Saturday, December 31, 2011

My obsession with Tasti D-Lite

I have this tendency to add disclaimers to my cooking, and stories to my reasons for some of the things I say or do. So let's give some back story on my newest craving.

In addition to dining out, television pop culture is one of my favorite things. I know I would be badass if given the opportunity on a game show (unless they ask me about Lost or the original Star Trek, then forget it). Anyway, I used to follow a blogger by the name of Michael Ausiello. He's done writing for Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, and reading up on his spoilers always made my week. Ausiello has a few obsessions of his own: Mariska Hargitay, Smurfs, Diet Snapple, and Tasti D-Lite. That's how I first heard of this mysterious dessert. Oh sure, it's been on the East coast for years. I've just never gotten around to trying it. Even on my most recent foray into Vegas, I wasn't able to swing by the Strip location. So I did a double triple take when I spotted signage in Tustin not too long ago.

Since we live in a golden age of frozen treats, I was curious to figure out what made this obsession-worthy. Pinkberry wasn't doing it for me (not a fan of tart). Red Mango is all but nonexistent in California. Yogurtland is great, but too icy. Don't even get me started on some of the other knockoffs. So I began my initial visit to Tasti with a hint of skepticism, but Alexis quickly dispelled any hesitation with a bit of education and a lotta enthusiasm (typically left up to the customer and signage, if you've been in enough dessert shoppes).

Tasti D-Lite has a massive amount of flavors. Like 100+. Ranging from 70-100 calories for every four ounces, there are 8 options readily dispensable at any time. However, if you seek something else, they are able to recreate any other flavor in their repertoire in a matter of minutes. Seriously, how can you beat that?  Dessert on demand! I'm pretty obsessed with the Bananas Foster flavor (Nutella is close behind), because besides loving the actual dessert, I can taste the roasted banana quality normally saved for the heated version. 

They've been around longer than their competition, and classify themselves as soft serve. Not fro-yo, not ice cream nor gelato. They sweeten with sugar and other normal flavors. While it's certainly a matter of taste, my Treat Card is already racking up points. 

Alexis informed me last nite that they have a grand opening party scheduled for a mid-to-late-January weekend. Discounted tastings, entertainment and a swirly balloon will be the beacon for those who have yet to try Tasti. Give it a go, and decide for yourself.

Tasti D-Lite Tustin is located at 13662 Newport Avenue, on the Corner of Newport and Main (in the same plaza as Subway). Here is their Facebook page.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2011

My favorite Daly City

Toast Deli

I don't expect to catch up on a year's worth of personal blogging in a matter of days. I also can't justify discussing a neighborhood in Northern California when the general theme of this blog is Orange County. But right now, I don't mind. I'm always up here for the holidays, and dishing about any meal is better than not dishing at all. So I will talk about my local neighborhood center, King Plaza.

Located very close to Skyline Boulevard, locals may equate this center as the place where Classic Bowl is. That is true, but it also holds a number of food options. Not to completely disregard Classic (I've played many a game growing up), more than one friend has given a glowing review of their snack bar calamari.  Just sayin'. And my old DJ friend Keith Okada even has a nightclub there, so even more of a reason to linger -- especially if you like your old school mixes.

Taking up the most real estate is Manila Oriental Market (or MOM, if you're seeking a pun). Think 99 Ranch, but less corporate. Steam tables towards the front, fish mongers in the back, lots of produce off to the side. Maybe the shelves reach higher, or the aisles narrower, but they carry some serious inventory. If you're cooking Asian/Pacific Islander anything, look no further. My mom doesn't bother with most grocery stores besides this, unless it's called Costco. Only piece of advice: avoid the parking lot, if possible. Park around the perimeter of the square, unless you are that patient with searching for a spot. I'm more concerned about dinging my car or getting into a fender bender. The extra five minutes walking does a body good. I grab some chicken thighs, brown sugar, tamarind soda, fruit cocktail, almond jello mix, and sweetened soy milk before cutting across the lot.

Tucked into a corner is Toast Deli. It used to be Grain, and used to sell burritos. This is now, and they are surviving with their concept of bulky sandwich options. Is it Vietnamese or Filipino? It pulls a Kogi and does both with their adaptations of banh mi stuffed with standard Filipino fare. The favorite is their sisig surprise, shown above. Pork, egg, onion, jalapeno, spread and toasty bread. If I ate this in high school, I think I would've appreciated the cuisine sooner. It's perfect on a chilly Daly City afternoon, which is most of the time. Its salty/crunchy/spicy personality makes me happy I don't need a fork or rice to enjoy good eats. Cramped dining quarters mean take-out is ideal, but not necessary. Although if watching MTV and blaring r&b bothers you, I suggest calling ahead. I've started making this a ritual when I visit home, and the owner is always there to say hello (or good-bye, if he's making a delivery).

My last stop for this visit is Valerio's Tropical Bake Shop. Along the same part of strip mall, this is where everyone stocks up on carbs. The aroma of baking wafts from the back and surrounds their display cases and metal racks in this standing room only space. If there's fruit or vegetable present, it's wrapped and baked in pastry, if at all. All the wares are enclosed in cello or boxed in clear containers, so there's no question what you're getting. Need some pan de sal, de leche, or de ube? Got it. Chicken empanadas glow golden, smaller than Argentinean versions, but nonetheless are filled with meaty goodness.Those are my snack of choice. Unless you're a regular, don't expect customer service. Folks go in here knowing what they want, and if they don't, yay for plain labeling with English translation. I like going here after Toast so my impulsive nature doesn't take over.

King Plaza has changed over the years. My usual route (in my childhood/tweens/teens) consisted of bowling a few games with a side of fries for sustenance, walking across the street for a lunch slice of pepperoni in the pizza joint, and finishing off at Phil Mart for some coin purse candies. It was my home turf then, and it still provides my essentials now, as I lug my plastic bags into the boot of my car.

King Plaza is flanked by Callan Boulevard, Warwick Street, Shipley Avenue and King Drive in Daly City. It is off Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard). Wear a jacket, and I already warned you about parking.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Le Comptoir at Tiara Cafe - a (belated) recap

Course one: tomato bisque, before the bisque
I've followed chef Gary Menes for the last decade, and not in a stalker sense. You see, he's the cousin of my best friend; because of her, I experienced The French Laundry back in September of 2001. Gary's worked at a number of places: Patina, Firefly, Marche, The French Laundry, etc. Thanks to him, I've found joy in many things I would otherwise hold a considerable distaste for (like lima beans, but we'll leave it at that.)

Gary's most recent venture is a pop-up inside Tiara Cafe, located in downtown Los Angeles. Named Le Comptoir (aka The Counter), it is limited to four nights a week of dinner service. We went during his second week, and while this recount isn't as timely as I would've liked, a memorable meal is always worth reliving. Pardon the dim lighting. I'll be seeking a penlight to attach to my car keys for properly lit culinary excursions in the future. 

We began with an amuse bouche of cheese and crackers. If you know Gary's preferred cuisine, it's rarely pedestrian. There's always a twist or fanciful turn to keep you on your toes. In the case of our amuse, he had arranged a small cracker to be baked with a touch of cheese inside. The miniature pillow melted in our mouth, reminding me that simple concepts can still be complex, in the hands of the right person.

Our initial photograph is the 'before' of a savory bisque. The molecular marbles are actually yogurt (white), herbs (green) and infused tomato (red, yellow, and orange). Once the liquid is poured in, each spoonful is a lottery of bursting flavor. What could I possibly relate this to, except the soup dumplings you request during dim sum. They explode better than any pop rock. As juices combine with your tomato bisque, each sphere imparts a different reaction of taste; all of them delightful to our senses.

So close, we could toss an egg.

Back in my hospitality management days at Cal Poly Pomona, our full-service restaurant, RKR, had what we referred to as the fishbowl. Simply put, it was an aquarium window built for guests to witness the magic in the back of the house. Or to just give some relief that you could see your food being made. Seated in the middle of 12 stools, this was my view most of the evening. Lettuces dividing me from the cooking action, microgreens and thoughtful plating on the other side of my hedge. A bread station would be to my right, and a grill on the flip side. We got to interact all evening, instead of just a few moments at a time. We asked him questions. We joked. We drank wine and silently drooled for the next course.

While not all courses photographed well, I must discuss the second: "oeuf sur la plat", which I think is egg on the plate. A small nest of eggs was placed between us, a prelude of what to come.The most interactive of the five, this began with chef heating a miniature cast iron skillet to an extremely hot temperature (confirming with a scanner that looks a lot like what couples use when registering for gifts). At the desired temp, the skillets are placed in front of us, and we hurriedly crack a fresh egg to fry up for a brief two minutes. Compound butter, bits of arugula, and herbs were cautiously placed atop our fry for the last half of the cooking process. The scorching heat and freshness you could taste in the yolk made for a rich, albeit quick few bites. Acting like temporary sous chefs: priceless.

Course three

His next course was an ode to fulfilling vegetarian meals. Like his Test Kitchen stint, serving up seven-course meatless dinners, and hitting it out of the park. Setting blue hubbard squash on a mound of barley with pomegranate sauce, a side of mustard frill, pickled shallots and some roasted spring onion is kind of ballsy in the middle of a hearty dinner. Yet I loved it, visually, and with every bite. The grainy texture paired with softly dense squash held a savory appeal. Those earthy qualities of our greens evened things out and kept the dish from becoming one note. It would ease us into our next round.

Ordering a cup of joe

At this point, one of us needs a caffeine perk. Why the scale and funnel? That's how Gary rolls with his coffee obsession. It was borderline humorous to see so much work into something most places take for granted. Then again, we were at Le Comptoir. Don't request seeking a subtle blend, this coffee fix is robust!

Say cheese
I'm intentionally jumping a few courses for a number of reasons. Partially because I want you to explore more of Gary Menes' cooking for yourself. Also because photographs of dark meat and even darker bon bons aren't visually stunning. Lastly (and maybe my real hidden agenda), as much as I love beef, lamb, and pork, meat-free dining can be mind-blowing, and I thought it might be nice to showcase what I wouldn't normally.

When given the choice between dessert menu and cheese course, I rarely go sweet. Glorious cheese endings are in a league of their own. Like bacon, what couldn't benefit from a little dairy? (Perhaps fish, but that's off topic). Chef Menes touts a fresh version made in-house. He plates with shaved burgundy truffles(!!), grapes and extra virgin olive oil. Oh, and a sliver of crusty crouton. The aroma of truffles alone brings me to my happy place. It kind of turns me on. Where was I? Oh, yes, the cheese. I find the umami characteristic so much more satisfying than sugary delights. And that's all you need to know.

Gary manages to take a high-end experience and make it accessible to the masses. No ridiculous reservations period, dress code, or pretentiousness required. The free, open lot parking helps, too. It's always a pleasure to sit down at his table, for I'm guaranteed to leave content.

To learn more about Gary Menes and the weekly menu of Le Comptoir, visit here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thanks Mom! or Adobo 101

(The next time I make it, I swear to take a photo; but bear in mind, photos of brown food are rarely well-received.)

The moment my mom complimented me on my adobo recipe was the moment I decided to make it a blog post. Nevermind the positive feedback from friends, Filipino or otherwise. Her opinion mattered most. When you consider that she never actually taught me any recipes, and that this was the first time I cooked food associated with our culture for her, it was kind of a big deal for me.

I will be the first to admit this is not an original recipe. However, I do know the person who wrote it, and they're not Asian; that's beside the point (but always an interesting one to point out). Everyone has their own take on adobo. Chicken or pork? Wet or dry? How much of a particular ingredient are you using? The one I always ponder is whether to add carrots and/or potatoes. It comes down to personal preference, so take this as a starter recipe. I like it. My husband and yoga partner love it. Mom approves. 

I'll point out anything modified as we go along...


3 pounds chicken thighs (bone-in and skin on) - original says 2, but the packages I tend to find are always 1.5#. In this case, I lean towards more protein.

1 1/2 cups soy sauce - normally 1 cup only, but I up all the subsequent ingredients to compensate for the extra pound of chicken.

3/4 cup white vinegar - avoid any other flavors or colors. plain is good.

2 tablespoons fresh ground pepper - with so few ingredients, fresh is preferred.

3 tablespoons brown sugar - don't even think about white.

6 garlic cloves, minced - I cheat and use the frozen cubes from Trader Joe's. They melt right into the sauce.

4 bay leaves - whole is ideal, but the flakes mean you don't have to worry about biting into one.

What to do

Combine soy sauce, vinegar, pepper, brown sugar, garlic and bay leaves in a large pot. I like whisking everything together so the ingredients are evenly distributed and the sugar is fully dissolved. That's just my Capricorn tendency.

Place chicken, skin side down, in pot and bring to a boil. The key here is to have enough surface area for all the chicken to lay flat. Cooking this side first gives it a rich coloring, and the fat from the skin melts into the liquid (at least, that's what I tell myself). I think doing so contributes to the overall taste.

Once it boils, immediately turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover the pot. Moisture builds up. Steam builds up. Cooking in one vessel is good. Get started on that rice. My parents started using a blend of white and brown rice, which holds up well under all that sauce.

After 30 minutes, remove the lid and turn chicken over. Simmer for another 20-30 minutes. Now I don't know if I should've placed the lid back on, but I've done it both ways. The liquid will reduce a bit with the lid off, so if you like a wet recipe, put it back on.

You're done! Scoop some of that well-timed rice onto a plate and enjoy your meal. Remember to have a serving spoon handy so folks can pour some of the cooking liquid over your rice (what a waste if you don't!).

What I love about adobo is that most of the ingredients are already in my kitchen. And you really can't go wrong with meat, rice and soy sauce. The brown sugar cuts through some of the vinegar's acidity and soy's salt content, making it even more important than you think. The thighs are a darker meat, hence more flavor. And unless you plan to peel and chop all that garlic, it's a user-friendly recipe that impresses even my mom. In the words of my favorite character on Fairly Legal, "Win-win!!"

Note: I just received a book that covers cooking from around the world, and their version of adobo utilizes boneless pork belly, red onions, red and green bell peppers, ginger and paprika. They also fry up the meat first. All fantastic options if you're craving some veg (I noticed a lot of Filipino cooking is more meat-centric, or maybe it's just what's been presented to me?). I think I'll try it for some New Year's parties we're attending.

Friday, December 23, 2011

What is honey tarae?

I suppose you could call this a side view. Just tilt your head 90-degrees to the right. Trust me, if I was any more proficient at this, maybe I could figure out why the photo is determined to remain sideways.
I can tell you what it isn't; it's not a typo. According to my friend Diane, this is something she's only seen in Korea. Yet we found it post-happy hour in our local Irvine Spectrum at a cart. Not exactly the type of place that would sell such ethnic treats. Let's face it, the vendor was somewhere between Old Navy and Red Robin, with Forever XXI in the background. It was out of place, to say the least. Why hadn't I seen them sooner? Turns out they've been on site since spring, but only operate on the weekends. Sounds pop-up(ish), if you ask me.

In Asian culture, honey tarae is a traditional royal court cake consisting of ripened honey and malt. The process in which they make it sounds nearly impossible, yet believable once you see for yourself. These specific cakes are filled with your choice of either nuts or Oreo flavors, and can be ordered individually or in packages of eight.

The sole operator is a friendly chap who passed the time making these single bite morsels. Crafted from a modest piece of solid honey, he pierced a hole into it before going through the motions. It reminded me of an Amazing Race episode where teams had to create noodles from scratch. He took this itty bitty sweet, and deftly stretched it to exponential proportions in under a minute. We're talking upwards of 16,000 strands without batting an eyelash.

While the texture is definitely unusual for what you'd expect, it manages to melt better than any caramel I've ever had. Just a dollar for one of these meticulously crafted lovelies, and that includes a live demonstration. Akin to a puppet show, his hands seem to dance in front of a miniature curtain. Now THAT'S entertainment!