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Gen Korean BBQ House & Yakitori Bar

October 22, 2014

When I was a little kid, my parents and I would often spend Saturday afternoons dining out at a Korean bbq house.  One of those places where it was all-you-can-eat and it’d be set up buffet style.  But instead of walking around from station to station filling your plate with salad fixings and other buffet items, here, the stations featured various types and cuts of meat marinated in Korean spices and marinade along with fresh-cut vegetables, all of which you’d then bring back to your table where a grill was set up in the middle of the table.  Then you’d take the meats you just put on your plate, and you’d start grilling.  So, you pick out your own meats, and you cook it yourself, and you could eat as much as your stomach could handle.  It was so much fun, and the food was so good, and my parents and I would find ourselves there at least once every few weeks – basically, every opportunity we had to go, we went.  Unfortunately, in my teen years, the popularity of the restaurant declined as other types of restaurants popped up, and eventually, the restaurant went out of business.  Ever since then, my parents have been in search of a new Korean bbq joint with a similar set up.

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A few months back, a friend of my parents told them about a Korean bbq restaurant that he had recently been to where you cook your own meats that he thought was amazing.  The restaurant was an all-you-can-eat place, but instead of you choosing your own meats and piling it on your plate, you actually ordered the meats off of a menu you were provided with, and the waiters and waitresses would bring plates full of the meats you ordered to your table.  Shortly thereafter, my parents were intrigued enough to give this Korean bbq restaurant a try, and they ended up loving it and telling me that they wanted me to go and give it a try because they figured that I’d like it.  My parents told me to invite my husband as well, but I wasn’t quite sure whether or not my husband would like this kind of place as he’d never had Korean bbq like this before.  After my parents invited me, I decided to invite my husband, but I remember telling him that if he didn’t want to go, I’d go first and then come back and report to him and he could go on a future trip.  Surprisingly, my husband actually agreed to come with me and my parents to try out this Korean bbq restaurant just so he could see what it was all about.  Alright, time to see what this Korean bbq joint was all about, and see if my parents were right.  Gen Korean BBQ House & Yakitori Bar, part of a chain of 6 restaurants all located in Southern California, we visited the restaurant in Tustin.  Upon walking in the restaurant, I discovered just how popular this place was.  We arrived at the restaurant just as it opened and were surprised to discover that a majority of the tables were already occupied.

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Like the Korean bbq joints I’m used to, you’re seated in a booth that surrounds a grill in the center of the table.  This is the grill in which you cook all of your food on.  Along with the meats and vegetables that you can grill yourself, you’re provided with several side dishes to enjoy with your grilled meats and vegetables.  As you’d expect at most Korean restaurants, you’re given sides such as kimchi, mashed potatoes mixed with yellow mustard, sliced daikon radishes, other Korean hot sauces mixed with various vegetables, and a bean sprout dish with more Korean seasonings.  This looks like the set up for a feast for me!  The table is set up with plates for each person, which include dipping sauces for the marinated meats once you’ve grilled them to your liking, along with chili paste and hot sauce as well if you like your grilled meats to have a little bit of heat.  The minute you sit down, the waiter brings a large salad dish to your table for everyone at the table to share.  And you’re given a menu and you’re off to the races.

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The rules at this all-you-can-eat joint are that you can order five dishes to start off the menu.  Your dishes are brought to your table and you start grilling.  When you’re ready, you can order more dishes, up to three at a time, and you keep going until you don’t want any more.  And these meat dishes that you can order off the menu are actually high-quality tasty options.  So, when we started off our order, we opted for the following five dishes: Gen signature prime steak – black angus top sirloin, American kobe bulgogi – thinly sliced marinated American wagyu kobe beef, Hawaiian steak – in sweet teriyaki with pineapple slices, Yangyum galbi – marinated angus prime short rib, and Samgyubasal – pork belly.  And while ordering only 5 dishes between four people may not really seem like that much food, believe me, it’s quite a bit of meat.  And look at that beautiful signature prime steak, you literally get two full-sized steaks that you get to grill up to the doneness that you prefer.

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Here’s the American kobe bulgogi.  Look how paper thin that American wagyu kobe beef is.  It only takes minutes over the high heat grill before it’s cooked through and ready to eat on your plate.  Personally, of all of the dishes we tried at Gen, our table really enjoyed the Hawaiian steak the best.  The marinating slices of beef in the sweet teriyaki and pineapple slices was so flavorful.

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One of the subsequent dishes ordered was garlic chicken.  Described in the menu as being served with jalapeno cheese fondue, my husband couldn’t resist.  And what you get is slices of garlic chicken that you grill up, along with an aluminum tin filled with queso cheese with chopped up jalapenos.  You throw the aluminum tin onto the grill as well to heat up the cheese and incorporate the jalapenos.  When the chicken is done, you dunk the chicken into the cheese and jalapeno mixture.  My husband really enjoyed this, it’s cheese, it’s jalapenos, it gives you a bit of a kick and spice and dunking in hot-off-the-grill chicken, makes for a delicious combination.

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We also really enjoyed the marinated American wagyu kobe beef with vegetables.  The vegetables included green onions, onions and carrots.  This was great because you could also drop the veggies on the grill and grill them up with the marinated beef.  Grilled vegetables created a nice flavor profile and texture to contrast with the very meat-heavy meal.

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If you were more of a seafood person, there was Saewoo.  This is whole shrimp, with the heads and shell still on that was sprinkled with just a little bit of sea salt.  The shrimp on the grill only took a few minutes on each side to be fully cooked.  Sweet, flavorful grilled shrimp, a favorite for any seafood lover.

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And something everyone loves, Samgyubsal, pork belly.  Or better known as bacon.  Thick-cut slices of beautiful, fatty, and flavorful pork belly.  A few minutes on the grill on each side and you have amazing grilled bacon, as crispy or as juicy as you choose to grill it.

What I really enjoyed about Gen is that they had such good quality meats, a large selection and variety of seafood, beef, pork and chicken and terrific service.  After a round or two of grilling your meats and seafood on the grill, they’d come over to replace your grill with a brand new clean, grill top, so that you weren’t grilling meats on top of other grilled meats and having your grill top just get caked on and greasy and disgusting.  My drink cup was never half full before it was refilled, and everyone who worked at Gen was so efficient and nice.  My parents were right, I did enjoy this new Korean bbq place.  And I was super surprised that my husband really enjoyed our lunch at Gen as well.  I think he was surprised as well because he went in really not knowing what to expect and how it would be.  The idea of sitting around, enjoying ourselves while we ordered what we wanted and were able to cook it ourselves was a lot of fun and enjoyable.  It was a terrific way to spend an afternoon together with my husband and my parents.  And even now later, my husband and I talk about Gen and are already planning the next time we invite my parents to go out there and enjoy a meal with us.  Gen Korean BBQ House brings me back a little piece of my childhood and reminds me of the Korean BBQ that my parents and I used to go to all of the time and had so much fun at.

Blockheads Shavery

October 16, 2014

By late spring, my husband and I had made a decision that we would take a trip to Eastern Canada later in the year.  In planning our trip, there was a particular restaurant that we had both read about that we really wanted to try.  Ultimately, we weren’t successful at booking a table at this ultra-hip locale during our time in Eastern Canada.  However, this story does have a point, as it’s because of our desire to dine at this restaurant that, in the end, brought us to a new dessert/snack eatery not too many miles from our home in Los Angeles.  So, how does one connect to the other?  Well, you see, the owner of the restaurant in Montreal that we wanted to go to is a well-known celebrity chef that has hosted a number of shows on the Cooking Channel and has been see on the Food Network before as well.  The chef is Chuck Hughes, a native Montrealer.  One day, when my husband was doing some research on local eateries in our area as my parents were coming to town the next day to visit, my husband texted me and told me to look into a place called Blockheads Shavery.  The minute I saw this come up in a text message, I knew exactly where this place was, even if I didn’t know exactly what this place was.  My husband explained to me that he knew this place was near our place, and that when he was looking up stuff on Chuck Hughes, he saw that Chuck hosted a show called “Chuck’s Eat the Street” where Chuck travels to different cities around North America, chooses a particularly popular food street in that city, and then he visits different eateries found on that street.  I guess, not too long ago, Chuck did an episode of his show in Los Angeles, and he picked a very trendy and popular street called Sawtelle, and Blockheads Shavery is one of the locales that he highlighted.  Now, how do I know Blockheads?  I drive by Sawtelle and Blockheads Shavery every single evening when I leave work and I head home.  I’ve seen the storefront so many times since it’s right at an intersection where I find myself backed in traffic pretty much every day, and my eye was always drawn to it because their logo incorporates a very cute-cute looking penguin.  I’ve always seen the people who line up to get into the store, and the hordes of people who pack the indoor and outdoor seating of the store.  And as I’m driving, I always tell myself to remember the name of the store and go home and look it up to see what kind of an eatery it is, and yet, I never have remembered.  But the minute my husband mentioned Blockheads Shavery, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

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So, going back to the text, my husband asked me to look up Blockheads because it was a place he wanted to try, he thought I’d try, and most importantly, he thought that my mom might enjoy it when she came to visit the next day and he figured it was a new place we could take my parents to.  As soon as I looked up the eatery online, and I saw what they were, what they served and looked over their menu, I knew right away that my husband was right.  It’s something he would like, something I would like, and something I knew both of my parents, especially my mom, would enjoy.

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What is Blockheads Shavery?  What does it mean?  Essentially, Blockheads serves snow cream.  What?!?!  Snow cream is a mix between Hawaiian shave ice and ice cream.  According to Blockhead’s website, snow cream is something that “combines the fine texture of Hawaiian shave ice with the creamy goodness of ice cream to create a unique treat we’re proud to call Snow Cream.”  Still confused?  Instead of taking pure blocks of ice and shaving it down into a cup or cone and topping it with flavored syrups the way you’d do with Hawaiian shave ice, Blockheads takes fresh ingredients and creates mixtures, much in the way you’d make homemade ice cream, and then freezes these mixtures into blocks that look like ice blocks.  When the blocks are frozen to the right temperature, then are then shaved the way Hawaiian shave ice would be shaved.  The snow cream shavings are put into a cup, and then topped with a whole list of ingredients and sauces that you can choose from.  Still confused?  Well, it’s almost something you have to try to understand.  The snow cream is shaved in a fine, ribbony texture that looks and feels like shave ice, but it has the flavor and consistency and creaminess of homemade ice cream goodness.

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You start off by looking at the menu, reviewing your options for snow cream flavors, toppings and drizzles (sauces) for your dish, and then you step up to the counter and order.  As soon as you order, your creation is made for you right in front of your eyes.  Every creation starts off with the shaving of the flavored snow cream of your choice into a cup.  There are generally 4 different flavors of snow cream that you can choose from each day that are the staple flavors, and then 1 additional flavor that is a seasonal flavor.  Remember, the snow cream is made fresh, in store, with wholesome ingredients that are in season.  The flavors that are always available are original (think Pinkberry’s original flavor), strawberry, green tea and black sesame.  If you haven’t guessed yet, Blockheads Shavery is an Asian-inspired eatery, in an area of town known as the Little Tokyo of West LA, so every eatery on the block is Asian.  So the flavors and toppings and ingredients are all very Asian-inspired.  The first time we went to Blockheads, their seasonal flavor available was cantaloupe.  On a subsequent trip to Blockheads, the seasonal flavor was almond milk.

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Once your snow cream is shaved, then the cup is brought to the counter where the toppings and drizzle that you’ve chosen are added on.  You can add as any toppings as you want to your snow cream, for a price, of course.  So, what kind of toppings are we talking about?  Here, you see fresh blueberries being added to a cup of snow cream.  That would have been part of the concoction that my husband ordered.  Other toppings include fresh fruit in the form of strawberry, blueberry, lychee and honeydew.  There’s Asian favorites such as rice cakes (made fresh daily, in house), mochi, honey boba, almond jelly, egg pudding, grass jelly and red bean.  If you don’t know what any of these toppings are, you probably aren’t Asian, but you don’t need to be to try them, no matter how weird they might sound.  Then there are some classic toppings such as brownie bits, chocolate chips, yogurt chips, sliced almonds, cookies ‘n cream, coconut flakes, graham crackers, toffee crunch, mint thins, rainbow sprinkles and chocolate sprinkles.  Whatever toppings you want, the people behind the counter pile it into your cup.

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Finally, the drizzle is added over the top of your snow cream.  The first drizzle is included in the price of your snow cream, but you can order additional drizzles for a nominal price.  What are the drizzles, you may ask?  Your options are condensed milk, strawberry puree, coconut puree, chocolate sauce and caramel sauce.  See, some flavors you may be familiar with and others you may not be.  If you’re Asian, you’re probably a lover of the condensed milk.  If you’re looking to create a concoction that’s more similar to an ice cream sundae, you’re probably ordering chocolate sauce.

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On our very first trip to Blockheads, my parents, who ended up loving the place ordered a green tea snow cream with red bean and rice cakes as their toppings and condensed milk as their drizzle.  My parents have yet to have an opportunity to go back to Blockheads, but I’ve heard my mom mention it to me a couple of times since then and I know she really wants the opportunity to go back.  Until you try a snow cream, you can’t even really imagine how interesting, unique and flavorful the concoction is.

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For my first snow cream, I tried the seasonal flavor: cantaloupe.  The cantaloupe actually tasted like cantaloupe gelato. It was lightly flavored and sweet, so you know it was made with fresh fruit, which was terrific.  Again, the flavor of the snow cream was creamy, yet not thick the way ice cream is.  It really had the texture of shave ice, it was flaky and melt-in-your-mouth.

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Of course, I too went with the condensed milk drizzle.  After all, the sweetness of condensed milk goes so well with a creamy, icy concoction.  Why do you think Vietnamese iced coffee tastes so good?  Or at least, that’s how I feel.

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My final concoction was a cantaloupe snow cream with strawberries and rice cake as my toppings and condensed milk as my drizzle.  I loved the rice cake, which Blockheads makes in-house every day.  It was so chewy and subtle in flavor.  It’s a mix between mochi and boba, that’s probably the best way to describe it.  The chewiness works well with the creamy, icy snow cream.  And strawberries and condensed milk is a combination I’ve used on other sweets I’ve made, include my homemade crepes.

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For my husband, his final concoction was a green tea snow cream with mochi, lychee and blueberries topped with a snow cream drizzle.  In the picture above, you really only see the mochi and the condensed milk drizzle.  You get a hint of the blueberries underneath the mochi, and the lychee is buried at the bottom of the cup.  My husband loved the fresh blueberries in the snow cream – but again, blueberries are probably his favorite thing in the world.  The mochi gave a nice chewy texture in the same way that I liked the rice cakes, and the lychee added a touch of sweetness and also texture to the snow cream.  My husband definitely liked his creation.

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When my husband and I went back to Blockheads Shavery on our own for the second time, I was a bit disappointed to see that the cantaloupe snow cream was no longer available.  Alas, I knew that the cantaloupe was a seasonal flavor.  This time instead, the seasonal flavor they had was almond milk, which I wasn’t interested in.  So, I opted to order the strawberry snow cream.  I loaded mine up with chocolate chips and rice cake as my toppings.  After all, who doesn’t love a little chocolate with their strawberry?  And the rice cake, I just couldn’t resist since I liked it so much the first time.  And of course, the much beloved condensed milk drizzle which just makes everything a little bit creamier and a little bit sweeter.  You have a better idea in this picture of how much bigger the rice cake is in comparison to the mochi, you could probably make 8 mochi balls for each rice cake.  I really liked the flavor of the strawberry snow cream.  It was sweet with natural strawberry flavor, but not overpowering and it was incredibly refreshing.  The chocolate chips were both sweet and provided a nice texture combination.

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My husband, who says he never wants to mess with a good thing, once again ordered a green tea snow cream the second time around.  This time, he decided to top his creation with mochi and coconut flakes with a condensed milk drizzle.  So, it was a complete white out over the green tea snow cream.  Again, he enjoyed the flavor of the green tea snow cream.  You can see in his picture the kind of ribbony texture of the snow cream, like perfect shave ice.  The mochi was chewy and the coconut flakes provided a hint of sweetness with a little bit of texture to go with the sweet condensed milk.

Believe me, my mother is already asking when we can go back to Blockheads again.  It’s easy to see why this place is so popular and well-liked, and why there always seems to be full tables and a line out the door.  As we walked out of the store the second go-around, my husband even made the comment to me about why there weren’t more Blockheads or snow cream places around.  I think that probably has something to do with their flavor combinations, after all, black sesame snow cream, green tea snow cream, topped with rice cakes, red beans and mochi aren’t really mainstream flavor combinations most people who don’t live in Asian communities would be familiar with.  But the idea of the concept is a terrific one, and one that I think will grow and gain traction.  Blockheads is certainly a place I can see my husband and I stopping by for a treat from time to time, especially on a warm Southern California day.

Manny’s Steakhouse

October 14, 2014

In planning for our long, holiday weekend trip to Minnesota, we knew, from past experience that we had to avoid making the 3 hour drive from my husband’s childhood home back to the Twin Cities to catch our flight home on the actual holiday as traffic is so bad, and road construction is constantly ongoing during non-winter months that 3 hours could easily become 6 hours which could mean missing a flight.  So, instead of driving back on the day of the holiday, we booked our flight home for early, early morning on the holiday which would force us to make the drive back the evening before.  My sister-in-law and her husband were nice enough to offer to drive us back to the Twin Cities, since that’s where they live, on the day before the holiday and spend the rest of the afternoon/evening with us so we could spend time together, just the four of us.  When we arrived into Minneapolis, we all decided to head out to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden together, a place which none of the 4 of us had ever been to before, to see one of the city’s, if not the state’s, most well-known landmarks, the Spoonbridge and Cherry fountain erected in 1988.  After that, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice evening meal at one of the best restaurants, if not the best restaurant in Minnesota, as well as being one of the best steakhouses in the country, Manny’s Steakhouse.

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Manny’s Steakhouse, attached to the history Foshay Building, turned into the W Hotel, in Downtown Minneapolis, is a Minnesota staple for meat lovers of all kinds.  The restaurant is known as being a favorite for all sorts of local, and national sports athletes, as autographed photos which adorn the walls as you walk in the front door of the restaurant can attest to.  The other thing you see featured prominently as you walk in the front door is a large painting of a big bull proudly displayed – this place is for serious red meat lovers, a place where only the finest, highest quality cuts of meat are served at your table.  This place, yeah, it has my name written all over it.  Tonight, myself and my husband, along with my sister-in-law and her husband who have agreed to come with us, are going to dine like kings.  Let’s see if Manny’s Steakhouse lives up to its reputation as one of the best steakhouses in the country.

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We start off the night with some cocktails.  After perusing through the cocktail menu, my husband chose a cocktail called “batteries included.”  Created with Cuervo 1800 reposado tequila, red bull, agave nectar, sour and mint, this was serious drink, one which my husband very much enjoyed.  What drew my husband to ordering this drink was the red bull, which is a favorite of his.  As he tells me, red bull and tequila together is a combination that you can’t go wrong with.  Add in a little mint, and this drink has his name written all over it.  He said that he could definitely taste the red bull in the drink, which is what he was going for, and he knew that there was alcohol in it as well because he got the tingly feeling of alcohol on his tongue, but the drink itself wasn’t that strong.

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After ordering our drinks, we had a tray of pumpernickel raisin and rye bread brought to the table to start off our meal.  Bread and butter, of which the pumpernickel was a hit at our table, is a great start to the meal.  Though, you have to be careful not to fill yourself up too much before the food arrives.

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At Manny’s your food options, particular the various cuts of beef, are presented to you at the table by your server before you’re given an actual menu.  The server wheels over a cart loaded down with the various beef and seafood options on the menu, presents each cut to you verbally and visually so that you can see exactly what you’ll be getting and so that you can compare all of the different cuts next to each other.  You’re also presented with the various vegetables that comprise the made-to-share side dishes, and it’s all done in an entertaining and informative manner.  So that you’re not completely overwhelmed with the 10 different cuts of steak and various seafood options just presented to you, you’re eventually given a menu and some time so that you can decide what you want to order.

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Believe me, I had been looking forward to going to Manny’s for awhile after my husband had mentioned it as an option not too long after we booked our tickets to Minnesota, that I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to order for dinner.  I convinced my husband to share and appetizer of the tenderloin carpaccio.  Thank goodness we shared the appetizer because the plate was large, but oh was it good.  Paper-thin shaved tenderloin topped with parmigiano reggiano and briny capers and all served with a couple of wedges of lemon, and a lightly dressed arugula salad with a side of perfectly grilled crostini combined to make one of the best plates of carpaccio I’ve ever had.  The tenderloin was so flavorful, and so tender and the saltiness from the cheese and the capers, along with the citrus and peppery bite of the arugula and lemon were so amazing.  Put that all atop a slightly charred, grilled over the flames carpaccio and you have the recipe for a mind-blowing carpaccio.  For anyone who says that they don’t like, and can’t eat raw meat, you’ve got to try this carpaccio.  You don’t know what you’re missing.

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My brother-in-law opted to order the Portobello fries as an appetizer for the table.  I think all of our eyes bugged out of our heads when we saw the plate of Portobello fries being delivered to the table.  These cuts of Portobello mushrooms were huge, it was like having huge steak fries.  The mushrooms were cut lengthwise, from caps that must have been the size of someone’s head, lightly battered, and perfectly fried to a golden-brown.  As I’m not a mushroom fan, I didn’t try any of the fries, but I’m told by everyone else at the table that they were amazing, tender, flavorful, and perfect.  We had no idea that the appetizer would come with 12 pieces of these huge fries, so needless to say, even though everyone at the table was starving, we knew this was just the appetizer and we didn’t want to spoil ourselves from enjoying our dinner, that the fries didn’t quite get finished at the table.

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Alright, time to get to the good stuff, the meat.  That is, after all, what we all came to Manny’s for!  Having looked over the menu, and taking a look at the huge hunks of meat on the cart brought over and presented to us by our waiter, we all placed and order for various cuts of meat cooked in various degrees of doneness.  I chose to order the 24 0z porterhouse steak cooked medium rare.  It’s funny that years ago, because that’s how my parents liked it, I always ordered meat cooked well done.  It wasn’t until I really met my husband and started to appreciate well cooked meat that I realized, you have to eat it medium rare, or some very similar temperature, to really get the full taste and appreciation for the cow you’re about to devour.  Now, I pretty much order all meat medium rare because, there really is no other way to eat it.  What was brought to the table was such a thing of beauty.  What’s great about a porterhouse is that it’s a bit of the best of all of the meat cuts.  You get a bone-in T-bone steak.  The bone gives you the amazing flavor.  On one side of the bone you get a nice strip steak, and on the other side, you get a tenderloin.  It’s just a question of, can you actually eat all this meat?  The porterhouse was cooked to a perfect medium rare, still pink and juicy on the inside and the meat was so tender.  In the end, because we hadn’t really eaten anything all day, and we were all looking forward to Manny’s, I pretty much finished off my whole steak.

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However, if I thought trying to finish 24 oz was ridiculous, my brother-in-law ordered the double porterhouse steak, which was 48 oz of meat.  You’ll see that his steak is a bit more charred on the outside than mine was because you ordered his steak well done.  That baby was huge, so big, I don’t even know how it fit on the plate.  But my brother-in-law attacked his steak like it was a small little filet.  He at through every ounce of meat on the steak, and completely devoured it before I even finished 3/4 of my steak that was half his size.  I’m going to assume that because he ate his steak with such gusto that he quite enjoyed it.

I’m so proud of my sister-in-law, because although she’s not a big meat eater at all, she actually decided that if she’s going to dine at one of the best steakhouses in the country, than she was going to eat a steak.  The thing is, she’s never ever ordered a steak before in her life.  Like I said, she’s not a big meat eater at all.  To me, that’s crazy, but I could literally eat a steak at every meal.  But, for her, this was a big deal ordering a steak.  After looking at the cuts of meat, and the various options and discussing it with us, we recommended that she order the small filet mignon as that would be a good starter steak with really tender meat, and the cut was small enough that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it.  Also, since she’s not one to be eating meat, let alone raw meat, we decided that well done would be a good temperature for her.  In the end, though she was nervous about it, I think she surprised herself as she really liked her filet.  Maybe we have a convert?

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My husband decided to order a 24 oz steak, like myself, but he went with the bone-in ribeye instead of the porterhouse.  For him, the ribeye is his most favorite cut of meat because he thinks its the most flavorful.  Like my brother-in-law, my husband dove in and devoured his steak in a matter of minutes.  Somehow, his 24 oz bone-in ribeye looked bigger than my porterhouse, but it’s all good because that piece of meat looks to be too much for me!  I think my husband described his steak as the best piece of meat he’s ever eaten.  He walked away from Manny’s agreeing with the sentiment that this was the best steak house in the country and he could definitely see why it has the reputation it does.

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To go along with our meal, we as a table, decided that we’d order the 26 Nova Scotia lobster tail for the table for everyone to share.  The cooked tail is wheeled out to the table on a cart, and the assistant waiter then removes the tail and proceeds to cut up the lobster tail for us into bite-sized pieces.  The lobster is then served with a wedge of lemon, and of course, a side of delicious clarified butter.  When our waiter saw our lobster tail, he wasn’t happy with the size of it and felt that we had been served a lobster tail not to the restaurant’s standard size, so he ordered the kitchen to immediately prepare a second lobster tail for our table compliments of the restaurant.  We thought that was incredibly generous of the waiter to offer to do that for us.  And after having one bite of the lobster tail that we were served to start with, none of us was about to refuse the offer of a complimentary second lobster tail.  While I like lobster, I don’t love it, and I certainly don’t go out of my way to generally order it.  But, if every lobster tail was prepared and cooked the way it was at Manny’s, I think lobster could become my next favorite food.  The lobster tail was so buttery, and tender and juicy and so incredibly flavorful.  It was cooked to absolute perfection, and the hint of lemon juice and the yummy butter only helped to enhance the amazing flavors of the lobster.  We all agreed that the it was fantastic.

Like most high-end steakhouses, Manny’s serves you just the meat when you order just the meat.  If you want side dishes to enjoy with your meal, you need to order them separately.  However, Manny’s does tell you that most of their side dishes are large and are big enough for 2-4 people to share.  With this in mind, we opted to share 2 different side dishes for the table.  After some discussion, we chose side dishes that all 4 of us could enjoy.

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We started with the broccoli with hollandaise sauce.  Honestly, I think if we had all known how big and filling the steaks were going to be, and how full we would feel after steaks and appetizers, we may have cut one of our side dishes, and this probably would have been it.  I think the agreement to order broccoli as a side dish was more to appease myself and my sister-in-law, and in the end, we were the only 2 people to eat the broccoli.  I didn’t try any of the hollandaise sauce, and I’m not sure that my sister-in-law did either, but personally, I liked the broccoli.  I’m not sure it needed the hollandaise sauce.  Steamed perfectly so that it was tender and cooked, but yet still had a bit of crunch and color, it was perfect.  But then again, I’m a big fan of broccoli.

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Our second side dish, one that I think all four of us tried and enjoyed, was the macaroni and cheese.  Mind you, my husband comes from a cheese-loving family, so he and his sister really enjoyed this.  I’m a huge fan of places that make their macaroni and cheese, and then add cheese to the top and put the dish under the salamander so that the cheese is all melted and perhaps even a bit burnt on the top layer right before they serve it, and Manny’s certainly delivered in serving their macaroni and cheese in this manner.  This is probably a standard macaroni and cheese that any fine dining establishment serves and there’s nothing about this particular macaroni and cheese that makes it completely stand out from all others, other than the fact that it was good quality macaroni and cheese that we all enjoyed with our meals.

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When it came time to look at the dessert menu, we knew we were all full.  But again, we’re a desert-loving family, and to walk out of the restaurant without at least having dessert is a bit blasphemous.  Since we are all family, we decided we’d just go ahead and split a dessert between the four of us.  Little did we know that the dessert we were about to order was basically large enough to feed 4-6 people, and probably could have satisfied a table of 8 after all the food we’d already eaten.  We ordered the house specialty desert of Manny’s brownie with strawberries.  When the dessert was delivered to the table, I think everyone’s jaw dropped at the masterpiece put in front of us!  Essentially, the dessert consisted of a huge, and I mean HUGE, chunk of chocolate brownie at the bottom of the plate, topped with at least 2 scoops of vanilla ice cream, then topped with a large dollop of homemade whipped cream, then large, really probably extra large, whole strawberries, were placed on the plate around the brownie.  Stuck right in the center of the whole contraption was a Manny’s steak knife jutting out of the brownie, ice cream, whipped cream.  The plate was then delivered to the table with two small containers, one containing hot fudge and the other one containing caramel sauce.  The waiter then proceeded to take the two containers of sauce, and drizzle them together right over the center of the dessert so that the hot fudge and the caramel sauce mixed together and covered the entire dish, so much so that the sauce started dripping off of the plate and onto our table.  This dessert was serious business.  We started by taking the steak knife and cutting a little chunk of the brownie and ice cream and strawberries onto each person’s individual plate.  By the end of the dessert though, we were all just digging into the brownie plate with our forks just to try to put a dent in the dessert.  Ultimately, we ate all the strawberries and all the ice cream, and most of the brownie.  I was pretty proud of us!

Manny’s was such an amazing experience for all four of us that night.  We walked away stuffed to our gills with great food that put us all in happy mood.  The service at the restaurant was an experience in and of itself, the presentation of the food was amazing, and the food itself was outstanding.  We all agreed that Manny’s is probably a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience and we were all glad to be able to share in that experience with one another.  This was a terrific ending to a great long-weekend getaway for my husband and I to Minnesota to spend time with his family.  Sharing in good food, laughs, and good company with those you love is what enjoying a nice meal out on the town is all about in my book.

Black Woods Grill & Bar

October 8, 2014

While we did spend the part of the day of our arrival in Minnesota in the Twin Cities area catching up with some of my husband’s family and enjoying an amazing lunch at Pizzeria Lola, the point of traveling halfway across the country is to spend time with my in-laws in my husband’s childhood home.  My husband’s family is all located in Northern Minnesota, just south of the Canadian Border in a very beautiful part of the country.  However, this part of the state also means living in cities and townships that wouldn’t even make a blip on the map here in California.  For instance, my husband’s hometown when he was growing up consisted of about 9,000 residents, my hometown growing up consisted of about 30,000.  Today, my hometown has grown to about double in size, and my husband’s hometown has shrunken in size.  My mother-in-law had wanted us to all have a nice family dinner out together while my husband and I were in town and had asked if it would be alright if she planned something.  Going out to eat in that neck of the woods at someplace fun and entertaining generally means traveling about an hour south of my husband’s hometown to Duluth, Minnesota, the fifth largest city, most well known for being a seaport city right on the shores of Lake Superior.  Duluth has a population of just under 90,000 residents (just 30,000 more residents than my hometown in California, keeping in mind that the majority of Californians have never even heard of my hometown before, that’s how small it is considered) and is home to one of the state’s most well known universities, the University of Minnesota-Duluth.  The restaurant that my mother-in-law chose was one that the family had recently been to for a meal to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday, and was no too far from the shore of Lake Superior, with a beautiful view looking out over the lake.  The lake, which surprisingly, at the end of May, still had a lot of ice on it.

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Black Woods Grill & Bar is a locally owned, family restaurant and bar that started with one location in Northern Minnesota in 1994 and has now grown to 3 different locations, including catering services for Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The Duluth location is built to look like an old-time luxurious, lake side cabin.  The furnishings inside of its cozy dining rooms are reminiscent of what a lake cabin would be filled with, beautiful iron work, large fireplaces, and beautiful bright windows that look out onto, and show off the spectacular beauty of the North Shore of Lake Superior.  It’s one of these beautiful round tables overlooking the lake that my mother-in-law specifically reserved for our family dinner for the 6 of us, myself and my husband, my mother- and father-in-law, and my sister-in-law and her husband who had driven up from the Twin Cities to spend the weekend with us while we were in town.

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We wanted to start off the meal with a couple of appetizers that we could all share.  My mother-in-law chose the Bulldog Bites.  Named after the mascot of the nearby University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, these bites were “seasoned bites of blackened tender sirloin seared with Cajun seasonings and sprinkled with chopped tomatoes and served over crispy onion straws” and served alongside a creamy horseradish dipping sauce.  While a little unusual with the chopped tomatoes, these little Bulldog Bites were quite tasty.  The sirloin was perfectly seasoned and tender and the crispy onions were an interesting contrasting texture.  The creamy horseradish dipping sauce was really the star of this dish, with just the perfect amount of bite from the horseradish.  The dipping sauce was such a hit, that my sister-in-law saved the remaining dipping sauce to enjoy with her entrée.  I must mention though, that even though we cleaned off this plate, and I enjoyed it, my husband wasn’t a fan at all and thought it wasn’t anything special at all.  We must have different tastes.

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Along with the Bulldog Bites, we also ordered onion rings for the table.  Described as “thick-cut sweet onions seasoned, breaded, and golden fried,” it was served with a side of Black Wood’s signature Agate sauce.  For the life of me, I have no idea with Agate sauce is.  But, whatever it is, it was also quite tasty.  I’m thinking Black Wood’s is a good place for dipping sauces.  If I recall, someone reserved this dipping sauce as well once the onion rings were polished off.  And believe me, crispy, sweet, breaded and fried onions, yeah, these were definitely polished off by the table.

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My husband made so much fun of me for the entrée I ordered for dinner.  After contemplating my choices, I opted for the North Atlantic Planked salmon.  The thing is, my husband couldn’t understand how I could go to Minnesota and order salmon rather than the local fish specialty that 3 of the 6 of us at the table ordered.  One of those 3 individuals being my husband.  But, I knew that was what my husband was going to order and I wanted to order something different because I knew I could steal a piece of my husband’s meal so I could try it too.  To this day, my husband still thinks I made a bad choice with dinner.  The salmon was glazed with Minnesota maple syrup and a bit of lemon pepper and seared on a cedar plank and baked in a wood-burning oven.  Served alongside seasonal asparagus and a baked potato, the entrée also came with a Caesar salad and a delicious fresh baked dinner roll.  Personally, I really liked the cedar plank salmon.  It was perfectly baked and flavorful and the Minnesota maple syrup added just a touch of sweetness to the fish.  North Atlantic salmon might not be a Minnesota specialty when it comes to fish, but Black Woods knew exactly how to prepare and serve it to tickle my tastebuds.

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So, if you’re wondering what was the local fish specialty that my husband, along with his mother and sister, all ordered, it was the walleye.  The Black Woods walleye may have come from the cold waters of Canada in the boundary waters, just north of Minnesota, but in the early summertime period, when walleye fishing season opens in Minnesota, it’s definitely a local specialty that every Minnesotan enjoys.  At Black Woods, every member of my husband’s family went with the option of ordering the walleye pan fried and dredged in Black Woods special seasonings.  Much like my entrée, the walleye was served with seasonal asparagus and a baked potato, with a Caesar salad to accompany the meal and a fresh baked dinner roll.  I think my husband inhaled his walleye filet in less than 2 seconds.  He’s always told me that walleye was his most favorite food in the whole world, not just seafood, but food in general.  And every time we go to Minnesota, he needs to make sure that he has walleye at least once.  The only thing about his walleye at Black Woods is that he found a lot of small pin bones in his filet, so it seemed like he kept having to fish them out – not a problem that either his mother or his sister had with their fish.  Admittedly, my husband did agree that if I had gotten his filet with all those bones, I would have been annoyed with it.  But for him, it didn’t bother him because he’s used to it.  He certainly did love the light breading and pan fried flavor of the fish with just a squeeze of lemon over the filet.  For him, walleye is just a little slice of heaven.

When it came to dessert, we all kind of looked at each other and couldn’t decide what we wanted.  We were all sort of full from dinner, but yet, it’s so hard to turn down dessert.  In the end, my husband and I had a little bit of role reversal as I ordered a dessert he’d normally be the one to order, and he definitely ordered a dessert that I normally would order.

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My choice of dessert was the snow white coconut cake.  Described as a moist white cake, layered three times with fully vanilla butter cream frosting and coated with snow white coconut dusted with powered sugar, this cake certainly did live up to its name of snow white.  White cake, white buttercream frosting, coconut flakes and powered sugar, oh yeah, it looked like something straight out of winter.  And the taste of the cake was heavenly.  It was so moist and fluffy.  The layers of vanilla butter cream were light, but incredibly flavorful and the cake was perfectly cooked, flaky and light.  The addition of the coconut flakes was just the right about to add just a hint of sweetness to the cake and a little bit of texture.  My husband who decided to share my dessert with me since I wanted some of his dessert too, even agreed that this cake was really good.  Normally, he’d have been the one to order a coconut cake as he’s a coconut fan even if he’s not the biggest cake fan.  But the fluffiness of this particular cake had my husband agreeing that it was quite good.

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For his dessert, my husband chose the wave of passion chocolate cake.  Now, I’m the chocoholic in the family and he’s not so much, so I was quite surprised that this was the dessert he went with.  The menu described the dessert as rich chocolate cake, made fresh daily, with a creamy caramel center, covered in whipped crème, Heath bar chunks and drizzled all over with chocolate sauce.  Boy, was this cake a stunner when it was brought to the table.  All that chocolate sauce and the caramel oozing out of the cake along with the delicious looking whipped crème.  Again, the chocolate cake was moist and warm and it was rich, just as described.  The Heath bar chunks added such great texture to the cake as it was crunchy and the toffee flavor really married well with the caramel sauce and the chocolate of the cake.  This was like eating a deconstructed Heath bar with the combination of the chocolate, and the caramel and the toffee.  As I said, I ended up eating half of my husband’s dessert and I loved it.  Just the right size for two people to share.  It was really rich, but not too much to be overpowering.  I definitely left dinner on a bit of a sugar high.

Black Woods Bar & Grill was a great restaurant with amazing, local, fresh food, and terrific homemade desserts, in a terrific setting in Duluth right overlooking Lake Superior.  It was a perfect family restaurant to spend time with my husband and his family, all the while feeling like we were sitting in the living room of a spacious lakeside cabin enjoying a perfectly home cooked meal.  For what my mother-in-law was looking for when she decided she wanted to find a great restaurant for a nice family dinner, I think she found exactly what she wanted.  We all had a great time together, enjoyed some good laughs, and really, that’s all it’s about.

Pizzeria Lola

October 3, 2014

Many years back, while watching an episode of “Diners, Drive Ins & Dives,” on TV with my husband, I saw a segment that completely captured my attention.  Not only did the food sound out-of-this-world, and definitely like something I’d eat, but the segment itself was full of fun, and laughter, and it just looked like a good time.  What had me even more interested was the fact that I figured in the back of my head I’d actually have the chance to go to this little spot being featured on the show.  I remember immediately telling my husband that I wanted to go to the his place, and his vague response was something along the lines of … “eh, maybe…”  I’m sure in his mind, he was thinking this was one of those fads that I would quickly forget after time had passed and it would never be brought up again.  See, the thing is, this little joint in the show wasn’t anywhere near where we lived, so my husband figured it would be a long shot that we’d ever have the opportunity to go.  In fact, this little joint was almost 2,000 miles away from where we lived.  I’ve since seen this same segment from this particular episode a couple of times on TV, and every time, I tell myself, “I’m going to go there!”  So, you ask yourself, how did I assume that one day we’d be able to dine at this place?  Well, the answer to that is because this little joint is located in Minneapolis, a city in which I find myself at least once every other year because Minnesota is where my husband’s family lives.  In fact, due the way we scheduled flights this year for various trips we’re taking in 2014, we’re going to find ourselves in Minneapolis, or at least at the airport, on 3 separate occasions.  Now you know, every time we talked about going to Minnesota, I’d bring up the fact that I wanted to visit this eatery, thinking that at some point in time, we’d really get the chance to dine at this place.  Low and behold, at the end of 2013, my husband and I had decided that it was time to take a trip to Minnesota over a long weekend and visit his family.  With a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, our plan had been to arrive into Minnesota in the early morning hours, rent a car, and drive ourselves up north to his family home for a few days of rest and relaxation.  At which point, my husband said to me, why don’t we grab an early lunch, find this place I’ve always wanted to go to and try it out before we made the drive.  As it turned out, what happened was that my in-laws decided that instead of us renting a car, they’d drive into the city, pick us up, we’d all go out to lunch together at this eatery, along with my husband’s aunt and uncle and my sister-in-law!

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So, what is this place?  Pizzeria Lola.  Located in southwestern Minneapolis, Pizzeria Lola is the story of a Korean-American immigrant child who was so influenced by her mother’s Korean cooking and passion for food that she ended up opening a pizza joint, with a Korean flair, and naming the joint after her beloved dog.  And that’s how we have Pizzeria Lola.  Ann Kim, chef and proprietor,  is the daughter of Korean immigrants who moved to the Twin Cities years ago.  After having moved away to the East Coast to attend Columbia Law School, Ann became disenchanted with the notion of becoming a lawyer and eventually found herself with a desire to open up a pizza joint, using techniques found from the best pizza joints in New York and combining it with the skills she gained under the tutelage of one of the master pizza chefs in the world, Pizzeria Lola was opened in 2010 in Ann’s hometown of Minneapolis.  A favorite of locals, and now tourists due to the publicity gained from the Food Network show, this place is what a true Neopolitan pizza with a down-home style is all about.  A great place to gather with your co-workers, your date, or your family for good food and good times.

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With an open kitchen, where you can watch your pizza, and other dishes being constructed and made, where everything is made in-house, from the pizza dough, to the homemade kimchi that goes on the pizza, to the homemade sausage used to top other pizzas, the small neighborhood joint is dominated by an authentic Le Panyol wood-fired oven as it’s centerpiece.  It’s in this oven, of which there are few authentic ones found in any pizza joints in the United States, that all of the handmade, hand tossed, and hand created pizzas are brought to life one by one.  This is the oven that gives the pizzas at Pizzeria Lola a little added oomph that make the pizzas here stand out from pizzas you find anywhere else.

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The menu here, like the restaurant and atmosphere, is a bit quirky and eclectic and different.  The dining area features a counter set around an open kitchen and the amazing pizza oven with a bunch of bar stools where people can dine while they watch their pizzas being made.  The dining room itself features more tables, big and small for groups of different sizes in a casual setting.  And then, there’s also an outdoor dining area with a couple of tables set up in a patio area with umbrellas and cute strung up lights for a fun and romantic atmosphere at night.  Unfortunately, in Minnesota, having an outdoor dining area doesn’t always work as the winter weather isn’t exactly conducive to outdoor dining.  However, during our trip to Minnesota, after the brutal winter they had earlier this year, this was one of the first true days where dining outside was possible, and since I was dining with a bunch of native Minnesotans who take advantage of outdoor dining whenever they can, you can bet that when we walked up to Pizzeria Lola and saw an open outdoor dining table on the patio under a large umbrella, we snagged the table right away.

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We started off with our drink orders.  On this warm Minnesota day, I wanted a nice cool, refreshing drink.  I saw on the menu something called cheerwine.  But, it was listed under the “soda + other” menu, so I knew it wasn’t alcoholic.  It sounded intriguing, and was only described as “a bubbly cherry soda concoction”.  Hmmm?  When I asked the waiter, he described it as a mix between cherry soda and root beer.  Well, I like cherry soda and I like root beer, so ok, I’ll give this cheerwine a try.  It was everything I wanted.  It had the nice sweet hint of cherry flavoring and it was bubbly and carbonated with a little bit of a rooty, bitter bite as well.  I could get used to cheerwine.  It was fun and different, and certainly not a drink I’d ever heard of before.

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My husband, as well as his aunt both ordered Blenheim’s extra-spicy ginger ale.  Pizzeria Lola offers Blenheim’s not-as-spicy and extra-spicy ginger ale versions and both my husband and his aunt agreed that they needed the extra-spicy version.  And boy, did it come with quite the bite of ginger, exactly what my husband loves.  Talk about enough spice to open up the sinuses!  But they both loved their ginger ales.  It was exactly what was needed on a warm day.  I wonder why I can’t find these types of different and interesting drinks at home.  I think I could easily become addicted.  I know my husband would love having some of this extra-spicy ginger ale on hand.

Now, time for what we came for: pizza!  As there were 7 of us at lunch, we decided to order a bunch of different types of pizzas and eat it family style, sharing at will and grabbing slices from the pizzas we wanted.  Time, to make some decisions now as to what kind of pizzas we wanted to order.

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My father-in-law wanted the “My Sha-roni,” the chef’s cute play of words for her pizza with house made red sauce, mozzarella, natural-casing pepperoni and house-made fennel sausage.  Natural-casing pepperoni on pizza is the best way to have pepperoni on pizza, in my opinion because when it goes into a pizza oven, and the edges get that little bit of crispy and pull away from the pizza crust, that makes pepperoni perfect.  Generally, I’m not a fan of sausage at all, but I have to admit that this was one of my favorite pizzas we enjoyed at Pizzeria Lola.  The homemade fennel sausage was perfect.  It had the perfect amount of spices and fennel added to it, and mixed with the red sauce and the slightly crispy pepperoni and just the right amount of cheese, this was one of the best pizzas ever.  The wood oven fired crust was amazing.  Incredibly crispy on the bottom and slightly burnt and still soft and chewy on top.  This was just an amazing pizza.

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My husband and mother-in-law together chose the Hawaii Pie-O pizza.  Again, another play on words for the name of the pizza.  The chef has a great sense of humor and creativity.  This pizza was made with house-cured bacon, fresh pineapple, mozzarella, provolone and Serrano peppers.  While my husband loved the idea of the bite of Serrano peppers in his pizza, my mother-in-law, not to mention myself, weren’t so keen on that.  So we asked for the pizza to be made with Serrano peppers only on half the pizza.  I loved the use of fresh pineapple, that really does make a world of difference.  You don’t get an overly sweet pineapple dripping with ultra-sweet juices from the can in which it came from.  The house-cured bacon was also amazing as you can control the amount of salt and it just has a different flavor.  And the use of provolone on the pizza was terrific as it gave it that little bit of extra nutty flavor.  I tried a slice of pizza and I loved it.  The salty bacon, the fresh pineapple and the nutty provolone on the super crispy wood-fired crust was terrific.

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My husband’s aunt chose a pizza that she knew my sister-in-law would also like.  It’s the only pizza I actually didn’t try myself.  It was the Xerxes, named for the street on which Pizzeria Lola is located.  The pizza was made with sautéed spinach, which my husband’s aunt loves and she knew my sister-in-love would love too, sheep’s milk feta, mozzarella, kalamata olives and almonds.  Kalamata olives are also a favorite of my husband’s aunt.  I’m not a fan of sheep’s milk feta, or kalamata olives, so that’s why I stayed away from this particular pizza.  But, I think that those tried a slice of this pizza enjoyed it.  The flavors were good and the combination was good for a vegetarian pizza.  However, most of us at the table found we enjoyed the other pizzas just slightly more, and in the end, we had 2 slices of this pizza left at the end of the meal along with only 1 slice of another pizza, so the consensus was that while the Xerxes was a delicious pizza, it just wasn’t as good as the other pizzas.

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As a group, we also decided that we’d order the special pizza of the day, called the bel paese, or Italian for “beautiful country.”  We were told that the bel paesa came with bel paese cheese, which has a nutty flavor, asparagus, speck, and honeyed truffle oil.  The asparagus caught the attention of those of us in the group that like fresh greens and veggies.  The speck caught my attention because you can never go wrong with cured Italian ham.  And the honeyed truffle oil definitely caught my husband’s attention because anything with truffle oil makes him happy.  And well, nutty cheese, is there anyone out there that doesn’t like cheese?  So, this seemed like a no-brainer to order.  And in the end, it was.  The nutty cheese flavor of the bel paese was fabulous.  I’m not a big asparagus fan, but I will admit to liking the asparagus on this as it gave the pizza a great crunchy component.  And the speck was just fabulous – just the right amount of saltiness to help balance out the pungent honeyed truffle oil.  This seasonal specialty was truly a winner!

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And if that wasn’t enough pizza yet, we ordered one more pizza.  This is one of Pizzeria Lola’s specialty pizzas, one of the pizza’s they’re known for.  See, Chef and Owner Ann Kim decided to bring a little Korean flair to her amazing pizzas with 2 Korean-inspired pizzas.  The first is the Lada ZaZa, which is topped with kimchi that she makes in-house.  However, that’s not the one we choose, what we ordered was the Korean BBQ pizza.  Topped with Niman Ranch beef short ribs, mozzarella, and scallions all finished off with arugula tossed in sesame & soy-chili vinaigrette, this pizza was a little bit of Korea meets Italy.  And the results were out of this world!  By far, this pizza was the consensus favorite of the group.  The combination of the creamy mozzarella with the perfectly thin-sliced beef short ribs that were so tender they melted in your mouth was a glorious meeting of two worlds.  Top that with the arugula in the soy-chili vinaigrette, it was unlike any pizza I’d ever tried before.  We all ended up devouring this pizza, and I could easily have seen myself ordering this pizza for myself to take home and enjoy.  I definitely see why this pizza is so popular and helped put Pizzeria Lola on the food map.

All these pizzas later, we were all still in the mood for dessert!  Yes, my husband’s family is my kind of people!  Looking through the dessert menu, which looked rather simple, but turned out to be anything but, we all made our decisions.

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My husband decided he wanted to try the root beer float.  Made with Boylan Bottling Co.’s cane sugar root beer topped over Pizzeria Lola’s house-made vanilla soft serve ice cream, this concoction was perfect for a warm Minneapolis day.  The root beer had the right amount of sweet and bite, finished off with a cool, creamy soft-serve ice cream.

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My mother-in-law and her sister, my husband’s aunt, decided to split what was called the DIY ice cream sandwich.  Described as, “the best of both worlds” served with two cookies and a small ice cream, we weren’t quite sure what we would get.  We were told that the house-made flavors of soft serve ice cream available were vanilla and strawberry, or a mix.  My mother-in-law and her sister figured they should try a mix of the two flavors, and they weren’t disappointed.  They both loved the ice cream and they loved the cookies.  In the end, I don’t think anyone actually made an ice cream sandwich as they just had the ice cream separate from the cookies, but they loved the individual components of the dessert, and hey, it was DIY, so they did it their way.

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Using the house-made vanilla soft serve ice cream, my husband’s uncle opted for a cup of it topped with house-made caramel sauce.  Vanilla ice cream, and caramel sauce, he was one happy camper.  The key to all of this dessert was definitely the house-made vanilla soft serve.  You could tell that it was house-made and it was fresh made.  It had such an amazing vanilla flavor, but it wasn’t artificially sweet or overpowering.  It was so smooth, and creamy and refreshing that you could literally eat a bucket full of it.

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As for me, I opted to try out the dessert specialty of the house, which was a cup of the house-made vanilla and strawberry soft serve ice cream swirled together and topped with extra-virgin olive oil and fleur de sel.  Normally, I’m not a salted-anything kind of girl.  To me, sweet should remain sweet, and salt should stay in savory foods, not sprinkled on top of sweet foods.  But, I’ve seen people rave over this combo, I knew I needed to give it a try.  Again, the soft serve ice cream was absolutely outstanding.  The vanilla was creamy and rich, and the strawberry was so fresh, and the hint of strawberry flavor was so subtle, it was perfect.  But yes, the extra-virgin olive oil and the fleur de sel were the star of the show.  Somehow, the olive oil over the super creamy soft serve worked.  The flavors married together perfectly.  And the fleur de sel was sprinkled on just enough to add a hint of saltiness, but not to be overpowering the way salted-anything desserts can sometimes be.  This was one of the most decadent ice cream desserts I’ve had in a long time, and I loved it!  It was absolutely outstanding, and a true winner.  I came to Pizzeria Lola expecting to be blown away by the pizza, not necessarily the dessert, and in the end, I was blown away by both.

To this day, I still think about Pizzeria Lola often.  I swear, next time I’m back in Minneapolis, I need to convince my husband to go there with me again.  It was some of the most amazing pizza I’ve had.  The flavors of the hand-tossed, home-made pizza, all bubbling and slightly charred from the amazing wood-fired pizza oven was outstanding.  The atmosphere of the joint is so relaxed and wonderful that my husband’s family and I all had such an amazing time enjoying a terrific meal together.  And the food was out of this world.  The pizza was fabulous, the dessert was fabulous.  Pizzeria Lola was everything and more that I had hoped it would be ever since I saw that Food Network episode for the very first time years ago.  I couldn’t wait then to go to Pizzeria Lola, and I can’t wait now to go back.

 

The Kroft

September 30, 2014

During that first trip to the Anaheim Packing House with my girlfriends, there was another eatery that really caught our eye.  An eatery known as The Kroft, and uses a big porker pig as it’s logo.  With a line that was non stop and tables that were constantly filled, this place was intriguing.  Between PopBar Anaheim and The Kroft, the majority of visitors to the Anaheim Packing House seemed to be concentrated at one of these 2 places.  At the end of that first lunch outing to the Anaheim Packing House, my girlfriends and I looked at each other and we knew we’d be back in the near future to give The Kroft a try.  After all, if all these people are waiting in line for it, it can’t be that bad.

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So, a few short weeks later, we made plans to get together and meet for lunch again at the Anaheim Packing House.  This time around, we had planned to dine at The Kroft, and we made plans to meet early so that we could hopefully be there before the lines for lunch really started forming.  The Kroft calls itself “comfort food reinvented” specializing in sandwiches served in brown butcher paper, decadent treats such as poutine, and Midwestern favorites such as fried cheese curds.  Of course, if it’s reinvented, that must mean that some of these comfort foods are kicked up a notch, and that’s what makes The Kroft different from any other comfort food eatery around.  After perusing through the daily menu, written in chalk on boards you can find near the registers, or on a large board hanging over guests heads near the storefront entrance, my friends and I had come to a decision as to what we wanted to eat.

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For starters, we each ordered the homemade cucumber mint lemonade being offered.  It was a hot day outside, and I found the lemonade to be really refreshing.  You could definitely taste the cucumber in it, and it gave it a slightly watery cucumber flavor instead of the straight tang of a good homemade lemonade.  One of my friends wasn’t as fond of the drink because she couldn’t really taste the mint and she was hoping that cucumber mint really meant you’d be able to get the flavor of both ingredients.  On that point, I’d have to agree with her as I also only tasted the cucumber and if there was any mint flavoring it was so subtle it was lost behind the lemon and the cucumber.  However, I was fine with my lemonade really just being a cucumber lemonade.

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The real draw for me on this “comfort food reinvented” menu was the selection of poutiness that were offered.  My husband and I already had plans to visit Eastern Canada, including Montreal, later in the year, and poutine was something we had been discussing.  If you know anything about Montreal, then you know you’ve got to try some poutine.  For those who don’t know, poutine is traditional French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds.  It’s certainly hearty, comfort food.  However, finding poutine on a menu in Southern California is just not that common.  So, you bet I’m going to take notice when I see it prominently displayed on The Kroft’s menu.  After mulling it over, one of my friends and I decided to split the braised short rib poutine.  Served with pickled onions, and a fried egg on top if you wish, this was a classic poutine with the cheese curds and the gravy and the braised short rib.  The fries were perfectly crisp and delicious, and the gravy was good and not too salty until I discovered that they had mushrooms in their gravy and that turned me off a bit as I’m not a mushroom fan.  The braised short ribs were tender and soft, but I wish they would have had more flavor.  It also would have been nice to see more cheese curds in the dish as well.  The pickled onions were a nice touch.  Ultimately the braised short rib poutine was ok, but my mind wasn’t blown.  However, considering you can’t really find poutine anywhere else, I was happy to at least have poutine in any version I could get it.

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Knowing that poutine alone wouldn’t be enough for lunch, I decided on the ultra popular porchetta sandwich with pesto, arugula and porchetta.  Porchetta, which is originally an Italian pork dish, is widely popular in Eastern Canada and the Upper Midwest as well.  Perhaps when the Kroft says they have comfort food reinvented, its Canadian comfort food they are referring to?  While I’ve heard of porchetta before, I’d never actually had a porchetta sandwich.  And boy, I’ve been missing out.  In this case, it’s basically pork loin, stuffed with seasonings and herbs, fat and skin, rolled up and roasted.  Once it’s fully-cooked, it’s then cut up and served in a homemade bread roll and served with pesto and arugula.  It was so good.  Yes, it’s fatty, but that’s really what pork is.  But the flavor of the roasted pork and bits of crispy pork skin and the spices mixed with the tang of the pesto and the peppery bite of the arugula all on the warm, soft bread roll was an amazing, and intoxicating combination.  I literally could have had 2 of these sandwiches.  It was so incredibly tender, and moist, and full of rich flavor that I love.  But, you’ve really got to be a pork lover to enjoy this one.

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Porchetta sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper, braised short rib poutine in a nice tidy to-go box, paired with some refreshing cucumber mint lemonade, ah, yes.  That was a great lunch.  I love the fact that the menu wasn’t full of the comfort food I was expecting, you know, your mac n’ cheese and regular French fries, etc.  Where in Southern California do you find porchetta?  And if you can find it, I can’t imagine it being better than you can get here at The Kroft.  You bet I’ll be back for the sandwich, the poutine and the lemonade again.  What better comfort food to enjoy on a hot summer day in Southern California.  I completely understand now there always seems to be a line at The Kroft every time I’m at Anaheim Packing House.  The only difference?  Next time, you’ll probably catch me standing in line too.

 

Black Sheep Grilled Cheese Bar

September 23, 2014

The Anaheim Packing House is more than just PopBar.  Sure, it may be the most popular eatery at this funky food hall, but that didn’t mean there weren’t a bunch of other places to try out.  The reason I was at the Anaheim Packing House for my first trip there was to meet up with a couple of my old high school friends to catch up and reminisce with them.  I hadn’t seen either of them in over a year, right before one of them had left the States to resume her around-the-world travel adventure.  Like me, both of my friends are travelers and like to explore new places and cultures.  One of my friends, almost 5 years ago now, decided that she really wanted to see the world.  With only a vague plan of where she was headed, she set off and we all followed along in her various adventures through Facebook.  After 2+ years, she finally came home for a visit and what was the last time we had gotten together.  After another almost 18 months of travel, she was finally back home, at least temporarily.  So, we decided to get together and catch up and it seemed like Anaheim Packing House would be great place for such an event.  With many different food stalls and eateries to choose from, we were bound to find something we’d all like.

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Ultimately, we found ourselves sitting around the counter at the Black Sheep Grilled Cheese Bar.  As a division of The Cellar in San Clemente, CA, a well-known and popular cheese shop, creating a grilled cheese bar seemed like a natural extension.  And what better place to open up than at the new Anaheim Packing House located in Orange County, not too far up the freeway from where the cheese shop is.  The grilled cheese bar is set up with bar countertops and bar stools that face inwards so that you can watch the cooks making your gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches in a very inviting and homey set up.

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The Black Sheet Grilled Cheese Bar offers up 7 different types of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches that include both savory and sweet options and a whole host of different types of cheeses and other items to go into your grilled cheese.  Be ready, this isn’t the grilled cheese sandwiches from your childhood.  This is grilled cheese taken to a whole different level.  For instance, take grilled cheese sandwich #3 which contains Swiss raclette, cornichons, pickled red onions, and joe’s potato chips.  Swiss raclette, that sounds amazing, and not sure something I’ve seen in a grilled cheese sandwich before.  There’s grilled cheese sandwich #2, which really interested me with manchego, jamon Serrano and quince paste.  However, I had no idea what quince paste was and if I would like it, but the jamon Serrano sure sounded delicious.  There’s the Classic, #6, made with cheddar and Swiss on sourdough.  Or the #5, the Man, with salami and cheese.  And the sweet option #4 made with d’affinois, strawberry coulis and graham cracker crumbs sure sounded fantastic as well.

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To start off the meal, we grabbed a couple of bottles old-fashioned original Rock & Rye soda.  It was described as mix between cherry cola and Dr. Pepper.  And it was quite tasty.  Once you placed your order, you were given your drink and you could sit back at one of the stools lined up at the counter and wait for your food.

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The counter looked into the “kitchen,” as it were, and you could watch your grilled cheese sandwich being prepared and then put into the familiar Panini presses so that the cheese would melt and ooze out of the sandwich.

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Ultimately, from all of the choices, my girlfriends and I all ended up decided on the same exact sandwich, grilled cheese sandwich #1 made with Cypress Grove formage blanc, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and arugula pesto.  During the course of our sitting at the counter, I actually got to watch them fresh-make a batch of arugula pesto and it was so mouth-watering.  After being put through the Panini press, the cooked grilled cheese sandwich is cut in half and served in baskets lined with black-and-white checkered paper.  The Cypress Grove formage blanc had such an interesting flavor.  It wasn’t quite a soft cheese, but probably had a texture more like a fresh mozzarella.  It had some substance and form, but also a bit soft and melty and spreadable.  The tangy flavor of the cheese paired nicely with the roasted tomatoes and the acidity of them and the peppery arugula pesto.  The caramelized onions added just the right amount of sweetness to go with the wheat bread the sandwich was made with.  All three of us ended up finishing up all of our sandwiches, so I would say that the grilled cheese sandwich was a winner.

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The concept of having gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches is such an appealing one because it harkens back to our childhoods when we grew up with plain grilled cheese sandwiches of white bread and processed cheese as an easy dinner staple.  It screams comfort food.  But all dressed up with different cheeses and other fillings, these grilled cheese sandwiches call out to us and yet bring us back to our childhood all at the same time.  This particular grilled cheese from the Black Sheet Grilled Cheese Bar left my friends and I wanting for more and curious as to what the other types of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu tasted like.  I think it’s safe to say I’ll have to go back and give the other sandwiches a try.