The Blind Pig

Rancho Santa Margarita is about to get an infusion of groovy eats and drinks.

Rancho Santa Margarita and Coto de Caza are woefully underserved in the area of high end dining. Dublin 4 in Mission Viejo is a shining beacon, but it is a bit far from RSM for a spontaneous night out. The Blind Pig owners originally wanted a coastal location for their restaurant, but after encountering some difficulty, they decided to bring it closer to home. The Blind Pig is opening in bustling Mercado del Lago shopping center, taking the place of a formerly well-known restaurant. It’s a primo spot, with a patio nearly the same size as the interior seating area and a view of beautiful RSM lake.

My excitement aside, the food was fantastic.

Beet Salad

Gold beets, cumin-guava vinaigrette, pistachio granola, sharp cheddar, hibiscus compressed Maui onion, watercress.

Gold beets, cumin-guava vinaigrette, pistachio granola, sharp cheddar, hibiscus compressed Maui onion, watercress.

Before we ate, Chef Joshua Han had the opportunity to explain his concept: presenting known and established flavor profiles using unique ingredients and preparations. Progressive American without the cliché, he called it. For me, this dish was the one that best exemplified that concept. Some aspects of the flavor profile were very much like those of my parents’ beet salad (beets, walnuts, and bleu cheese)―the sweet vegetable flavor of the beets, the creaminess and sharpness of the cheese, and the toasty nuttiness of the pistachio granola. The compressed onion, watercress, and vinaigrette gave it an edge and an additional aromatic dimension.

Bone Marrow

Smoked shallot marmalade, pickled figs, Maytag bleu cheese, toast.

Smoked shallot marmalade, pickled figs, Maytag bleu cheese, toast.

This blew me away. The marrow was excellently cooked. The flavor profile of the cheese, fig, marmalade and marrow was sublime. I find myself having difficulty composing full sentences while thinking about this dish.

Orange County’s craft cocktail master Gabrielle Dion, of Broadway (of Laguna Beach) fame, is handling drinks. I was heading to work after this preview, so I could only try a couple of sips, but those were enough to enjoy the wonderful and exacting balance of the various ingredients in the various drinks. And of course, like any gastropub worth its salt, The Blind Pig will have a rotating selection of craft beer on tap, including selections from hyper-local brewery Cismontane Brewing Company.

The Blind Pig opens Wednesday, August 21st. I’m so there.

The Blind Pig

31431 Santa Margarita Pkwy
Rancho Santa Margarita, California 92688

Little Saigon Night Market @ Asian Garden Mall

Last year, I went out to a crawfish place with some friends in Westminster. We ate, but found ourselves still propelled by the good vibes, so we decided to go to the Asian Garden Mall (the one at 9200 Bolsa). We were all expecting just a normal mall type experience―walking around, window shopping, snacks, etc.―but we were very pleasantly surprised to happen upon some sort of festival! We got lucky with parking, and the fun began. The smells and sounds of the multiple grilled meat vendors immediately made me feel quite at home among the crowds, and everything I tried was great, not to mention cheap. In the midst of the eating and joviality, I neither knew nor cared why this festival was happening, but it turned out that it was the Little Saigon Night Market!

My most recent visit on Sunday was my third time there, but the first since last year, since it only began June 15th. This visit was also the first time I made a plan to try as many things as possible.

I was with three friends, and after a quick look around, we picked the Mai’s Kitchen booth for our first stop.

Grilled pork and Bánh Can Nha Trang

Grilled pork and Bánh Can Nha Trang.

The pork had a great lemongrass flavor, along with what I thought to be a slight note of citrus, as one often finds in meat marinades. The pork itself was of course rich and excellently grilled, with a juicy center and a bit of char. The sign for the Bánh Can Nha Trang specifically said these were “authentic Nha Trang rice pancakes.” I can’t say I know from Nha Trang rice pancakes, but I loved these. The batter is poured in the specialized cooker, consisting of a bucket-type chamber for the charcoal and the top surface with shallow bowls. The batter is poured in the bowls and covered with a lid, but the pancake is never flipped. The result is a cooked bottom and a spongy top, upon which a little green onion topping is placed. The provided dipping sauce is viscous with ground chicken at the bottom of the cup (easy to miss, as I almost did, if you don’t know it’s there). They were overall an eggy experience. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Next stop was waffles.

Why can't all waffles be like this?

Why can’t all waffles be like this?

Just your regular green coconut waffles, but they came with a nice orange peel dipping sauce, which was a first for me. The tartness was an excellent counterbalance to the sweetness of the waffle, which can be a bit boring to a person who lacks a sweet tooth, such as me.

When we first arrived I had seen someone carrying a dish that was a mound of something on a flat cracker-type thing. As we were eating our waffles, I saw that very dish on display at the Happy Bee booth. It’s called Hen Xúc Bánh Tráng, or baby clams on a crunchy rice cake.

Inset:  the sign for this dish, with the cool "X" in Xúc. I thought it was an "L" until my Viet friend Tara informed me otherwise.

Inset: the sign for this dish, with the cool “X” in Xúc. I thought it was a stylized cursive “L” until my Viet friend informed me otherwise.

The clams are cooked with onion, bell pepper, cayenne, and paprika, according to the what the guy in the tent told us through our Viet friend. We shared this one, and we all wanted the spicy option, but it was less spicy than I expected. It was still a very enjoyable, complex, and fruity spice, though. We ate it with pieces of the rice cake we broke off, which proved slightly difficult while standing up without a table. I think I have a soft spot for food one eats with pieces of other food.

While we were deciding on what to eat together next, I made a detour to the tent with Chuôí Chiên (fried bananas).

Can't go wrong with fried bananas!

Can’t go wrong with fried bananas!

While I was getting my bananas, my friends got in line for grilled chicken. This chicken was a saucier and sweeter experience than the pork, and it was fatty dark meat, my favorite part of a chicken.

$2 seems to be the market price for meat skewers.

$2 seems to be the market price for meat skewers.

For “dessert,” I was elated to find that there was a vendor selling balut!

That's one thing off my bucket list!

That’s one thing off my bucket list!

I had wanted to try balut for a long time before this, so I jumped at the chance. The egg is simply boiled in seasoned water and served with lime and salt and pepper. After breaching the shell, one drinks/sucks out the salty liquid before removing the rest of the shell. The underdeveloped duck itself was essentially a bit of very soft meat, and the yolk was just like any other yolk. There’s an inedible rounded thing that takes up about half the volume of the egg, but this dish isn’t like crawfish―you still get a nice couple of bites for your effort.

The market is every weekend until September 1―Fridays and Saturdays 7 PM-midnight and Sundays until 11―so we’ll definitely be going back. I’ll get enough material for at least one more post with all the things we didn’t have a chance to try!

Here’s the page for the market on AGM’s site, with a vendor list and the hours.

Star BBQ (Byul Daepo – Star BBQ)

I first went to Star BBQ as a Japanese final exam celebration (as in, after we took the test) with a group such as one often sees around Irvine and Garden Grove—white people (including me), a couple Taiwanese people, Japanese, Korean, African-American, Indian—and we weren’t even the most diverse group eating there. We had decided to go here on the recommendation of one of the Korean guys, who also seemed to know someone who worked there.

Jump forward a year or a year and a half and now I’m with another group of friends looking for a good place to have a KBBQ reunion dinner. I suggested this place and related the story from above, and they all agreed.

We were there to celebrate, so we sprung for the $19.99/person menu. This was the first wave:

Beef tongue, brisket, pork belly, and bulgogi.

Brisket, beef tongue, pork belly, and bulgogi.

The menu is far too large for 4 people to try everything in one visit, but we certainly ate our share that night—beef belly, abomasum (4th stomach of a cow), spicy chicken, black pork belly, more bulgogi, a couple of other meats, and two very nice beef tenderloins to finish.

Beef belly, black pork belly, bulgogi, and beef tenderloins.

Beef belly, black pork belly, bulgogi, and beef tenderloin. The “tenderloin” looks more like the whole loin, but it was really good.

Several bottles of Kooksoondang Draft Makkoli, a rice wine, were also consumed. Makkoli was originally made by and for farmers, but it’s been in fashion with Korean 20-somethings/cocktalians/students for some time now. This brand is unique because it comes out of the bottle carbonated—it’s made to replicate Makkoli as it’s served on tap in Korea—though it has a shelf life of just 2-3 months.

Before we had even finished eating, we all agreed that this was the best KBBQ we’ve ever had. We ended up leaving a note for our exceptional waitress, but of course we didn’t leave without partaking of the free frozen yogurt, available in two flavors. I think they change, but that night the two options were “pineapple” and “tart.”

We all opted for the "mixed" option.

We all got the “mixed” option.

El Toro Bravo: Burrito Al Pastor


El Toro Bravo is another outpost of one of my favorite carnicerias, El Toro Carniceria. It’s snugged in that tiny shopping center at Red Hill and El Camino Real, with a Starbucks, a check cashing place, and several other businesses. For those who know the center but have never gone in, the parking lot is actually roomier than it looks from the outside. But this isn’t a parking blog, so on to the food.

I’ll just start by saying that this was one of the best assembled and most tightly wrapped burritos I’ve ever had. Carrying it around, it almost felt like it would bounce if I dropped it, and when I finally ate it, every bite had every ingredient represented. The default fillings-rice, beans, meat, and salsa-make an excellent burrito on their own, but I highly recommend asking for some roasted jalapeño. They were just sitting in an unlabeled tray of the steam table, enticing me with their charred skin and a promise of a nice fruity spice. The guy making my burrito seemed to be taken aback, though, warning me that my burrito would be “mucho hot” before chopping two peppers and adding them. It was indeed, and I loved it!

I also had the opportunity to let this burrito sit out in its wrapper for a little while, which my mom always says makes a burrito taste better as the flavors marry and all that.

The Grilled Cheese Spot

I had originally planned to go to The Grilled Cheese Spot while I was waiting out my jury summons in Santa Ana, but I ended up getting sent to Westminster. Hardly a death sentence, eating wise, but I prefer to avoid sudden changes in plans. I had a free day Saturday, though, after helping my grandparents out with some work in Brea, and The Grilled Cheese Spot was pretty much on the way home. I lucked into great parking just two blocks away with 20 minutes left on the meter, and after giving myself an hour, I was off.

GCS was conspicuous with the crowd of people―some eating, some in line―around its front. Right away I liked the look of the sandwiches I saw in people’s hands. I was struck by indecisiveness, but then I saw the build-your-own menu. There, the only way is up! With the occasional upcharge, of course. I immediately zeroed in on the fried eggs and grilled onions, but aside from those, I circled white bread, cheddar, tomato, and bacon. I also ordered the Government Issue, american on white, to try a classic grilled cheese, the house potato chips, and the house onion onion rings.

I loved both sandwiches! Not as crusty as the ones my mom made me when I was a kid, but the fillings were well heated and activated and all that.

My custom sandwich on top, the Gov't Issue on bottom.

My custom sandwich on top, the Gov’t Issue on bottom.

As good as the sandwiches were, I have to admit that the fried offerings somewhat overshadowed them! The onion rings are obviously handmade, and very well, too. The membrane was removed, the crust was crispy, and the onion tender. The crust had some sort of aromatic flavor that neither I nor my mom could place with certainty, but whatever it was, it was really good. The chips, slightly simpler, were just overall excellently prepared―thinly sliced, seasoned well, fried crispy, and properly dried afterwards. I’ve encountered a good amount of chips that were not subjected to that last vital step.

Nary a grease spot to be seen on the bags.

They were still crispy hours later when I finished them at home.

I’d go back here any day.

Mattern Sausage and Meats: Tongue and Blood Sausage, Head Cheese survey-within-a-survey

Since my Tongue in OC survey has only covered cow tongue so far, I jumped at the chance to include another animal: pig. I’ve been anticipating this addition to my survey for some time, though I didn’t run across a non-cow tongue dish until I had a chance to go to Mattern while my mom was at the dentist’s.

My parents have been going to Mattern since before I was born, and while we’re not exactly regulars anymore, we still stop in whenever we’re in the area. Their garlic bologna was one of the first solid foods I ate as an infant nearly 20 years ago–there’s hardly a better food than that for babies. As I developed my own tastes over the years, I settled on the bockwurst, a white veal sausage, as my personal favorite, but you really can’t miss at Mattern. Everything is delicious.

Head cheese, as it is composed of the flesh of the head, obviously includes the tongue. Mattern has 3 kinds of head cheese, all pork based: regular, with vinegar, and spicy. In all three, the pieces of meat–tongue, cheek, etc.–are suspended in the translucent aspic like a freeform mosaic, but the texture varies among the varieties. The regular head cheese is the most cartilaginous in texture, almost chewy, even, and it’s pretty mellow in flavor. The vinegar one is slightly more tender, and the aspic is more opaque with a yellowish tint to it. The vinegar flavor itself is a nice counterbalance to the soft richness of the rest of the head cheese. Finally, the spicy head cheese has various spices and an intense red color. Despite the name, I wouldn’t call this actually “spicy,” but the spices, like the vinegar, work well in the sausage overall.

In addition to the head cheeses, I also tried the blood and tongue sausage. This too is made with pork tongue, set in a beautiful red blood sausage. Here, one can distinctly taste the pork tongue. It has a richness similar to beef tongue, but less iron-y tang. Still, I love it.

Clockwise from top left:  regular, with vinegar, spicy, blood and tongue.

Clockwise from top left: regular, with vinegar, spicy, blood and tongue.

For the eating part of this post, I simply buttered some rye bread and layered on a couple of slices of each sausage.

It was a nice snack.

It was a nice snack.

Tacos Ensenada: Costillas de Puerco

We had other eating plans for later in the day, so I opted for something smaller than my usual wet burrito lengua. Their menu is rather expansive, so I just chose the special from a sign on the counter: Costillas de Puerco en Salsa Quemada (pork ribs in salsa quemada).

Salsa quemada isn’t exactly standardized, but the basic idea is that at least the tomatoes and chiles are smoked. Tacos Ensenada’s salsa quemada is indeed nicely smoky, but it also has a great fruity spice from whatever various chiles Tacos Ensenada uses, and he dish overall is hearty and pork-y. Salsa quemada is also available from their salsa bar, but one doesn’t get the benefit of the costillas and all the goodness they bring to the table. It comes with rice, beans, and tortillas, all of which are always good.

It's a good value for $7.95, too.

It’s a good value for $7.95, too.

Cismontane’s Mesa and Shralp Session Saison


Well, as of yesterday evening, I have tried every beer Cismontane is offering on tap, and like I said to the guy in line with me, you just can’t miss!

Mesa (left) is a blend of 1/4 Mer Soleil Riesling and 3/4 Cismontane’s Pilsner. I can’t say I had ever thought of this before, but after drinking this one realizes that pale beers and Riesling do actually have a lot in common. The blend makes for a rather fruity experience, with the bitterness and attack of the beer component dulled somewhat. I think Mesa is the most refreshing beer I’ve had from Cismontane.

Shralp Session Saison (right) is a great, down-to-earth beer of the Belgian table style. Crisp, quenching, and easy on the palate, with notes of sweet citrus and mellow spices, this beer is eminently drinkable. I’m no expert on Belgian cuisine, but I could see this beer working with most any food, from bar snacks to a nice pork chop.

Apologies for the blurry pictures. It was a long day and my friends were trying to bust me up as I was taking them.

Cismontane’s Dos Cone Es


Nothing like a cold beer to cool down after rehearsal, especially when it’s only a few paces away. This was the next beer in line in my new mission to drink down the list that hangs next to Cismontane’s counter.

Hoppy, rich, slightly sweet, and smooth as can be. Despite being the highest ABV of Cismontane’s current offerings, Dos Cone Es feels like a wonderfully refreshing beer that one could drink great quantities of. As I was drinking it, I thought it might be my new favorite, but Citizen still has the edge for me.