Mae’s Cafe – Garden Grove

Food Adventures, Orange County

Mae’s Cafe… I used to drive past it all the time when I lived in Garden Grove. It’s situated right next to one of the most consistently busy In N Out Burger locations, and you can even see the Mae’s Cafe marquee from the 22 freeway! I was always curious about the unwavering blue and yellow sign and what lay beneath in the ordinary-looking restaurant. My best friend C was in town and wanted to meet up here to catch up over lunch — a divey diner, he called it. Mae’s Cafe is open 24/7 so he had plenty of high school memories of late-night meals with friends; maybe it was where all the cool kids hung out because I had never set foot in there until just last week.

Steak & Eggs at Mae's Cafe

Steak & Eggs at Mae’s Cafe

When we first walked in, well… we were tackled by a bear hug from C. But then we were warmly welcomed by the woman behind the counter; a closer examination of her name tag revealed that she is in fact Mae of Mae’s Cafe! That was a great way to start our experience and I was looking forward to the food to come. I had done my research beforehand (read: looked up the menu online) and I knew I wanted one thing — THE MANLY MEAL. I kid, I kid, although that only $14 for steak, potatoes, AND a choice of pancakes, waffles, or French toast, my wallet was tempted to dive in. Challenge… not accepted.

New York Steak & Eggs with Hash Browns

New York Steak & Eggs with Hash Browns

Instead I went for my all-time favorite diner dish — steak and eggs. Mae’s offers a choice of sirloin, t-bone, New York steak, or porterhouse (or for the strong of heart, country fried), and I opted for the New York steak with my eggs sunny side up and runny. The steak arrived rare to my liking, though this particular cut was a tad chewy. Nothing a dip into luscious egg yolk couldn’t fix! These are all served with your choice of hash browns or lyonnaise (pan fried) potatoes as well as toast, English muffin, or biscuits & gravy. As you can see in the photos above, I went for the hash browns – extra crispy and a beautiful golden brown. Now my readers, I’ll bet you know me well enough by now that you can guess what I ordered for my bread accompaniment….

Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits and Gravy

Not the prettiest plate in the world, the biscuits were absolutely drenched in a thick, white country-style gravy. The gravy was savory and hearty, but the texture was a bit odd — even visually you can tell it resembled cottage cheese. Still, the fluffy buttermilk biscuits underneath sopped up the all the flavors and were really comforting in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way.

Breakfast Fajitas

Breakfast Fajitas

C ordered the breakfast fajitas — a hot skillet piled high with strips of steak, ham, onion, and bell peppers, and topped with a dollop of refried beans and mountain of cheesy scrambled eggs. It was a man-sized meal (though not the Manly Meal) served DIY with tortillas and salsa. C said it was difficult to choose between this and the John Wayne’s Favorite, but he seemed to have zero regrets as he dove into this sizzling platter.

Le French Dip

Le French Dip

Martin was in a lunch-y mood and decided to go for Le French Dip. Because adding “le” makes it more French, I guess. The menu described it as “thinly sliced beef on a French roll, served with au jus dipping sauce,” but as we soon discovered, the beef slices were generously thick. They seemed to be a bit dry, so he let them marinate in the piping hot au jus which perked them up and made for a more enjoyable sandwich. The fries sounded crispy as Martin crunched next to me in the booth we shared, never offering me a single fry. :( The sandwich came with a pickle (reasonable) and a carrot stick (odd?).

The conclusion? It was a divey diner as promised. But the staff was no-nonsense yet attentive, the food was decent, the iced coffee was pretty good, and most importantly, it was a great place to share a booth with friends and enjoy a leisurely conversation over breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. Or any meal really, since they never close. Definitely better than Denny’s, that’s for sure!

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Check out Mae’s Cafe: maes-cafe.com

9062 Trask Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

See their Yelp reviews here!

Pho 79 Restaurant – Westminster, CA

Food Adventures, Orange County

Born and raised in Garden Grove just on the outskirts of the ever-growing Vietnamese enclave, I never really paid attention to all of the changes in Little Saigon until I left the OC and moved to Westwood for undergrad. Visiting every weekend at best, maybe less than once a month at my busiest, I finally took notice of the constant construction, the rotation of new trendy restaurants replacing older storefronts, the evolution of the city itself as its northern borders encroached on The Korean District, and the influx of traffic from local residents and out-of-town visitors alike. Many of my favorite restaurants I dined at while growing up had either closed up shop, changed owners, or hired new chefs. But not Pho 79. I could always count on Pho 79 to bring to my table a piping hot bowl of pho just the way I remembered it when I was a little girl earnestly chowing down on the tô nhỏ (literally translated as “small bowl”) with extra gân (beef tendon) while my parents withheld the toy that would accompany the kids meal until I first finished my food. (That’s right – we were eating offal before offal was cool.)

Beautiful bowl of pho!

Beautiful bowl of pho!

Though we’ve graduated from the college town and moved on to other Westside neighborhoods, I still do not visit home as often as I would like (and certainly not as often as my parents would like), but on those rare occasions, Pho 79 is a beloved part of my dining-out rotation. This Little Saigon icon, situated in a humble standalone building just behind a liquor store, has remained largely unchanged throughout the past 20-something years that I have frequented it. Who knows – maybe it has even stayed more or less the same since it first opened in 1979 (hence the namesake) to serve the immigrant post-war families looking for a bit of familiarity. Even the menus have seen better days and I swear they are the same exact ones that my little 3-year-old hands would thumb through, looking for the soda xí muội (salted plum soda) on the last page.

Vietnamese drip-style coffee

Vietnamese drip-style coffee

Nowadays, my beverage of choice is the cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. I take it for granted that everyone here in LA always has somewhere else to be, so the slow-dripping French-style cà phê phin is just not a feasible option for the few Vietnamese restaurants on the Westside. Here at Pho 79 we can slow our pace, just for a bit, and let the dark roast steep at its leisure through the filter and into a mug ready and waiting with a dollop of sữa đặc (sweetened condensed milk).

My bowl (Martin's is MIA due to having been devoured)

My bowl (Martin’s is MIA due to having been devoured)

Martin always gets the phở tái sách, tô xe lửa – the largest bowl (literally translated as “train bowl”) with rare steak slices and tripe. I was unable to snap a photo before he dove right in. This is his standard order and he always looks very content while slurping away, strands of rice noodles hanging askew off the edge of his bowl, so just take our word for it – it’s good.

The condiments for pho

The condiments for pho

I like to go a teeny bit fancier with my pho. I will usually order the phở tái gân bò viên, tái để riêng, tô thường – a so-called “regular” sized bowl loaded with beef tendon and beef meatballs served with rare steak slices on the side. I learned this trick from my dad. See, the broth is always so hot that by the time the chef ladles it into the bowl and the server brings the bowl to my table, the beef has overcooked. Having them bring the beef separately allows me to control the process and enjoy the beef when it has just turned a nice pale pink, cooked by the broth’s residual heat. Yum. I also go crazy with the bean sprouts, mint/herbs (traditionally ngò gai, the one that looks like a long serrated blade, and rau quê, commonly known as Thai basil) and a generous squeeze of a fresh lime wedge. In a separate dish, I will also portion out some hoisin sauce (known affectionately as tương ăn phở, or literally, “sauce to eat with pho”) and Huy Fong Foods sriracha, everyone’s favorite hot sauce. At long last, I’m all set… and Martin’s probably halfway through his train bowl at this point.

Ready to drink - ca phe sua da!

Ready to drink – ca phe sua da!

By the time we are close to finishing our meals, the coffee is ready to be stirred and poured over the tall glasses of ice. Mmm… sweet, creamy heaven with a very strong coffee essence. Starbucks lattes ain’t got nothin’ on this!

If you find yourself in Orange County and craving a hot bowl of comforting soup, I definitely recommend stopping by Pho 79. Don’t be intimidated by the alley-side driveway entrance, and don’t be deterred by the apparent lack of parking – the turnover is excellent even during lunch or dinner rush, so sooner or later, someone will be leaving and you can snag their precious parking space. Sign your name on the clipboard hanging on the door or tell a friendly waiter how many people are in your party (holding up the number on your fingers is A-OK too). Then sit back, relax, and prepare for beefy goodness that will transport you to the real streets of Saigon… or (if you’re lucky) blissful memories of your mom’s kitchen.

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Check out Pho 79 Restaurant: pho79.com

9941 Hazard Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

See their Yelp reviews here!

Ennar Calasian Grill – Fountain Valley, CA

Food Adventures, Orange County

My parents don’t claim to be foodies, but I’m convinced they are because they always seem to catch wind of new restaurants opening up in Orange County. A few months ago, it just so happened that a family friend opened up a Vietnamese-Japanese fusion yakitori place and my parents came to visit within weeks of their opening. Having enjoyed their visit, they invited us to check it out this happenin’ hot spot – Ennar Calasian Grill – for Happy Hour. (Yes, it’s an interesting experience going out for HH with one’s parents, in case anyone was wondering…)

Ennar Calasian Grill – Fountain Valley, CA

To them, Happy Hour isn’t about cheap drinks (although we did start with a round of discounted Sapporo) — it’s about cheap food! The HH menu at Ennar is full of assorted yakitori-style skewers and izakaya-like starters. I’ll be honest, I was caught a little off-guard trying to order yakitori with a menu that only had English and Vietnamese on it (like asking for lưỡi when I would usually order gyutan). We spotted a few items that seemed a little out of place (roma tomato bruschetta?)  so we steered clear of those. Still, we ordered a good variety of what the menu had to offer so without further ado, we present everyone’s favorite part… the food.

I love checklists!

Cabbage Salad

Crispy cabbage and julienne strips of carrot tossed in a sesame vinaigrette, this was a great refreshing starter for a meal of grilled meat and fried foods.

Squid tentacles (râu mực) x 4

Tender and flavorful, the squid tentacles charred nicely on the grill, making these the perfect morsels to accompany a cold glass of beer. A must-have skewer when my dad goes out for yakitori!

Edamame with Garlic Sauce

Edamame appetizers are pretty standard in these types of restaurants, but Ennar makes theirs a little extra special by tossing them in a garlicky sauce and sprinkling with sesame seeds before serving. The sauce was tasty but a bit oily. It reminded me of eating flavored roasted sunflower seeds, where all the flavor is on the shell so you end up sucking on those before extracting the bland seeds in the middle…

Crispy Rice with Pork Belly

This was probably the best example of Japanese & Vietnamese fusion at work – a thin yakionigiri-like patty topped with a saucy pork belly that had the flavor profile of mom’s homemade thit kho.

Okra (not the bacon-wrapped kind)

I know, I know… bacon makes everything better. But I love plain ol’ grilled okra so I couldn’t resist. Grilling is a great way to prepare okra to minimize its sliminess, and this crispy green offers a welcomed break from all of the meats.

Gyutan (beef tongue, or luoi)

Mmm this is my must-have when going out for yakitori, yakiniku, really any place that offers it on the menu (I will also order lengua when given the opportunity). The gyutan here was a great texture – not too tender, not too chewy.

Pork belly, pork cheek, and bacon-wrapped quail eggs

I remember a conversation I once had with foodie friend Irene about food “buzz words” that automatically entice us to order items off any given menu. One of those buzz words is definitely pork belly. Seriously, who could resist that? The pork belly here was not as charred or caramelized as I would like, but each morsel melted like butter. The pork cheek was a bit fatty but a great cut of meat. We did get the uzura (quail eggs, trứng cút), Martin’s favorite, wrapped in bacon… and yes, bacon did make it better although the pork fat was a little too rich when paired with the boiled egg yolk.

Octopus Salad

I saw that the octopus salad got mixed reviews from diners on Yelp, but the owners of Ennar said that this was one of their signature menu items so we had to try it. I enjoyed the octopus, which (I believe) was parboiled and still a bit chewy. The salad had a light vinaigrette that complemented the octopus well.

Chicken Hearts

There is no shortage of offal when it comes to yakitori. The chicken hearts here are tender, perfectly charred, and served hot off the grill. Definitely try this one!

Gizzard

This was actually my first time having gizzard. It’s not that commonly found in the yakitori places in LA (and if you’ve tracked it down, please let me know where I can get me some!), but my dad spotted it on this menu and had to have it. The flavor was similar to the chicken hearts, but the texture is a bit chewier (in a good way).

Fried Tofu

Crispy on the outside, silky on the inside, and dusted with togarashi — this one’s a winner!

Lamb Chops

I enjoyed these chops, which were cooked perfectly to temperature (we ordered 3 rare and 1 medium) and coated in a fragrant herb marinade. They were served with a mustard sauce but I didn’t think the gamey lamb needed any condiments.

Tempura Soft Shell Crab

Martin and I agree that this was our favorite dish of the evening. The crab was succulent and perfectly fried with a light, crispy coating of the tempura batter.

Oyster Mushrooms

Mushrooms are so wonderful when they’re grilled, especially when you have hearty, flavorful ones like these hiratake or even shiitake.

Beef Tenderloin

Can’t go wrong with grilled tender cubes of filet, especially when they’re cooked perfectly to temperature!

Bacon-wrapped Enoki Mushrooms

This too came highly recommended by the owners, and I was very curious to see how such a stringy mushroom could be put on the grill. These smoky, juicy, decadent bacon-wrapped bundles were delicious!

Grilled Shrimp

These were pretty awesome. Salty, succulent prawns served whole.. just twist off the heads, suck out the juices, and peel & eat. So good!

Salt & Pepper Grilled Rice Ball (yakionigiri)

Yakitori isn’t just about meat… Martin and I love our carbs so we always look forward to some crispy charred yakionigiri. The rice at Ennar is seasoned with salt and black pepper, so much so that it has a bit of a spicy kick. Very nicely done.

Grilled Half Quail

Quails are small, bony birds but Ennar serves their quail more or less boneless (of course, they leave the fun parts like the wing and “drumstick”). The only thing that would have made it better is if the skin were crispier but isn’t that golden brown skin just gorgeous?

Baked Mussels topped with Caviar

I’m not the biggest fan of cheesy baked mussels, but these are hot and fresh and when they were placed on our table, the wafting aroma tempted me to dive right in. The green onion garnish (and the cheese) overpowered the caviar, but the overall flavor was good. It was definitely the most attractively plated dish of the evening and a nice way to end the meal.

The chefs at work

I love the open kitchen with the transparent panels to let visitors see the goings-on in the back of the house. The food was prepared well; my only gripe is that everything (and I mean everything!) was covered in togarashi. When I inquired about it, I was told that these “red sprinklers” are their signature touch. I still found it a bit unusual until I revisited another yakitori favorite and realized that they too have togarashi but set out little shakers for patrons to help themselves. Personally, I prefer having the option to take it or leave it. The togarashi was good on the first few skewers but then the flavor just got redundant and overpowered the natural goodness of the grilled meat. That could be just me.

All in all, the meal was very enjoyable as a “California” (and Vietnamese-fusion) rendition of yakitori. They don’t claim to be authentically Japanese and that’s perfectly OK. The staff was friendly and Ennar really seems like an up and coming hangout, especially during their Happy Hour! If you’re in the OC, be sure to stop by, grab an ice cold beer, and check out a skewer or two or three. They are situated in the far corner of a strip mall, so if you blink, you just might miss them. Just look for the bright neon script adjacent to the Saigon Performing Arts Center.

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Check out Ennar Calasian Grill: ennarcg.com

16161 Brookhurst St
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

See their Yelp reviews here!

PS: They’re closed on Tuesdays.

Tet Trung Thu Dot Den Di Choi~!

Food Adventures, Orange County

Moon cakes and chrysanthemum tea… now THAT’S autumn. The mere sight of that combination immediately has me humming the children’s song for the season (although honestly I only know one line: “tết trung thu đot đèn đi chơi” – It’s the Moon Festival, let’s light paper lanterns and go play).

Doraemon and Doremi Lanterns from Vietnam (I bought these in Vietnam a few summers ago)

This year, the Moon Festival (called Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese) falls on September 12th.

Traditionally, families celebrate the autumn full moon by eating moon cake paired with hot tea. Children play with lit paper lanterns in shapes varying from simple red globes to (my personal favorite) the head of our beloved childhood hero Doraemon. Bakeries in Little Saigon this time of year go all out with lantern decorations and bright red boxes filled with cakes of assorted fillings including mung bean, lotus seed, or taro and with one duck egg yolk, two yolks, or none at all. Moon cakes are going to be fatty for certain, but in recent years, my family has discovered that My Hiep Bakery sells delicious moon cakes that use only vegetable oil, rather than the traditional lard. It was a difficult two years when I was pescatarian and my parents had to seek out not only cakes with no duck yolk but that also didn’t use lard as the moisture and binding agent, but My Hiep certainly delivers …literally! Their website features an online ordering system. It’s too late to place orders for this year, so you would have to go to the store, but mark your calendars – they sell moon cakes up to one month in advance and ship to your door! They also sell moon cakes all year round, but they up their production during Tet Trung Thu season to accommodate the crazy demand. The owner and his wife wake up extra early every morning during the month prior to Tet Trung Thu just to pound the paste for the fillings and prep the dough. Now that’s dedication!

You can’t really tell from the photo, but there are two full deli cases in the store in an L-shape with dozens of moon cakes on each shelf.

#15!

Even though the weather here in southern California allows summer to pervade into October, there’s nothing that brings to mind the fall season more than having moon cakes and tea with my loved ones. My favorite is the taro (khoai mon) with one duck yolk (hot vit). At My Hiep, the tag reads “#15”. I don’t actually eat the yolk.. I just like it there for novelty.. but it’s like the Olive Theory from How I Met Your Mother — Martin loves the yolk part (in fact, it’s the only part he likes) so it works out perfectly. Even our cat Percee enjoyed a nibble of an outer crust crumb.. he’s been on a bit of a bread kick lately.

Percee sniffing the moon cake… and then taking a little nibble of the crust.

Delicious taro goodness

This time of year reminds me of how I have to ask my dad what date Tet Trung Thu is every year because he always seems to know, and how my mom would pick up moon cakes (banh trung thu) weeks in advance so she wouldn’t have to battle the crowds later. Moon cakes are a decadent treat, rich in history and tradition. See if you can get your hands on some this year!

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Check out My Hiep Bakery: http://myhiep.com

10483 Bolsa Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
Tel: (714) 839 – 4657
Fax: (714) 897 – 4058

See their Yelp reviews here.

Tet Trung Thu celebrates the full moon the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, typically early September. My Hiep takes online orders one month in advance and continues to bake and sell moon cakes year round and especially all through the Mid-Autumn Festival season.