Tag Archives: Orange County

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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This is Halloween… Haunt.

Growing up in northern Orange County, Knott’s annual Halloween Haunt isn’t just something fun to do in October, it’s an institution. You didn’t just go to Haunt, you went with friends, you made plans around it, when you were older you would work there, or you would at least know a bunch of people that worked there, then eventually, like all teenage obsessions, you would get over it, then not go for a few years until nostalgia began nipping at your heels and some friend of yours says “Hey, you know what we should do? We should go to Haunt!” And filled with memories of your glory days, you figure out babysitting for the kids, realize you are stuck going on a Saturday because you don’t want to leave early from work for haunt, but you don’t want to go to work after being up until 2am either. Or maybe that’s just us. But it WAS us, and for the first time in a decade we made our return to the land of mazes and mayhem.

First off, it may have been worth it to try to pull off Haunt on a weekday. We dropped off our daughter with my parents at Beach and Main at 6:45. Knott’s, for those unfamiliar with OC, is about a 15 minute drive up Beach from there. Usually. Or it might be 8:30pm before we are FINALLY pulling into the parking lot. And it might then be another half hour braving a line to get in the gates and searching through wall to wall obnoxious teenagers to find our friends. (Cell service, at least for us, was quite spotty throughout the night.)

Once that nightmare was over we were more than ready to hit the mazes. Killer clowns have nothing on a gaggle of teen girls looking like they got lost on the way to a Ke$ha concert and squealing about every roving monster they come across. (Must… restrain… fist of death.)

*Ahem* So, the mazes. Lines were pretty long here, unsurprising at this point, so we didn’t get to hit every maze. We visited Dia De Los Muertos (in 3D!!! Which is weird because isn’t EVERY maze in 3D? WTH Knott’s?), which was pretty fun, if not particularly scary. The sets were drenched in every color of glow in the dark paint, and the halls were actually really roomy, so the whole thing had more the effect of visiting a Hispanic museum in October while seriously tripping on acid than a frightening maze. The sugar skull decorated pole dancer in the “cantina” set was more hot than fright inducing, although she didn’t seem to appreciate this assessment. (Dude, I didn’t put the pole there. I’m just calling them as I see them.)

Working our way clockwise around the park, we next visited the Big Top maze. Apparently the killer clowns did not get the memo they are supposed to be IN the maze. More clowns seemed to be running around outside menacing people around the “Carnevil” scare zone than were actually working the maze. My sister, who once upon a time worked Haunt tells me this is unusual, but it seriously undermined the maze when it became just walking from one goofy room to another, constantly seeing spots where, clearly, someone was supposed to be pretending to be scenery before jumping out at us. Not cool guys. We waited freakin’ 45 minutes to get into the maze, I expect more than just some attempts at off color humor of the circus variety. And again – HUGE hallways. Where were the claustrophobia inducing mazes I remembered from my ill spent youth?

We wandered over towards the Necropolis scare zone, lured by tales of vampire steampunk monsters, and discover some of the best mazes of the night – Virus Z and Fallout Shelter were both very well done, and very old school mazes. Lots of monsters, some surprisingly good special effect, and really detailed set pieces. While most of the monsters so far had managed to do little more than be boring or downright piss me off, the guys and gals working the two zombie themed mazes got us good more than once and by the time I was near the end of the Fallout maze I was getting that fun but creepy paranoid feeling any good maze should give you. Honestly, there were some moments in the Fallout shelter maze that actually felt like some kind of Resident Evil LARP (so much so I had to remind myself that if you punch these zombies, it gets you kicked out of the park), and I consider that high praise . If there was any downside, it was that we were shuffled along so fast by the crowd we didn’t get as good a look at the awesome sets as we wanted to.

Rounding out the night – Cornstalkers was fun, although a couple of the monsters were a little too aggressive, and our friends had high praise for Dollhouse and Delirium, although we did not get to experience them ourselves. Invasion (in the mine ride) was just… lame. Just skip that one.

Highlight of the night was not actually a maze at all – if you go to Haunt, you MUST check out Ed Alonzo’s Psycho Circus show in the far corner of the park – it was a ton of fun. Great magic, funny jokes, and some neat dance numbers with hottie girls, topped off by a topless (male) fire dancer. Really awesome show. Much higher production values than I was expecting after wandering the mazes. (Some of which are populated by costumes that appear to be nothing more than thrift store clothing and a cheap mask.) Very Vegas-ish. Well worth checking out and not a bad way to get off your feet after walking what must be miles of mazes.

So, there you go. Haunt from a middle aged perspective. It was fun, but maybe aimed at a younger audience than me. But, you know, it’s TRADITION!

(I’ll fix this later, but for now, visit their pretty awesome website here: http://haunt.knotts.com/

and if you are going to go, I’d recommend getting discount tix from AAA online if you have a membership – it was the best deal going when we got ours.)

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A Meal Fit for… well… a Hobbit – a food review in two parts

Part 1 (I couldn’t possibly do The Hobbit justice in one post, so Part 2 will go up tomorrow.)

The subject comes up relatively often – what’s the best meal you ever had? (Or as Food Network would put it – the best thing you ever ate?) For the past few years, I would tell you, without hesitation, that it was the romantic dinner David and I enjoyed at The Hobbit in Orange, after I agreed to not drag David to my high school reunion. Best bribe ever, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. So when I got an email that The Hobbit was offering a special deal for Easter, we jumped at the chance to introduce our daughter (who has become quite the foodie herself) to the wonders of fine dining.

Going to the Hobbit is like going to one of those fancy dinner parties you see in old movies – even the restaurant itself is a renovated mansion not far from Old Town Orange, dripping in ivy and adorned to whisk you away to a time when California was still a young state. We showed up in our fancy dress (a must for The Hobbit – jeans here just look sloppy), and were immediately greeted by the owners, who welcome guests as if they were long time friends. We were given a short tour of the house, then left to roam freely until the official start of the proceedings.

Outside of a lack of beds and an excess of dining tables, the house looks much as you might imagined it looked many decades ago with a strong art deco theme throughout. After exploring a bit, we got a couple cocktails from the bar (and a soda for the little one) and relaxed in one of the upstairs dens, taking note of our fellow guests and admiring the historical decor.

Shortly thereafter, everyone was summoned down to the wine cellar to enjoy champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Because there is limited seating at The Hobbit, the cellar is full, but in a cozy sort of way with hors d’oeuvres set on tables throughout so that you are encouraged to wander and mingle, perhaps sample the wine offerings and make selections for the night’s meal. The hor d’oeuvres are fantastic and really set the stage for the whole night. All the classics are here: caviar, foie gras, little cucumber bites with a smooth yogurt filling. You could imagine, for a just a moment, you are a well to do debutante at the turn of the century, enjoying her first formal evening in the home of a beloved aunt and uncle. Or at least I can. It’s one of the things I love about this restaurant. The absolute standout for us, though, was a simple but brilliant take on the grilled cheese sandwich – delicate flaky puff pasty layered with gooey melt in your mouth guyere cheese. It matched especially well with The Hobbit’s own house bubbly, which has a clean refreshing taste to it – something I appreciate, being not a big fan of sparkling wines myself.

Act one completed, we were escorted up to the dining rooms, where each party had been assigned their own table, complete with place card, and a butter urn wherein the butter had been carefully formed to resemble a blooming rose, not unlike the ones that donated the rose petals strewn carefully over the tablecloths. The candlelight tops off the effect. If I ever come into big money, I will have a party here and everyone will be required to wear tuxedos and ballgowns. It’s that kind of place.

On our tables, printed in fancy script on parchment is the menu for the evening, as well as a wine menu, since we had sprung for the wine pairing option. We did this on our first trip, and if you go, it is well worth the investment. The wines are already matched to compliment the food and seem to be chosen to highlight obscure vineyards. This works well for us, as we are not big wine drinkers – we don’t have to worry about what we should order, and since the pairing has a flat rate, we don’t have to worry about accidentally ordering something far out of our budget. (Although the last time we came here we so fell in love with the Dr. Loosen Riesling we bought a whole bottle, so there is that temptation.)

Each course is served with The Hobbits amazing dinner rolls. I don’t know what’s in them, but it’s a damn good thing they only give you one per course and not leave you with a whole basket because I would eat a dozen without hesitation. I remembered them as the “best dinner bread I ever ate” and they lived up to my expectations this time around as well.

Oh yeah, and then we were served dinner. (Dining at The Hobbit is an experience to be savored. Expect to be here all evening.) First course was a delicate poached halibut served in a delicious corn sauce described as “sweet corn nage with mache greens”. Since we’ve got several courses to cover, the serving is about the size of a pack of cards, but every bite is full of flavor as the halibut just melts in my mouth. Perfect. It is matched with a Pinto Grigio Dolomiti from Italy. I have no idea what that means, but the wine compliments the seafood nicely.

Not long after we finish this course and have had time for a bit of conversation, the sommelier comes around and replace our wine glasses, now serving us something called “Casa Basa” which apparently is imported from Cotes du Rhone Villages in France. It is a good compliment to the next course – a cut of lamb served with a size of fava beans and farro. Although the mention of fava beans and lamb tempts me to bust out the Hannibal Lector impression, I refrain and instead just enjoy the juicy meat dish. I am a big fan of lamb and this was quite good, although later we all agreed it was one of the less successful dishes, as the lamb is a bit underdone for our liking.

As everyone completed the lamb course, we were all encouraged to roam the house once again, perhaps take a tour of the small kitchen (which we do, getting a sneak peak at the next course in the process) or enjoy the patio outside for some fresh air (which we do as well). This also gives us time to look around the various frames for the excerpt from the book for which the restaurant gets its name, as well as some framed art work depicting the Fellowship of the Ring. (I think the hobbits would much approve of our dining experience thus far.)

And with that I will close part 1. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

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