Welcome back to Travel for Food the O.C. edition!
On this episode of Travel for Food, come with me as I take a deep dive into the history and inspiration behind the establishment I visited for the past 3 weekends. While I tend to take a surface approach to reviewing menus, this time, I was curious and decided to do some research on Il Dolce, Benihana, King’s Fish House, and Morena’s Mexican Cuisine. Here is what I undiscovered about each restaurant. Some of these places had very unique inception stories, while other places did not have elaborated back stories and left it up to their visitor to determine their worth based on the quality of the food.
Benihana is an American restaurant that specializes in Japanese cuisine prepared with an international flair. I have heard Benihana mentioned in YouTube videos, reality T.V. shows, movies, and a rapper or two may have name-dropped this place in a song. When I think of this restaurant’s popularity in America, I was instantly stirred to understand why this style of dining was so popular. What I discovered was literally the craziest origin story I have ever heard about a restaurant.
The first thing to know about Benihana is that it offers teppanyaki or hibachi cooking that came out of Japan’s post-World War II era. It uses hot griddles pans to cook food in front of guests, but in the 21st century, we now have large heated cooking surfaces instead of griddle pans. While these types of restaurants are Japanese in nature, the first few places in Japan to start this trend were doing so to satisfy western customers. Back then and even now, these restaurants were using western-influenced cuisine inspired by Japan at its core but mainly catering to foreigners. Two major highlight of this restaurant is the communicable eating experience, and the fancy knife tricks the chiefs’ display while preparing the food.
If you have never seen these chefs at work, here is a vidoe from Eater.
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Early Days of Benihana
Hiroaki Aoki founded this restaurant in New York City in the early 60s, which at first did not do very well. He named it Benihana after a coffee shop once owned by his parents in Japan. Benihana’s name comes from a red safflower Hiroaki’s father found growing in the rubbles of Tokyo shortly after the war. This name was then used for the restaurant we now know as Benihana. A year after the restaurant was open, a review by a prevalent food critique and several visits from the Beetles and Mohammed Ali catapulted the restaurant into popularity. By the 1980s, several Benihana restaurants were opened throughout the United States. Today, it has many international locations in the Caribbean, Central American, Canada, Europe, and Asia.
Hiroaki then decided to open his very own French restaurant that doubled as a club similar to Studio 54, and later he founded a pornographic magazine called Gneiss. When I said that this restaurant had the craziest origin story I have ever heard, I wasn’t lying. Let me sum this up by saying that Hiroaki was a very eccentric man who races yachts and cars, held the Miss Benihana beauty contest, had seven children, and was a very active man. Two of his children are in the entertainment industry; his daughter is actress Devon Aoki known for working on the Fast and the Furious and Sin City. His son is DJ Steve Aoki know for working with Will i am, Afrojack, Iggy Azalea, Fall Out Boys, Lil Jon, and many other performers. I forgot to mention that Aoki was also the first to pilot a hot air balloon across the Pacific Ocean. His life’s story is fascinating, starting out as a Japanese immigrant to leaving a legacy that has influenced America’s culinary landscape.
Let me start by saying that this was not my favorite restaurant and its only redemption came because of its origin story. Perhaps this was due to the pandemic, but I did not have the best dining experience at Benihana. When it comes to the dining experience, I focus on three areas; food quality and taste, service, and environment. Food quality and taste are on top of the list, but bad service can be just as traumatizing as eating an uncooked chicken. Unfortunately for the Benihana in Downey, CA all three of the key areas I look for were lacking significantly compared to the other places I visited.
I mentioned earlier that Benihana thrives on the communal dining experience, and we all know that the restrictions wouldn’t allow for this style of dining. Considering this, I cannot truly judge the environment because we were forced to dine outside on the verandah. When it comes to the food, I thought it was good, but it felt very unoriginal and lacked awareness. Then I started to think about how Benihana pioneered these dishes and style of dining. I have visited other hibachi restaurants before; two that came to mind were Ichiban and Sakura. I noticed that the presentation and taste of their food were exactly like Benihana. After discovering that Benihana was one of oldest habachi restaurants in the United States with this dining experience, I then realized that all the other places that I have visited with a similar style were just carbon copies. They were just doing the same thing Benihana was known for, so when I visited my expectation wasn’t to taste food that was similar to what I had before, but little did I know that Benihana was the blue-print for similar eateries.
Il Dolce (Costa Mesa)
My experience at Il Dolce was very calming. Perhaps that is a strange word to use in association with a restaurant, but the atmosphere and food somehow lulled me into forgetting that I was still stuck in the United States. The history of Il Dolce is not as glamorous as Benihana, which is a good thing. I find that the more locations a restaurant has, the more the food quality will decline. I discovered that the husband and wife team (Fernanda Masuero and Roberto Binges) created Il Dolce, out of their passion for food and extensive knowledge of the restaurant industry. According to their website, Il Dolce focuses on Italian food and is also inspired by the owners’ Argentinian background. This restaurant does not have to say much once you have dined there. There is no gimmick; the food is simply delicious, perfectly presented, and strikes a balance between the idea of refined taste and style hovering on the edge of the growing need for casual ambiance. The quality of the food in taste and appearance is evident as it lingers on your tongue and mind long after you have departed. While my goal is to eat my way around O.C., it’s hard to resist not returning to Il Dolce over and over again.
One of the most critical highlights of Il Dolce was their Neapolitan pizza. Naples-style pizza is my favorite type of pizza. For me, a Neapolitan pizza covered in tomato sauce with chunks of mozzarella and heaps of fresh basil leaves is like food porn on steroids. I have tried New York-style pizza, Chicago deep dish, and all the other terrible versions of pizza, but for me nothing could compare to Naples-style pizza. While there are thousands of places that make pizza thought-out the United States, this particular pizza does not seem nearly as popular as the regular pizzas you can find at your local pizza place. This is why I am often delighted to find Naples-style pizza on a menu and overcome with joy if it has been prepared correctly. I tried their Napolitana 17 with anchovies, tomato, sauce, and oregano, and it was the cause of my return to Il Dolce.
This restaurant’s catchphrase is “Welcome to the House that Seafood Built,” this a very unique saying when saying that this restaurant’s legacy was built on a love for seafood and the idea that it brings people together. Since California is a coastal state, I expect to run into many establishments dedicated to seafood lovers. I have never seen King’s Fish House on the east coast of the United States, so I assume this is a homegrown California brand, and I was right. According to their story, this restaurant was built on the many experiences of visiting different eateries throughout Californian, whether large or small dedicated to serving seafood. I get the feeling that they were trying to take the very best of the places they visited and put them under one roof.
While at King’s Fish House, I enjoyed their crab cakes, octopus appetizer, and a delicately prepared scallops and shrimp dish. All the dishes I ordered were flavorful and worth the price, if I had time or a larger group with me I think trying out the seafood legs boil would be a welcomed activity.
Morena’s Mexican Cuisine
I made it to my second Mexican restaurant, and this time it is located in the Huntington Beach area. I didn’t plan on visiting Morena’s, but since it was so conveniently located, I ended up having dinner there and didn’t regret it. Unlike the other places I listed above, I couldn’t find much information about its history. When it came to the food, all I needed was in the taste to know its history was steeped in a love for Mexican cuisine. Every dish that I had was absolutely delicious. Since going to Morena’s was spontaneous, I did not take the time to annotate everything we ordered, but I did take pictures.
As an appetizer, we had the guacamole and an unknown bite-size treat wrapped up in a deep-fried tortilla shell stuffed with shrimp and vegetables. For the main course, I had the street tacos made out of two corn tortillas stuffed with onion, cilantro, and avocado salsa served with steak and carne-asada. With the street taco, the flavors exploded in my mouth and somehow seemed to slow down time and space all at once. For me, I literally felt time grinding to a haul as I bite into those tacos. I must admit that the carne-asada was much more flavorful when compared to the steak, but I enjoy them both. On the other hand, my friend had a Wet Burrito with beans, cheese, avocado, and green salsa. We both experience the same assault on our olfactory system that seems to slow down time so we can actually experience the flavors. I had to tip my hat to Morena’s Mexican Cuisine because it was unexpectedly delightful.
I was lucky enough to venture into four different eating experiences, sampling a hybrid of Japanese cooking, Mexican cuisines, west coast seafood, and Italian with a hint of Argentinian flair. Every meal had its high point; while I can say that Benihana wasn’t what I expected, I am glad that I finally got it out of the way and actually visited this place. When it comes to the three other restaurants, I honestly cannot fathom ranking one over the other, so I will end this Travel for Food segment by saying that Il Dolce, Morena’s Mexican Cuisine, and King’s Fish House represented each genre very well. There is no hesitation when recommended any of these three places!