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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

What: The weekday lunch buffet

Where: Emperor Buffet, 69600 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage

How much: $9.99

Contact: 760-328-9200

Why: It’s cheap with a lot of delicious stuff.

I know that some of you have read the headline and instantly determined that I must have lost my damn mind.

Is he really giving the high honor of an Indy Endorsement to a free-standing Asian buffet in Rancho Mirage?! Why, yes, indeed I am. Here’s why.

I concede that not everything available at Emperor Buffet is great … or even good. The desserts, for example, are bleh, and the sesame chicken—one of my favorite gringo-ized Asian entrées—somehow approaches flavorless. However, similar things can be said about the menu items at many restaurants: You’ll have hits, and you’ll have misses.

And there are some definite hits—home runs, even—on offer at Emperor Buffet. On the plate above, at the top, you’ll see some pork with snow peas. This dish is flat-out fantastic: The peas are crisp; the pork is tender; and it’s all delicious. If I went to any restaurant, paid $9.99 and got a whole plate of this, I’d be a happy camper.

But instead, for $9.99, I got that and a whole lot more: serviceable sushi rolls, tasty potstickers, compelling crab Rangoon, moist teriyaki chicken, etc.

Look, I get it: Buffets aren’t for everyone. Some people are squicked out by self-serve food at steam tables. Others are food snobs, pure and simple. But for foodies who aren’t paranoid or snobbish—especially us foodies on a budget—trust me: There’s some truly great stuff to be found at Emperor Buffet. You may find some duds among the dozens of options … but you’re also going to find some true gems—and you’ll do so in a way that leaves you money left over for your next foodie adventure.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The wild mushroom soup

Where: Acqua California Bistro, 71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; also at Lulu California Bistro, 200 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $5.99-$8.99 depending on menu; also available on special menus

Contact: 760-862-9800; www.acquaranchomirage.com (Acqua); 760-327-5858; www.lulupalmsprings.com (Lulu)

Why: It’s consistently delicious.

Whenever I go to Acqua California Bistro (or Lulu California Bistro, for that matter), I have a problem: Even though the menu is rather expansive and varied, I almost always feel the need to order the same thing—the wild mushroom soup.

Why, you may ask, do I feel the need to always order a hot soup, when the local temperatures often can best be described as “convection oven”?

The answer is simple: It’s really, really tasty. This soup is not much to look at, but it makes my taste buds happy. The earthy and even meaty flavor of the mushrooms is enhanced by perfect seasoning—including just a touch of truffle oil. Yum!

Actually, my “need” to always order the wild mushroom soup isn’t really much of a problem. If I sit in the bar area, where it’s pretty much always happy hour, I can enjoy the soup for just $5.99, meaning there’s room in my budget to order something else. And if I am not sitting in the bar area, the soup is included as an offering on all of Acqua’s discounted prix-fixe menus. In other words, I can always get the soup and an entrée and a dessert for less than $20. Awesome.

On my recent visit to Acqua, I “splurged” and ordered from the $29.99 four-course menu (a fine deal!). I started with the soup, and then enjoyed the ahi tuna on crispy wontons before having the sirloin-steak salad as my entrée, and finishing with the lemon tart. All of it was great … but it’s the mushroom soup that makes my mouth water every time I think of it.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The three-scoop bowl

Where: Haus of Poké, 111 N. Palm Canyon Drive, No. 160, Palm Springs; also at 42500 Bob Hope Drive, No. 3, Rancho Mirage

How much: $11.49

Contact: 760-537-1173 (Palm Springs); 760-636-1892 (Rancho Mirage); www.hausofpoke.com

Why: It’s make-your-own bliss—if you do so carefully.

Sometimes, when we’re given too many options in life, we make mistakes.

Such was the case for me on a recent lunch visit to the new downtown Palm Springs House of Poké. I knew I wanted a nice, healthyish bowl of fish yumminess; however, I didn’t think much about the specific form that yumminess would take.

When I walked in and looked at all of the choices … it was almost overwhelming. How many scoops … with a choice of nine proteins? Which of the five base ingredients? Which of six mix-ins? Which of 10 sauces? Which of more than a dozen toppings?

Not sure about all this, I just winged it: I decided on three scoops, split between ahi tuna and yellowtail. (Shrimp and octopus were also strong candidates. The tofu and the beets? Not so much.) I went with just one mix-in, the green onions. I got two sauces—eel sauce and ponzu—and two toppings: crab meat and crispy garlic, with pickled ginger on the side.

I paid for my order, sat down, and eagerly dove in. And I didn’t like it.

There was nothing wrong with the ingredients; they were great, in fact. The problem was that I came up with a concoction that did not work with my palate at that time. The eel sauce overwhelmed the fish and the crab, and conflicted with the crispy garlic; there was not enough ponzu sauce to keep the rice moist, in part because I said I only wanted a “medium” amount of the sauces combined.

I decided to go back for lunch the next day—after giving more thought to things. This time, I got salad and chips as my base, ahi tuna as my protein, green onions as my mix-in, mustard ponzu (after trying it first to see how it tasted) as my one sauce, and crab meat as my only topping.

It was amazing. It was so good, in fact, that I had to talk myself out of going to Haus of Poké for lunch a third day in a row.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The lobster bisque

Where: Gelson’s Market, 36101 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage

How much: $8.99

Contact: 760-770-0010; gelsons.com/store-locations/rancho-mirage

Why: Great flavor, fine price.

The grocery store located at Bob Hope and Gerald Ford drives has had a turbulent history in recent years. It was a Pavilions; for about 15 minutes (give or take), it was a Haggen; and then it became a Gelson’s.

When Gelson’s opened in the space a little more than two years ago, however, the new owners brought with them a different mindset: The people behind the Southern California mini-chain not only wanted to genuinely become part of the community (including some events with this newspaper, I should disclose); they had big plans for the space.

Those big plans have now come to fruition: The Rancho Mirage store has been completely renovated—and the prepared-food options in Gelson’s are nothing short of epic.

Wolfgang Puck’s pizza. A downright-reasonably-priced salad bar. A sushi bar. All sorts of deli meats, salads and prepared entrées. A wine, craft-beer and tapas bar. And even a seafood bar—with oysters, shrimp, crab, lobster, poke and other tasty treats.

One of those “other tasty treats,” the 12-ounce bowl of lobster bisque, made for a mighty fine lunch one recent weekday. It was rich, creamy and flavorful—everything a great lobster bisque should be. There were also tiny little lobster bits in almost every bite. Yum!

Beyond the quality of the bisque itself … of the best things about the dish was its price: $8.99 is a fine deal for this amount of good lobster bisque. However, I had one teeny, tiny complaint: My bisque came with oyster crackers (which are supposed to go with the clam chowder, $8.99) instead of crostini slices, as promised on the menu; that would have been a slightly better pairing.

But that’s a minor nitpick; I thoroughly enjoyed my first dine-in lunch at Gelson’s. It certainly will not be my last.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The tower of avocado and tuna tartare

Where: Lulu California Bistro, 200 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; also at Acqua California Bistro, 71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage

How much: $14.99; $9.99 at the bar (all-day happy hour)

Contact: Lulu: 760-327-5858, www.lulupalmsprings.com; Acqua: 760-862-9800; www.acquaranchomirage.com

Why: It is a delicious deal!

Barbara and Jerry Keller have created an undeniably successful restaurant formula: Take a large space; make that space gorgeous (including great patio seating); offer a variety of consistent, decently priced food; also offer some great prix-fixe and happy hour deals; and be fantastic members of the community.

It worked for a decade at Acqua Pazza California Bistro in Rancho Mirage. It’s been working for six years at Lulu California Bistro in Palm Springs. And now it’s working again at the slightly renamed and renovated Acqua California Bistro in Rancho Mirage.

I live a short walk from Lulu. I eat there regularly, and I am going to let you in on a secret: The bar is the place to sit. Not only is there often seating available in the bar area when there’s a wait for a regular table; the “happy hour” prices at the bar, offered every day from 11 a.m. to close, are drastically lower for many items than they are in the rest of the place.

This means that I can almost always walk in to Lulu (and now, Acqua)—weekday or weekend, season or off-season—and get one of my favorite items at a steep discount: The tower of avocado and tuna tartare is just $9.99 at the bar, while it’s $14.99 elsewhere in the restaurant.

Whatever the price, the dish is delicious: A nice helping of high-grade, seasoned ahi is shaped into a cylindrical “tower”—with some fresh avocado added to the middle. On the side are some wonton chips, sprouts, a small mound of wasabi, some pickled ginger slices, and a little bit of seaweed salad.

It’s cool, refreshing and a delight to the taste buds. And of course, the atmosphere can’t be beat.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The lunch special

Where: Joyce’s Sushi, 36101 Bob Hope Drive, No. E1, Rancho Mirage

How much: $13.95 with three choices (as shown); $11.95 with two

Contact: 760-202-8186; joycessushiranchomirage.com

Why: It is tasty—and provides useful information.

Whenever I visit a “normal” Japanese restaurant for the first time, I find it helpful to order a bento box. This allows me to sample a variety of the restaurant’s fare, while giving me information on the restaurant’s overall quality, and an idea of what I might want to order next time.

This is not a perfect system. For example, on my recent, initial visit to Joyce’s Sushi, the three-item lunch special (Joyce’s bento box, essentially; you pick among nine items) told me nothing about the restaurant’s udon or ramen or appetizer offerings, nor did it tell me much about the quality of some of the more elaborate sushi rolls on offer at Joyce’s Sushi.

However, the lunch special (slightly larger dinner specials are also available, at a slightly higher cost) did tell me a lot:

• The quality of the fish at Joyce’s is pretty darned good. I chose the three pieces of sushi over a four-piece California or spicy tuna roll, or the six pieces of sashimi (which come with a $3 upcharge). The tuna, salmon and shrimp pieces I had were all fresh and tasty.

• The tonkatsu is decent, if not spectacular. I selected the fried, breaded pork over the teriyaki options (chicken, beef and salmon), and while the meat was delicious, it was a bit dry.

• The mixed tempura (one shrimp piece, and three vegetable pieces) was all fantastic. The tempura batter was flavorful but not greasy, and the food under the batter was cooked perfectly. The broccoli piece I got was tender—and it still tasted like broccoli.

• The accompaniments were all pretty standard. I liked the addition of mushrooms to the miso soup, but the salad—which looked like it came straight out of a pre-mixed bag—was nothing to get excited about.

Thanks to the lunch special, I learned that Joyce’s Sushi puts out quality food, and the next time I go there, I’ll definitely first consider the sushi and the tempura.

See? Helpful!

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The turkey BLT folded waffle sandwich

Where: Si Bon Belgian Bistro, 40101 Monterey Ave., Rancho Mirage

How much: $13

Contact: 760-837-0011; www.sibon-sogood.com

Why: It’s a clever take on a classic sandwich.

I had just finished a less-than-pleasant medical appointment in Rancho Mirage. It was lunch time; I was hungry; and I wanted to treat myself. Hmm … where should I go?

When I realized I was more or less across the street from Si Bon, I smiled.

Si Bon is one of those places I’d heard great things about and had wanted to try for years—but for some reason, I’d never gotten around to it. Well, I was finally getting around to it.

I expected the classy-but-unpretentious vibe and the top-notch service. What I did not expect was Si Bon’s obsession with waffles.

Seeing waffles on the breakfast/brunch menus at a Belgian bistro makes total sense—but on the lunch menu? Yes, waffles dominate Si Bon’s lunch menu, due to selections of pizza-style flat waffles, folded waffle sandwiches, and waffle bun sandwiches. (Waffles are even on the dinner menu—most intriguingly in the form of the “9 holers escargot waffle.”)

I decided to try one of the folded waffle sandwiches: the turkey BLT with pesto and avocado, with waffles serving as the bread. I admit I was concerned about the waffle part—but once I took a bite, I realized the concern was all for naught. The waffle was not sweet at all, and instead had a rather pleasant yet subtle savory flavor. It was thick enough to properly contain the sandwich ingredients, yet thin enough to manageably eat.

As for what was inside the folded waffles: The ingredients were top-notch, with the delightful pesto bringing all of the flavors together.

I’ve eaten many, many BLT sandwich variations over the years. This was the first time that waffles were involved—and Si Bon’s sandwich was one of the better BLTs I’ve had. Who knew?

Published in The Indy Endorsement

Rancho Mirage Restaurants Team Up for a ‘Taste of Summer’

Enjoy inexpensive yet yummy drinks and desserts? If so, then you may find yourself spending a fair amount of time in Rancho Mirage over the next couple of months.

The city, its chamber of commerce and its restaurant association have teamed up to create “Taste of Summer Rancho Mirage.” Here’s how it works: For $10, you can purchase a wristband at the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce (71905 Highway 111, Suite H). All of that wristband money will go to charities.

With the wristband, you can enjoy $4 cocktails at participating restaurants from Friday, July 8, through Sunday, July 17. Then come Friday, Aug. 5, through Sunday, Aug. 14, your wristband will get you $4 desserts at participating places.

Participants include Burgers and Beer, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, bb’s at The River, Brandini Toffee, Catalan, Fleming’s, Gioia, Johnny Rockets, Las Casuelas Nuevas, Maracas, Norma’s Italian Kitchen, The Slice, Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa, The Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage and The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa.

Sounds like a pretty cool deal! Head over to www.tasteofsummerranchomirage.com to learn more.


MEBar at Morongo Elevates the Selfie

We’re not sure if this is really cool … or a sign that our civilization is descending into narcissistic chaos.

The new MEBar at the Morongo Casino Resort Spa will offer cocktails and craft beers “in a uniquely interactive environment where guests can share selfies and musings on the high-definition, social-media-linked monitors that pack the new lounge,” according to a news release.

Depending on your perspective, the news release then gets either more amazing … or more horrifying: “The MEBar’s monitors are linked to Twitter. Anyone tagging a tweet with #MEBar or #Morongo can see their posts appear around the bar and across the Internet in near-real time. …The sleek new MEBar features iconic fire-red stone walls, 15 LED TVs, a custom mural framing the outside, and a menu of camera-ready concoctions, perfect for snapping and sharing.”

If this sounds appealing, grab your smartphone, and head up Interstate 10 to49500 Seminole Drive, in Cabazon. MEBar is open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day. Learn more at www.morongocasinoresort.com/entertainment/mebar.


In Brief

Chop House Palm Springs, the lovely steakhouse at 262 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, served its last meals on Sunday, June 12. So, too, did Grind Brgr Bar, which occupied the second floor of the space. When the restaurant’s Facebook page announced the closing, the post noted that owner Kaiser Restaurant Group was “actively negotiating for a new location, so stay tuned for information and updates.” Then the Chop House Facebook page disappeared. We’re not taking that as a good sign. In any case, the old Chop House space will not be vacant for long: The Broken Yolk Café—a chain restaurant with about a dozen and a half locations, primarily in Southern California (including one at 78430 Highway 111 in La Quinta)—has announced it’s moving in. … Woody’s, the popular burger joint at 317 N. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, has closed. But never fear: Woody’s has been merged with The Palm House Restaurant, its sister business, at 450 S. Palm Canyon Drive. Watch palmhousepalmsprings.com for details. … After a stint at The Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage, Livreri’s—a name familiar to longtime valley residents who enjoy Italian fare—has returned to Palm Springs. Livreri’s of Palm Springs is now located at 2330 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Get more info at www.facebook.com/livrerisbellanapoliattheatrium. ... Congrats to the El Mexicali Café, located at 82720 Indio Blvd., in Indio, for being named Small Business of the Year for California’s 56th Assembly District. Get more info by calling 760-347-1280 or visiting elmexicalicafe.com. … The long-awaited restaurant at the Caliente Tropics, located at 411 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, is finally here. The Congo Room and Reef Bar is open seven days a week and offers chef Richard Perez’s creations for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Get more info by calling 760-327-1391 or visiting www.calientetropics.com/restaurant-bar-lounge. ... Gone too soon is Serious Food and Drink. However, a new restaurant has already taken over the space at 415 N. Palm Canyon Drive: Welcome Watercress Vietnamese Bistro, a Redlands favorite, to its new Coachella Valley location. … Coming soon to downtown Palm Springs’ La Plaza, in the space most recently occupied by Fresh Juice Bar: Raw Remedy Organic Juice and Raw Food Bar. Watch www.facebook.com/rawremedyjuicebar for updates. ... The building that was once home to Dickie O’Neals, at 2155 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, has been purchased—and a liquor-license notice on a window hints that something may be opening there in the near-to-intermediate future. The license applicant: Brooklyn Café Inc. Watch this space for news as it develops. … Café Palette, a restaurant that offered pizzas and other fare—along with a decidedly LGBT vibe—at 315 E. Arenas Road, in Palm Springs, has closed its doors for good.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

What: The Veal Marsala

Where: Lord Fletcher’s, 70385 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage

How much: $28

Contact: 760-328-1161; www.lordfletcher.com

Why: It’s a classic dish at a classic venue.

I recently celebrated a friend’s birthday at Lord Fletcher’s. Turns out Lord Fletcher’s is celebrating a birthday of its own.

Ron Fletcher opened the restaurant, offering “a touch of Olde England on Restaurant Row” in Rancho Mirage, back in 1966. That means Lord Fletcher’s—now owned and managed by Ron’s son, Michael Fletcher—this year is turning the big 5-0.

Given that most restaurants don’t even last one year, the fact that Lord Fletcher’s has been open for 50 years is an accomplishment that should be heartily applauded. Also worthy of applause: Lord Fletcher’s still offers a top-notch dining experience featuring classics including pot roast, prime rib and other hearty fare.

During that aforementioned birthday dinner, I ordered another classic: the veal marsala. It was prepared perfectly: The mushroom sauce was savory yet not too salty; the meat was tender enough to cut with a fork, yet still substantial enough to offer a pleasant mouth-feel. The accompanying vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes were also on the mark (although there could have been more potatoes, in my book). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a hearty shout-out to the house salad with palace dressing, which was simple yet fantastic. (The house salad or the soup of the day is included with the meal. Don’t shell out the extra $8 for the wedge; it doesn’t even include bacon, for Pete’s sake.)

It was a lovely meal with great friends in a unique yet classic setting. (All of the English knickknacks and works of art are a hoot.) Here’s to another 50 years, Lord Fletcher’s.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: Aspirins

Where: Burgers and Beer, 72773 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; also located at 79815 Highway 111, No. 101, La Quinta

How much: $7

Contact: 760-202-4522 (Rancho Mirage); 760-775-6494 (La Quinta); www.burgersandbeer.com

Why: They’re a delightful, unexpected find.

One expects a place called Burgers and Beer to offer a nice selection of, well, burgers and beer. One could also make an educated guess that a place that offers burgers and beer probably also offers a TV screen, or two, or 16, showing sports.

However, one may not expect a place called Burgers and Beer to offer a pretty darned decent menu of Mexican fare. Yet all of this can indeed be found at our valley’s two Burgers and Beer restaurants.

I’m particularly smitten with one Mexican-ish item on offer at Burgers and Beer: The Aspirins. No, this appetizer has nothing to do with the famous pain medication; instead, these Aspirins are miniature sopes (a thick corn-based cake; imagine a really thick tortilla) topped with beans, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and, joy of joys, chorizo; salsa is served on the side.

Boy, are they tasty. The mouth-feel is interesting as well: The chorizo, sopes and beans are warm, while the other ingredients are nice and cool. The corn cakes are fantastic and add a lot of flavor (although some may find them to be a little thick, and therefore on the verge of overtaking the rest of the ingredients). Seven bucks will get you six of these Aspirins; they’re perfect to share, or can be a semi-light meal for one.

They can be had at either of the Coachella Valley Burgers and Beer locations, as well as the four non-Coachella Valley locations (two in El Centro, and one each in Temecula and Yuma). Try ’em; you’ll like ’em—even if you’re watching your favorite sports team getting creamed.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

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