By Derek Obregon
Get ready to meet the Inland Empire’s most well known and most energetic food critic. Allan Borgen has been in the business of food for over 25 years and this top-notch critic knows his way around the kitchen. You may recognize this food-crazed junkie from TV or radio because he is on a quest to ensure that great local restaurants stay open. With a background in social work, it’s hard to even call him a critic at times because he genuinely cares for the owners. He gives suggestions to improve the food and will go out of his way to stop by and just say hi. You don’t have to wait for a surprise visit from Allan because every other week he will be serving up a fresh food review. The Weekly is thrilled to have his talents and you should look for all the future columns titled “Eating with Allan,” to find out all about the best food in the I.E.
Ok, so what got you into food?
I grew up with a grandma next door and she was from Europe. From about five or six I would help her cook. I remember a short lady with a little babushka on her head while I was chopping and grinding. We used every pot and pan and the sauces got all over! That’s all she did the whole day; cooked and cleaned, cooked and cleaned. At an early age I learned about culture and grandma would say, “Eat, eat. Think of all the kids that are starving.”
What’s your background?
I took a year and a half of culinary school. It was at Trade Tech, the only one around at the time. I said, “What do you mean I have to follow recipes?” and, “I have to stand on my feet for how long?” So after learning that, I thought, “No, it’s not for me.”
That’s when I went to school and got my masters in social work. I worked full time with disabled, fostered, abused and neglected kids. Social work became all paperwork and not caring about the client, just cover your ass.
So how did your career as a food critic start?
I worked in restaurants for about six years and after working at all different positions, I’ve learned what it’s like. I may be a little forgiving because I know that at any given time a number of things can go wrong, but I’ve got to be honest in my reviews because my credibility is the most important thing.
I’ve been on TV for 19 years with the Let’s Dine Out and Table for Two shows.
It got cancelled, but its back and this time around I bring people with me. We go to two restaurants. Each one is four-five hours with, oh say, 26-27 dishes that we try. We do all the filming, outside and inside, taste the food and then talk about it. That’s the TV show. Channel 24 KVCR, Fridays at 6:30pm.
And I’ve been on radio for five years with KTIE 590. It’s all about fun and food and we have the Grub Club.
What we do is eat our way through the IE. We find a restaurant and eat for around $25 per person. We get anywhere from 12-19 items; tax, tip and beverages included. Go to the letsdineoutshow.com and sign up for free. It’s a great place to eat a lot of food, try a lot of things and not spend a lot of money.
Eating a lot must be nice.
It is, but it has some drawbacks. I’m really involved with diabetes and diabetes training because I have type 2 diabetes. I’ve got three DVDs and a website called e3healthy.com that helps people with diabetes.
You can still enjoy food, just know portion control. To eat healthy doesn’t mean you have to eat garbage and foo-foo sprouts. Food should be fun. Pamper your body and soul.
Any other food related activities?
I have a website called feedme411.com. It’s the local Yelp, but we’re honest. We don’t strong arm restaurants that might want to take bad reviews off. We’re trying to really help restaurants by getting their names out there. Plus, it’s a great way for people to see videos of food before they buy it.
We also give a lot of food away. Almost every day we have a food contest and we gave away about $15,000 worth of food gift certificates last year. Just like us on Facebook.
I take it you like food?
Everyone does. That mmm, that yummy sound. Even if I’m the only English speaking person in a restaurant, I make that mmm sound and faces just light up because it’s so universal . . . I feel like the Mother Teresa of restaurants, my goal is to turn people on to food. Try new restaurants, try new cuisine. Why go to L.A. and Orange County when we’ve got some great ones here that no one knows about.
How many people are afraid to try new food?
I think a lot of people are just meat and potatoes and that’s it.
I want to win the Nobel Peace Prize for food. Forget the science; I want to win because food is the only thing I know that brings people together. You and I could be totally different, but unless you’re kosher or vegetarian or something very different, but even then, food is a commonality.
When you’re happy, what do you do? Eat. When you’re sad, what do you do? Eat. When you’re stressed, what do you do? Eat. When you’re eating, what do you talk about? What you’re going to eat tomorrow, tonight.
Is there anything you won’t try?
No, I’ll try anything. One time on a food review, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant and they had beef testicle soup. My co-worker and I never had it, so we ordered it. So the guy comes back with broken English and says, “Do you want little ball or big ball?” We’re like, “What? Well how big’s the big ball?” He said, “It’s gigantic.” What he meant was, “big bowl or little bowl,” because the plate came and we saw these little things floating and we sighed with relief. Thank God!
How can we get more people to try new things?
Just be open for it. You listen to different music and different bands, so why not try different foods? All I expect from people is to try it.
Like sushi, that’s a great example. You know that eww sushi face? To me, you don’t get the right to make that negative sushi face if you’ve never tried it before. If you’ve tried it and didn’t like it, no problem.
What are some fun things you’ve been able to do as a food critic?
I’ve done local chili and salsa competitions, but I’ve been a judge for the last four years at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. Last year I tasted 74 pizzas in three days. This year was about 64.
How do you get involved with that?
Someone recommended me so I called them and went down. It’s three days of heaven. They have the World Pizza Games [which includes freestyle acrobatic dough tossing, largest dough stretch, fastest pizza box folding and the pizza triathlon]. One of the locals, AJ Barile’s Chicago Pizza in Yucaipa, has won it three times! It’s exciting to see a local restaurant there. The whole pizza industry is unlike any other profession.
How do you judge that?
There’s different categories; traditional, pan and non-traditional. Non-traditional is anything you want. Some things looked terrible, but worked, and other things looked beautiful but weren’t real good. Japan made a nori and fish cake pizza. It was delicious.
What’s your favorite food?
Just good food. My favorite would probably be ethnic food because it’s so different and I learn a lot about culture and the history of dishes. I love that.
Like potstickers. The story supposedly goes that a chef for the emperor of the royal family burnt one side of the dumplings and it was too late to change it. He gave it to them anyways and they loved it!
And Vince’s Spaghetti, they started in Victorian houses. I think they sold sandwiches and orange juice. One day, the grandma brought out a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and people stopped by their little stand and said, “Wow, what’s that? Can we have that?” People loved it and that’s how they got into spaghetti.
To me, the more people know about the history of food, the more they will appreciate things. Like, wow, this sauce is 300 years old, its grandma’s grandma’s grandma’s recipe.
What are some hidden gems?
Owen’s Bistro in Chino, Citrus Deli in Redlands, Highland Springs Resort in Cherry Valley, Albert Einstein went there. It’s middle to high end steaks and the majority of things are organic. Johnson’s Hot Dogs, Dragon Loco Chinese Mexican Fusion, One Plus One Dumpling House has very authentic homemade noodles and dumplings and Mes Amis is upscale Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food. Pricey, but phenomenal.
Is there a favorite restaurant you have?
I like Chinese food, China Point in Rancho Cucamonga and Peking Chinese Restaurant in Riverside. House of Wings and Taste of Asia in La Verne, San Biagio’s Pizza, the Tartan of Redlands, Eureka Burger goes up and down, but I like their stuff. There’s just so many.
Do you ever want to go out to eat when you’re not reviewing?
No, I try not to go out because I just can’t order one dish at a time and that gets pricey.
What would you do if you weren’t a food critic?
I’m an avid cook. I’ve got about 14,000 cook books at home, six smokers, two grills and much more. I love cooking food and experimenting with seasonings. I know food.
If I didn’t have to stand on my feet for 5,000 hours a day, I would love to own a restaurant. I’ve been offered positions and ownerships, but it’s just too much. If my name is going to be on it, I want things to be perfect.
What’s your goal?
I want people to read about food and go, “Oh my God, we need try this place!” I want people to have food orgasms.
Like I always say, happy eating!
Going on a food review is more than just fun and games; it’s a lot of work. Here’s the basic process.
Pick a restaurant:
Choose one of the thousands in the I.E. Allan is like a mad scientist with no method to his madness. He takes calls and email suggestions or will just drive by something that looks interesting and his culinary gut-instinct makes him stop.
After choosing a restaurant, he’ll usually go in unannounced. Since we were going to take pictures, he had to make sure the owners were cool with it. He chose the China Point in Rancho Cucamonga.
Deciding what to order:
He wants to be where the readers are, so he asks, “What are the most popular/signature dishes? What makes this restaurant different from everything else?” The typical review is between eight and 12 dishes.
We started with eight dishes that quickly turned into nine, then 10.
I think the hardest part was waiting to take the photos. The food at China Point takes time to prepare because the chef makes each order fresh.
It was torture having the aromas waft by. Seeing the succulent juices glistening under the lights and staring at each new dish that looked better and better as every second passed.
After taking some individual shots of the food and then a big group picture (that’s gracing the cover), it was time to let the food critic go to work.
With a sheet of paper to write some notes on, he first looks at the colors and presentation of the food. After assessing what’s on the table, he lets his nose guide him to the best smelling dish. He then grabs a small portion, one plate at a time, and lets his tongue have the pleasure of giving the final say.
If you go, try the Walnut Shrimp and Hot Szechwan Eggplant. They’re both amazing.