Providence – Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles, CA

The dictionary defines the word “providence” as divine guidance.  One meal here and you will see why it is such a fitting name for the restaurant.  Los Angeles has its fair share of the glut of seafood restaurants that promise freshness, great quality, grilled this and that.  But it is rare to see one offer a menu that is composed of pairings of flavors and textures that surpass the greatest of expectations.

Executive Chef Michael Cimarusti has shown that his talents are up there with best.  Garnering 2 Michelin stars and winning a James Beard award are just mere acknowledgements to the harmony that will play on your palate.  The Tasting Menu is a perfect place to start even though dishes may also be ordered individually. Although there is no defined cultural theme to the cuisine at Providence, you will notice a tendency towards an Asian, mostly Japanese, influence.

Their seasonal cocktail menu is interesting enough that it arouses your curiosity and encourages you to be adventurous without straying too far from the familiar. Their Love is a Rose is composed of gin, lillet rose, perfection tangerine, passionfruit, honey, and prosecco. Dominant tangerine and prosecco notes make it taste like a well balanced mimosa.DSC_0542

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Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen – Laguna Beach, CA

OC TOP 100: DISH #20 – CALLALOO SOUP

What comes to mind when I think of Caribbean food are tropical drinks imbued with rum, roadside jerk stands, and steel drums belting out the song Under the Sea to a crowd of dancing crabs. Steel drums are a marvel of a musical instrument producing sounds that are bewildering for a percussion instrument. Even if you have never been to the Caribbean, the video below will still be familiar. For an immersive experience you can read this post while playing the music in the background.

Set in Laguna Beach, Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen recaptures that Caribe feel so you can pretend that you have gone on a relaxing vacation.  Just barely discernible from the street, it is a place where space is intimate and other kitschy decor feels like you have been transported to a much simpler place.  But the cuisine here is beyond simple. The quality of ingredients surpasses anything that you would find on any roadside shack and has been elevated to the level you would expect of an eatery in Laguna Beach. You will most likely want to start off with a cocktail as Eva’s has an extensive selection of rums.  Multiple flight themes are available as well as fruity tropical drink concoctions sans the little toothpick umbrellas. The Brown Suga incorporates Venezuelan Diplomatico Reserva rum with lime juice and rimed with cinnamon and brown sugar.  Another favorite is Eva’s Knockout Rum Punch made with JM Rhum Blanc, cinnamon, cloves, and guava juice.  But the Tropical Rum Punch is the fruitiest with mango, guava, and passionfruit juices with JM Rhum Blanc.  If you are into gender equality, they also have the female version of the cocktail, the Pink Punani  which is guava juice and rum.  If I have to explain the joke behind this one, your mind is not corrupt enough and I would rather not be the one responsible.

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Cream Pan – Tustin, CA

OC TOP 100: DISH #19 – STRAWBERRY CROISSANT

Cream Pan is a quaint little Japanese-French bakery.  It is to Orange County as what Porto’s is to LA.  Expect epic lines on the weekends.  Even on the weekdays, a lot of their bakery items will sell out by late afternoon.  If you are lucky enough to make it here on a weekday you will swear that they have some mysterious teleportation device on the premises.

On one particular morning, I was delighted to find no one in line.  It took no longer than a minute to order and pay for my items.  As I turned to leave, there was a line out the door. I felt like I was in some kind of surreal flashmob.  But here, the object of everyone’s quest was not to dance like some horrid episode of Glee, but to get their hands on the famous Strawberry Croissant.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, since it is not really like a croissant.  The dough is in between croissant and puff pastry.  Crisp on the outside, but slightly chewy inside, one bite and you will have little croissant flakes all over your chest.  On the inside, they have piped a little bit of pastry cream and added some slices of strawberries.  It is just enough that it doesn’t detract from the flavor of the croissant.  That is critical otherwise you would be missing out on all the buttery goodness.

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Rao’s – Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, NV

The original location for Rao’s in NY is supposed to be the most difficult reservation to get, if not impossible.  So my curiosity was peaked at what made it so popular.  Up until now, the only exposure to Rao’s I had was their jarred pasta sauces that sell in the grocery store.   They are hard to miss, being nearly twice the price of the other sauces.

Their location in Caesar’s Palace allows little plebes like me to get a taste of real old school Italian cooking.  I imagine that dinner at Rao’s would be like eating the food that you see in any movie involving the Mob. I am not just stereotyping here, their NY location is a favorite among wiseguys and in 2003 there was a mob involved shooting.  Thankfully it wasn’t in the Godfather style where Michael Corleone comes out of the bathroom obliterating everything in sight.  A great deal of effort has been made to recreate the setting of its original location including the iconic storefront and photos of celebrity diners festooned on the walls.

As you are seated, a breadbasket is brought before you that is a virtual cornucopia of breads.  The hard part is to prevent yourself from going overboard and getting full before your meal even gets there.IMG_0221 Continue reading

Phil’s BBQ – San Diego [Santee], CA

Some of the best BBQ in SoCal can be found in San Diego County.  Phil’s BBQ has had an explosion of business after Guy Fieri featured the place in his show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  No longer a local secret, customers now have to endure a wait up to 2 hours to get a taste.  Damn you Guy Fieri. Damn you.  It is further exacerbated by the fact that there are really no other places in comparison in the county.  If you can’t bear the wait, I suggest you head to their Santee location as it is much less crowded. We had no wait on our most recent trip there, but typically, it maxes at 30-60 minutes.

If you do make it  to Phil’s you have to be cautious of something.  Ask for their BBQ sauce on the side.  It is not a bad sauce – thick, smoky, sweet, and tangy vinegar notes.  But if you let them slather this over your food on the meat, it will overpower everything.  Eventually the only thing you will taste is the sauce.  It has a peculiar trait of clinging to your palate.  Like the stalker you met on Match.com, it just won’t go away without a court order.  Pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken – it doesn’t matter, everything will taste the same and your meal will be effectively ruined.  But on the side, at your discretion, you will be able to moderate its flavor so you can take advantage of the slow-cooked goodness that is so enjoyable in real BBQ.

The meat on the Beef Ribs fall off the bone, so you don’t have to worry about looking like a clown in BBQ sauce makeup afterwards. If you order it as a dinner, you get to select up to two sides.  Personally, I thought the coleslaw and BBQ beans were the best.DSC_0529DSC_0527 Continue reading