The new Tomato Café and Grill in Fullerton reminds me of another restaurant I reviewed five years ago called Itriya Cafe. Both boasted a menu that had Korean dishes as well as Italian. If you couldn't decide between Korean spicy pork barbecue and pizza, you could have both, then chase it with something using kimchi or a bowl of pasta smothered in marinara.
But that's pretty much where the similarities ended. Itriya approached its Spaghetti Eastern concept from the point of view of an ex-Cheesecake Factory vice president, who had chain-building aspirations and even filed trademarks for certain items. Tomato Café and Grill, on the other hand, feels more like a mom-and-pop diner. It sits in a building that, at one time, used to be a Dairy Queen and, after that, a burger joint. And Tomato Café's menu, as with the Korean neighborhood that surrounds it, doesn't feel like the product of a deliberate plan; it seems to evolve naturally from week to week.
A few days after my first visit, I noticed a new page with glossy pics of the most popular dishes. The week after that, more entrées appeared on a laminated insert: barbecue pork ribs shellacked in two kinds of sauce and smoked Cornish game hen offered either deep-fried or charbroiled. If I didn't already know the randomness of what I would find here, I would've thought the chef schizophrenic. Yet, for a kitchen that tries to do anything and everything, there are more hits than misses.
My tablemates and I agreed the bruschetta caprese—toasted rafts of baguette arranged in a pinwheel and topped with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, balsamic and pesto—was an ingenious union of two Italian appetizers. And when we ordered the stir-fried spaghetti with bacon and pineapple, we heard the chef tossing the ingredients in an unseen wok, the sizzling audible in the dining room. When it was delivered, the aromas wafting from the dish had that distinctive smoky whiff of a good Chinese stir-fry and a flavor that nailed the perilous balance between grease and soy.
The kimchi-and-bacon fried rice—tinted red from the kimchi juice, embedded with enoki mushrooms, onions and bell peppers—came in a hill giant enough for four. And though we found the strange texture of the meatballs in the spaghetti infringed upon those served at Ikea, we thought the beehive twirl of its pasta was worlds better than anything encountered at Olive Garden. It was full of sliced garlic and served so piping-hot it burned the roof of my mouth.
It should be noted that since the customer base is predominantly Korean and presumably lactose-intolerant, each of the dozen pasta dishes are marked whether it's "light" or "heavy" on the dairy—or not at all. Among the heaviest: the seafood carbonara, which was so creamy it could've frosted a cake.
If it's your first time, I recommend two dishes above all others: the pork cutlet and the spicy seafood soup. The former is covered in panko, fried thin and crispy, then smothered as though it were a chicken-fried steak with a house-made sauce tangy of Worcestershire. And since the sauce works quickly against the crispness of the pork, you want to consume the dish as fast as possible with its mound of rice, fries and side salad.
The seafood soup, on the other hand, was to be sipped slowly. It wasn't so much a cioppino, as our waiter described it, but something closer to a throat-burning Thai tom yum. I found dried chile pods floating in the white-wine broth, along with spinach and a trawler's worth of clams and mussels, shrimp, and bits of squid. And when it's brought out, it simmers and fumes in a miniature wok heated from below by Sterno.
There were a few unworthy distractions, such as the Buffalo wings, if only because they tasted ordinary and absent of the signs of effort the kitchen staff invested in the other dishes. And though the okonomiyaki sounds tempting—served roiling-hot on a cast-iron skillet and oozing as much cheese as a Chicago deep dish—the Japanese pancake was about the only thing that felt oddly out of place in a restaurant where everything goes.
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But I liked Tomato Café and Grill a lot better than Itriya Cafe, which closed not long after I wrote about it. Unlike Itriya, I felt more at ease at Tomato, especially when I can secure a seat in one of the giant couches. There's even a pint-sized seating area just for children. And at all times, the Cooking Channel is projected onto a giant screen, which somehow creates the welcoming effect of home—and what is a good restaurant if not just an extension of it.
Tomato Café and Grill, 1712 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 519-3385. Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $15-$30, food only. Beer and wine.