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

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Top Chef Masters Viewing Party w/ Chef Ludo Lefebvre

Husband and I became avid fans of Top Chef after we caught a few episodes of Season 2.  When we heard that there was going to be a Top Chef Masters, we were excited.  How would some of the most renowned chefs perform, especially the ones that had previously been judges?

The first season last year was my introduction to Chef Ludo Lefebvre.  I was a little padawan foodie, learning my way around the LA food scene (still am!).  I remember watching him, wondering what the hell he was saying, and getting a kick from the bickering between him and Chef Rick Moonen.  Fast forward to the last few months…  I’ve since gotten a better handle on LA food and restaurants and, no surprise,  Chef Ludo’s name has been popping up quite a bit with the exponentially increasing popularity of his pop-up restaurant, LudoBites as well as his LFC – Ludo Fried Chicken.

Finally about to get me some Ludobites!

Wine, wine and more wine

Chef Ludo returned to the 2nd season of Top Chef Masters and when the episode aired on 4/21, he threw a viewing party at Akasha in Culver City.  Husband and I were there to watch all the fun as he and the other contestants, including Moonen, fought for a spot in the next round and redeem themselves.  But more so, we were there to eat some LFC for the first time.

Akasha is in the building that many geeks would recognize as the exterior of Flynn’s Arcade from the movie, “Tron”.  Let’s just say that the interior of Akasha is about as far from an arcade as you can get. The space isn’t huge but the open contemporary floor plan makes it feel intimate yet large at the same time. I couldn’t stop staring at the extensive wine collection behind the large bar.

Sage Lemondrop

Since we got there when the party started, the place was still fairly empty.  That was fine as it allowed us to grab a table.  A waitress came by and we ordered the cocktail of the night – Sage Lemondrop.  Chef Ludo combined organic gin, organic lemonade and sage leaves to make this.  I always thought I hated gin (ugh, gin n’ tonics are nasty!) but this was delicious.  A little tangy, not too sweet…

My plate of everything

Bacon biscuits

They were still setting up the food, served buffet style.  I spied a large basket of jalapeño corn bread, salad, deviled eggs, something in a large pot and biscuits.  Hrm, a Southern theme…  I can dig it.

When everything was set up, Husband and I dug in.  I grabbed a little of everything.  The large pot ended up containing collard greens with black-eyed peas, not my favorite.  I’m not really a bean person.  There was also mac n’ cheese, a red cabbage cole slaw and mashed potatoes.  The biscuits had bacon bits in it which sold Husband on them, and me, as well.  The couple that loves bacon together…well, gets fat together.  These were soft, fluffy; I kept having to constrain myself from going back for more.

Awesome mac n' cheese

As a mac n’ cheese lover, I’m a bit picky about it.  Chef Ludo made a fantastic classic version.  Many other versions I’ve had never had enough cheese sauce for my liking but this wasn’t the case.  And the crunchy crumbs on top is a must from a texture point of view, I think.

LFC

Since they wanted to make sure everyone got some LFC, we were limited to 3 pieces.  That’s okay, because these boneless fried balls of poultry were quite large.  A nice amount of batter that didn’t come out too saturated in oil, the herbs really gave it a lot of flavor.  Even Husband was impressed.  I think I heard the words “some of the best fried chicken ever” come out of his mouth.  I agree.  And the lemon aoli sauce gave a nice tang to it.  I can understand the hype surrounding LFC.

This bird will OWN you...

By the time the viewing started, the place was packed with Ludo fans like this guy.  It was fun watching the show with other people who were just as into it as us.  While Ludo didn’t win on the show, he certainly won me and Husband over.

Now I’m really sad I wasn’t able to get a reservation for LudoBites 4.0 at Gram & Papa’s…*sniff sniff*  Well, there will be a LudoBites 5.0, right?

The Catty Critic give LFC 5 NOMs!  More please…

For more pictures, visit my Facebook page!

LudoBites
Pops up at various locations

La Sirena Grill

On Sunday, Husband and I were running around doing errands for the new house.  Since neither of us had breakfast (bad habit), we decided to try out La Sirena Grill in El Segundo since we were in the area.

Dining area

Bar Area

Salsa

Pomegranate Margarita

When we walked in, the place was about half full.  We were quickly seated and presented with a basket of just-made tortilla chips and some spicy green salsa which I enjoyed.  The heat was enough to make my lips a little tingly by the time our meal was over.

Husband, about to face a few hours of shopping, went straight for some booze and ordered a pomegranate margarita.  Since one of us had to stay sober to drive and make wise purchases, I just stuck with my usual water.

La Sirena’s menu isn’t very extensive and lists items that sound more fusion than your classic Mexican fare.  They claim to use fresh and quality ingredients like grass-fed beef; the prices reflect the use of better quality ingredients.  There were also advertisements on the table touting happy hour specials throughout the week as well as tequila tastings.  A menu listed quite a few varieties…

On the appetizer menu, I spotted a porcini and truffle quesadilla served with a salad of baby arugula ($9).  Sold!  Asking about the size, I decided that it wouldn’t be enough for a meal so I also got the cerviche ($10).  Husband went for carne asada enchiladas with red sauce ($14-ish, carne asada was extra I think…).

Porcini and truffle quesadilla

Cerviche

The quesadilla was fantastic.  The porcini mushrooms were earthy and the chewy texture went well with the crisp tortilla.  I really enjoyed the flavor of this and would totally order this plate again.  Yes, it’s not very “Mexican” but tasty is tasty…

The cerviche was a little disappointing.  While it had a generous portion of scallops, shrimp and avocado,  I was hoping for a more tangy flavor, more acidity.  I got that when I reached the bottom of the plate but the top was just…meh.  Perhaps mixing it up to get the juices from the bottom to coat the top may help next time.  A little hard to do on such a small plate but worth a try.  I could always ask for a bowl, I suppose.

The service was great.  I never once had to ask for a refill on water; the waiter was very ninja about keeping it filled.

Overall, a positive first dining experince at La Sirena Grill.  I’m sure Husband and I will be back as the Happy Hour specials piqued our interest.

3 1/2 NOMs for La Sirena Grill!

La Sirena Grill
710-D Allied Way
El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 640-6170
La Sirena Grill 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…

Urban Solace – comfort food for the stomach

Recently, I had to take a work trip down to my old stomping grounds of San Diego.  While I was there, I decided that a stop at one of my favorite restaurants was necessary; it had been too long since I had been to Urban Solace.  I called up my friend, “Chef” Eddie, and off we went for dinner.  Located in the North Park area, Urban Solace opened its doors a few years ago.  Since then, it has earned much acclaim for Chef Matt Gordon’s wonderful upscale twist on comfort food.  Even though it was a weeknight, the restaurant was packed and there was about a 20 minute wait.  For those who are faced with some extra time before being seated, a large bar area located near the door is a great place to hang out and have a pre-meal cocktail or have some wine or beer (bottled and tap) from the extensive list.

Cheddar biscuits with orange honey butter

One thing that I always tell people they MUST order when eating at Urban Solace is the warm cheese biscuits with orange honey butter.  Naturally, Eddie and I ordered some as an appetizer.  Soft, fluffy, cheesy, these are the epitome of what cheddar biscuits should be.   Paired with sweet citrus butteriness, it’s an interesting flavor contrast.

Spinach salad

I was craving veggies so I decided to get the spinach salad: baby spinach, goat cheese, warm sherry vinegrette, bacon, dates, hazelnuts.  An excellent large salad, this was just what I wanted.  Healthy greens, meaty bacon for protein, hazelnuts for crunch, dates for a little sweetness…very well balanced.  Maybe not the healthiest salad, but I did get my veggies!

Duckaroni

I also was craving mac n’ cheese and heard nothing but great things about the version Urban Solace serves.  The duckaroni is a mac n’ cheese made with blue cheese, duck confit, roasted garlic, arugula, and scallions.  You can order it as a side or as a main dish; I opted for the side since I had the salad.  This was fantastic.  There was a lot of cheese sauce which is a big thing for me as my main complaint for a mac n’ cheese is that it’s not cheesy enough.  I loved the crumb topping.  The blue cheese flavor was surprisingly mild.  The duck was a great addition and the flavor just meshed well.  I’m used to either some sort of shellfish, chicken or bacon/ham being in a mac n’ cheese but duck was a new one for me and I have to say, it was good.

Chicken and Dumplings

Eddie went with the chicken and dumplings and let me steal a couple of bites.  This was excellent and very rich in chicken flavor.  The dumplings weren’t overly dense and soaked in the sauce making for yummy bite after bite.  He polished off his plate for the most part.

We didn’t have room for dessert because all this food stuffed us silly; we even had biscuits leftover!

All the times I have been here, the food has been spot on, both in flavor and execution.  Consistency in deliciousness is just one of the reasons why Urban Solace finds itself on the list of San Diego’s best restaurants.

The service is always friendly and excellent.  As for the prices, I think they are not very expensive for the quality of dining experience you get.

The Catty Critic gives Urban Solace 5 NOMs.  Now if only they would open up here in LA next door to my house…

Urban Solace
3823 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 295-6464
http://urbansolace.net/
Urban Solace on Urbanspoon

Buttermilk Truck

Buttermilk Truck

Third try’s the charm, or so the saying goes.  I have been thisclose to Buttermilk Truck twice before but never got to try them due to long lines.  Checking out their schedule for the week, I noticed that they were going to be in Culver City tonight from 7-10pm, which was only 10 minutes north on the freeway.  I called up the Husband and let him know that we were going out to eat tonight.

Order up at the Buttermilk Truck

We got to the truck around 8pm; I was expecting there to be a crowd given how popular Buttermilk was at the Food Fest and the Relief for Haiti event at T Lofts.  Surprisingly, there was no line.  There were a few people waiting around for their orders but other than that…  I was cheering inside.  FINALLY!!

Husband and I decided to order the chicken and waffles ($7), the breakfast sandwich with bacon and hashbrowns ($4) and two orders of the pancake bites ($5/each).  Prices include tax so no need to carry odd change.  The nice thing Buttermilk Truck does is if you order multiple items, they serve each item as it is ready so you don’t have to wait for everything to finish cooking to receive it.

Chicken and waffle

First up was the chicken and waffles – 2 wings and a waffle.  The waffle had cinnamon mixed into the batter which I could smell and a pat of butter was melted into the crevices.  The flavor was nice but texture-wise, I prefer crispier waffles.  Still, this was pretty tasty.

The chicken wings were fantastic.  The skin was crispy and the batter had a little bit of spicy mixed it to it, giving the chicken some heat.  The meat was juicy.  Flavor-wise, these were on par with what I would expect from a sit-down restaurant.

Breakfast sandwich, garlic rosemary hashbrown

Eggy accident

Next up, the breakfast sandwich – an over-easy fried egg, cheese and applewood smoked bacon encased in a homemade buttermilk biscuit.  Chicken apple sausage or torino can be substituted for the bacon.

Husband went in for the first bite and while I warned him about the runny yolk, he still managed to get it all over himself.  There went my yolk…  The biscuit was great – fluffy inside and not at all crumbly.  Crispy bacon, nicely cooked egg, a classic yummy breakfast sandwich.

The garlic rosemary hashbrown, a $0.50 addition to the breakfast sandwich, was delicious.  Garlic and rosemary can be very strong flavors but in this hashbrown, they weren’t overpowering.  Texture-wise, it was like eating a giant tater tot.  Well worth the 50 cents, in my opinion.

While I was finishing up my sandwich, Buttermilk announced that they had a extra mini-Brick and asked if anyone wanted it.  No one went for it so I took it.  Hey, free food and a chance to try another yummy item off their menu?  Why not?

Mini-brick

The mini-Brick consisted of a hashbrown topped with a fried egg topped with half a biscuit and covered in homemade chorizo gravy.  This was pretty tasty but required a fork.  I really enjoyed the chorizo gravy; salty (but not overly so) and meaty, this would be awesome to use in a loco moco or serve over french fries.

Our pancake bites were served up last.  Husband wanted chocolate chip and I went with the red velvet which also had chocolate chips in it.  Served with a side of butter, these were a sweet ending to our meal.  Syrup was available near the forks and napkins.

Chocolate chip pancake bites

Red velvet pancake bites

Husband devoured most of his order before I could get a picture but I managed to stop him mid-nom on the last pancake.  He really enjoyed these, apparently.  He didn’t even offer me a taste…

The red velvet pancake bites were really good, though, with syrup, a little on the sweet side.  Easily consumed in 2 bites, these were fluffy, moist and not too thick or thin.

Now I understand why Buttermilk had such long lines the last two times I saw them.  Great food and great prices for the most part.  I thought the chicken and waffles were a little bit pricy but everything else was cheap for the quality and quantity.  I would eat every single one of these items again.

And according to their Twitter, they sold out of everything tonight…

Buttermilk Truck gets 4 NOMs from the Catty Critic

Kyochon Chicken

Kirk over at mmm-yoso blogged about chicken wings recently and mentioned Kyochon.  I realized I still hadn’t blogged about my experience with this place yet.

KyoChon

While exploring the new Zion Korean market off Beach Blvd (still labeled Fresia when I went)  in Garden Grove, I saw this place inside near the entrance.  Since I didn’t feel like cooking, I decided to give Kyochon a try.

All Kyochon does is chicken.  You can get chicken wings, chicken bentos, chicken chicken chicken.  I guess it’s sort of like a Korean Chik-fil-et but not sandwiches…okay, I’m stretching here with that comparison but you get the idea…

Anyways, the smell wafting from the kitchen was making my tummy grumble.  Looking at the menu, they offered up chicken with two different sauces – soy-garlic and spicy.  The option to place orders for half/half is available but you have to order at least 4 wings, if memory serves me correctly.  The prices were a little high, I thought till I saw I could get a “whole chicken” for ~$20 (tax included).  Now, I was thinking a whole chicken would be quite a lot of food and $20 wasn’t too steep for that.  I opted on half/half for the sauces since I  planned on sharing with my husband who doesn’t do spicy.

Packaging

When my number was called, I received these two boxes in a rather nice bag, the sort of bag you get when you shop at Banana Republic or Coach.  These boxes seemed a little small to each contain half a chicken, but they were crammed to the top with pieces of hacked poultry and taped shut so I guess it adds up.

I had to wait till I got home to munch on it.  While I was driving, I could smell the garlic coming from the soy-garlic sauce and let me tell you, it was pretty cruel since I was starving.

Soy-garlic chicken

Spicy chicken

Because they had been packaged hot, the steam made the skin on these a little soggy, though there was some crispness here and there.  Made me think that next time, I would have to eat some right when I got my order.  The meat was nice and moist and the flavor, intense.  The spicy really packed a punch for me.  Either the chef had it out or my tolerance is diminishing…  Looking inside, there really was quite a bit of food, enough that I had leftovers for dinner for the following two days after gorging myself on quite a bit that night (the Husband decided to forgo trying any for some insane reason).  They did reheat well, though they did start drying out.

While the chicken was really good, doing the math in my head, it was a bit pricey.  Still, I don’t think it’s enough of a deterrant for me to not eat at Kyochon.  I’d just do so only when I have a craving for them specifically. Maybe next time, I will try some of their more affordable bentos…

I give Kyochon 3 1/2 NOMs.  It would have gotten 4 if it was cheap eats!

Kyochon Chicken
12840 Beach Boulevard
Stanton, CA‎
(714) 891-2449
Kyochon Chicken on Urbanspoon