“This is just like Mexican flan,” I told the young Filipina waitress about the slab of leche flan she placed before me.
“No, it’s not!” she replied, rather defensively. “Filipinos make flan much sweeter!”
“It’s very sweet,” I concurred. And silky. A fabulous custard, chilled but not gelatinous like too many versions of flan. While it lacked the caramelized top traditional to Mexican flan, it still beats it—a pastry Pacquiao. “But it’s not that removed from Mexican.”
The waitress shrugged her shoulders and moved on. I kept scarfing down the dessert.
Only in America, for sure. But this conversation can only happen at Umami Mongolian Grill, perhaps the first of its genre in Orange County to move away from mere frozen meat shavings grilled over an expansive stove and toward something approaching a gourmet experience. You can have the unlimited bowl special, pack down your tureen with meat and veggies, baptize the meal with any combination of sauces offered, see them shrivel on the furious stove—but the person who does the mixing is a smiling man in a chef’s jacket.
He’ll check on eaters at the table, introduce himself as Chef Ted, thank them for dining at his joint and ask that they spread his gospel. Here is a man with aspirations beyond filling guts. The restaurant features high lighting, flat-screen televisions, big booths, and a bold black-and-red color scheme. The menu isn’t just the pork-chicken-beef-lamb quartet that dominates Mongolian barbecue restaurants; Chef Ted also offers a green-curry bowl (steaming and sweet, a miracle of Thai cookery prepared by a Filipino) and beef braised with sherry and brown sugar, as luscious as a thin strip of chocolate. And lumpias, of course, the fat Pinoy eggrolls fried to a shining crunchiness, snappy thanks to water chestnuts, and accompanied by a sweet chili sauce that hasn’t stayed in a bottle more than a week.
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Young people run the place, so Umami isn’t perfect. Outside of Chef Ted, servers usually spend more time gossiping than refilling drinks. The pocket bread traditionally offered with Mongolian barbecue is thrown on as an afterthought—good, but not achieving the stunning simplicity of the other meals. And while I appreciated the back-and-forth over flan with the waitress, others might interpret that as rudeness. But that feistiness is what marks Umami as a restaurant to watch. It’s currently selling food meant to appeal to tourists done with a day of Knott’s Berry Farm, yet it masters and even advances one of Orange County’s most stagnant culinary forms. Leche flan at a feed barn? The genius of it!
Umami Mongolian Grill, 7855 La Palma Ave., Ste. 1, Buena Park, (714) 523-3800; www.umamimongoliangrill.com.
This column appeared in print as "Pinoy Panache."