How big is your wok? Mongolian BBQ at Big Wok

Husband is a big fan of Mongolian BBQ.  When we discovered an all-you-can-eat place in Manhattan Beach during one of our exploratory drives, he was ecstatic.  Big Wok has now become one of our “go to” places for when we don’t feel like cooking and want something inexpensive and filling to eat.

Wok me, Amadeus

This place is pretty popular, especially during the dinner hours.  We usually try to get there  earlier so that we don’t have to wait in lines to get our food and have it cooked. We’ve never had to wait to be seated and are always greeted quickly by a smiling waitress.  Service here has always been great.  Parking on the other hand…

Meat, meat, meat

Just some of the veggie offerings

Big Wok operates like any other AYCE Mongolian BBQ.   You grab a bowl, fill it with semi-frozen slices of meat, vegetables and noodles.  Then you top it off with various sauces and hand the dish to a cook who gives you back a plate of steaming hot yummy eats.  The selection at Big Wok isn’t as big as other places I’ve been to but it has enough variety to make for interesting combinations.

The meat section offers turkey, chicken, pork, beef and lamb.  I usually do a  combo of chicken, beef and lamb, sometimes pork.  There’s also tofu for the vegetarians.

As for veggies, there’s your usual culprits – zucchini, green onions, celery, mushrooms, chopped green and red cabbage.  There’s also spinach, tomato, water chestnuts, baby corn…well, you get the idea.

Pick your sauce

There’s a good variety of sauces.  Regular BBQ oil, spicy BBQ oil, garlic water, ginger water, curry sauce, lemon water, chili oil…  There’s a card with a few combinations but, like all other Mongolian BBQ places I’ve ate at, I find it best if you at least double the number of spoonfuls.  Otherwise, you end up with a bland dish.  I like to use the spicy BBQ oil, garlic water (be sure to add in the garlic chips), a little ginger water and a spoonful of chili oil.  I think I may have to add in more chili as it never comes out as spicy as I want.

There's meat under all that...

Mmmm mmmm....

I don’t usually do noodles as I prefer rice.  I’m not sure why.  I do like noodles but I never get them at Mongolian BBQ places.  Maybe it’s because I don’t want to fill up on them when I know I’m also going to get “mana biscuits”.  Husband, on the other hand, is the opposite.  He loads up on meat and noodles.  Completely skips the veggie section…*sigh*

Oodles of noodles

Hey, where's the greens?

Mana Biscuits

Back to the “mana biscuits”.  What I’m talking about are those Chinese flat sesame-crusted bread thingies.  Husband and I used to play a lot of WoW and talked about having a guild party at our place and doing a WoW themed menu.  We decided that these bread items would be perfect “mana biscuits”.  I know, we’re dorks…  I love these things, though.  Husband doesn’t eat them since he’s got oodles of noodles on his plate so I always gobble them up.  There’s a nice crispness on the outside; the inside is warm and a little chewy.  I like to wipe the plate with them…so good!

Our total bill, tip included, ranges from $25-30 depending on if we get drinks or not.  Big Wok also offers some sides like fried shrimp, kimchee, soup and wontons but I’ve never ordered them and never seen anyone else with those dishes on their table.

I give Big Wok 3 1/2 NOMs!

Big Wok
250 N Sepulveda Blvd
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
(310) 798-1155
Big Wok Mongolian BBQ on Urbanspoon

Hawaii, Day 1: The scenic route to a Luau

The Big Island of Hawaii is pretty diverse when it comes to the landscape and weather.  In fact, it’s a bit like the continental US.  The West coast is arid and dry while the East coast is lush with greenery…and humid.  Also, rain spurts…   There were a few surprise showers during our trip, but it didn’t matter too much since we were already drenched from the humidity.

There are 3 ways you can take to get from one side of the island to the other.  You can drive via the north route, go south thru the Volcanoes National Park (longer), or cut thru the middle of the island on Saddle Ranch Road, which is 2 lanes wide and chock full of tummy-tumbling dips.  Considering what kind of rental car we had, guess which one we took when we ventured into Hilo…  WHEEEEE!

Our rental car...vrroooom vrooom!

One of my favorite places while living in Hilo was Liliuokalani Gardens.  My parents used to bring me here and I would use a bucket to scoop up little tiny fishies and bring them home for my “aquarium” aka a big jar with holes poked in the lid.  This park is located right across the road from the ocean which feeds the lagoon.  There’s quite a few fish in the water and little black crabs scrambling along the rocks.  There’s also mongeese living among the bushes.

Liliuokalani Gardens

More of Liliuokalani Gardens

Mongoose!

Since we had reservations for a luau at our hotel, the Hilton Waikaloa, we didn’t spend too much time in Hilo. We did stop in at Cafe 100 for a snack (you can read about it in the prior post).  We took the northern way back to Waikaloa and pulled off to take the scenic route which involved driving thru a rainforest.  Apparently, hidden away on this road is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens.  Husband wanted to stop and we had a little extra time so we did.

Entrance to Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

Turns out this garden is rather large and goes all the way down to a beach or something…about an hour or two depending on how leisurely you want to take it and how you handle hills.  We didn’t have that much time so we just hiked to Onomea Falls (about 30mins round trip).  Of course, it rained on us as we came back up…  Rain forest, indeed.

Baby pineapple!

Omomea Waterfalls

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

When we got back, it was luau time! I didn’t take too many pictures of the food since we were at a table with strangers; only one really came out. Since we were sitting in the “VIP” section, we had our food served to us instead of having to brave the buffet line. The appetizers consisted of salad, 2 kinds of rolls – Hawaiian sweet bread and taro, Ahi tuna poke, Lomi Lomi salmon, cooked baby ferns, a cold meat dish (some sort of ham?), poi and some other things I don’t remember. I really enjoyed the poke and tried not to eat all of it. Tangy, not fishy at all, very flavorful. The Lomi Lomi salmon, unfortunately, was a little fishy. As for poi, I’m not a fan. I do enjoy taro though. We used to get some from the grocery store, microwave them and then slather them in butter. The baby ferns were…interesting. Very “planty” in flavor with a little bit of crunch. Not really a fan but I’d eat this over the poi any day!

Appetizer food at the Luau

The main course consisted of kahlua pig, teriyaki pulehu (hawaiian style short ribs), chicken, mahi mahi, Hawaiian sweet potatoes and a few vegetable side dishes. It was a lot of food and I had already semi-filled up on the poke so it was hard to try everything. I did go for the meat though! The kahlua pig was tasty, very tender and moist. The short ribs were similar to kalbi, its Korean counterpart. The chicken and mahi mahi were meh…not horrible but not fantastic.

For dessert, fresh fruit and a variety of little cakes and cookies were served. I was stuffed by this point so I really didn’t try much and what I did didn’t stick in my mind.  Since VIP ticket holders got access an open bar, I satiated my sweet tooth with mai tais and lava flows (strawberry piña colada type drink).

The show itself was entertaining. There was a host that was very…lounge singer-y. The hula dancing was great; they demonstrated a variety of Polynesian dances from various islands. And, at some point, they pulled up a bunch of guys in the audience to hula dance with them. Husband was one of the [un]fortunate ones. Hehehehe…  I’ll spare him any embarrassment by not posting the video and pictures I took while he was on stage.

Hula Dancers

Fire dance

End of the show

It was a great first day…

New Seoul BBQ

New Seoul BBQ

Over the Christmas break, the Husband and I met up with my parents for lunch in Orange County.  The last few times we’ve done this, we’ve gone to New Seoul BBQ, an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ Buffet.  The reason…meat-fest!

Unlike Manna, the place we frequent up in LA, New Seoul is a self-serve buffet.  This is more convenient since there is no time wasted trying to flag down a waiter and put in an order for meat.  Also, New Seoul has a wider variety of choices than Manna’s all-you-can-eat menu.  I think the meat is better quality as well.  It is more expensive, though.  Since my parents always paid, I never got a look at the check but I’m guessing $20ish/pp for weekend lunch.

New Seoul BBQ - banchan

When you walk in, you’re greeted by a long bar.  On one side, various banchan and a salad bar await your consumption.  Different kinds of kimchi, spinach, bean sprouts, tofu are just some of the choices.  Overall, the banchan is of decent quality.  They have a lot of the things I like to eat, including pickled shredded daikon and almond jelly.

The other side offers up various marinated meats and seafood.  The usual suspects – bulgogi, kalbi, chicken and pork bulgogi – are present but so are pork belly, tripe, beef tongue, baby octopus, mussels, and whole shrimp.

There’s also stations offering up hot items like udon, fried rice, japchae, egg rolls, fried mandoo, steamed egg.  The japchae is average though the noodles are sometimes overcooked, maybe from sitting under the heatlamp for too long.  The steamed egg is not that great.  They also have a couple of types of nigiri sushi but I usually pass as the one time I tried it, the fish didn’t taste fresh; it had a strong fish taste.  For dessert, there’s fruit, jello and a yogurt machine as well as a persimmon-rice drink.

New Seoul BBQ - Various meats on the table grill

Whenever we’ve gone, the service has been good.  We seem to always get the same table everytime.  The booths are big and spacious, giving everyone a lot of elbow room but still keeping them in arm’s reach of the grill.  The waitresses bring the rice (white or “brown” (purple, actually)) to the table instead of us getting it ourselves and they also cut the meat. They are pretty good about checking in on us as well.

While the price may seem steep for a buffet, for our family it is a decent deal since we can pack away the Korean BBQ.  Just be careful as they will charge you for any meat you leave behind.

Everytime we have come here, the place has been fairly empty.  I don’t know if it’s the cost that’s prohibitive for lunch or if people prefer to come here during the dinner hours.  It works out nicely for us as we get good service and there’s no line at the buffet.

The Catty Critic gives New Seoul BBQ 4 NOMs.

New Seoul BBQ
9902 Garden Grove Boulevard
Garden Grove, CA 92844
(714) 537-9292
New Seoul Korean BBQ Buffet on Urbanspoon

Korean bbq on the west side…finally!

Manna Korean BBQ just opened up a second location in Culver City at the Westfield mall (formally known as Fox Hills Mall).  West side, rejoice!

Manna Korean BBQ - bar

Manna Korean BBQ - dining area

Manna Korean BBQ - grill

I’ve been here twice since it opened and have to say, while the food isn’t any different than the Koreatown location (read my review here), the setting is MUCH better.  Instead of sitting in a covered outdoor patio, you’re in a nice space with abstract paper mache art, high ceilings and clubby music.  It’s better ventilated so you don’t come out smelling like greasy smoke as much.

They still offer up their all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ for $16.99.  It’s a great deal if you have a large party or are hungry and want variety.  The only catch is that if one person orders it, the whole table has to as well.  I recommend going with the Jumulroc (marinated boneless shortrib, the bulgogi – chicken, beef or pork- and the samgyupsal (pork belly).  Marinated meats mean more flavor and pork belly…well…it’s like thick cuts of bacon!  It’s not the best-tasting Korean BBQ but it’s decent and for the price, awesome.

They give a nice variety of banchan.  Salad, kimchi, japchae, sliced daikon, rice paper and boiled egg seem to be the common fair.  I’ve also been served potato salad and seaweed on different occassions.  While the flavors aren’t anything to rave about, the variety and abundance is nice.

The menu also offers up some non-bbq items like dumplings, bibimbap and soondubu jigae but I haven’t tried any of this.  Based on reviews on Yelp, the soondubu is to be skipped.  I did see plates of dumplings go by on the last visit and they are quite large.  I’ll have to order up a plate next time to see if the taste is as big.

The space is large and they can easily accommodate big parties.  However, call ahead for reservations if you do bring the gang or go early.  I think the service here is also better.  They seem more attentive though be prepared to use the call button when they are super busy.  Also, it can get quite loud during peak dining hours.

The nice thing about being located at a mall is that there is plenty of parking.  Also, you can window shop to walk off the full stomach.

This location gets 4NOMS because of the nicer space and better service as well as the cost for the quantity and the okay quality of the food.

Manna Korean BBQ
6000 Sepulveda Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90230
(310) 397-9901
Manna Korean BBQ on Urbanspoon

P.S.  Poor iPhone pics FTW…

Manna

So this past Saturday was the Korean BBQ Festival in Koreatown.  The husband and I had plans to meet up with friends there and eat some yummy meat.  However, while we were driving down Vermont (in horrendous traffic), our friends called up to say they were already there and that it was…well…not really worth it.  We decided that our money would be better spent going to Manna and having our own private Korean BBQ festival.

Entrance

Entrance to Manna


Manna - Where's the beef?

Manna - Where's the beef?

Manna is a “restaurant” on the corner of Olympic and Gramercy that boasts a $16.99 all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ that you cook yourself at a grill on your table.  The exterior of the building doesn’t really make it obvious this place is a restaurant so it’s easy to miss.  When you walk in, you realize that you’re actually still outside; you’re just in a covered patio area.  The actual kitchen and restrooms are in the building.  Long rows of tables with built-in grills fill the space.  It’s not uncommon to have several large groups at the same row of tables.

Our group of 6 arrived early (around 6:30pm) enough to not have trouble getting a table.  However, Manna gets filled up quickly so reservations are recommended if you have a very large party or want to eat later.

We ordered one of everything for our table – bulgogi, kalbi (boneless), beef brisket, pork belly, BBQ pork and BBQ chicken.  K and I also decided to split a large Pineapple Soju.  Our drinks and banchan arrived.  Apparently, the Soju was intended for four people.  o_O  It was a rather large carafe.  However, it wasn’t terribly strong which was okay with me since I’m a lightweight and I had an extremely empty stomach.  If you are a fan of pineapple juice, this is a good drink for you.  There was also a Lemon Soju as well.  A funny quirk about Manna is that if you want water, you have to ask for it and there are signs posted on the walls stating so.

Manna - Banchan

Manna - Banchan

Our banchan consisted of rice paper and daikon wrappers, japchae, shredded daikon kimchee, regular kimchee, spinach cooked in sesame oil, potato salad and a pot of boiled egg (not pictured).  There was also a salad that we noticed other tables getting so we asked for some towards the end of the meal.  It had a really nice cold ginger dressing on it. The banchan was all decent and flavorful.  The kimchee, while strong was not spicy.  I really enjoyed the spinach; it is one of my favorite banchan dishes and Manna’s version reminded me of my Mom’s.

Manna - cart o' meat!

Manna - cart o' meat!


Manna - bulgogi

Manna - bulgogi


Manna - plate o' meat!

Manna - plate o' meat!


Manna

Manna- beef brisket and onions cooking

One thing about Manna that I noticed is that they do not serve rice.  This allowed us to eat a lot of Korean BBQ, definitely more than $16.99 would have gotten us at a standard Korean BBQ restaurant.  When our meat arrived, it was on a cart with other tables’ orders.  The waiter immediately dumped the plate of bulgogi on the grill and then handed us a large plate of BBQ chicken and another even larger plate piled with beef brisket, kalbi, BBQ pork and a large slice of pork belly.  They also handed us a pair of scissors so we could trim down the larger cuts.  Manna is a very “do it yourself” type of restaurant.  Hey, for the price, I’m not complaining.

The bulgogi was good here though very fatty (hey, more flavor!).  The marinade was on the sweeter side, a bit sweeter than I prefer, but still tasty.  This was the table’s favorite dish as the boys ordered 2 more plates of the bulgogi after we finished off the first delivery.  I think by the time we were done, we had eaten a whole cow or what equated to a whole cow weight-wise.  The bbq chicken was good as well, marinated in the same thing as the bulgogi but the sweetness worked better for the chicken.  The beef brisket was served plain but we had two dipping sauces – seasoned sesame oil and a soy sauce-based one.  I liked to dip the beef in both and then wrap it either in the rice paper or the daikon with a little bit of the spinach.  I can’t recall anything about the BBQ pork though I know I ate some.  The pork belly was fine though unseasoned as well.  They only served one slice of the pork belly.  The kalbi was good as well.  I am used to the 3-bone short rib cut but here, they had trimmed off the bone so you only had to deal with the meat.  All the meat cooked up nice and tender which was a plus.

Each table is equipped with a bell that you can ring and the waiters know that you require service.  They’re pretty good about responding promptly.

For $16.99, Manna’s all-you-can-eat is a bargain and totally worth the trip.  You don’t even have to worry about parking in K-town because the restaurant has their own private lot that supplies “free” valet parking (tip at least $2).

I give Manna 3 1/2 NOMs.

Manna
3377 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 733-8516
http://www.mannakoreanbbq.com/

Manna Korean BBQ on Urbanspoon

94th Aero Squadron

The 94th Aero Squadron is a unique restaurant in the middle of an industrial area.  The building on the outside looks like a old French farm house from the WWI era, complete with models of bi-planes and ivy climbing up the walls.  Inside, they continue the theme with old photos, coats and helmets hanging on the walls and music from the times coming from the speakers.

I guess you could say I’m a little biased towards this place since the Mister and I had our wedding reception here.  We didn’t want to hold our reception at a traditional venue (hotel ballroom) and wanted a place that had character without having to break the bank.  The 94th offered that.

Their dinner buffet option was $37-ish a head and included cake-cutting, a glass of wine with dinner, champagne/cider toast, 4 hors d’oeurves choices, 6 “salad” choices, 3 hot entree choices and 2 side dishes.  It all adds up to a lot of food.  They do add on an 18% service charge and of course, there’s the usual sales tax but given how a lot of places charge $100+/pp just for food, this was really a bargain!

The buffet ended up being really good and people were quite happy with the selection and quality.  We had a couple of vegetarians and food allergies on our guestlist but the 94th accommodated us on both with ease.   What little I ate was delicious.  While it’s not cuisine that people are going to rave about, it is good, hearty and filling food that people will be happy with and not go home hungry.

As for the bar, we were able to do an open bar for $1K for the entire time (minus the last hour – give people time to sober up).  They don’t over-price their drinks  – a Jack n’ Coke is like $5 so not only were we able to do the open bar, we didn’t have to limit selections.

The service was fantastic and we didn’t have to deal with any issues at all.

The only issue I had was with the layout which actually worked out in the end.  Because of the size of our party, we ended up having to seat guests in the side room so it sort of separated them from the main room but it did keep our more “liberal” friends from our more “conservative” family.  😀  Our friends actually liked it because it allowed them to be as rowdy as they wanted as well.

What was also nice was that there was an outdoor patio for smokers and a huge area with a duck pond for kids to run around and stay entertained.

In terms of regular dining, this place is pretty good.  I’ve been here for their lunch buffet which is alright for the price.  Some of their dishes like the salmon are a miss but there’s a lot more hits.  They are great at doing meat dishes – love the carved prime rib – but not so much on seafood.  I do recommend going earlier in their lunch hours as towards the end, you get the stuff that’s been sitting out for a while.

However, the big thing is the Sunday Champagne brunch.  For $22.95, this is a great brunch buffet.  Omlette bar, pasta bar, fresh waffles, shrimp cocktail, crab legs, mussels, eggs benedict, bacon, bread assortment and a HUGE dessert selection…yummy chocolate cake and chocolate fountain!  I do wish they carried smoked salmon as that is a staple for a brunch buffet in my book but there’s enough other stuff to keep me happy.  And they are not stingy with the champagne.  They will keep filling your glass up till you start acting drunk or tell them you are done.  There’s orange juice for mimosas as well.  It gets really busy though so I highly recommend making reservations for this, even if it’s just for a party of two.

I give 94th Aero Squadron 3 1/2 NOMs.  The food isn’t memorable but the value, service and atmosphere is.

94th Aero Squadron
8885 Balboa Ave

San Diego, CA 92123
(858) 560-6771
http://www.94thaerosquadron.signonsandiego.com
94th Aero Squadron on Urbanspoon