3033 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626
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Buffalo Chow's editors are serious fans of Asian cuisine: Japanese is a common favorite, but whether we're at home or abroad, our reference points for what's great, good, or bad often come from meals we've enjoyed in Singapore, Thailand, China, Korea, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Our respect for authenticity and experiences living in places such as Orange County, California explain our desire to see Western New York have a larger and more diverse Asian population, as well as the amazing restaurants such a community would expect and create; Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants have already brought some of the world's best foods to Southern California, and though we hardly had the opportunity to visit all of our favorites - next time, Korean and Mongolian BBQ! - we did stop by a few places that were worth sharing with you.
Oki-Doki: Once you've eaten at a restaurant such as Costa Mesa, California's Oki-Doki, it's all but impossible to eat in an "Asian Fusion" restaurant without sneering at the very concept of "Western food with random Asian touches." The concept behind Oki-Doki is brilliant, if anything other than simple: rather than offering a menu full of improvised, sorta-kinda-not-really foods from across Southeast Asia (we're looking at you, still mediocre Sake Cafe), Oki-Doki's menu includes real Japanese food, real Vietnamese food, and real Chinese food, prepared by Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese chefs. This isn't "Fusion," but rather true Pan-Asian dining, and the prices are very reasonable; you can eat a full, multiple-item meal here for less than the cost of a few sushi rolls at certain overpriced Western New York restaurants, or have some truly outstanding sushi at comparable prices.
One of the secrets to Oki-Doki's success is that it operates like a Japanese izakaya - a sake and beer bar with tapas-like table service - which means that its items come in larger portions than mere two-bite samples, yet are rarely enough to completely fill you individually. Think "medium to big appetizers" and you'll have the right idea. Consequently, ordering four plates per person is generally a safe guideline, giving you the opportunity to dive right into a single culture's cuisine or instead try an item or two from several different places. Our meal included separate plates of sliced, sashimi-grade Albacore Tuna ($9) and Bluefin Tuna Tataki ($9) served with garlic chips, broiled eggplant with bonito flakes and soy sauce (Yaki Nasu, $4), foil-steamed Shimeji mushrooms in a salty citrus soy ($4.50), and spicy tuna sushi rolls ($5.50) - the real spicy tuna, served red and peppery, rather than the overly mayonnaised, creamy versions so commonly served in Buffalo. And that was just the Japanese fare.
We also ordered a long-time favorite: a Chinese-styled Shrimp in Chili Paste ($8), served on a bed of crispy rice and fresh scallions, intense as always with a spicy and rich tomato sauce; by comparison, a plate of Korean Short Ribs ($8) arrived sizzling, appropriately fatty and boney atop some sliced white onions, but the flavor of the ribs wasn't quite sweet enough or right. Our server mentioned that there had been some changes in the kitchen since we visited two years ago, as the staff had split into new locations of the restaurant that opened (and in one case closed) in the intervening period. Experienced in the ways of Oki-Doki, we knew not to order filling noodle items such as Vietnamese Bun, Chinese Pan-Fried Noodles, or Japanese Ramen on this visit, as they're roughly as good as stuff we can get back home, not better. The charm of this place isn't that it's the very best at everything it does, but rather, that it does several cuisines so well and affordably that we'd come back any time. Thanks to the prices and the bar, it's popular with groups of young people, and pretty constantly packed. We'd truly love to have a place like this in Western New York.
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen: Legendary is the pride that Japanese chefs take in delivering authentic dining experiences, and though there are probably a thousand or more sushi and tempura shops in Southern California, Shin-Sen-Gumi (18315 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, CA 92708, 714.962.8952) is far more interesting to us. Split into two immediately adjacent restaurants, this thoroughly Japanese small chain uses half of its space to offer little more than authentic, traditional ramen soup at lunch and dinner time, while the other half (Shin-Sen-Gumi Robata & Yakitori) operates a boisterously loud, amazingly fun skewer-based grill house at night. We've discussed the joys of robata yakitori in a prior article on NYC; this mention looks solely at Shin-Sen-Gumi's ramen.
"Who cares about ramen," you might ask, "isn't that the stuff that students eat from styrofoam cups by adding boiling water and a flavor packet to some dried-out noodles?" Pause for a second. Now imagine what your favorite food would taste like if it was freeze-dried and its flavor shifted off into a powder that was added only a minute before you ate it. Whatever your favorite food was, it probably wouldn't taste anywhere near as good in a freeze-dried form as the original it was based upon, would it?
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen exists in California for the same reason that myriad similar places continue to operate in Japan, a country that loves prepackaged ramen enough to have museums (plural) dedicated to the stuff: the differences in flavor, quality, and texture between packaged and freshly made ramen soups are so huge that they're barely the same food at all. At Shin-Sen-Gumi, your ramen meal begins with a single piece of paper and a pencil, so you can custom-order the noodles to your desired level of firmness, specify how much or little oil you want, and even pick the intensity level of the famous pork broth, which was started here from soup stock brought over from Japan. Sliced pork, scallions, and ginger are included along with the noodles in every bowl, and you can add additional pork, fresh bamboo, spicy miso paste, fried onions, corn, and/or hard-boiled eggs if they appeal to you.
The results are spectacular. A plain bowl of the Hakata Ramen soup, shown in our first photo, is strong in pork flavor yet light enough that people can and do order discounted second portions of noodles, which are deposited in your bowl after being cooked firm, medium, or soft to your liking. Add a dollop of the spicy red miso paste as an option (shown in the second photo), and the soup will turn orange, with chilis and soy now competing against the pork stock for your tongue's attention. We've tried noodle soups all over the planet, and with the possible exception of a great bowl of Vietnamese pho, a serving of authentic Japanese ramen is at or very near the top of our list of the greats. Southern Californians seem to agree; lines at Shin-Sen-Gumi are almost always out the door, and waiting lists are formed on clipboards. The overall dining experience is frankly better than we can describe in this brief article.
Asian Supermarkets: Any reader of Buffalo Chow will know that there's a special place in our hearts for local Asian supermarkets, which we've been patronizing both in Western New York and in other areas for years. We could devote an entire article to the wonders of these places - their amazing arrays of cookies, candies, and crackers, their incredible fresh seafood aisles, and their huge selections of pre-prepared foods - but we won't take that time, as the likelihood that Buffalo would get a store on the scale of Southern California's is extremely remote. Ni Hoowa and T & T Asian Market are good for what they are, but if you can imagine a Tops- or Dash's-sized market that's entirely Asian-run and packed with foreign foods, drinks, clothes, magazines, and toiletries, that's what's in California, and fantastic.
At 99 Ranch (15333 Culver Dr. #800, Irvine CA 92604, 949.651.8899), a heavily Chinese supermarket chain, the front of most stores includes a full barbecued duck, squid, and pork selection a la Kenmore's Prince B.B.Q., while the back is completely loaded with everything from tanks full of live fish, clams, varied crabs, and lobsters to aisles of fresh produce and frozen pre-prepared meals. Each store has a photogenic bakery with loaves of bread and pastries that would pop some patrons' eyes, as well. By comparison, the Hawaiian-influenced Japanese Marukai (2975 Harbor Blvd. Costa Mesa CA 92626, 714.751.8433) is a membership market - $1 per month or $12 per year for a card - and though not quite as fancy as 99 Ranch typically offers a handful of on-site restaurants, generally Japanese, Hawaiian, and/or Korean, as well as magnum-stocked sake and soju beverage aisles that are incredible. A Japanese chain called Mitsuwa (665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa CA 92626, 714.557.6699) has cleaner stores, pairing its wide grocery aisles with lots of fresh fish, numerous independently-run restaurants in mini food courts, and even book shops and travel agencies. You can get a better meal in the food court of a Mitsuwa than at some Japanese restaurants in Western New York. Then there's the Korean chain H-Mart (2600 Alton Pkwy., Irvine CA 92606, 949.833.0111), which offers a huge variety of freshly made, pre-packaged Korean hot and cold dishes in addition to standard aisles of produce and boxed goods. The notoriously stinky but popular fruit Durian was on display in its produce section; one of the Irvine store's two on-site restaurants offered Korean-style pizza and wings, an all but amazing sight.
We took so many pictures of these places that we didn't have anywhere near the room to include them all here, so you'll find them in a gallery on our Facebook page, if you'd like to take a peek into the future of Asian dining and food shopping. Our hope is that someone - many people - will take up the task of bringing some of these outstanding culinary options to Buffalo; they are without question the types of restaurants and shops we miss most when we leave Southern California.