Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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Backyard grilling is going strong as Labor Day inches closer. To prepare home cooks for the holiday, I reached out to a duo of BBQ professionals for their best words of wisdom when it comes to perfecting their craft. I start at the recently opened Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano with Daniel Castillo, then bring it home with owner/chef Luis Flores of Placentia’s Meat Up BBQ. Fellas, the floor is yours.

Daniel Castillo: Heritage Barbecue, San Juan Capistrano

On selecting the best meats for the job: The home chef might be worried about under or overcooking meat. It can be hard to get into a good rhythm when working with live fire. Two cuts of meat I suggest using are a New York or flat iron. Both have beautiful intermuscular fat. Both are very easy to cook; they’re flat steaks. You don’t have to worry about shape or anything like that. And both do well over live fire.

To sauce or not to sauce? Spend the extra money (you would normally use on sauce) on a nice piece of meat. The meat really should be the star of the show. I advocate having a great rub, a great piece of meat, and using sauces sparingly as the cherry on top.

Speaking of rubs: Start with salt and pepper; let the meat speak for itself. If you’re looking for more flavor, enjoy this rub recipe:

½ cup brown sugar
½ cup paprika
¼ cup salt
¼ cup mustard powder
2 tbsp of cayenne (to taste, depending on your spice preference.)

I would season the meat at least 30 minutes before it goes onto the grill. Bring the protein out of the fridge at least an hour before grilling. You’ll get a much more even cook if your meat isn’t cold.

Let’s talk about heat: Start with a nice charcoal bed to build heat. Or create your own coals by burning down a good amount of wood over a few hours. Then add a couple of splits of your favorite wood (I like white oak from The Woodshed) for some smoke.

Anything else? For most of my steaks, I’ll rest it for half the grill time with a loose piece of tinfoil over it. I like to slice out my steak and present it on a cutting board. I finish with a nice olive oil and sprinkle of fleur de sel (large grain salt). If you’re looking to pick up some new techniques, I recommend watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats. He’s got a great episode on a perfect sear.

Luis Flores of Meat Up BBQ. Credit: Photo courtesy of Niyaz Pirani

Luis Flores: Meat Up BBQ, Placentia

First and foremost: If you’re barbecuing or grilling, don’t rush it! That goes for all cooking, really. Plan out as much of your process and prep ahead of time, so it makes the work that much easier.

The importance of wood: If you’re going to smoke, get your wood from a local specialist, too. Chips, logs, whatever; you’ll find a better selection and weird, strange things to experiment with. I feel that buying local on every level is better for your final product, plus you’re supporting local businesses. I go to The Woodshed in Orange for all of the hickory we use at Meat Up BBQ.

Depending on what you’re cooking (or how), these are the woods I suggest:

  • All-around go-to – hickory
  • Tri-tip or brisket – white or red oak
  • Chicken – cherry
  • Pork – cherry and apple
  • Grilling – mesquite

Consider your spices: Find a top shelf seasoning! Spiceology – that’s my favorite place to go. It’s great for the home cook and the professional. They have insane blends that result in unique, delicious dishes.

Quality above all: Source the best meat! Avoid specials at grocery stores. Hit up your local butcher shop for the exact cuts you want. Our favorite is Gem Meats in Fullerton. Sometimes Costco has great options. Buy the best cuts of meat you can find – it will make a universe of difference in the final product. If you’re on a budget, you can’t go wrong with a full tri-tip, about a 2 to 2½ pound cut will feed a family of four.

A final reminder: Don’t use too much heat! You don’t want to burn or overcook your meat too quickly. Whether you are barbecuing or grilling, medium to low temps are the way to go for longer cook times.

At-Home Dining with Family-Friendly Meal Kits

If you’re looking to save the time spent cooking from scratch, avoiding patio crowds, trying something different, or all of the above, checking out a packaged kit is a swell alternative to standard take-out for families.

I tried a handful of options to see if any would make eating-in a little more entertaining. In addition, I reached out to Jessica Luevano (a chef at Disneyland’s Club 33), who is currently operating a meal prep business during the pandemic. With siblings to cook for, I wanted to understand the positive impact having her sister and brother assist while getting dinner on the table made.

“I cannot explain enough how hard it is to watch and cook for two finicky kiddos and work on my career. It wasn’t until I put my thinking cap on that I asked myself the life-saving question: What better way to engage them – and keep my sanity – than to have them cook with me? By involving them in the process, they feel the sense of importance and pride in the meals we make.

“The skills I’ve been showing them over the years have made them more inclined to cook for themselves now, and sometimes even for me. It’s been a great way for us to bond with one another around the dinner table. Food is a constant amongst all families. This is how I keep us together, especially in these unpredictable times.”

Asada tacos from Taco Rosa’s grill package. Credit: Photo courtesy of Taco Rosa

Taco Rosa, Newport Beach and Irvine

Ranging in price from $40-$50, these “ready-to-grill” taco packages for four simply require heat and some assembly. While younger ones set the table with all the fixings, those young-at-heart can fire up the grill.

You can order al pastor/pork or chicken, but I was craving the skirt steak/asada. Evenly portioned into four long cuts, our two pounds of protein were already seasoned with the necessary flavors and ready to sizzle.

If you are comfortable with kids using the stove, they can warm the dozen tortillas made from scratch in-house using non-GMO corn. Once the hot components are ready and someone’s cut the asada to manageable slices (the most labor-intensive part of dinner), it’s time to wash up before the DIY meal. Place your meat alongside the included chopped onion, cheese blend, cilantro, and jalapeno salsa, then customize to your liking.

Taco Rosa requires 24-hours notice prior to pick-up. I highly recommend the asada, as any leftovers go nicely with eggs the next morning. Note: The kits are being offered until Labor Day.

All the components in your banh xeo kit by Banh Xeo Boys. Credit: Photo courtesy of Banh Xeo Boys

Banh Xeo Boys, Santa Ana

A bánh xèo  most closely resembles a French crepe, yet it’s filled with Vietnamese flavors. Daniel Ngo and David Pham (a.k.a. The Banh Xeo Boys) have taken this Asian dish and brought it mainstream to downtown Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market.

At first glance, a bánh xèo appears to be made with egg, but I was informed that the golden hue actually comes from turmeric in a batter consisting of rice flour and coconut – although Ngo mentioned that in some areas of Vietnam, they do crack an egg directly onto the crepe.

The $50 Cook-At-Home Banh Xeo kit includes a pre-mixed batter, pork belly, shrimp, dipping sauce (a.k.a. nước chẳm), onions, bean sprouts, green leaf lettuce, cucumber, mint, cilantro, a blend of pickled carrots and daikon, garlic and Thai chili. Plus, they make sure to include directions as well as a three-ounce ramekin to measure and pour out batter.

Making the bánh xèo crepe is easier thank you think, but don’t let any setbacks discourage you. The good news is that when you’re actually consuming a crepe, it doesn’t really matter how it looks. To enjoy, one should first acknowledge that it will be messy, but fun to handle. Use your chopsticks or hands to tear off a piece of crepe. Then take a whole lettuce leaf, top with herbs, vegetables, and your crepe before rolling it up. Finally, dip it in the nước chẳm, and chew on this gluten-free (and dairy-free) bite.

A warm bánh xèo is cooled down by the greens. Its texture becomes more interesting with crunchy sprouts and tart veggies. More often than not, children will keep it simple and gravitate towards a plain crepe, meaning more shrimp and pork for you.

Kits can be picked up with curbside service, or one can park in the structure behind the 4th Street Market for two free hours. FYI: They’ll soon be opening a second branch inside Stanton’s Rodeo 39 off Beach Boulevard.

Plato’s Kitchen, Irvine

While they also offer heat-and-serve family meals, my interest was in this kitchen’s Lebanese BBQ kit. Priced at $38.99, it comes with eight pre-marinated kabobs of chicken and ground beef, a duo of dips (I selected hummus and a spicy muhamara – a red pepper dip), roasted zucchini and eggplant, house-made pita chips, pita bread, and garlic sauce known as toum. In lieu of an outdoor grill, I pulled out my All-Clad double burner griddle for the job.

An upgraded BBQ kit from Plato’s Kitchen also includes salad, three dips, grape leaves and taquitos for $58.99. Credit: Photo courtesy of Knife and Spork PR

While the chicken was grilling, I learned a trick from owner Rashad Moumneh to make some kid-friendly sliders. Splitting the pita bread into two halves, I used the ground meat from a skewer and spread it inside the pita. After giving it a good smash with my hand, I brushed the outside with oil and grilled it on both sides; the simple meat and bread combo is ideal for picky eaters.

The dips were a perfect snacking complement to our spread, whether we slathered our chicken with hummus, or tested the chips in muhamara. The bread was so pillowy, we could’ve also stuffed it with veggies and meat to make a sandwich. Their garlicky toum has the consistency of mayo and a potency to take down vampires – I’m still savoring it with pita chips while I write.

25 assorted doughnuts and a DIY decorating kit from Miss Mini Donuts. Credit: Photo courtesy of Leslie Nguyen

Miss Mini Donuts, Newport Beach and Orange

Instead of feeling guilty over a regular-sized doughnut, it’s much easier to justify freshly baked mini ones. The doughnut decorating kit for one from Miss Mini Donuts is priced at $25, and includes your frosting choice (pink or white), plus selection of four toppings (including sprinkles, M&Ms, fruity pebbles, cotton candy crunch, etc.) to make your 25 artistic doughnut aspirations come true.

Orders are accepted and prepaid online. Local delivery can be arranged, as there isn’t a formal storefront to visit. You can also pick up your order at OC Baking Company in Orange on Fridays, or Bosscat Kitchen in Newport on other days.

Note: They are about to launch shipping options for those outside of the area. What I liked best about this doughnut kit was not having to turn on any appliance during summer weather; just find a place to spread out and start decorating. Try not to eat all the toppings – although the frosted circus animal cookies are tough to resist.

The Boba Box by Milk Box, black tea flavor. Credit: Photo courtesy of Milk Box

Milk Box, Online Only

For those who like to sip on boba milk teas, but aren’t interested in driving nor waiting in line, this option was made for you. From the team that originally started in Tustin’s Union Market food hall, Milk Box is now online-only with their signature kit: the Boba Box.

If there is one thing I learned last year about ordering a milk tea with boba, it’s that there’s nothing like freshly cooked tapioca spheres in my beverage. The warm, chewy texture is as satisfying as marshmallows in hot cocoa. With flavors including black tea, earl grey lavender, jasmine green, and now peach oolong, each kit makes enough for eight cups of tea (and iced tea, if you so choose). Online tutorials on Milk Box’s website will assist you in steeping the perfect batch and cooking your boba properly for a sweet combination to indulge in.

The value of this $20 box goes much further than convenience. Five dollars from the sale of a Boba Box goes towards Bracken’s Kitchen, a 501c3 that feeds food insecure families. With this amount, they have the ability to serve 10 meals. Each DIY kit includes loose leaf tea, boba, brown sugar, optional straws, and instructions. Plus, all box contents are locally sourced from small businesses.

Creating the Boba Box kit costs $8, leaving $5 in commission for brand partners who assist with promoting the boxes, and $2 saved when using a partner’s code. If you use code “brekkiefan”, you will not only save 10%, but the account was set up to transfer any commission to Bracken’s Kitchen. What that means is that by purchasing a box with this particular code, they will be able to nourish twice as many people. When you consider that a boba tea costs a minimum of $4 per cup, the savings adds up to make this deal worthwhile.

If You Prefer Something Less Involved

Two of the six TV dinners now available from Lazy Dog..

Lazy Dog TV Dinners

At the end of July, this local restaurant group launched a retro line of meals. Styled after TV dinners of the 50s and 60s, Lazy Dog offers a half-dozen comforting options requiring about an hour of baking (when you factor in pre-heating and resting) for a hearty evening for $10 a pop.

I tried the hand-dipped, buttermilk fried chicken with country gravy on red skin mashed taters. Compartments of baby spinach and bacon, plus a blue corn cake rounded out my supper. The chicken that wasn’t in contact with potatoes came out perfectly crisp. The pot roast with green beans and almonds, plus huckleberry apple cake was also a winner.

Pair this with a Mad Men binge session on Amazon Prime for a solid evening. If you’ve read this far, use code “tunein” on Lazy Dog’s online ordering to save $5 on a single TV dinner through September 13.

Bonus: Masterlink Sausage, Fullerton

The Fullerton-based manufacturer sells packs of their fresh meats and sausage from a freezer case inside their facility. Since March, they’ve had recurring specials on these bulk products, making Masterlink the best kept secret in north OC.

I drove up one morning after seeing an advertised special in their social media stories. Shrink-wrapped, single pound specialty links are currently $3; their bratwurst and Portuguese Hawaiian ones are legit. Two-pounds of bacon beef knockwurst are $9. I specifically went for two-pound packages of both ground chorizo and breakfast sausage, a steal at $6. Support local businesses and stock up!

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at

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