#112: Costa Vida

Tonight I had dinner at a place I only discovered last weekend, Costa Vida.  It’s located in the Stone Point shopping center on Eureka where you’ll also find Paul Martin’s and Blue Nami.  After doing a little poking around on their website it seems this place is a relatively new and growing chain.  They have locations in many states, but most, including California, only have a few.  Utah has a ton, and there’s a single location up in Canada.  Costa Vida is Mexican restaurant, and I didn’t really have much idea of what it was until I walked in the door.  Although much nicer looking, the process is much like Chipotle or Freebirds.  You work your way down the counter and they build your plate as you go.

I met my family at 5PM and we seemed to be among the first of the dinner rush because there was hardly anyone in the dining room eating yet.  We waited in the line for about 5 minutes or so.  There were just a couple of employees working the line, plus a cashier at the end.  Not only had I just discovered Costa Vida last weekend, while I was in the shopping center for some Blue Nami, but just a day or two later a friend mentioned to me how good the sweet pork was.  I knew what I was getting already based on that recommendation, but I looked over the menu anyway just to see what else they had.  You can get burritos, tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, salads and nachos.  For each one you choose one of the following: sweet pork, grilled chicken, shredded beef, raspberry chipotle chicken, grilled steak or chile verde (with some minor variations between items, such as a fish or shrimp option for tacos and a mango chicken option for salads).  After looking this over I started to have a very strong sense of déjà vu.  I’ll get into that later.  I decided on a salad with sweet pork.  It comes in a small or regular size.  For a little over a dollar more, the regular looks to be nearly twice the size.  I kinda of wonder if you get that much more meat vs just a lot more beans and lettuce.  I went with the small because I wanted to try out a side and dessert as well.

My turn came up and I told the guy working the front of the line that I was having the small salad.  I was given the choice of a corn, flour or whole wheat tortilla.  I chose corn, and a small one was placed at the bottom of my foil bowl, just big enough to sit perfectly in the bottom.  Next I went with black beans, other choices were pinto and refried.  The sweet pork was added next and I was passed on to the 2nd person.  She asked me what I would like on my salad, and quickly rattled off cotija cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and tortilla strips.  I thought for a moment, nodded and said, “yes, all of that sounds good!”  Finally, there was a selection of three dressings: Tomatillo Ranch Dressing, Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette, or Sweet & Smooth Mango Dressing.  I went with the tomatillo ranch.

Up at the register I asked for chips and guacamole (I had actually meant to order queso, but guacamole is what I said for some reason), an horchata and an order of flan.  A huge basket of chips with a big serving of guacamole was added to my tray.  At this point I realized that I had no idea if anyone else had ordered a side like this and hoped they didn’t, because this was starting to be too much food.  The cashier checked for flan and said she had one ready and would get it to me later.  That seemed odd at first, but I figured with a table full of food, and the fact that I wouldn’t be eating it right away, it did made sense.  I paid and joined everyone else at the table.  My dad had ordered a chili verde burrito, and the thing was ENORMOUS.  I laughed and asked if he was going to eat the whole thing, but he seemed confident that he would.  My mom and grandma both ordered sweet pork quesadillas, which looked a lot more reasonable in size.

We all shared the chips and guacamole and everyone agreed that both were very, very good.  The chips were warm and had an excellent crunch to them, and the guacamole was fresh and, once again, continues the trend of really good guacamole I’ve been finding at restaurants while on this mission.  I would not be surprised if the chips were made fresh in-house.  My salad was wonderful.  The tomatillo ranch was fairly light.  The lettuce was very fresh, green and crisp.  The combination of crunchy tortilla trips, crisp lettuce, smooth guacamole & sour cream and incredibly tender and juicy pork was amazing in flavor, but almost as importantly in texture as well.  It was a real pleasure to eat from start to finish.  The sweet pork was just as good as I was expecting.  Definitely sweet, but savory just underneath as well.  It was a very interesting and tasty salad overall.  I didn’t ever get a bite of the corn tortilla at the bottom.  It was almost just part of the bowl really.  I suppose if I had grabbed a knife I could have cut some pieces out of it, but in the end I don’t feel like I was missing anything.

With my salad gone and the guacamole looking low I set out to the register again to get my flan.  After just a moment the cashier, busy with customers,  noticed me and had someone else in the kitchen get my flan.  It was brought out of a cooler in a small tin bowl with plastic wrap over top.  She flipped it onto a plate, then grabbed a frosting bag from another cooler and squeezed the white topping onto it.  I don’t think I’ve ever had flan with anything on top, so I was curious.  After bringing it to the table, there was a lot of interest in what it was, and we each tasted it.  It was very cold, apparently out of the freezer, and had the consistency of soft serve ice cream.  It was actually just whipped cream in the end.  Very thick, very rich and very cold whipped cream.  It was so rich in fact that I ended up pushing a majority of it to the side and just ate the flan with the residue that was left, and it was plenty.  As for the flan itself, wow, just wow.  I can say without hesitation that this was the most flavorful I’ve ever had.  Everyone that tried it agreed that it was ridiculously good.  One interesting thig about it was that the sugary top (or bottom, depending on what way you look at it) was frozen solid.  It was thick enough and solid enough that there was no breaking through it with plastic cutlery.  I slid this off as well, but there was plenty of melted sugary goodness left to go around.

All in all, an amazing dinner!  I spent about $14.  I can easily spend that amount of money lots of other places and not get nearly the amount nor the quality of food.  This was a great value.  As for my déjà vu, I realized while looking at the menu that I felt like I had been here before, that on my last trip to Vegas I must have gone to a Costa Vida.  Everything sounded familiar, particularly the sweet pork.  The serving sizes were identical, the ingredients seemed to be about the same and the process was the same.  I shot a quick photo of the Costa Vida logo to my friend in Vegas and he told me that we actually went to a place called Cafe Rio.  I checked their website just now, and indeed they have a very similar menu.  Replace sweet pork with pork barbacoa and you’ve pretty much got the same place.  I have to wonder if one is a blatant copy of the other.  The world may never know. (Update: ok, so a couple minutes of Googling showed me that Cafe Rio was founded 6 years earlier than Costa Vida).

Website: http://www.costavida.net/


#111: Pho Hang

Last night I took my third stab at Vietnamese food.  The first was for one of my earliest posts at Bo Bo Cafe.  The 2nd was at Asian Blossom, though just casually, for my first bowl of pho.  I’ve had a so-so impression of the cuisine so far.  I hadn’t been really impressed or turned off.  There are at least a couple more Vietnamese restaurants in Roseville so I’ll continue to give it a try and explore different dishes as I visit these, but I have to admit that I’m not super optimistic.  Pho Hang is a small/medium sized restaurant at the corner of Pleasant Grove and Highland Pointe (in the same shopping center as Chick Fil-A, Wal Mart and Sam’s Club) that obviously specializes in pho, a Vietnamese dish consisting of a hot broth with rice noodles and a selection of meats.

My friends, Anne & Justin, joined me for dinner.  This was their first time.  We arrived at about 8PM on this Friday night.    Only a handful of tables were occupied.  An employee on the far side of the dining room saw us and motioned to a table for us to sit at.  Once seated, a server greeted us and passed out menus.  I decided I wanted to give pho another shot and given this place had pho in the name it seemed fitting.  I went with a combination that was recommended in an article I read earlier that day, Phở Tái Bò Viên, which is rare beef & beef meat ball with rice noodle in soup.  We took a long time goving over the menu.  Anne & Justin both had some questions about what was in certain things and Anne asked for a general overall recommendation.  Our server, who was incredibly nice and patient, had a lot of trouble answering that question in particular.  He really wanted to go down a path of questions to see what she was interested in, but since she was completely unfamiliar with Vietnamese food, she was simply looking for any random suggestion.  She asked this way, hoping it would help him pick something, “if you were ordering dinner right now, what would you get?”  That didn’t seem to help.  Eventually she chose Bún Gá Nưởng (Grilled chicken & vegetable on thin vermicelli) and left it at that.  Justin ordered a similar dish with deep fried chicken instead of grilled – Bún Gá Chiên Dòn (Deep fried chicken & vegetable on thin vermicelli).  We also got a couple orders of spring rolls, some vegetarian and some with pork & shrimp.

For drinks we kept it simple.  Justin and I each had a Coke and Anne had a Heineken.  The coke arrived in a can with a glass of ice.  The can looked clean and was very cold so I drank directly from it.  Our spring rolls arrived in very little time.  They were light and fresh, and the peanut sauce was rich and delicious.  Soon a plate of garnishes for my pho arrived along with a small bowl of fish sauce.  I  can’t recall if I’ve ever tried fish sauce before.  I didn’t use it this night, but towards the end I dipped my fork in to give it a try.  It was a bit salty and had a distinctly familiar flavor which Justin identified as a kind of salty cheese cracker, which I decided was exactly what I was thinking.  It’s a very strange comparison, but at the moment it seemed to fit.  The garnishes included crunchy bean sprouts, thai basil, a slice of lime and a slice of what looked like a jalapeno, but may have easily been some other kind of pepper.

Not long after finishing our rolls the entrees started to arrive.  Anne’s grilled chicken was first up, followed closely behind by my pho, and a couple minutes later Justin’s deep fried chicken was last to the table.  Justin seemed to really enjoy the chicken, though I felt like he was less interested in the rest of the bowl.  Anne enjoyed her grilled chicken and obviously liked the rest enough to take the rest of the large bowl to go.  I had a bite of the chicken and thought it was really good.  It was tender and very flavorful.  It seemed to have a light and sweet marinade on it.

On to my pho, it arrived extremely hot.  The rare beef was already quickly cooking.  It was still a bit pink in spots but continued cooking as I started to eat.  After a short while it had achieved a uniform dull grey color.  The meatball(s) were cut up into large, bite-sized wedges.  I found these, as well as the rare beef slices, to be decent.  Neither were extremely flavorful on their own.  I found the broth and noodles to be the best part of the bowl  The broth had a very delicate and subtle flavor that I found hard to describe, but it was very good.  I put a small amount of been sprouts in for some crunch, and a bit of thai basil, which added a tiny sweetness.  About halfway through I added a small amount of sriracha sauce to see what it tasted like since I’ve never had it before and people seem to love it on everything.  I didn’t notice much of a difference and added more, but I think I went just a slight bit too far.  The broth now had a light red coloring to it after stirring it in and it had a heat that built over consecutive sips.  I thought the flavor was decent perhaps a little on the vinegar side, but the broth itself seemed to be good enough as is and, in hind sight, I don’t think it really needed anything else.

We each ordered a dessert.  Justin picked the fried banana ice cream while Anne went with just fried ice cream.  I asked our server what the sweetened beans were all about, and he told me that they put the beans in a glass and top them with half & half milk and ice.  I thought I’d give it a shot.  They had three different colors to choose from, as well as a mix with all three, which is what I picked.  It came out in a smoothie glass with several distinct layers, a spoon and one of those really wide straws you usually see with bubble tea from places like Lollicup.  Through this I was able to get at the beans quickly.  They were a little on the sweet side, but not overly so.  I thought that a perfect mixture of the ice, half & half and beans made for a pretty good flavor, though the texture was very strange.  After a while there was little to no milk left and the beans that remained on their own didn’t do much for me.  I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t think that I would order one again.

Anne’s fried ice cream was pretty good.  It was just vanilla but was pretty tasty.  Justin had a couple scoops of the same vanilla ice cream along with what almost looked like egg rolls.  They were the deep fried bananas.  About half of the rolls were banana and the other half was coconut.  I’m not too big on coconut and I don’t think Justin is either.  We thought these were ok but the coconut was overpowering.

I’d say that this visit slightly improved my impressions of Vietnamese cuisine overall.  The spring rolls were fantastic, and I think I am starting to enjoy pho a little more.  I was also very happy with the service.  Though he had a lot of trouble recommending something, he seemed happy to answer the onslaught of questions and never seemed anything but patient and willing to help.  I would recommend Pho Hang as a place to try Vietnamese food out if you are new to it like myself.

Scanned Menu: Click Here


#110: Master Pizza

Today I got a pizza to go from Master Pizza.  I’ve had a AmazonLocal deal that expired in a couple days to use.  I wanted to do it earlier this week but I’ve been fighting a flu since Monday, so it hasn’t really worked out until today when I felt much better.  I’m pretty certain I’ve never ordered pizza here before.  In fact I very rarely enter this little shopping center, which is located kitty corner from Kaiser at Rockey Ridge and Douglas.  They are a Delivery and Take-Out only pizza joint, and there are just 6 chairs and little table in the small waiting area.

I walked in at about 11:40AM and was greeted right away.  I had already spent a little time online browsing the menu, so I ordered immediately.  I got a medium pizza, half Bacon Chicken Supreme (Creamy Garlic Sauce, 100% Mozzarella Cheese, Red Onions, Diced Chicken, Real Bacon Bits after cook topped with Fresh Roma Tomatoes and Blend of Jack & Cheddar Cheeses) and half Hawaiian Delight (Red Tomato Sauce, 100% Mozzarella Cheese, Canadian Style Bacon, Pineapple Tidbits with Extra Mozzarella Cheese).  I substituted green onions for the tomatoes on the bacon chicken supreme side.  To use up the last few dollars of the $20 AmazonLocal deal I picked a regular (10″) order of garlic cheese bread sticks.  Online they just list garlic cheese bread sticks, but on the menu there in the store they had a few additional variations – bacon, Parmesan & jalapeno.  I had a little misunderstanding of the price over the noise of the ovens, but but eventually realized she said $20.37, not $37.  She said the wait would be about 15 minutes and I took a seat.

Just over 10 minutes later, the woman peeked over the counter at me and asked if I needed any paper plates, napkins, cheese or peppers.  I was taking this home, so I didn’t need anything.  A minute or so longer and she came around the counter carrying my two boxes, said thanks and have a nice day, and I was off.  On the drive home I realized I didn’t get any kind of ranch or anything for the cheese sticks and hoped it was already in the box.  Once I was home and opened it up I saw that it was not, and I was kind of annoyed by that.  As I was taking a couple photos of the Pizza, Dusty jumped up on the counter, nearly landing right on top of everything, and insisted he inspect the food for poisons – you know, for my protection.  I shooed him off and sat down to eat.  He was persistent though and made yet another attempt to claim a slice of his own.  This continued throughout my lunch.

The Hawaiian side was pretty basic.  The crust was a pretty standard thickness.  Soft throughout but somewhat firm on the bottom and the edges were nice and crisp.  I prefer a thinner crust, but this was fine.  The red sauce on this side was very simple, maybe a bit on the sweet side.  It went well with the sweet pineapple pieces, which were flavorful and juicy.  The ham was pretty tasty.  This side was good.  The bacon chicken supreme was on a whole other level.  The creamy garlic sauce was rich and, as with most pizza places, complimented the chicken and bacon perfectly.  There was a lot more cheese on top than I expected from the description.  They show very little cheese in the photos on their website as well.  This covered what was a fairly thin layer of toppings.  Despite how that sounds though, each ingredient was actually very flavorful and the eniter slice overall extremely delicious.  The chicken pieces were few and very small, but they were tender and juicy.  The fresh green onions were a good choice.  They added a delicate crisp to each bite.  This side was fantastic.

I wasn’t sure about the bread sticks since I had nothing to dip them in, but as soon as I picked one up I got the feeling I might not need anything after all.  It was heavily coated with what seemed to be a thicker, heavier creamy garlic sauce.  The cheese was not obvious, but I think it may have been mixed in with the sauce instead of a discrete layer.  The bread was the same as the pizza crust.  Taking a bite, I knew for certain that not only did I not need something to dip these in, but that it would be overkill.  The creamy garlic sauce topping  was really rich on these, and they were not at all dry.  Bread sticks are really hit or miss at most pizza joints.  They do a pretty good job with these.

Overall I was pretty impressed with Master Pizza.  The photos on their website didn’t have me going in with very high expectations, but they proved me wrong.  The customer service was minimal and friendly, the pizza good and the prices agreeable.  I would definitely return here.

Website: http://www.masterpizzausa.com