Archive for August, 2010

I’m Just Here for the Food: Tower Grille

Tower Grille

Would you pay more than $10 for this? I wouldn't.

Tower Grille is supposed to be a sports bar and grill. Instead, it touts itself as a “grille.” Hey, owners: maybe that superfluous “e” is supposed to make the place look fancier, but: 1. Who wants to go to a fancy sports bar? I thought the whole point of a sports bar was to kick back and chill with your buddies, watching the game. Also, 2. A grille is that metal thing on the front of your car that gets caked with dead bugs on a road trip.


Now THAT'S a grille.

I think it’s really pretentious when people try to make things fancy and only end up exposing their own ignorance. That kind of sums up my impression of the Tower GRILL (because that’s what it actually is, folks).

Maybe it’s because I’m too poor to hang with the type of people who live in Danville, but I thought that this place was way overpriced.

The food was decent; I had the sliders and the garlic fries. They were tasty, but hardly worth paying more than ten bucks for. It’s a good thing that my friend, who has the salary to hang in Danville, footed the bill, God bless him and his generous heart.

My friends and I were chatting when we suddenly heard a loud cheer go up from the bar. I thought that someone had slam-dunked in a basketball game or something, but NOOOOO. Here at the Tower GrillE, people lose their heads cheering because Tiger Woods sank an eagle on the fourteenth hole in his first tournament since the giant adultery scandal. What kind of sports bar has people cheering over GOLF? Is that, like, a Northern California thing?

Tiger Woods

You paid HOW much for a burger and fries?

The Tower GRILL is the type of place that makes you feel guilty for ordering a soda because there are kids starving in Africa, and here you are paying more than two bucks for a glass of Diet Coke. The food might be decent, but, overall, it’s not worth it.

Tower Grille
301 Hartz Avenue, Suite 103
Danville, CA 94526
(925) 820-6996

I’m Just Here for the Food: Ham-Hung Restaurant


My favorite summer treat isn't sweet, but it IS cold.

When I originally reviewed Ham-Hung, I’d been a loyal customer of theirs for years. I don’t know whether they’re under new management or under a new cook or something, but things there have taken a turn for the worse.

I used to love their cold beef broth and their perfectly chewy noodles. But the last two times I’ve been, the broth was tasteless and the noodles were overdone and mushy.

The first time I experienced the new Ham-Hung, I dismissed it as a bad day; a fluke. But I had to admit to myself that I’d seen a steady decline in the quality of their food over the last few years.

I went back a few weeks later for my mom’s birthday dinner, and my parents and I were all roundly dissatisfied with the quality of our meal. I had the mool naeng-myun, and my dad had the naeng-myun combo with kalbi. My mom had the hwe naeng-myun — the same noodles, but in a spicy sauce with pieces of raw skate (a type of fish) in it.

Bibim Naeng-Myun

Bibim naeng-myun uses the same noodles, but has a spicy sauce instead of cold beef broth. Add pieces of raw skate, and bibim naeng-myun becomes hwe naeng-myun.

The hwe naeng-myun was definitely the winner. It was adequately spicy, although the noodles were a hopeless mush.

The mool naeng-myun was worse than ever; tasteless and mushy. Even the slice of Asian pear, usually one of my favorite parts of the dish, was tasteless. Maybe that was because it was sliced paper-thin.

And the galbi that came with my dad’s combo was decent. It’s too bad that it came with so little.

For as much money as they charge, I expect a quality bowl of noodles. Granted, the portions are ginormous. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that you can get better naeng-myun at the Korean market food court down the street.

Sorry, Ham-Hung. I tried to hang in there as long as I could, but it’s over. We’re through.

Looks like I’m in the market for a new go-to naeng-myun spot.

Ham-Hung Restaurant
10031 Garden Grove Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92844
(714) 530-8850

I’m Just Here for the Food: El Toro Bravo Tortilleria

El Toro Ferdinand

Oh, Ferdinand. You deserved better than this.

As I read all of these reviews for El Toro Bravo on Yelp, I couldn’t help but to second-guess myself. How could so many five-star reviews be wrong?

But I can’t help what I experienced, and my experience at El Toro Bravo was far from stellar. Maybe my friends pumped it up too much, but, for me, the tacos were a resounding “meh.”

A friend of mine enticed me to drive all the way out to Costa Mesa to try a new taco place she’d discovered with wide-eyed tales of tacos as big as your face and lengua that melts in your mouth. Since she’s an experienced foodie, I had to scope it out.

I drove out, and promptly got super-lost because there’s another Yelp location set up for a market in the same plaza that also goes by “El Toro Bravo.” But, eventually, I found it tucked away on the west side of the plaza, on the side behind the Jugos place.

El Toro Bravo

This is the sign you're looking for, people. It's behind the juice place.

The line wasn’t too long. I usually order my “Taste Trifecta” of tacos (carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas) anytime I try a new place, but because of what I’d heard about the size of the tacos, I decided just to get two instead of my usual three. I’d only heard about the carne asada and the lengua, so I ordered those.

The tacos were indeed the size of my face. My eyes got wider and wider as I saw how much meat the man behind the counter was piling onto my carne asada taco. Then, he pulled out a whole, cooked beef tongue and began chopping it up right in front of me, and my excitement continued to rise.

I paid for my purchases and scampered off to my car, prepared for a mind-blowing burst of flavor and an unforgettable taco experience.

The result? Utter disappointment.

Sure, there was tons of meat, but it was largely flavorless. It was okay, I guess. It was a lot of food for the money (two tacos cost me about six bucks), but it was just five minutes of silent chewing and contemplation for me.

The lengua was even worse. Lengua, when it’s done right, is tender and flavorful; it melts in your mouth in the most wonderful way. Lengua without flavor is just a mouthful of mushy meat. And, at El Toro Bravo, it’s MANY mouthfuls of mushy meat.


My thoughts exactly.

I was so disappointed in my experience, but I figured it had to be a fluke. So, a few weeks later, I went back with my sister. This time, she got the carne asada and I got the carnitas.

The result was the same. As we bit into our tacos, I nervously asked my sister, “What do you think?”

She paused for a moment, and replied, “It ain’t that great.”

And that was my overall impression of the place. It was decent, and the portions are certainly amazing. But I can’t understand all the rave reviews at all.

My ultimate conclusion was that there must be a dearth of good taco joints in the Irvine/Costa Mesa area. El Toro Bravo might be the best taqueria in that area, but only because there just aren’t any better ones.

Come to the Westside. We’ll show you what carne asada should really taste like.

El Toro Bravo
745 W. 19th Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
(888) 474-2674

I’m Just Here for the Food: Van’s Restaurant

Banh Xeo

Weeeell, at least it tasted good...

I didn’t plan to visit Van’s. My friends and I had actually planned to eat at Brodard, but it was closed, and someone suggested Van’s as an alternative. Since it was nearby, we all agreed to go.

Before we ordered, someone warned the rest of us, “Be sure to get the crêpes (banh xeo, if you want to be specific) or something that someone else has ordered before. Their other stuff isn’t that great.” Foreshadowing, YAY!!

I ordered the shaking beef, which another second-time visitor recommended. Actually, everyone got either crêpes or shaking beef because our friend’s warning freaked us out.

When our food came out, it smelled great. I tried some of somebody’s crêpe, and it was fantastic!

I also got my beef and started tucking in. Since we’d all gotten our food except for one guy, he just told us to get started because he was sure his food would come out soon.

His food didn’t come out soon, and we had to flag down two waiters, one of whom actually came back to refill our water glasses without a word, before we finally got someone to bring his food out. That was a minus point for service.

And that’s right about when I saw it.

A hair. In my rice. I called over the waiter, who was very apologetic and said he’d bring out a new one.

Padma Lakshmi

Why is it that hair is so beautiful when it's attached to your head, but the second it detaches, it's disgusting?

Hairs happen; I usually don’t sweat it when I find a hair in my food; I just send it back and give the restaurant a chance to make it up to me.

They brought me out a new dish, piping hot. The waiter then told me that the cook said that it wasn’t really a hair; it was part of the beef.

Now, call me crazy, but I’ve never seen beef with silver hairs in it or on it. So, unless they’re butchering their own cows in the back, I’m not buying that. Also, the hair was in my rice, so riddle me that, Batman.

The Riddler

It's not funny.

But the poor guy was trying to be nice, and it wasn’t really his fault, so I smiled, and tried to give it another go. I got about for or five bites in before I saw another hair. This time, it was in the beef.

At that point, I was done.

Now, it could very well be that it was just a tainted batch of rice or a bad day, but I don’t plan to go back. The crêpes were excellent, and so was the beef until I found the hair, but my experience sucked. So you can chance it if you like, but I’m steering clear.

Van’s Restaurant
14122 Brookhurst Street
Westminster, CA 92843
(714) 530-6858

I’m Just Here for the Food: Frontera Fresco

The first time I ever saw Rick Bayless on TV, I was watching a show he did on PBS about making huevos rancheros. He pronounced it “WAY-vos ran-CHAY-ros” (so… AMERICAN) and I immediately dismissed him as a hack.

The second time I ever saw Rick Bayless on TV, it was on “Top Chef Masters.” Despite my prior disdain for his Spanish pronunciation, he slowly won me over with his amazing cookery and innovative culinary ideas and commitment to authenticity.

rick bayless

My sister and I nicknamed Rick Bayless "cabron" (Spanish for goat, and an insult in Mexican culture) because of his beard. I still kinda think it's funny.

So when I heard that he was opening a fast-food version of the Frontera Grill (his flagship restaurant in Chicago) in San Francisco, I knew that I had to visit Frontera Fresco on my next trip.

frontera grill

Frontera Fresco, fresh and fast.

I took into account that this was supposed to be fast food, and I was completely satisfied with my experience. The food was totally affordable, and I really enjoyed the cochinita pibil tacos. My sister had the grilled steak huarache, which was not as good as the tacos were (the flatbread was a little… meh. Just dry and tough and kinda flavorless).

On the whole, though, I was pretty satisfied with my experience. I definitely plan to go again the next time I’m in SF. Rick Bayless is THE MAN.

Frontera Fresco
170 O’Farrell Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 296-4349

Cannonball 39: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s like I was born to read this book. Or that this book was written just for me.

I love, love, loved Julia Child’s memoir of her life in France. Not only was it a firsthand account of a remarkable experience, but her nephew, Alex Prud’homme did an excellent job of capturing her voice and personality in the book.

I never really thought about how much work goes into a cookbook. She not only had to research the recipes and make sure that they worked, but she wanted to explain why she did things a certain way and how things should look and feel and smell and taste.

This cookbook changed the face of the American home cook, and it amazes me to look at my cookbooks now and think about how she impacted the way that they were written and even how we look at cuisine today.

She made French cuisine accessible to the American housewife, but, in doing so, she opened a door. She encouraged cooking enthusiasts to be open to new experiences, to try new things, to fail miserably and try again, and to believe that they could create these culinary masterpieces with the right ingredients, a little know-how, and the confidence that anyone can be a good cook.

I want to be her. Like, I want to move to France and take classes at Le Cordon Bleu and learn how to break down chickens in nothing flat. I want to breathe beurre blanc and steam fish and make a really “chickeny” roast chicken.

julia child

This could be me. This SHOULD be me.

Unfortunately, my oven’s broken right now. But I’m excited about seeing all of the wonderful things I can do in my kitchen without one. Thanks for the inspiration, Julia. I owe you one.

On a side note: YAY!! I’m all caught up with my reviews for Cannonball Read!! No more backlogged reviews!! Now I can just review ’em as I read ’em.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 38: Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Mao's Last DancerMao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fact: I’m actually North Korean. My parents lived most of their lives in the South, but both of them originally hail from the North.

When we were kids, my dad would occasionally gather us all ’round the table and tell us tales of North Korea. He would tell us about how his family struggled to survive during the war, and how Communism had ruined the country so that everyone was poor. Families only got a small ration of beef every year, that they would boil over and over again in order to make it last. He would tell us harrowing tales of poverty and oppression.

Then, I grew up and studied the Korean War and realized that my dad wasn’t even in North Korea at that time. In fact, he was only an infant when his parents fled — before the DMZ was set up.

As a result, I grew callous to the suffering of people in Communist countries. In the back of my mind, I always just kind of thought that these tales of poverty were just over-exaggerated by people like my dad who wanted to scare their kids into behaving and being grateful.

But reading Li Cunxin’s autobiography set me straight. In a nutshell: Communism sucks.

Li grew up in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. His family did okay for themselves, and he loved both his mother (niang in Chinese) and his father (dia in Chinese) dearly. He particularly loved his mother and craved more time with her. But, as the sixth of seven sons, he didn’t get much.

He describes his parents’ sacrifices for their survival, and how they worked hard to keep everyone alive. The family, as well as everyone else in the area, survived on a meager diet of dried yams and the occasional protein.

Li’s life changed forever when he was selected to go to Beijing to become a dancer in Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was only eleven years old, and leaving his beloved niang was tortuous. But he knew that he had to do this for the family’s honor.

Li excelled as a dancer under the careful tutelage of many teachers. As he continued to excel, he was offered an opportunity to visit America.

One visit to America was all it took to shatter years of Communist propaganda. When he saw the freedom that the Americans had, he knew that he could never be content living in China again. Li eventually defected to the United States and became a principle dancer for the Houston Ballet.

Oh, and there’s plenty of ballet-stuff in the book, too. As an unashamed owner of Center Stage on DVD, that was super-fun to read.

Chengwu Guo plays Li Cunxin as a teenager in the film version of the book.

Li’s life is an amazing tale of courage and determination. But the parts that resonated most with me were his accounts of his family life. In Communist China, all the Li family had was each other. Their love and devotion to one another helped them to survive conditions that I can’t even imagine. Even after defecting, Li couldn’t be truly happy until he knew that his family was safe.

The writing’s a little clunky, but this isn’t a book written for the sake of literature. It’s the tale of a man, his victory over oppression and poverty, and how his family’s love for him made that all possible.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 37: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair (Bantam Classic)Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first experience with Thackeray was Barry Lyndon, and I thought it was solid, but I couldn’t really understand why everyone was always praising Thackeray to the skies. Sure, it was a nice satire, but it was actually pretty cut-and-dried, and I didn’t think you could say he was the next Jonathan Swift.

Well, after reading Vanity Fair, my estimation of Thackeray is much higher than it was. He does an excellent job of writing an excoriating satire of English society. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s maddening, and, in the end, it’s satisfying.

The book is subtitled A Novel Without a Hero, and this is because neither of his two protagonists is someone you’d want to emulate. Social climber Becky Sharp is a devious and manipulative minx, and her friend Amelia Sedley is an innocent, virtuous fool.

Before you start waving a misogynist flag at Thackeray, consider also that all of the men in the book are shallow morons, too. Rawdon Crawley is an idiot who is content to coast on his wife’s intellect until he begins to suspect (way too late) that she might be pulling one over on him, too. George Osborne is a rash, young libertine. William Dobbin has a bad habit of idolizing people who don’t deserve his loyalty.

Ultimately, you’ve gotta admit that Thackeray is fair: he roasts all of his characters equally. No one is spared, not even the servants. Everyone’s got some flaw that he can poke fun at.

While I enjoyed reading Thackeray’s tale of the pursuit of vanity, and the underlying implication that chasing vanity will ultimately get you nowhere, it made me a little uncomfortable to think about what Thackeray would say if he were to write about my life here in Southern California.

There’s vanity to spare here. He’d have a field day.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 36: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981 by Iain H. Murray

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 by Iain H. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading Murray’s first volume on the life of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I was practically foaming at the mouth to read the second volume.

It did not disappoint.

This look at the second half of Lloyd-Jones’ ministry covers his ministry at Westminster Chapel, his relationship with InterVarsity, his eventual rift with this ministry, spiritual depression, illnesses, and, above it all, his supernatural faith in a supernatural God.

Murray painstakingly researched his subject. I’m sure that his personal admiration for the man made that process a lot easier. And, through Murray’s faithful research, people for generations to come will have a clear picture of this man, whom God used so mightily in His kingdom’s work.

It’s hard to put into words what I enjoyed most about the biography. I enjoyed so many different things. Murray shows Lloyd-Jones’ unwavering conviction that the Word of God is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). He also shows Lloyd-Jones’ spiritual sensitivity in dealing with controversial issues.

But he also paints the portrait of the pastor as a family man. He was devoted to his wife and daughters, and could hardly stand to be separated from them. He was a die-hard patriot, and Wales was the home that he loved more than any other place in the world, despite his faithful ministry in London for so many years.

He looks at the Lloyd-Jones’ life during World War II, and how it changed them as it changed the nation.

Above all, Murray faithfully shows what Lloyd-Jones himself believed with fervor: that he was just an instrument, and the true skill lay in the hand of the One who wielded it. While it’s clear that Lloyd-Jones was mightily used to promote the gospel and the kingdom of heaven, all the praise goes not to Murray or to Lloyd-Jones, but to the God of heaven.

I benefited greatly from reading about Lloyd-Jones, as well as from reading excerpts of his writings that the author saw fit to include. I look forward to reading more of Murray’s biographies in the future.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 35: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d heard a lot of different things about Solaris; it’s one of those books that people either seem to love or hate.

That’s why I was so perplexed to find that my ultimate reaction to the book was: “Meh.”

Lem’s writing is interesting; he’s certainly got a gift for description. His eerie account of the planet Solaris’ surface really set the tone of the book and got me all readied up for some serious creeping-out.

But the actual plot of the book was just a little bit of a letdown. Dr. Kris Kelvin has just arrived on the planet Solaris for a stint of research. Just before his arrival, one of his colleagues died under suspicious circumstances. On top of that, there are signs that there may be others on the research station — despite the fact that it would be impossible for anyone other than the scientists to get to the station in the first place.

When Kelvin is visited by someone from his past, he begins to lose his grip on reality.

The whole “visitor” thing was a little “meh” to me. There was so much promise; the “giant Negress” (thanks for that oh-so-modern and politically correct translation, book) that was Gibarian’s visitor was so creepy and mysterious. And then we get Rheya (Kelvin’s visitor), and the whole thing just wasn’t nearly as creepy as I expected it to be.

And the ending — it kinda felt like a cop-out to me.

But it can’t be denied that Lem writes beautifully, and I’d read the book again just to drink in his poetic descriptions.

View all my reviews

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