Saturday, July 28, 2007

Le Roy's the Original

Le Roy's has been a Monrovia landmark for as long as I remember. Weekends are packed with customers lining up outside and even weekdays are amazingly busy. What makes Le Roy's really stand out for me is that it's a wonderful neighborhood diner that other than having increased menu prices over time has remained remarkably unchanged.

Inside, you'll see a linoleum floor that has seen better days and wooden booths that are clean, though a little worn down over time. But if you look past all that, what you'll experience is the wonderful vibe of the place.

As soon as you enter Le Roy's, you're met with smiles. Once you're seated, your waiter or waitress comes right away to bring you a glass of water and pour you a cup of coffee and always with a friendly greeting.
The staff is always so welcoming and I've always really appreciated their great service. I've been going to Le Roy's on and off for 20+ years and I've never had bad service.

Even today, I ordered a side of bacon and for whatever reason, it was taking its time to get to me. Our waitress came back a couple of times to both apologize and give me a bacon status. Unfortunately, it arrived towards the end of the meal and the waitress simply took it off the bill and comped me for it. Now that's what I call good customer service. I've had a couple similar situations happen to me at high-end restaurants with more negative results.

Since I've only gone for breakfast, I can't speak for their lunch menu. What I can say about their breakfasts is that it's good, hearty fare. No fancy ingredients needed when the food is tasty and definitely filling. I've never left there hungry.

When you look around, you'll see everyone from families to guys in fancy suits, from seniors to young couples, etc. There are just people there from all walks of life. Being able to bring together such a diverse group of people really says something about Le Roy's. Simply, when there's good food and good service, people will definitely come, which speaks well for Le Roy's continued longevity.

To see pics, go to:

Le Roy's the Original
523 W Huntington Dr
Monrovia, CA 91016
(626) 357-5076

Le Roy's Highland Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Picasso's Cafe

In the city of Irwindale, the majority of the restaurant choices are geared towards fast food places. While there are some sit down restaurants around, the majority of them are too casual or too "divey" to take a business associate you may want to impress for lunch during the work week.

The best alternative available is Picasso's Cafe & Bakery, which is located in a business park off the 210 freeway. When you enter the cafe, you'll notice right away that it's pretty slick looking with their eye-catching black, white and red color scheme from floor to ceiling. On the walls are framed prints of paintings by you guessed it, Picasso. Open only during the week from 7 am to 2:30 pm, you'll rarely see a lull at this busy cafe, which also serves as a caterer for many of the local businesses.

As you line up to place your order at the counter, to the left is a small section where you can purchase wine and other gourmet food items and to the right, you'll always see examples of the three specials they switch it out every day: a pasta special, a sandwich special and a salad special.

Those three specials are basically the bulk of their lunch menu. There's a large sandwich section that includes everything from deli sandwiches to wraps to panini sandwiches, etc. Their pasta section is made up of dishes like homemade lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti with
marinara sauce while the salad section lists such items as Chinese Chicken Salad, Caesar Salad and Antipasto Salad.

They also serve breakfast and with Picasso's also being a bakery, in the morning, you can choose from muffins, bagels, croissants and around lunch time, you'll see a variety of different desserts from cakes to pies to cupcakes on display.

Once you've placed and paid for your order at the counter, you get a little metal stand with a number that you take with you to your table and one of the wait staff will bring you your food when it's ready.

I've eaten at Picasso's a few times over the past 11 years and they've even catered lunches at the company I used to work for. I do have my favorites, which include their Mario's Chopped Salad, Chinese Chicken Salad, their Turkey and Provolone on Squaw Bread and their Southwestern Chicken Wrap.

What I like about the food is that the ingredients are always fresh and their portions are amazing. Most of the time, I end up eating only half of what I order and taking the other half for dinner or lunch the next day. You definitely get your money's worth. I also really like their baked goods. They just have a really good selection and there's something for everyone. When I've gone for their lunch, I usually try not to look in their cases because their desserts always look so good and it's hard to resist not getting one (or two).

Overall, Picasso's is a great lunch spot. For the most part, the service is quick. The food is pretty good and you have something to look forward other than the next burger.

To see pics, go to:

Picasso's Cafe
6070 N Irwindale Ave #A-D
Irwindale, CA 91706
(626) 969-6100

Picasso's Cafe Bakery & Deli on Urbanspoon

"Banh Mi Quartet" - a tasting of 4 different restaurants

In early 2007, I organized my quarterly "Quartet" dining series for my group and this time around, we focused on checking out 4 Banh Mi restaurants in February and March. The four places we visited were Mr. Baguette, Banh Mi & Che Cali, Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery & Lee's Sandwiches.

Before starting this series, I have never had banh mi before so this was definitely going to be a new culinary experience for me. I started the "Banh Mi Quartet" with Mr. Baguette in Rosemead primarily because I remembered seeing it featured on Huell Howser.

Walking into Mr. Baguette at 10:30 am, I was surprised at how busy it was. After finally getting a table with my dining buddies, we finally walked up to the counter to place our orders. When placing your banh mi orders, you have a choice of either having the pickled veggies on the side or in the sandwich. I opted for the side so that I could customize my sandwiches to my taste.

I went for the Avocado Shake and ordered two sandwiches, the Special Banh Mi with the ham and pate as well as the Smoked Bacon on the Sesame Roll. Being an avocado lover, the shake was an instant hit. It was rich, creamy and filled me with avocado love. As for the sandwiches, let's start with the Special Banh Mi.

While I liked the bread, I didn't think it was anything to write home about. It had a nice crust to it, but the inside of the bread wasn't soft enough, which disappointed me. As for the cold cuts, I wasn't that impressed. On their own, the meats were kind of bland and it was only the pickled veggies that gave the sandwich any flavor at all.

I actually preferred the Smoked Bacon on the Sesame Roll. Yes, it's more like a Subway sandwich in that it's a bigger roll and it comes with lettuce and tomato, but the bread was really good. In fact, in this scenario, I just liked this bread better than the more traditional Vietnamese banh mi bread of the other sandwich. Of course, it didn't hurt that the main ingredient was bacon in all its fatty, smoky goodness. I think it just may be true that everything tastes good with bacon.

Based on my meal there, I'd probably go back to Mr. Baguette again. I would definitely like to try a different banh mi from the cold cuts as a point of comparison. If nothing else, there's still that avocado milkshake to look forward to. Mmmm.mmm...good!

Second on the rotation was Banh Mi & Che Cali at the Rosemead location. Before I even start talking about their banh mi, I have to give kudos for what I consider are the best spring rolls I’ve ever had. The vegetables were extremely fresh but what stood out for me was the crunch aspect of these rolls, which I think was pieces of a deep-fried spring roll wrapper, but I’m not completely sure. Whatever it was, it added a different dimension in flavor which was comprised of a little salty and a little sweet.

Ok, let’s get back to the banh mi. Compared to Mr. Baguette, the bread at Banh Mi & Che Cali was definitely superior. For my visit there, I only had one sandwich, a BBQ Pork Banh Mi. The bread was outstanding - crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, just the way I envisioned what a French baguette roll should be like. As for the BBQ pork, it was absolutely delicious. Both sweet and a little smoky, the flavor of the pork was dancing up and down my taste buds. The pickled vegetables made the sandwich that much better and by the way, these veggies can also be ordered on the side or not. Based on that one sandwich alone, I’d go back to Banh Mi & Che Cali in a heartbeat, but the desserts that were also offered by this restaurant sealed the deal.

The Che part of the Banh Mi & Che Cali restaurant name is a general term is for a Vietnamese sweet dish or dessert. Che is usually soupy and is generally served with sweetened coconut milk and ingredients will include any combo of starches, fruits and/or jellies. We went to town and sampled 7 different kinds of Che. One of my favorites was the Che Thai, a chilled coconut milk drink flavored with pandan and featuring jackfruit, longan and agar-agar. This was an extremely refreshing dessert drink. I also really liked the sticky rice balls in the ginger syrup. Overall, Banh Mi & Che Cali is a banh mi keeper, but these wonderful desserts really stepped up its appeal even more.

After my great dining experience at Banh Mi & Che Cali, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did and that came in the form of Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery in Westminster. The only downside is that it’s a take-out place, but on a pretty day, the park across the street is a wonderful substitute for a sit down restaurant. Walking into Banh Mi Cho Cu, it's quite apparent that it's a hopping place. Throughout our stay, there was a constant hustle and bustle of people coming in and out ordering their food. Other than banh mi, you’ll also see the variety of Vietnamese foods for sale other than the banh mi, which explains this small shop's popularity. From cold wrapped dishes to various filled hot pastries, you certainly had your pick. But do you know what really made me smile? The price of the banh mi sandwiches.

Up to this point, the sandwiches at Lee’s and Banh Mi & Che Cali were between $2.25 to a little over $3.00 in some cases. At Cho Cu Bakery, the prices were a steal at $1.25 and $1.50. Wow, my jaw almost dropped. I’ve heard that banh mi sandwiches were supposed to be around that range, but the first two restaurants I visited didn’t live up to that at all.

Other than the banh mi sandwiches, we all actually ordered some of the other wrapped items to share. There were definite hits and misses. Of all the ones we tried, I did like the more straightforward rice topped with dried fish, especially with soy sauce poured on top the best. The rice was a little sweet, but it really balanced well with the saltiness of both the fish and the soy sauce. Some of the other food items were just too glutinous for my taste.

So enough of the lolly-gaggling, let’s talk banh mi. I have to say that while I loved the banh mi at Banh Mi & Che Cali, I love the banh mi even more at Cho Cu Bakery. An intriguing thing to note about their exceptional bread is that it seemed hollowed inside, which meant that the baguette actuall
y "cups" the filling as opposed to the filling just lying flat against the bread and falling out. With each bite, you get the delicious light-crispy-crusty bread, the delicious filling and the pickled vegetables all at one time. Now that's tasty efficiency.

A friend and I shared two sandwiches, the BBQ Pork Banh Mi and the Pork Meatball Banh Mi. As mentioned already, I thought the bread was absolutely wonderful and thankfully, the fillings were just as amazing. The bbq pork was charred to the point that it looked like beef jerky, but wow, the meat was tender, moist and had an intense caramelize
d flavor that just did it for me. As for the meatballs, my only complaint was that I didn't get enough of them, but what I did get was juicy and yummy.

I also really enjoyed the addition of sliced cucumbers to the veggie mix because they added refreshing notes to the overall flavor of both my banh mi sandwiches. One thing to note is that unlike Mr. Baguette or Banh Mi & Che Cali, there was no option to have the veggies on the side at Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery. My only regret about this tiny bakery all the way in Westminster is that it's so darn far from where I live, but then, what are gas prices and the 40+ miles I'd have to drive for even just a bite of one of their spectacular sandwiches. I wish I had one in front of me right now. (big sigh)

To end this "Banh Mi Quartet" series, Lee's Sandwiches was our last stop. Lee's has been around for a long time and I think it's fair to say that by virtue of having stores that have multiplied like bunnies all over the US; they've done a great job introducing banh mi to the mainstream public.

Given their place in banh mi "history", I was curious to see how what the banh mi sandwiches would taste like from what many consider as the "McDonald's" of banh mi sandwich shops (and not necessarily in a positive way).So in anticipation, I ordered a Grilled Pork Banh Mi and a Sardine Banh Mi. Like Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery, the veggies were not offered on the side, but came with the sandwiches. When my sandwiches arrived, I gravitated towards the Grilled Pork Banh Mi first. In taking the first bite, one thing I noticed right away was the bread and that wasn't a good thing. I was very disappointed in Lee's baguette.

It was sweet in a weird un-bread-like sort of way and the texture was chewy. Sweet and chewy is okay with a caramel candy, but not bread. I wouldn't say it was horrible but with recent memories of Cho Cu Bakery still floating in my mind, it's hard not to compare the two and find Lee's bread lacking.

The grilled pork filling was okay, although it reminded me of Chinese pork in that it erred on the sweeter side. "Sweet" bread and now a "sweet" filling? This combination wasn't quite working for
me. Now the Sardine Banh Mi was fairly successful. I think the saltiness of the sardines cancelled out some of the sweetness of the bread and that's why I enjoyed it more.

In general, it was really the bread that brought everything down for me. The meat fillings, though not spectacular, were fine, but a sandwich without good bread is pretty much worthless. You might as well just take the filling, put it in a bowl, add lettuce and dressing and just make a salad out of it. I wouldn't say that I'd never go into a Lee's Sandwich shop ever again, but if I were in a part of the country where Lee's was the only place I could get a banh mi, I'd make the walk inside. Sometimes a burger just doesn't cut it.

Overall, this was a wonderful "Quartet." It was a great way to compare similar foods and to see how much the same or different they are from each other and the same goes for the 4 restaurants where we did our "Banh Mi" tastings in early 2007. In the end, what I really learned is that the baguette makes the "banh mi" and based on that, you'll definitely see me returning to Banh Mi & Che Cali and maybe, even making the drive to Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery whenever I need a Vietnamese hoagie fix.

Mr. Baguette
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-9166

To see pics, go to:

Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-5600

To see pics, go to:

Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery
14520 Magnolia Street Suite B
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 891-3718

To see pics, go to:

Lee's Sandwiches
8779 East Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 291-2688

To see pics, go to:

Cobbler Tasting at The Cobbler Lady

Last June, I set up a cobbler tasting at The Cobbler Lady, where the group got to sample 5 different cobblers and even got a side of vanilla ice cream to top their cobblers with. The tasting started with owner, Pam Wright, telling us about her experiences starting her business and let me tell you, that was a true story of perseverence.
After the talk, we dived into our tasting where we got to sample in order:

Peach Cobbler
Cherry Cobbler
Apple Cobbler
Blackberry Cobbler
Sugar-Free Cherry Cobbler with Agave Nectar

In regards to the cobblers, it's not so much what I didn't like about them, it was more like which of the ones did I like the best. If any of the cobblers suddenly appeared in front of me, I'd be happy. Overall, what I liked a lot was that none of the cobblers were overwhelmingly sweet. There was just enough to satisfy you if you had a sweet tooth, but not overwhelm you if you didn't.

The two that really stood out for me were the cherry cobbler and the sugar-free cobbler. The regular cherry cobber really appealed to my Filipino palate that appreciates sour-tart flavors, which I did get from the cherries, but then you also get the sweet needed to ensure an overall tasty dessert.

What I found amazing was that I couldn't really tell the difference between the regular and the sugar-free cherry cobblers. The addition of the agave nectar to the sugar-free cherry cobbler didn't take away from the great balance of flavors that you got from the regular cherry cobbler. I was really blown away.
The apple cobbler was also a hit because of the apples themselves. They weren't overcooked so there was still just a little "bite" to them that I really found appealing. Interestingly enough, I don't normally go for apple pie, but if this apple cobbler was on the menu, I wouldn't think twice.

My tastebuds were also quite happy with the sweet-cinnamony goodness of the peach cobbler and heading up the rear was the blackberry cobbler. Of the five, the blackberry cobbler was my least favorite. The consistency of the filling was too much like "jam" and blackberries themselves seemed a little overcooked for my taste.

The flavor was fine, but I think I would have liked to see more blackberries with a "thinner" sauce, similar to the way the cherry filling was done for the cherry cobbler, where you can really taste and celebrate the cherries themselves.

By the way, their cupcakes are also pretty good. I've had both their red velvet and their 7-up cake. I found the red velvet cupcake to be moist and a heck of a lot better than some of the "fancier" versions I've tried this year. As for the 7-up cupcake, it's more of a dense donut and really does have 7-up mixed with the ingredients, which gives it a flavor of lemon-lime that's very appealing.

Overall, this was a great tasting and I loved the fact that I was able to sample almost their entire "cobbler menu", except for some of their other "sugar-free" cobblers. I definitely will be coming back for their cherry cobbler and apple cobbler as well. Hopefully, you'll decide to check it for yourself.

To see pics, go to:

The Cobbler Lady
854 Crenshaw Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90008
(323) 298-2144

Cobbler Lady on Urbanspoon

Hadaka Sushi - CLOSED

Other than the Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues and the now closed Norman's, I haven't had that much luck so far with WeHo restaurants on Sunset when it comes to their food. For the most part, they seem to be all quite gimmicky - gimmicky enough that I've certainly been sucked in, only to be disappointed in the end. That was certainly the case with Hadaka Sushi.

Once you get past the high school giggles over seeing the words "SEX" in large bold letters when you first enter the restaurant as well as perusing the "Naughty Menu" which includes menu items like "Happy Ending", Bisexual and "Nipple Twister," there's really nothing else that interesting about Hadaka Sushi and that definitely includes the food.

The evening started with our group sharing the Sex Beads, which are edamame tossed with sweet garlic ginger glaze. Very messy to eat, but I wouldn't have minded if the mess equated to flavorful. I didn't really taste the garlic or the ginger, which left nothing but bland on my tastebuds as well as glaze coated fingers that definitely were not finger lickin' good.

For my meal in particular, I ordered one cold appetizer and two sushi rolls. My cold appetizer was ginger-peppercorn crusted tuna bathed in soy-lime vinaigrette on a bed of spring greens, better known as "Turned On Pussy Cat." In short, I certainly wasn't turned on. You could definitely taste the pepper, but no ginger flavors were to be had plus the tuna wasn't tender. In fact, it was a tiny bit chewy.

As for my sushi rolls, if I didn't know before, I definitely know now that I like my sushi to be simpler and not bathed in so much sauce that you can't even taste the fish itself. The first roll I had was "The O Face", a spicy pussy cat roll (chopped tuna tossed with chili aioli, masago and scallions) topped with tempura rock shrimp tossed with chili aioli. When you see the word "tempura", expectations for the food are that they will be crispy-crunchy.

My tempura rock shrimp wouldn't know crispy-crunchy if it came up and bit them and to make it worse, the shrimp was also over-cooked, which translated to chewy. With the proliferation of the sauce mixed with the tuna and squirted all over the food and the plate, I couldn't even tell that I was eating tuna. Now isn't that a sad state of affairs?

Then my "Happy Ending" sushi roll arrives, which consists of chopped salmon, julienne red onions and mild miso aioli. Eating-wise the red onions were too long. They were sticking out of the rolls like swords plus between the strong onion flavor and the miso aioli sauce, they both overpowered the taste of the salmon. There was just too much happening with this dish and none of it very good.

After a disappointing meal so far, I had hoped that dessert would at least salvage the meal and to that end, I ordered the Banana Play, which was banana foster's bread pudding, ginger-caramel sauce & lychee ice cream. For the most part, even though the dessert wasn't that great, I think it was actually the best part of the meal, although I felt that the ginger-caramel sauce didn't really have that ginger zing to it and I also thought the lychee ice cream tasted more vanilla-like than like lychees.

As you can see the food wasn't a hit. As for the service, it wasn't that inspiring either, especially considering that the restaurant was pretty much empty. Our waiter mentioned a special soup of the day, which someone in my group ordered, only to be told 10 to 15 minutes later, that they don't have that special any longer. Isn't that something the waiter should have checked before even mentioning the special?

Also, a couple members in my group had to leave dinner early, so we requested the check so that they could pay for their share ahead of time. It took about 20 to 25 minutes before the check arrived and than to add insult to injury, when I was ready to pay the bill, which included cash and a credit card, our waiter had his back to us because he was chatting with another waiter. I waited and waited for him to turn around and finally, 10 minutes later, I had to walk up to him so he'd take the check and run the credit card through. What's galling is that the restaurant was half-empty, so this kind of service is even more unacceptable.

When you get both mediocre food and mediocre service, you have tell like it is and unless someone's willing to pay my way for dinner there, I don't have any plans to return to Hadaka Sushi in the near future.

To see pics, go to:

Hadaka Sushi
8226 W Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90046
(323) 822-2601

Japon Bistro

Even before I placed my order at Japon Bistro, the first 25 minutes of my first visit there already left me with a lasting impression, of the good kind. Simply, during a very busy lunch hour, I sat at a table for about 25 minutes, waiting for a friend who due to circumstances beyond her control was just running really late. I didn't want to order anything until she got there so I just sat there and sipped my water, waiting for her to arrive.

The whole time I sat there, I never got any negative vibes from the wait staff. In a similar situation a few years back at a different restaurant, I caught a couple of snide/impatient looks from my waiter as he looked from me to a few people who were in the lobby waiting to be seated. It bothered me. Did he think I was trying to stop him getting his tips for the evening? Even worse, he kept on trying to get me to order an appetizer while I was "waiting." What a jerk! In the end, my friend did show up, but I was so irritated that we ended leaving and eating elsewhere.

At Japon Bistro, our particular waiter was great. He'd stop by occasionally to re-fill my water glass and always behaved in a pleasant manner. I never felt like he was rushing me to order anything and when my friend finally did arrive, after giving her time to settle down and peruse the menu, only then did he come by to ask if we were ready to order. Anyway, I just thought I'd mention that because excellent service should always be noted.

As for the lunch itself, I ordered three items: the tofu salad and 2 specialty sushi rolls. The tofu salad looked an absolute mess. No care for presentation was taken whatsoever. One complaint I had was that the dressing wasn't evenly distributed on the salad. One forkful would have too much dressing, while another forkful wouldn't have enough. In general, while I wouldn't say that the salad was inedible, it certainly didn't taste good either. I definitely would not order this dish again.

Thank goodness for the sushi rolls. Unfortunately, I can't remember what they were called on the menu, but I do remember that both items had wonderfully fresh ingredients and I enjoyed every bite. First, there was what I'm referring to as the rice-less sushi. This rice-less sushi was basically tuna, salmon, some kind of white fish and avocado that was first wrapped in a seaweed wrapper and than in turn wrapped in cucumber.

When the plate was first put in front of me, it almost looked too pretty to eat, but eat it, I did. After taking my first bite, I actually didn't miss the rice at all. What I liked was the textures: the crunch of the cucumber, the crispness of the seaweed wrapper and than the softness of the fish and the avocado. This sushi roll was just fun to eat plus it tasted good.

My second sushi roll soon arrived and this was more traditional in that rice was part of the ingredients. This sushi roll was crab and cucumber topped with some kind of sauce (I can't remember what kind), green avocado and red fish roe. A graphic designer couldn't have planned it better. The contrast of the green of the avocado against the fish roe made the fish roe such a vibrant red that one may wonder if food coloring was involved. I asked the waiter and nope, no food coloring at all, just the natural coloring of that fish roe.

As for the taste, I give it a thumb's up. It was just as tasty the first roll I had. What was interesting about both rolls is that they were good just on their without the addition of too much soy sauce and actually no soy sauce for the "rice-less" sushi. I think that speaks well for the quality of the ingredients. Sometimes, soy sauce is used not necessarily as an additional flavoring, but more as a way to disguise sushi that isn't as up to par.

Overall, I had a great first visit to Japon Bistro and look forward to many more.

To see pics, go to:

Japon Bistro
927 E Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA, 91106
(626) 744-1751

Japon Bistro on Urbanspoon

Zelo Pizzeria

Stepping into Zelo Pizzeria, you already get a good vibe. The walls of the restaurant are decorated with everything from quirky pizza-themed album covers to autographed skateboards from those famed skateboarding Z-Boys and even a portrait of Hank Williams. How eclectic is that!

To the right of the entrance, a refrigerated case displaying deep dish pizza pans containing pre-built uncooked pizzas resides. As opposed to ordering a whole pizza, you can opt to order single slices, which they will cook to order. On the menu, there are 6 pizza standards that you can choose from: Sausage, Veggie, Corn, Four Cheese, Pepperoni and Della Salute (veggie without cheese). However, there are around 26 other specialty pizzas that they also make and will offer 2 different ones as specials every day.

So far nothing seems out of the ordinary, but inside this family-run, neighborhood restaurant is a pizza unlike anything I've tried before. You may ask what differentiates the pizza at Zelo in the small city of Arcadia from some of the other pizza joints in town you may ask? Simply, their cornmeal crust.

For my meal there, I had two slices of pizza. One slice was one of their specialty pizzas and the other from their regular menu. In looking at them side-by-side, they looked so mouth-waterng, I had a hard time deciding which to try first. Finally, my love for mushrooms prevailed and I took a bite out of my Wild Mushroom pizza slice first.

As for ingredients, this particular slice had fontina cheese, mozzarella, domestic porcini & shitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and basil. That first bite was really interesting because there were two things that threw me off at first. First, I didn't taste any tomato sauce and second, the cheese was firmly in place and not "swimming around" as it tends to do when it's melted over aforementioned tomato sauce.

For my next bite, this time I paid more attention to the crust and it was just really delicious. I found it crispy and buttery and enjoyed the corny sweetness of it all. I also liked its rich denseness. Honestly, I was almost full just eating that one slice. Normally, I can consume 3 to 4 slices from pizza made with the more traditional flour dough, but that wouldn't be the case with Zelo Pizza.

As for the other ingredients of this Wild Mushroom pizza, I really enjoyed the combination of flavors from the mushroom's earthiness to the sweet acidity of the sun-dried tomatoes. While I enjoyed every bite of the mushroom pizza, I was totally over the moon over the Corn Pizza.

I don't even know if I can find words to describe how much I really loved this pizza. You already have an amazing crust, but when you add to that freshly shucked corn, sweetly caramelized red onions, smoked mozzarella and the bite of fresh chives sprinkled on top, you get a pie that makes you happy just to have taste buds.

From the outside, Zelo Pizzeria doesn't look like much. Half the time, you may even drive past it without even noticing that it's there. I think that's why I consider Zelo to be a hidden gem. It's a restaurant that may not jump out at you just from its exterior, but once you experience the tasty treasures inside, it's a place that will definitely stay in your radar. It's certainly a place that I look forward to returning to again and again.

Zelo Pizzeria
328 E Foothill Blvd
Arcadia, CA 91006
(626) 358-8298

Zelo on Urbanspoon

Barrio Fiesta - CLOSED

After being disappointed by the last three Filipino restaurants I visited, I was really hoping that Barrio Fiesta would break my unlucky streak and guess what? It did.

When I walked into the waiting area for the first time, I already liked the vibe. There were various art pieces on display from the light sculptures of a man and a woman dressed in traditional Filipino garb to the funky wood-carved chairs and table to the rectangular mirror that also depicted a colorfully carved "Barrio Fiesta" or neighborhood party.

The two main dining rooms to the left of the waiting had brightly painted walls that were cheery as well as having these really interesting chairs that were black with a rounded flowered patterned back and differentiated by various colored seat cushions.

Even the waiters were dressed in eye-catching barongs, which are embroidered formal garments worn by Filipino men usually for a special occasion or wedding. Upon first seeing the waiters, I kept looking around the dining room to see if there was some kind of wedding reception going on before realizing that the barongs were actually what the waiters were wearing. Perhaps, the barongs are a way of signifying that every meal at Barrio Fiesta is a special occasion? If so, that's a pretty good subliminal message.

For my first meal there, my dining partner and I shared 3 dishes: paksiw na lechon (roasted pork cooked in vinegar, herbs and spices), guinataang shrimp (shrimp & vegetables cooked in coconut milk) and garlic fried rice.

I really liked the tangy sauce from the paksiw. Unfortunately, the one complaint I had about this dish was that there wasn't enough actual meat. It was too heavy on bones and fat. At least, the meat that was there was tender. The shrimp dish was wonderful and the coconut sauce was so good that I literally basted my rice with it. As for the garlic fried rice, with more garlic, it would have been even better.

For dessert, I had the halo-halo (shaved ice with evaporated milk, sweetened beans and fruit and ice cream) and what made this halo-halo stellar for me was that the ice was so finely shaved that it was relatively easy to mix the ice cream, the milk, the ice and all the other ingredients all together as opposed to needing an ice pick to do the job. It was a perfect way to end my meal.

For my second visit there, I came with a larger group and this time we were seated in the room to the right of the waiting area. Compared to the bright colorfulness of the other two dining rooms, this room seemed like a cave with its dark orange walls. Hopefully, the look is just temporary.

With 11 in my group this time, we ordered 10 different dishes. Of the 10, my four favs included:

*Lumpia Shanghai (fried egg rolls with ground pork) - crispy, fried to a nice golden brown, pork filling was moist and surprisingly the egg rolls weren't as oily as fried foods can sometimes get

*Crispy Pata (deep-fried pig's knuckles) - skin was deliciously crunchy and the pork meat was also tender and moist

*Sotanghon Guisado (bean thread noodles sauteed with pork and shrimp and mixed with shredded vegetables) - the noodles absorbed well the flavors of the pork and shrimp plus I liked its slightly fried-chewy texture.

*Grilled Bangus (boneless milkfish grilled with butter and vegetables) - quite heavenly to eat milkfish without having to worry about the seemingly hundreds of small bones this fish normally has and then adding butter to the mix, how can you go wrong?

I also liked how the Sinbala, a large platter of various grilled meats and seafood that came with a variety of sauces from vinegar with pickled carrots to shrimp sauce. The addition of quail eggs to our Chicken Adobo dish was something I never saw before, so that was a unique touch and the vinegar, soy, garlic-based sauce was perfect to pour on my rice. I didn't even need to eat the chicken. That sauce was enough.

The 4 remaining dishes included two different types of fried rice, Pinakbet (vegges, pork and shrimp cooked in shrimp sauce) and Kare-Kare (oxtail, pork and tripe cooked in peanut sauce). While not my favo
rites, these dishes were still pretty good. The only comment I have is on the Kare-Kare. The sauce didn't taste as peanutty as I would have liked plus I didn't think there was enough vegetables.

Also, I want to note three things. While Pansit Malabon is on the menu, they don't serve it, so don't bother ordering it. That was a bit annoying. Also, compared to other Filipino restaurants I've been to, the prices are higher, but the portions and the quality of the food are enough to warrant them. Finally, reservations are only taken for 10 or more.

Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at Barrio Fiesta. The service was good and with a couple of exceptions, the food was excellent. I would definitely go back and recommend this restaurants to both family and friends alike.

To see pics, go to:

Barrio Fiesta
4420 Eagle Rock Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041
(323) 259-5826

Barrio Fiesta on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bulgarini Gelato

If you're looking for gelato so heavenly that it's almost sinful than the place to go is Bulgarini Gelato in the hilly city of Altadena. From the first spoonful, you can already feel the rich creaminess of this sweet icy treat as it glides smoothly onto your tongue and down your throat.

But what makes this gelato a cut above the rest is the burst of flavors that trip the light fantastic along your tastebuds no matter which one you order.

While I was there, I sampled three different kinds. The first was Cantaloupe which apparently is spiked with Tanqueray gin. According to a LA Times article I read, the owner does this because it's suppose to add an extra depth of flavor. He definitely knows what he's talking about because when I had my first spoonful, it felt like I just took a bite of an actual cantaloupe. It was a little surreal to look down at my spoon after that first taste and not see a bowl of fresh-cut melons in front of me. From the cantaloupe, I went to the Honeydew gelato and again, I experienced that same sensation of eating fresh melons.

After my melon feast, I went on to the last layer in my bowl, which was the Pistachio gelato. If you love pistachios, this gelato will blow your mind. In reading up about how Bulgarini makes their pistachio gelato, I found out that the nuts are toasted in the oven, then crushed in an old-fashioned peanut butter grinder and than mixed in with the gelato.

With every lick of your spoon, with every mouthful, those pistachios really make their presence known. You don't have to look for them unlike other pistachio ice creams I've had in the past. One bite and boom, the flavors are just there for you to experience.

The little city of Altadena may seem out of the way for many of you, but if you're a gelato fan, than believe me, it's worth the trek to Bulgarini. You absolutely won't regret it.

Bulgarini Gelato
749 E Altadena Dr.
Altadena, CA 91001
(626) 441-2319