too much–I ended up drinking about a quart of water throughout the rest of the day.

We liked the grilled chicken satay banh mi better than the steak bowl, but it still wasn’t great.  The chicken, pickled veggies, and herbs on top were all tasty, but the main problem was the bread–a limp and lifeless loaf of white monotony.  Fans of banh mi know that the baguette can make or break the dish; it needs to be crispy, airy, and golden.  ShopHouse’s version was none of these things and proved to be the downfall of an otherwise passable banh mi.

1516 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-4141
Open 11am-10pm
ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

BONMi

DC foodies, as well as office workers tired of the usual ho-hum delis in downtown, greeted BONMi with open arms when it arrived in Farragut Square.  Touted as a “Vietnamese inspired fast casual restaurant,” BONMi was started by the JBH Advisory Group, a restaurant consulting firm in NYC.  The restaurant definitely seems geared toward the global-minded downtown DC elite, as evidenced by its proximity to the World Bank, commitment to sustainability, and clean sleek interior.

In addition, BONMi’s appeal extends to foodies as well.  Traditional meat fillings are updated with interesting spices (think five spice chicken and garlic black pepper pork) and prepared sous vide–the Top Chef/Wiley Dufresne-approved cooking technique of the moment.  BONMi did not leave out vegetarians either, offering chile garlic tofu or butternut squash dipped in a coconut curry sauce as well.

On my visit, I ordered a lemongrass chicken banh mi and Vietnamese iced coffee ($8.75 total).  The Vietnamese iced coffee was bottled, which I have not seen before, and tasted more like milk than coffee.

Whereas I faulted ShopHouse for their bread, BONMi definitely hit the mark spot-on with its crackly, airy baguette.  Each bite left tons of crumbs all over the table–a mark of a good banh mi.  BONMi put a lot of effort into sourcing its bread, working directly with Lyon Bakery in Virginia to find the right batch.

The other ingredients, however, missed the mark for me.  Like ShopHouseBONMi also has an assembly line-style ordering system, but none of the meats looked very appealing or fresh.  I had my heart set on the five spice chicken, but the murky greasy-looking juices the chicken had been sitting in scared me a little, and I decided to go with the lemongrass chicken instead.  While the lemongrass chicken was tasty, it had a rubbery texture.  And whatever lemongrass flavor the chicken had was drowned out by the bright orange-spicy mayo slathered on top of it.  That said, I still enjoyed BONMi and judging from the sizeable crowd even at 1:30 in the afternoon, others feel the same way.

900 19th St. NW
Washington, DC 20006
Open Mon-Fri 11:00am-7:00pm
BONMi on Urbanspoon

The Verdict: Though not the best or most authentic (or cheapest) banh mi’s I’ve ever had, both ShopHouse and BONMi do the trick if you’re in serious need of a banh mi fix but don’t feel like metro-ing all the way out to NoVA.  However, if you’re looking for a traditional, top-notch version, you’ll probably still have to travel outside the District to find it, since both restaurants must adapt and appeal to more mainstream American palates and prices.

Winner Winner (Fried) Chicken Dinner

Happy (belated and/or Chinese) New Year, readers!  Apologies for being M.I.A. the past couple months.  After law school finals, holidays, and a much-needed vacation, I am back and ready to blog–with lots of exciting new content!

It seems both apropos and ironic that my first post of the year is devoted to fried chicken.  Of course, one of my many New Years resolutions is to eat healthier and I really am trying to stick to it.  But after watching an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” about fried chicken, I knew I had to splurge a little.  The episode featured two places that I am fortunate to have visited in the past couple months: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis, and Ms. Tootsies Soul Food Cafe in Philly.  While the two restaurants couldn’t be more different, they do have one thing in common: serving damn good fried chicken.

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken 

Gus’s definitely lives up to its name, serving world famous hot and spicy chicken for over fifty years.  The original location that started it all is in Mason, TN, about 40 miles outside of Memphis.  Since opening back in 1953, the fried chicken recipe has remained a closely guarded secret, and to this day, the Bonner family still delivers its secret batter to franchisees rather than release the recipe.  According to Food Network, the Bonners have been offered up to $1 million for their recipe, but they haven’t budged.

If you’re in Memphis and don’t feel like driving 40 miles to the original Gus’s, head to the downtown location, just a few blocks from the infamous Beale St.  While the other businesses seem eerily deserted, Gus’s is the exception on the block, as hungry diners pour into the one-room restaurant.  It’s definitely no-frills, with picnic-style gingham tablecloths and plastic plates and silverware.  But what Gus’s lacks in ambience, it more than makes up for with its fried chicken (pictured above: 3 piece white plate w/ beans and slaw, $8).

Though perfectly crisp on the outside, what stood out most about Gus’s fried chicken was the meat itself.  The spices of the marinade permeated the meat, with just the right amount of heat in each bite.  The light exterior also managed to keep the interior incredibly moist, sealing in the juices and flavor.  Wash it all down with some of Gus’s equally infamous sweet tea, and you’ve truly got yourself a piece of heaven.

If you can manage to save room, definitely order dessert!  Gus’s bakes all of their desserts from scratch, including this decadent pecan pie.  Served warm, the filling was gooey in the best way, with the crust balancing out the sweetness.

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is seriously the stuff of legends–even sparking a feud between Serious Eats founder Ed Levine and Bon Appetit!  I have to agree with Ed Levine on this one, and declare my absolute love, devotion, obsession, addiction–whatever you want to call it–for Gus’s.

310 S. Front St.
Memphis, TN 38103
(901)  527-4877
Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Ms. Tootsies Soul Food Cafe

Well-known as a casual spot for satisfying soul food, owner Keven Parker has completely revamped Ms. Tootsies, aiming for a swankier lounge feel.  Black, red, and white seem to be the dominant color scheme throughout the restaurant, with large black and white photographs of African American celebrities hanging on the walls (be sure to check out the [unisex] bathroom, where there is a particularly sensual photo of Janet Jackson covering the entire wall).  While I appreciate Ms. Tootsies’ efforts to go more upscale, but I’m not entirely sure it works with both the surrounding neighborhood or the food.

While the ambience has changed a lot, fortunately, Ms. Tootsies seems to be sticking to its successful soulful cuisine.  My friend and I started with Sadiki’s catfish fingers and fries ($8) appetizer.  The thin breading on the catfish fingers was well-seasoned and flavorful, even better when dipped in tartar sauce. I also enjoyed the fries, which were crispy and coated with a similar seasoning as the catfish.  In addition to the catfish, Ms. Tootsies serves complimentary cornbread muffins with homemade strawberry butter as a starter to the meal.  Despite being a bit burnt from the toaster, the warm cornbread muffins were delicate and cake-like, sweetened just a touch with the strawberry butter.

For our main course, of course, we had to order the infamous fried chicken basket, with mac and cheese and collard greens ($26 w/ 2 sides).  The chicken arrived fresh from the fryer, glistening and golden brown.  Ms. Tootsies batter was much thicker and crunchier than Gus’s, but nonetheless delicious.  The interior was juicy and tender, and we found ourselves devouring the entire basket in a mere ten minutes.  The mac and cheese and collards were also respectable, and we managed to polish off those as well.

And of course, I could not eat a fried chicken dinner without….sweet tea!  Thought Ms. Tootsies sweet tea is far from traditional, and pricey at $5, it was a pleasant and surprising change from the norm.  Instead of black tea, Ms. Tootsies uses tropical iced tea, and tops it off with a slice of watermelon.  Her upscale version of sweet tea definitely worked, and was refreshing even on a cold winter night.

For dessert, we ordered the sweet potato pie ($4), one of my favorite soul food desserts.  The pie had a nice cinnamon flavor, but would have been ten times better heated up, or even served at room temperature.  Our slice seemed like it had come directly out of the fridge, and the filling was very cold as a result.

Despite some small flaws, I really enjoyed my meal at Ms. Tootsies.  The fried chicken definitely rivals some of those I’ve had in the South, and I can see why Chef Robert Irvine dubbed it one of the best he’s ever eaten.

1312 South St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 731-9045
Ms. Tootsie's Soul Food Cafe on Urbanspoon

Best Bites of Brooklyn

(Photo via andrew c mace, flickr)

Brooklyn is infamous right now for its hipsters, hippies, and OWS, but NYC’s most populous borough also boasts a burgeoning food scene.  GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman proclaimed Brooklyn “the coolest city on the planet,” and Manhattanites seem to be flocking there in droves, whether it’s for pies paired with fried chicken or local artisan goods at Smorgasburg.

I hadn’t spent much time in Brooklyn, so I was excited to explore the borough’s food scene on a recent trip to NYC.  Here are 3 of the most memorable spots:

Blue Bottle Coffee 

I fell in love with Blue Bottle Coffee when I was in San Francisco last summer.  Despite the notoriously long lines and sometimes snobby service, the coffee is certainly worth the hassle.  Blue Bottle’s Williamsburg location is no different than its SF counterpart, and for that, I am extremely grateful.  The minimalist logo on the door in lieu of a sign, the sleek pour-over coffee bar, the seemingly endless lines, the disdainful looks customers get when they ask for ground coffee beans or low-fat milk–it’s all part of the Blue Bottle experience that makes your coffee taste even more glorious in the end.

But the Williamsburg Blue Bottle did have something I hadn’t seen in San Francisco–a snickerdoodle.  But of course, in typical Blue Bottle fashion, it’s not your ordinary snickerdoodle.  Theirs is made with Spanish saffron and Tahitian vanilla, which impart a beguiling, subtle sweetness reminiscent of the original, but much more sophisticated in flavor.  Blue Bottle‘s ability to elevate the old and familiar is what makes it special–that, and it’s just damn good coffee (excuse the language!).

160 Berry St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-4160
Blue Bottle on Urbanspoon

Roberta’s Pizza

After a glowing review in the NYT, in which restaurant critic Sam Sifton proclaimed it “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States,” Roberta’s became even more of a sensation than it already was.  Located on a somewhat sketchy block of warehouses in Bushwick, the restaurant is definitely hipster central, perhaps on the verge of gentrification with the influx of yuppies and foodies (like myself).

The owners have done a great job transforming the space into a casual, congenial scene: diners sit at long communal picnic tables, and a shabby chic tarp hangs over the outdoor bar.  Definitely get comfortable at the bar and order an excellent dark and stormy, because chances are you will be waiting 2+ hours for a table, especially on  weekends.  I’ll admit I flipped my lid a little when the hostess informed me of the wait time.

While I’m not sure it’s worth waiting 3 hours for, the pizza at Roberta’s was quite good.  The secret is in the crust–perfectly charred and chewy.  I ordered the Purple Nurple ($15), which came topped with tomato, mozzarella, ricotta, eggplant, garlic and basil.  My friend and I also split a squash salad ($12) and truffle agnoletti ($18), which were both excellent and demonstrated the kitchen’s skill and restraint.   The real standout, however, was definitely the pizza.

261 Moore St.
Brooklyn, NY 11206
(718) 417-1118
Roberta's on Urbanspoon

Purple Yam

Though I’m always skeptical of Asian fusion restaurant, Purple Yam manages to simultaneously retain its authenticity while adding distinctly modern twists to traditional dishes.  The chefs and owners, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, opened Purple Yam in 2009 after running a successful Filipino-fusion restaurant in SoHo, and it remains a dining destination for Ditmas Park today.

My friends and I started with the fried beet dumplings ($6) and fresh lumpia ($7).  I was afraid the beet dumplings would be a disaster, but was pleasantly surprised by the contrary.  They were flavorful, chewy, and pleasantly sweet, offsetting the saltiness of the soy sauce.  As for the fresh lumpia, I think I prefer its more traditional fried and sausage-centric counterpart, but it was a respectable effort nonetheless.  The lumpia reminded me more of a Vietnamese steamed noodle roll with its sauteed Napa cabbage, leek and mushroom filling and peanut and tamarind sauce, which I suppose is what they were going for, though the name was a misnomer.

The chicken adobo ($12) was a revelation, incorporating integral elements of the original dish, but upgrading the flavors and quality of the ingredients.  Braised in garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and coconut milk, the chicken was tender on the inside, crispy and crackling on the outside.

Perhaps the most surprising dish was the bibimbap ($9), with brown rice, carrots, turnip, taro, edamame, and a fried egg.  I have very high expectations for bibimbap, which is one of my favorite Korean dishes, and I’m happy to report that Purple Yam’s rendition exceeded my expectations.  Each vegetable was meticulously cut and perfectly cooked, and the flavors all complemented each other well.  It was a more refined adaptation of a classic, which seems to be Purple Yam’s greatest strength.

1314 Cortelyou Road
Brooklyn, NY 11226
(718) 940-8118
Purple Yam on Urbanspoon

Compost for Brooklyn 

After brunch at Purple Yam, I got a VIP tour of Compost for Brooklyn‘s community garden, given by my friend and co-founder of Compost for Brooklyn, Louise Bruce.   Located on E. 8th St. and Newkirk Ave., the former vacant lot is now green and gorgeous–filled with tons of trees, vegetables, and native plants.

In addition to the garden, Compost for Brooklyn runs a free community composting program and education program for kids and teenagers in the neighborhood.  These programs have been positively received by children and adults in the community alike, who all greeted Louise with a smile as they passed by us.  Seeing all of her efforts and passion for the environment come to fruition was very inspiring, and I wish the organization the best of luck in the future.

To learn more about Compost for Brooklyn, visit their website or email compostforbrooklyn [at] gmail [dot] com.  (Fun fact for foodies: Miriam Garron, Bobby Flay’s sous chef on Throwdown, is Vice Chairman of the Board!)

Splendid Sunday Brunch at Supper

As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of brunch.  It takes a lot to excite me enough to write a review on eggs and pancakes.  But every now and then, there are some brunches that blow me away, that have me swearing I’ll wake up early every Sunday morning for it.  Brunch at Supper had this very effect on me.

Both the ambience and the food make Supper one of the most pleasant dining experiences in Philly.  The restaurant is deceptively spacious.  Boasting two floors, the first floor is bustling and lively, with patrons sipping bloody marys at the bar and eager diners watching chef Mitch Prensky and co. in action through the open kitchen.  By contrast, the second floor offers a much quieter, more serene environment, perfect for a relaxing and leisurely Sunday brunch.

Even more splendid than the setting was the elegantly rustic brunch fare.  Chef Mitch Prensky incorporates local, seasonal ingredients and Southern flavor into his dishes, updating many tired, overdone brunch classics into something magical.  Take his Supper Benny ($15), for example.  While retaining the requisite poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, he replaces the english muffin with buttery grit cakes and adds mustard greens and country ham, which is more reminiscent of prosciutto than Honeybaked.  The result is better than the original, especially with the sides of crispy breakfast potatoes and crusty bread.


The same can be said for Supper’s chilaquiles navidad ($14) and dixie biscuit ($13).  The chilaquiles were zesty and smoky, with the addition of chorizo and tomatillo-braised corn tortillas.  Two perfectly poached eggs sat atop the tortillas, making for a hearty meal.

The dixie biscuit was even heartier (and artery clogging, in a good way): two scrambled eggs, country ham, and pimento cheese tucked inside a flaky buttery biscuit, served with creamy grits on the side.  It was love at first bite with the biscuit, and the grits were addictively delicious.

In addition to savory egg dishes, Supper offers “sweet stuff” as well, including red velvet waffles, gingerbread pancakes, and a cereal buffet.  I will definitely be back to try the rest of the menu.  And when I do, I’ll blame Supper for successfully converting me into a brunch addict.

Supper
926 South St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 592-8180
Supper on Urbanspoon

**Note: Just fyi, this is my 100th post!  Thanks to my readers for your support!

Ethnic Eats in the OC

As the weather progresses further into fall here in Philly, I still find myself backed up on blog posts and reminiscing about summer meals in warmer climates.  But fear not readers–this will be my last summer installment and I will finally be caught up on writing.  (Eating faster than blogging is certainly a flaw of mine. )

As a native Los Angelino, I never spent much time in Orange County.  My perception of the region was less than flattering: suburban sprawl, Real Housewives, and chain restaurants.  But after spending more time there over the summer, I realized there is much more to the OC than meets the eye.  Hidden among the generic strip malls and bland chain eateries are terrific ethnic restaurants serving interesting cuisine worth driving for.  Here are 3 of my favorites.

Del Tomate

Located in a sleepy Tustin strip mall, Del Tomate gained some buzz after the LA Times gave it a rave review.  My boyfriend and I stumbled upon it when we were looking to grab a late lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  It was one of the few places open that day, and boy, were we glad to have found it.

The allure of Del Tomate is in the attention to detail.  Owners Guillermo and Giacobbe, the husband and wife team behind the restaurant, don’t cut any corners when it comes to their rustic Argentinian-Italian fare.  Pastas are all handmade and made to order.  Empanadas and desserts are baked on the premises.  And the Argentinian style sandwiches are packed with fresh ingredients and high quality meats.

Del Tomate’s attention to detail is highlighted in the complimentary bread.  Crusty on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, the bread is served with homemade chimichurri that is best slathered on.  Bright, tangy, and punchy, I could literally eat a whole bowl full on my own.

Next, we tried the empanadas, baked daily at the restaurant.  Both the chicken and the eggplant empanadas were flaky, flavorful, and fresh–and a steal for $1.60 each.

For our mains, we tried one dish each from the Italian menu and the Argentinian menu.  I couldn’t resist the cannelloni alla Rossini ($13)–homemade cannelloni wrapped around ground beef, argentinian sausage, bacon, ricotta cheese and spinach, topped with  a spicy pomodoro and bechamel sauce, and baked until it is melty and divine.  It was definitely cheese overload, but in a fantastic way.  The quality and care put into the ingredients really shined through, as all of the flavors were well-balanced and greaseless.

The finale of our meal was the Entrana sandwich ($9).  Thin slices of smoky grilled skirt steak piled on top of the freshest lettuce and tomato you could imagine, all sandwiched between a fresh baguette smeared with mayo and that amazing chimmichuri.

Needless to say, we were waaaay too full to eat dessert–though we were certainly tempted by the full dessert case, displaying homemade cakes, cannolis, and cookies.  We’ll definitely return to Del Tomate to try these, and for the rustic and refined Italian-Argentinian cooking.

137 W. Tustin St. Suite A
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 731-1738
Del Tomate on Urbanspoon

Siam Taste of Asia 

It takes a lot for me to be impressed by a Thai restaurant, especially when Jitlada (of Jonathan Gold acclaim) is just a few blocks from my house in LA.  But Siam Taste of Asia, tucked in yet another generic strip mall in Santa Ana, is turning out reasonably priced, fiery Thai cuisine that rivals its more famous counterpart.

The restaurant’s most popular dish is its deep fried tofu ($6.95), which even the staunchest of carnivores rave about.  Crisp on the outside, light and airy on the inside, the dish shows deep frying at its best, transforming otherwise bland cubes of tofu into bite-sized nuggets of joy.  And don’t forget to dip them in the garlic chile sauce, which adds a subtle sweet-spicy note to the dish.

Siam Taste of Asia also executes classic Thai dishes well.  The chicken basil ($7.95) gradually built up heat, eventually making my eyes water in that pleasantly spicy way.  My favorite, however, was the tom yum goong soup ($8.95).  The soup arrives at the table steaming hot and fiery red, and looks like it will literally set your tongue on fire.  That it does, but the spiciness is also tempered by earthy lemongrass, fresh scallions, cilantro, and the occasional shrimp, making the flavor profile more sophisticated and layered.  Served with a refreshing salad topped with a mint dressing and rice, the tom yum goong will certainly satisfy any spicy food craving.

3520 W. 1st St.
Santa Ana, CA 92703
(714) 418-9678
Siam Taste of Asia on Urbanspoon

Dx Peruvian Restaurant 

Peruvian food is so hot right now in LA, but the cuisine has held steadfast in the OC for years.  Dx Peruvian Restaurant, located in (of course) a strip mall across from South Coast Plaza, offers classic Peruvian dishes in a surprisingly intimate setting.

One of the most well-known Peruvian dishes is lomo saltado ($14.95), and Dx serves up a quite tasty version.  The classic dish reflects Peru’s history as a destination for Chinese immigrants, melding Chinese and Peruvian cooking techniques and ingredients.  Lomo saltado is thinly sliced steak, onion, and tomatoes, stir fried with soy sauce and french fries, and served over rice.  Though it sounds like a strange combination at first, the ingredients actually work quite well together; think of it as Peru’s version of meat and potatoes.

Another classic Peruvian dish is aji de gallina ($12.95): shredded chicken slowly cooked in a blended bread, milk and walnut sauce.  Though not the most visually or texturally pleasing dish, the flavors were earthy, mild, and satisfying.  It was quite a large portion, so I would recommend sharing this with someone.

Finally, don’t miss out on the homemade lucuma ice cream ($6.00).  Lucuma is a sub-tropical fruit native to Peru, and tastes similar to maple and sweet potato.  The ice cream is pleasantly fruity and subtly sweet, with a unique flavor that I’ve yet to taste elsewhere.

Dx Peruvian Restaurant offers a relaxing atmosphere that will rejuvenate hungry shoppers and give a tasty introduction to Peruvian cuisine for foodies and novices alike.  So next time you are near South Coast Plaza, forego Maggiano’s and head to Dx!

3930 S. Bristol St. Suite 108
Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 424-0014
DX Peruvian Restaurant on Urbanspoon