Category Archives: Food

Tutto Fresco – Not so fast food

Once upon a time we were searching for a McD’s that still had the McRib available and came across something much better – an Italian restaurant with a drive thru! And thus our love of Tutto Fresco began. There is something very cool about being able to get lasagna and hot chewy bread without having to get out of the car or even leaving the house (since Tutto also delivers). Many a cold mucky day has been saved by the ability to have hot tomato soup or chicken alfredo delivered. Quite an upgrade from cheap pizza, but not as expensive as Lunch On the Run or those other restaurant delivery services.

As to the food – these are good portions of familiar Italian fare, similar to what you might get at an Olive Garden, but with a more homemade taste and greater variety of offerings. So far we have tried a sizable amount of their menu and never come away disappointed. Our favorites include their meatballs, which are huge and appear to be laced with melty mozzerella, salmon with pesto, and the lasagna. Every order comes with yummy chewy bread that can be dipped in rosemary infused olive oil. If you get it delivered, they will bring you a whole bag of the stuff. (Not that you should eat the whole bag, but it’s great for sharing amongst friends when getting pizza or sub sandwiches seems boring.

Speaking of sharing – one of the highlights of the menu is their cake bites. Available in chocolate or carrot cake, they are 2 inch squares of sweetness. Perfect if you want just a little something after lunch, or for ordering by the dozen for aforementioned spontaneous party. (Or not so spontaneous – they also offer catering.)

With locations in both Orange and Rancho Santa Margarita, you should give them a try!

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Peppermint Crunch Junior Mints

We are really enjoying the themed Junior Mints this year. I mean, it isn’t really a world-changer but they are a nice snack and a good bit of variety from their usual. So far, we have had the Valentines Day Junior Mints (really liked these – thicker filling with a bit more sugar) and the Easter mints (did not like the coating, overall was a thumbs down). So, we approached the Peppermint Crunch with a 50% success rate.

The Peppermint Crunch differed from the others in that they didn’t really change the core formula – they had the normal filling and the normal chocolate coating. However, what they added was a crunchy sprinkling that vaguely related a candy cane in flavor. Not in the sense that they tasted artificial or cloying, but just that it was a slightly gentler taste than you would get from literally eating a Junior Mint sprinkled with candy cane bits.

Adding a bit of crunch to a Junior Mint added a lot to the experience (such as it is) of eating them, which didn’t shock me due to our habit of eating them in movie popcorn. They didn’t magically morph into gourmet candies or anything but they were definitely a step up from the normal Junior Mints, with no particular price premium or irritation (unlike the cloying aftertaste from the Easter mints), so I would recommend them heartily.

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The Counter – Fancy Burgers

We’ve been hearing about The Counter for a long time, but given our sour experience with Slaters, we were hesitant to try another trendy hipster burger place. Especially one located in the Woodbridge area of Irvine, where Yuppie meets Hipster in a sometimes mind bending fashion. But while, yes, the wild Hipster is absolutely getting his or her burger on at The Counter, I am quite happy to report that there is no snotty attitude to be found in the waitstaff. Our waitress seemed genuinely pleased to see us, even on a busy Saturday afternoon, and was always quick to make sure we had drinks and understood the ordering system. She even brought us an extra round of their wonderful peanut sauce when our daughter lamented that she wished she’d ordered that to go on her burger. Yes, this was going to be a very different experience from Slaters indeed.

The reason I compare them is both pride themselves on being trendy places with unusual burgers and an almost identical ordering system, in which you fill out a little questionnaire about your perfect burger. (Or chicken sandwich, in the case of our daughter.)  One of the things that made me smile right away is that unlike Slaters you can actually order an individual side of fries for less than $2 – good news when you are the only one who enjoys sweet potato fries at the table. Honestly the side I received wasn’t much smaller than the Slaters one I got for twice as much, so that was awesome. And should you order a full baskets of fries, especially the cheese fries, you will not be disappointed. The order we received was huge, and the fries, while skinny, were amazing. Seriously. I don’t know what seasoned salt they use, but I could eat them all day. I ended up ditching my yummy but nothing to write home about sweet potato fries for a share of the cheese fries pretty quickly.

Then the burgers arrived. The presentation is great. The burgers looked sizable and delicious, without being overwhelmed by the toppings. I ordered mine with peanut sauce and pineapple, which ends up giving the burger a nice sweet meets salty spicy kick. The burger is easy to eat and is not completely lost in the bun. I like that they give you the sauce on the side so you can regulate the amount. This the “six dollar” burger Carl’s was telling you about a decade ago. Except now it’s $10. Oh well. Inflation. I’ve cut almost all fast food out of my diet – if I’m going to indulge in a burger it should be a really good burger, and this was a really good burger. Well worth the splurge. I had a bite of the aforementioned chicken sandwich also, and I am please to report that is is an actual breast of chicken and it was also cooked very well – not all rubbery like certain other burger places we have gone to.

Overall, The Counter was just a total 180 from our experience at Slaters 50/50 in all the right ways, and I have no idea how Slaters got all those awards without bribing someone. The service at The Counter was fast, helpful, and friendly, plus the food was brilliant. I would come back just for the fries. And maybe to try their shakes. I’m very happy this was one of those restaurants that lived up to its hype.

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Pink’s Hot Dogs – Knott’s Berry Farm Location

Pink’s Hot Dogs is a moderately famous place, especially in recent years, with the expansions out in Vegas and in Buena Park. I have not eaten at the original Pink’s, but I have eaten their catering once and their Buena Park location once. Fair disclaimers if they are necessary. Pink’s Buena Park has a pretty standard fast food vibe, albeit with a lot more celebrity pictures than you would expect to see in your average mom and pop fast food place. The line wasn’t too bad but, again, being fast food there was no particular service to talk about.

Pink’s is pretty simple – other than the fries, there are four basic ingredients: turkey dog, hot dog, chili, and cheese. The hot dogs are good but perhaps a bit odd, at least to my palate. This is due to their having a moderately thick casing, enough to pop when you bite through it. This combined with what at least had a mouth feel of better meat, led it verging on seeming more like a sausage dog than a hot dog. I found this good in small doses but the bacon burrito dog, which contains three dogs and thus three times the casing, started to wear me out after a while. Too much work, though the cheese, chili, and tortilla were all quite tasty.

I found myself preferring the turkey dogs – they were tasty and easier to eat, without so much effort in the biting. Now, it certainly isn’t an inherently bad thing to load up on casing and I think a fair number of people actually prefer it, and it’s not really physically difficult to eat – I just prefer a simpler, easier to eat hot dog than the beef dogs at Pink’s, especially when they were packed on top of each other in an appalling but delicious fast food concoction. As a side note, their chili cheese fries were very forgettable. I would definitely take Weinerschnitzel or Tommy’s chili fries instead of these, and I believe they are cheaper, as well.

One warning, though – I am not sure if this is exclusive to the Buena Park locale since that happens to be inside Knott’s Berry Farm’s little shopping area, but the prices were quite expensive for what I would really struggle to call anything other than high quality fast food. On the plus side, Knott’s actually has a handful of free historical exhibits like Independence Hall and a replica of George Washington’s fireplace, so you can make an afternoon out of it. I believe the original Hollywood location may be cheaper, but in the past when trying to go there the line was literally around the block and I can’t imagine waiting that long for hot dogs.

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Steak N’ Shake – Mysteries of the Mid West… SOLVED!

One of the awesome things about Las Vegas is it’s a chance to try restaurants from other parts of the country you can’t find in Southern California. On our latest outing we took the opportunity to try out a burger place often name dropped by gamers who attend a certain mid west convention. Steak ‘n Shake

As it so happens the Vegas Steak ‘n Shake is located at the South Pointe, either on your way in or out of Vegas from all points West and South. Thus it is an easy stop off either to end your Vegas traffic induced fasting or as a preparation for said traffic induced fasting.

What to look for in the casino.

First off, you are warned there may be a line. Go at an off time and you will be spared the wait.

Once you are in, the Steak N’ Shake resembles a 1950’s diner, as mandated by the unofficial All American burger joint code. (See Ruby’s, Johnny Rockets, etc.) Unlike many of our chain diner and Vegas restaurant experiences, however, the service was terrific. The waitress was super friendly and seemed happy to help us navigate the wide array of burgers and shakes available.

Yummy burger! Okay fries.Yes, the “Steak” in Steak N’ Shake does not refer to steak in the traditional sense, as much as it does to burgers made with steak. It also refers to hot dogs made with steak, which we did not try on this go around. However we did try the burgers, and they were very good. I was a little concerned that a steak burger would not be as juicy as I normally like my burgers, but mine was moist and flavorful. There are a ton of toppings to choose from including their own chili, which is also available in little to-go buckets up front, all Tommy’s style. The fries are skinny, which I’m getting more used to, although I still prefer thick cut fries. Still these were tasty and not overly crispy. But the big thing here is the shake.

Side by Side: Chocolate Banana

I was at first dismissive of their shake menu online. It didn’t seem much different than what you could get at Ruby’s or Johnny Rockets. But I was wrong. So wrong. The shakes were thick and tasty, and S&S had a neat “side by side” option where they fill one half of your (GIANT) shake glass with one flavor and the other side with another. The result is you get a much more even blend of flavors than layer usually results in. I had banana and chocolate. It was really really good. I want another one now even as I am thinking about it.

Lastly, it’s important that you know that they aren’t kidding about that 4 meals under $4 pricing on the website. I would take a wild guess keeping their pricing that low has kept them out of California, but the prices at Vegas were insanely cheap compared to the unpleasant surprises we’ve had at Johnny Rockets and Ruby’s. We fed 3 very hungry adults and a growing tween on less than $40 – a meal that included burgers, fries, and huge shakes, plus chili spaghetti (not as good as Big Boy’s, but not bad either). Even by Vegas standards, that’s really good. And it was more than enough to sustain us on our long car ride back to the land of $5 shakes. Sadness!

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Slater’s 50/50

Before I explain anything about Slater’s to you, understand that this is a place where you’re going to pay $20-30ish a head to have a burger, a beer, and a side. Now, where I live, there is a lot  of competition. In-N-Out, the Habit, Grill Em All, Tommy Burgers and Red Robin all come immediately to mind as eateries that are at the very least very competitive with Slater’s on a price point basis. I think most people would  agree that Slater’s is better than In-N-Out, for instance, but is it 3-5x as good? This I am not sure of.  But, now that that is out of the way, consider this review to be pricing blind.

I had the Slater’s 50/50, which is a burger patty that is half bacon (really it seemed more like pork belly). Though I had the unfortunate experience of eating one of these patties that had the approximate consistency of a burger / cold cut hybrid, this (new and improved according to a few Slater’s regulars) 50/50 actually hit the spot – it tasted and had the texture of a burger but it also had a tasty, subtle, smoky flavor that I really enjoyed. The burgers came in 1/3 lb, 2/3 lb and full pound sizes, which was a small bit frustrating due to 2/3 being massive and 1/3 being a bit small (why not a half pounder?)

The toppings had good variety, though for comparison’s sake I will mention that gourmet burger rival the Counter seems to have a bit more variety, from glancing over their menu. Now, to step back, this isn’t a big deal for me personally since I like simple burgers anyway, but then again Burgandy wished for more varieties of jelly and I would have preferred some kind of chipotle BBQ. On the other hand, they do have a cheese sauce option, so I went for bacon, cheese sauce, and American cheese.

Slater’s doesn’t seem too big on fries outside of an $5 appetizer – we ate in a group and almost no one had anything but the burger itself. I thought this was a bit of a gyp considering that you already paid for the burger and extra for the bacon and the alcohol isn’t cheap, but I guess it worked considering that the burgers were massive. We did spring for a couple of appetizers – the most notable was a quesadilla with cheese, bacon, and mashed  potatoes that was almost as good as it sounded but a bit lacking in spice.

So, having in mind that the above is a little on the stream of consciousness side, the summary is as follows:

Apple beer. Delicious. I believe it was $9 for a GLASS, though.

Mashed potato quesadilla. I honestly really liked this one. But Burgandy did make a good point that it was very lacking in spice, or at least tasty dipping sauces. It also had to serve as a side since the burgers don’t come with them.

Burger. Expensive. Delicious patty. Toppings expensive yet lacking in two in a couple of things I would have expected. Bacon was good and so was American cheese and cheese sauce. Huge patty (though I tire of the trick of giving you a bigger portion than you wanted and then charging you proportionately but then trying to turn it into a net positive – ‘look at all the food I treated you with!’

That’s… basically it. And though I really liked my burger and it was as big as my daughter’s head, I still felt a bit gypped because given the price point and the wait. The whole thing took almost two hours, a long time for a burger without much else. Seems like you could at least get a soup or salad? Or at least some fries?

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Thing to do in Vegas (When you don’t gamble)

We go to Vegas quite a bit, thanks to the generosity of my parents and their timeshare, but we don’t gamble, and we usually take our daughter. So why go so much? There’s a whole lot to Vegas both on and off the famous Strip that is worth checking out.

1. Hit the Buffet of Buffets – We covered this before, but seriously, this is a great deal for families with picky eaters or who want to introduce their kids to new foods without shelling out for a whole dinner they might end up not eating.

In the Fall...

Or summer.

2. Mt. Charleston – You cannot get farther from the neon lights of Vegas than to find yourself surrounded by miles of beautiful wilderness to explore. Although the mountain does have a ski resort, I’d recommend taking a break from the heat of summer to enjoy the trails – the mountain is often about 10 degrees cooler than the valley. Or go in fall and enjoy the snow like we did on our recent trip. At only about an hour drive from the Strip, it’s a great day trip.

3. Hit the fair or a sporting event – There is much more happening in Las Vegas than just what’s playing at the casinos. Take the time to look up local events before you go, and you might find an expected game or event going on that is right up your alley. The last time we went to Vegas we got to visit a Renaissance Faire being held the park across from Sam Boyd. Way more fun and educational than wandering around the Excalibur Hotel.

5. See a show – Although many shows in Vegas are Adult Oriented Content, a little homework can reveal more than a few magic shows or Broadway style musicals that are perfectly kid friendly. Like “V, the Variety Show” at Planet Hollywood. Just remember, never pay full price. “Family friendly” shows tend to be afternoon shows with light attendance, and discount tickets can usually be easily found in one of the many, many Vegas coupons books you are likely to be handed during your trip.

6. Visit a museum – Vegas is actually home to more than a few museums, some of which are on the educational end and some of which are just fun. We visiting the Museum of Natural History a couple of years ago – while small compared to the one in LA, it had plenty of rooms to explore including some cool hands on exhibits. Or you could get in a game or two or two hundred of pinball at the Pinball Museum.

7.  Meet a furry friend – Nevada is much more exotic pet friendly than California, and as such, it also has some pretty awesome pet stores with much more to check out than your usual kittens and puppies. Visit Pet Kingdom and you might find yourself being nuzzled by a piglet, quietly observing sugar gliders while they sleep, or getting ready to write the governor about repealing California’s ban on ferrets after they climb all over you in the most adorably aggressive way possible. Or if you prefer something you won’t be tempted to smuggle over the border, you could just visit the Las Vegas Zoo. Which also has exotic animals, but in a less up close and personal way.

 

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When in Vegas – Buffet of Buffets review

Harrah’s is apparently trying to corner the market on the “All You Can” Vegas experience. Since the last time we were out they appear to have added a deal that includes all the shows you can watch and all the clubs you can handle, but the one we took advantage of was the Buffet of Buffets. After 10 minutes of signing up for Harrah’s rewards program, we were able to get the buffet deal for $44.99 each. Signing up for the card has the added advantage in that the card becomes your buffet pass, instead of having to wear a plastic bracelet for 24 hours.

For our first buffet, we went to the Rio, which in times past was our favorite buffet, where we have at times spent more than $45 just for that buffet alone. Alas, the lowering of the price seems to have taken it’s toll on our beloved buffet. Although Rio still has a multicultural station theme going on, with each section of the buffet representing a different type of cuisine, most of it was not very appetizing looking. The simple food was okay – BBQ, burgers, and shrimp were all passable, but not much better than what you’d expect to get at a Sizzler. The roast beef was downright tough and inedible. Luckily their awesome gelato bar was there to save the day. Was it worth the approximately $10 to $15 we paid to get in the door? Sure, but just barely.

Not bad, but not great either.

Although they do have many flavors of gelato - clockwise from left: vanilla, tiramisu, orange cream

You get what you pay for?

I thought that, but then later that day we hit Lago at Caesar’s Palace for dinner. Thanks to a certain famous comedy, Caesar’s is now the most famous hotel on the strip, so I expect good things from them. Several good reviews of Lago on Yelp pushed the bar up even further. I was not disappointed. Lago was the antithesis of our experience at Rio. Unlike Rio the selection is very small, but what it lacks in variety, it more than makes up in quality. Everything we got was terrific, and the attention to detail was really neat. Salads and fruit came in little glass cups, which, besides being cute, kept the line moving nicely. My plate of prime rib, snow crab legs, and sweet potatoes would have been worth dropping $15 by itself. In fact, we loved the food so much, I didn’t even get any pictures. But that’s okay, because where Lago really shines is its desserts. They are tiny, they are ADORABLE, and they are DIVINE. Seriously, you have to eat them to understand. The Oreos covered in chocolate ganache and dipped in more chocolate? Insane. And the gelato even comes in a waffle cone. The little mini lemon meringue was light and brilliant. It’s completely nuts.I would go to Lago just for the desserts.

So many tiny desserts! And they were all heavenly!

Death by chocolate!

Calories? Diabetes? LALALALALALALALA I can't hear you!

The next day, we hit Le Village at the Paris for an early lunch. I announced the last time we ate here that this was my new favorite buffet in Vegas and despite the sheer nirvana that is Lago’s dessert bar, it still is my overall favorite. BUT you have to like what they are serving. We’re talking a heavy European influence here – French and Greek staples rule here, but if you like things like freshly made pitas, lamb straight off the grill, ratatouille, mac n’ cheese made with brie and bacon, and made to order crepes this is the place for you. Heck, all you can eat freshly made crepes is worth the price alone. It could only be better if they had savory crepes (right now they only seem to have fruit and nutella based ones, but my goodness are they awesome). This is also one of the only buffets that does veggies right. I found myself loading up one plate with asparagus and candied sweet potatoes. Based on some of the reviews I’ve seen, it’s kind of an acquired taste, but if you like French or Greek food, this is a great deal. (And I do.)

Now this is food. Good food. So yum.

Caramel apple crepe with fresh whipped cream. Apple pie has got NOTHING on this.

Other buffets available are the ones at Planet Hollywood (was unimpressed the last time we went, but it has good reviews on Yelp), Imperial Palace, Harrah’s (naturally), and the Flamingo.

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Round Table Pizza Buffet

I had the Round Table Pizza Buffet last week. Now, Round Table is one of my favorite pizza places, but due to it being about twice as much as, say, Shakey’s, I do not eat there too often. I think they have some of the best crust around and they have great cheese and breadsticks, but Mojo Potatoes make a decent substitute and there’s no fried chicken available at Round Table. Now, I don’t eat Shakey’s chicken that much (except at their buffet), but it is good.

However, there is a great alternative to playing a bunch of money for Round Table, which is the pizza buffet! For about $7 you get a full pizza buffet and a drink. Compare this, mind, to the $40 plus it tends to cost to feed out little family of three with a limited quantity of pizza. Thus it is an infinitely more valuable deal, though I think you will probably realistically cap out at maybe ten pieces, which cuts down the amount of value some.

The positives – compared to Shakey’s buffet, Round Table is equivalently or slightly cheaper priced despite the fact that the pizza usually costs about twice as much. I am not a big salad eater but the salad bar looked very well stocked, had chilled plates, and even had some pretty fresh boiled eggs. Unlike at Shakey’s where you will possibly have to camp out to get a single piece of desert pizza (last time I went we ended up splitting 3 pieces among 2 of us thanks to the demand) Round Table has a whole station of ooey-gooey cinnamon sticks.

The negatives – the pizza does seem a bit less delicious than usual – I don’t notice any step down on the Shakey’s pizza, but it was not as good to start with. Probably pound for pound the Round Table Pizza is still better pizza overall, but I still noticed. There was less variety in the food available – Shakey’s has some pizza, mojo’s, chicken, salad, and some pasta but Round Table was just pizza and salad. And, though the dessert was easier to get, it was not nearly as delicious or decadent as Smore’s Pizza. It’s also not open on weekends, so I can only go there at work-lunch, when I tend to diet or at the very least not have ten pieces of pizza. Still definitely worth trying if you can time it right!

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An Epic Tale of Wine and Chocolate

Or at least it seemed pretty epic.

A few weeks ago we visited Sonoma and did some wine tasting, returning with a bottle of Sweet Sunset Red Chocolate wine, which turned out to be perfect for sipping while watching the Coppola restoration of The Godfather on my birthday. But by the end of the movie we had only an empty bottle. Online searches failed to turn up any place to easily procure more of this excellent dessert drink. But I did find the website for the home winery, ADS Wines, and it had a little “contact us” page, so I shipped off an email.

More than a few emails and phone calls later, ADS had put me in touch with a local distributor, San Antonio Winery, who in turn was able to arrange to have our very small order of five bottles shipped to us at the Wine Club, which is on my home. For less per bottle than we paid in Sonoma. Brilliant.

I was just looking for someone to tell me where we would go pick it up, and many companies would just tell you it’s not available in your area. But ADS and San Antonio went out of their way to help us out. That’s old fashioned customer service. Really classy. More companies should take their sales this seriously, even the small ones. I already planning on introducing other fellow wine and chocolate lovers to this great wine, but now I really want to give a general shout out to ADS wines, because they really went above and beyond the call of duty.

And I think I know what I’m having for dessert on Friday.

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