Monday, March 19, 2012

Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que Tustin, Orange County, CA

I will start off with stating that I usually avoid chain restaurants. I have nothing against them, except for the fact that by the time they get big the cookie cutter economics and business style that comes with big chains will usually lower the quality of the food. Thankfully there are exceptions to this rule, and I'm happy to say the Lucille's is one of them.

So it was sunny Sunday around noon. I was visiting my folks up in the OC and trying to think of something that we all could eat. My parents have gotten more adventuresome as they've aged but getting them to go somewhere new can still be a bit of a hassle. For example, you will never find my mother in a little taqueria down in Santa Ana, no matter how great the food might be, a restaurant has to be clean looking both inside and out for her to approach it. My father on the other hand loves meat, so that takes out a lot of the places where meat is not the centerpiece of the meal, and don't you dare try to feed him tofu. My sister is still nursing a sensitive stomach so anything with too much heat is out, but she is flexible and not shy about asking the chef to change a dish to suit her tastes. So with this group I had to be sly and smart and practical. I finally settled on something very all American, simple, and tasty, Bar-B-Que.

Any way you spell it barbeque is the cornerstone of American eating. Good barbeque takes time and passion to create. Finding barbeque is easy, everybody has their little hole in the wall, or style they like, but finding something everyone can agree on is hard at the best of times. Thankfully a good friend of mine introduced me to Lucille's at one, or two or three of his birthday parties. I was instantly intrigued by the premise, and the giant smoker kept onside, inside the main eating hall, but I digress.

We made our way to the Lucille's in Tustin. The place had the feel of a slightly upscale TGIF, but underneath that there was something more. I didn't notice it until we sat down but the people were happy. After taking our drink orders our server said, "If you need anything just stop somebody we all share the (workload or tips)". I've heard of the idea before, even been to a restaurant that did it in theory, but I saw here that they really meant it, and that smile. It wasn't the regular, "Hey I got to work here, I'll do my best, what can I get you?" It was more, I am surprised by the fact I enjoy working here. The food is pretty good and I really do hope you enjoy yourself smile. Then came the biscuits.

Big, really big, buttermilk biscuits with a side of maple butter. It took all my willpower to only wolf down one biscuit. Everyone else had at least two. My fiance who loves biscuits, gets them every time we go anywhere that offers them, said they are the best she has ever had, and that wasn't even an appetizer. That is just what they offer when you first sit down. We did wind up getting three appetizers, a half order of Onion Straws. These are basically incredibly thin strips of onion deep fried in buttermilk. Perfect if you don't really like onions, because they are 90% batter anyway, so of course they were delicious. We also ordered some Fried Green Tomatoes because, well you have to order that in a southern restaurant. They were thick, breaded slabs of tomato battered in corn meal and deep fried, atop a slightly spicy red pepper cream sauce. Not hot but with just a hint of kick and a lot of flavor (sorry about the picture, everyone grabbed some before I could get a good picture of it, which just goes to show how tasty they are). Finally my sister and fiance split a plate of Flame Roasted Artichoke. Not my favorite dish, but I managed to snag a piece of artichoke heart and dip it in the very garlicky dip, which turned out to be pretty tasty. The piece of artichoke heart, I should add, was all that was left when they were done.

Trying not to gorge myself on the Onion Straws I waited and watched as the rest of my family ordered a second round of biscuits. You see I'd been to Lucille's before so I knew just how much food we were going to be getting. A short time later the food arrived. Giant slabs of food brought out by three people and gingerly placed before us. I had ordered the Beef Ribs, seven gigantic meat covered pieces of bone and some of the best Beef Ribs I've ever had short of Phil's, but believe me it is close. Of course that came with two sides so I got a little thing of Mac and Cheese and after a few moments of hesitation decided on the Fresh Vegetables. The vegetables were you basic fair (carrots, squash, a corn or two, and bits of red pepper) sounds healthy, but then slather it in oil, butter, and pepper and it is slightly less so, but still delicious. The Mac and Cheese were gooey concoctions of cheese and macaroni heaped into a bowl. Steering away from creamy this Mac and cheese is a bit on the heavy side, and just a bit chewy but only with the cheese, not the mac. The macaroni was cooked perfectly. Definitely one of the better bowls of Mac and Cheese I've ever gotten.

My dad surprised me by ordering the Jambalaya. I thought for sure he would order a rack of something. Still I understand as the Jambalaya has a nice little kick to it, and he does love a bit of spice in his food. I stole a bit and remembered just how much I liked the Jambalaya when I'd gotten it. It is definitely my go to if I don't feel up to having mounds of meat at Lucille's. The rice was cooked just right though I've had better "dirty" rice before, the chicken, hot links, and shrimp were also good, and I think Lucille's does a pretty good job with the piquante tomato sauce they pour over everything. Could do without the garnish though, looked a bit like a toupee made of grass to me.

My mom got a lunch special, the Ribs and Tri-Tip, she also got a side of roasted Vegetables. She settled on the pork ribs, which while I do enjoy them I prefer Phil's. As for the Tri-Tip it they are one of my mom's favorites. I've had them before and while I will always prefer ribs those of you who like slow cooked meat that comes as soft and flavorful then you will not be disappointed.

My sister, the one with the somewhat sensitive stomach, also got a lunch special, the BBQ Chicken Sandwich, hold the BBQ, which blew my mind a bit. I took a small bite, and while I think the Chicken could have been more flavorful, even without the BBQ sauce it was still moist. It also didn't hurt that it was covered in melted cheddar and stacked high with onion straws.

My fiance, and soon to be wife, also got a sandwich. Being a lover of tri-tip she ordered the BBQ Tri-Tip Sandwich with a side of cheese grits. She really loved the sandwich, enough so that I didn't even get to steal a bite, but the cheese grits were a bit below what she was expecting. I managed to sneak a taste and while good they weren't as smooth as the ones her family makes, though they certainly were cheesy.

After a 20-30 minutes of contented eating we were all stuffed. I, having exercised a good two hours before coming so I could eat my fill, managed to make my way to the smoker, where the chef working it was nice enough to let me have a peak inside. Yes, there is an entire smoker inside of the restaurant.

We left, after grabbing a lollipop or two from the Flying Pig Lounge, and stumbled out to our car to go home and do what all great families do after eating tons of BBQ, take a nap. As for Lucille's the place feels comforting, the people are happy, and the food is plentiful. I would go back there any time.

Lucille's (Multiple Locations)
The District at Tustin
2550 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782
(714) 259-1227

Monday, March 12, 2012

Maye's Bistro, Bonita, San Diego, CA

So it's a sunny Sunday afternoon, my fiance and I are headed over to her parent's house to help clean up a few things for our reception a few weeks from now. Still a bit tired from my morning run I race down the highway to Bonita, wondering what I can possibly stuff in my face without going through a drive-thru, but that won't take forever to prepare. That's when I remember a little empanada place a friend happened to mention the day before. Sure, I think, it's not like you can really screw up empanadas. Little flaky, pieces of dough stuffed with anything you can imagine, and that is where Maye's Bistro (pronounced Mai yeh according to the friend who recommended it)shines.

You'll have to look hard for it. Maye's is located in a little strip mall off Bonita Rd. While the outside may be nothing to talk about the inside is somewhat quaint. There are only two tables inside, as most people prefer to grab their empanads to go, but the tables are clean and come with a few condiments, hot sauce (first time I'd seen Tapatio in a packet), and BBQ sauce to name a few. A flat screen TV sits above the front counter, and on the wall as you enter are a few pictures of the owner, and a plaque from the city business commission. Behind the counter is a a little oven used to heat the empanadas if you feel like eating them there. Besides that the room is dominated by two refrigeration units with clear glass allowing you to look in at the flavors of empanada that are there that day.

My fiance and I took a seat by the window perused the menu as we waited for the lady in front of us to finish ordering. It was there that we amazed by the sheer number of empanadas available. I was expecting things like the Pollo con Papas and Carnitas, but there was also Hawaiian Rib, Meatball, Scampi and Linguine, even Lobster (if in season). Not what I was expecting at all. When our turn came we decided on a few different empanadas to split between us. We got the Pollo Chile Verde, Carne Con Chile, Shepard's Pie, and the monthly special Corned Beef and Cabbage. For desert we got a Mango Pineapple and the Blueberry with Blackberry. Then we sat down and waited for them to warm.

As we sat a wide variety of people came in and I was impressed with the the customer service. Polite and hard working there was only one woman working the front and another woman, who I believe was Maye herself coming out if things got too busy. Explanations on how to warm up the empanadas at home, and recommendations on what was good, or at least the staff's favorite. Simple things that some of the larger eateries forget are important.
Finally our food came out, and I both took a bite. So the play by play is like this: the Shepard's Pie was good but had a bit too much potato in it for me. The Carne Con Chile was great, just stuffed full of meat, but became perfect with a dash of hot sauce. The Corned Beef and Cabbage was surprisingly good, and I was amazed on how they were able to capture the that taste of the dish in such a little package. Finally Pollo Chile Verde was my favorite. The chicken was perfectly cooked, and the Chile Verde was not too spicy. I even enjoyed the taste of the black olives, and I usually am not a big fan. As for the desert empanadas my fiance's was good. There mango and pineapple were definitely fresh and tasty, but they tasted a bit heavy and lacking in complexity. My Blueberry with Blackberry had just the right amount of tart to it, with the cream cheese smoothing out the flavors to create an ideal dessert.

Satisfied we got up ready to tackle our afternoon of heavy lifting. I will definitely be heading back to Maye's, I have my heart set on trying some of the more unusual empanadas (Captain Kids with chicken mac and cheese or the Nacho Bites with ground beef, seasoning, cheese, and jalapeno), and definitely the Mole. Mmmmmm, mole...

P.S.: Make sure to get there early as they only make so many empanadas per day.

Maye's Bistro
4240-A Bonita Rd.
Bonita, CA 91902
(619) 479-0251
Mon.-Fri.: 6:30 AM to 8:00 PM
Sat.: 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM
Sun.: 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM