It’s hot, ain’t it? You don’t feel like cooking and delivery pizza, which usually does the trick, isn’t exactly the refreshing meal you want right now. You could do sushi, of course, even a salad. But when you’re ready for something refreshing and different, here are 10 of this restaurant critic’s favorite cooling meals in OC.
Banh Cuon at Tan Hoang Huong
The banh cuon at Tan Hoang Huong in Tustin is laid out next to register, wrapped in plastic and offered in about three varieties. The one you want is the complete kit sold for about $5 and includes crisp fried onion, a side of julienned vegetables, slices of cha lua (Vietnamese bologna), a fried tofu, and a nouc cham dipping sauce. To eat it, you dip the meat, crisp-cool veggies, but especially the translucent parcels of the banh cuon into the fish sauce, slurping all the way. Since banh cuon is typically eaten for breakfast, Tan Huang Huong’s stock tends to run out the later you go in the day. But you can usually score one for a light lunch. If you’re feeling peckish, banh cuon is actually a great first course before tucking into one of Tan Huang Huong’s banh mis, which, by the way, are also a great summertime meal.
Ceviche at Eqeko
Eqeko’s ceviche is real Peruvian ceviche, served with crunchy fried corn kernels of cancha and its original form called choclo. Most important, the fish in the dish is flawless, luminous, piled into an ivory mountain after being firmed up by a sluicing of lime juice. And when you bite into a cube, you discover it still has texture—it springs back at you before it melts into nothing. Each subsequent forkful is dragged through the electrified orange liquid flavored by ají rocoto, one of Peru’s native peppers. And when your tongue begins to tingle from the hotness and your lips start to pucker from the acidity, you calm it all down with chunks of camote, boiled sweet potato.
Cucumber Salad at Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fung has lots of cold dishes but the marinated cucumbers (a.k.a. cucumber salad) are something else. You need to order these, no matter what the weather is like outside. They’re slightly salty, perky, sesame-oil scented rounds stacked like green bricks whose cool and crunchy bite will send frigid shivers up your spine.
Lahpet Toke at Irrawaddy Taste of Burma
Lahpet thoke resembles a three-way collision between a garden salad, a bowl of Chex Mix and a mortar of pesto. But the pesto isn’t actually pesto; it’s lahpet, fermented tea leaves mashed to nearly pulp in oil, an ingredients so ingrained in Burmese cuisine it’s considered the national delicacy. And in this salad, which all first-timers to Irrawaddy must order, it lashes together all the components—the lettuce, the tomato, the cabbage and the crunchy fried lentils—with sour notes, tannic overtones and a flavor that’s as uniquely Burmese as nuoc mam is Vietnamese.
Outpost Salmon at Outpost Kitchen
Yes, it’s a salad with salmon in it. But this one’s different than most. First, a salmon steak is fried to a crisp, torn into chunks, then tossed into a lime-dressed pile of greenery with grated coconut, peanuts, bean sprouts, Thai basil and cilantro. The result tastes like a combination of Vietnamese goi mit and, if you’re familiar with Indonesian food, a salad with coconut shavings as a dressing called urap-urap.
Raw Cuttlefish Noodle Soup at Myung Dong
When we say this dish is cold, we mean ice-cold. The hanchi mul hye guksu (that’s the Korean name) will drop your core temperature a few degrees and make you shiver. Chips of actual ice float atop a spicy/tart/sweet tomato gazpacho-like soup, which you sip even though it has more in common with a Slurpee. Beneath the near-frozen broth hide spinach-green noodles, which are chilled and bracing like everything else in the dish, including strips of rubbery raw squid, tomato, crunchy julienned vegetables, and half a hard-boiled egg.
Pani Puri at Wok N Tandoor
When you order the pani puri at Wok N Tandoor, you’re given half a dozen of hollow pastry puffs, bits of cold boiled potatoes mixed with onion, a tangy chutney, and a cool bowl of spicy mint water called pani. With your finger or a spoon, you punch a hole through the top of your puri, tuck in some of the potato mixture, dribble in some chutney, and then either fill it with the water or submerge it in the bowl to soak slightly before putting the entire thing in your mouth. Think of it like chips and dip, but even more satisfying and refreshing.
Pidan Doufu at I-Tea Cafe
There is silken tofu, which exists in a white, pristine, Jell-O like cube that wiggles. There is pork sung, those furry brown things that look like the floor after a very shaggy dog gets a trim. And there is perhaps the scariest item of all, a thousand-year-old egg, which is not really a thousand-years-old, but buried in ash until its albumen turns coffee black and the yolk a not-of-this-Earth blue (which doesn’t make it less weird for the non-Asian). Together they form pidan doufu, as classic a combination as PB and J, but way better than that. It’s served chilled, so it’s cooling, refreshing, the kind of snack that you want during a heat wave.
Poke at Costco
Although it’s only available on the weekends, Costco Tustin II’s poke compares to what’s sold at their Hawaii warehouses: it’s tastes and costs exactly the same. (Hurray for Costco consistency!). They started with only four flavors on offer: shoyu, limu, wasabi, and a spicy mayo. Now they’re up to six with a garlic shrimp and an albacore with sea asparagus. All of it goes well with a bowl of rice at home, or just eaten plain, washed down with a 55-cent soda with Costco’s chewable ice.
Salmon Avocado Salad at Krave
The salmon avocado salad at Krave is sort of Korean…maybe. Actually we’re not sure. But it’s what would happen if you took the usual imitation crab filling of a California roll, combined it with Persian cucumbers and avocado, formed it in a ring mold, then placed a teriyaki-glazed grilled salmon on top with a shower of pea sprouts. Is it Korean poke? Maybe, but the result is greater than the sum of its parts—the most original creation from a restaurant with the most unoriginal name.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.