These Orange County restaurants, bars and coffeehouses aren't just tasty – they're inspired.
Orange County’s food scene has been nothing short of inspiring of late. From independent eateries with a mind (and taste) of their own to the redefinition of “health food” to the crispy-doughed phenomenon we are dubbing “Wafflegate,” OC’s restaurants, bars and coffeehouses have done some serious soul-searching and come up with a potent mix of creativity, quality and risk-taking that not only has culinary appeal, it has staying power. Plus, it makes us proud to call OC home.
Here’s to the local food heroes who are making it happen.
Rebels With a Cause
If it sounds counter-intuitive to deny a customer’s request for something they want, that’s because it is. Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry knows that not only is it your job to bend over backwards to please the patron of the moment, but on top of that, you must live by the belief that “the customer is always right.”
What’s interesting is that these idioms have no place in many of today’s food establishments. There are a crop of new restaurants that seem to have no problem saying “no” to the wishes of customers, whether it be to cook their meat more or put flavored syrup in their coffee or substitute fries for veggies.
But don’t take it as a rude denial of your rights as a paying customer; there’s more to the story. This new breed of establishment goes to great lengths and behind-the-scenes trouble to secure the very best for their diners, and they take pride in doing just that. So when you ask for ketchup on your burger and they politely inform you that that won’t be possible, don’t take it as an insult to your personal taste, take it as a sign that they’re doing something right – very right. You may even be forced to reluctantly admit that they know what they’re talking about after all.
We know it’s a leap of faith, and it may feel like a not-so-subtle blow to your pride. But trust us: Leave it to the experts. You won’t regret it. And if you do, there’s always McDonald’s.
If you’ve been to The Playground in downtown Santa Ana, you’ve witnessed a large part of what has transformed OC from a bench-sitter to a player in the game we call food. And there’s one reason for that: Jason Quinn, the restaurant’s uncompromising and outspoken owner and chef whose opinionated approach to food has earned him a reputation as a stickler for “as is” eating – or, as we like to call it, a believer in his products, staff and ideas. “We are nervous every day, every order, every dish,” says Quinn. “We think it’s good, we think it has enough salt, we don’t think it needs hot sauce. We’ve worked all day on it and we’re excited to show someone what we have made for them. [So] when people come in and want to change [the] product, we don’t feel comfortable serving it that way. We haven’t tested it, we’re not prepared for the change, so we politely say no to all modifications.”
Of course, some people don’t like hearing the word “no.” But Quinn doesn’t see that as a problem. “For as many people who leave angrily from our restaurant because we wouldn't do it their way, there are five people who tried it our way and changed their minds. So why would we stop?” he says. “Anyone who pays $22 for a well-done steak at my establishment is wasting money. As soon as you go over medium-rare, all of the subtleties of wagyu beef are ruined.”
Cook your meat well-done
Call ahead and tell the restaurant that you only eat well-done meat and they’ll specially prepare a delicious braised beef option for you that is falling apart from its long cooking time.
Give you ketchup or hot sauce
If you don’t like it the way they prepare it, they’ll take it off your bill.
Serve you anything they didn’t make from scratch, including condiments
Um, bring your own Kraft mayonnaise? We don’t recommend it though; theirs is delicious.
Portola Coffee Lab
It’s true; we’ve become accustomed to the Culture of Starbucks – the idea that coffee is but a background taste for other flavors and modifiers. Not that that’s a bad thing – sometimes we just really want a pumpkin spice latte with extra whipped cream. But if coffee is the flavor you’re seeking, then your best bet is to head to Portola Coffee Lab at Costa Mesa’s OC Mart Mix shopping center.
Portola may look complicated with all the brewing contraptions and lab coats worn by baristas, but don’t be fooled; the concept is actually very simple: to “make the best coffee in the world,” says Jeff Clinard, Portola’s general manager and marketing director. “[We are] dedicated to uncompromising quality. Everything we serve, we stand behind.”
That mission is not met without some resistance from customers, however. It turns out that sugary drinks such as a peppermint mocha with extra peppermint and mocha are a powerful draw – one that Portola has tasked itself with overcoming through educating patrons about coffee and, if necessary and possible, providing suitable alternatives. “We might be pushing people out of their comfort zones, but that’s ok,” says Clinard. “Most of our customers use syrups and sweeteners elsewhere because [they] need them to make the drink taste good.” At Portola, the idea is that you won't need those modifiers because the coffee itself is delicious.
And trust goes a long way. “Every way we serve our drinks is intentional,” Clinard says. “We want people to love what they have here.”
Put any flavored syrups in your coffee
If you like things on the sweeter side, try the mocha made with house-crafted chocolate ganache.
Serve you an espresso or their signature drink, the Gaspar, to-go
Try other drinks that fare better to-go, such as an iced Macchio (a three-ounce skimmed Americano), or a Flat White, which is steamed to a higher temperature than the Gaspar so it doesn’t break down as quickly.
Provide you with a wide array of sweeteners
The staff encourages you to try the coffee on its own, but if you still find that you need some sweetness, there’s raw sugar syrup.
Remember when eating healthy meant steamed vegetables and white rice? And then it meant everything else, from the Atkins diet (high fat and protein, low carbs) to the Cabbage Soup Diet to the newest trend, the Paleo Diet, which mimics the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, supposedly causing your body to drop weight and detox, and perhaps also inspire you to carry a spear and wear a loin cloth. (But we hope not.)
Well, things have progressed, we’re happy to report. Today’s healthy eating not only tastes good, it’s also convenient, practical and reasonably priced. So whether you want it at home, to-go or at a sit-down restaurant, there are plenty of options. Here are a few of our favorites.
Brick and Mortar
International health-casual boutique chain freshii has opened in Newport Beach, catering to an OC population clamoring for fresh salads and light rice and noodle dishes for lunch or dinner. Nearby, the new Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop in Costa Mesa is serving up customized salads using organic ingredients in a chic indoor-outdoor environment.
1320 Bison Ave., Newport Beach
949.760.8760 :: freshii.com
Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop
234 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa
949.200.3950 :: greenleafchopshop.com
On the Road
We’ve gone the comfort food route with food trucks, but Jennifer Crowl’s Pulp Fusion truck aims to provide a healthy alternative for those looking to avoid a lunch of sliders and French fries. The new truck’s focus is on popular acai bowls, which combine frosty acai fruit, granola and fruit to fill you up, not out.
949.497.7446 :: pulp-fusion.com
To Your Home
So you thought the words “French” and “health food” couldn’t go together in the same sentence? Foodflo, a home delivery company specializing in vegan, gluten-free and alkaline-strong foods, is run by French-born chef Florence Bertheau, who turned to a platform of total health after her daughter was diagnosed with autism. Meals are delivered once a week with instruction on preparation.
323.644.8100 :: foodflo.com
If you seldom venture away from OC’s beautiful coastline (and really, why would you?), then we’ve got a challenge for you: Leave PCH and you’re bound to discover some of the county’s most interesting and unique cultural foods. (And no, fish tacos don’t count as an adventurous foray into international cuisines.)
Orange County happens to be home to several concentrated areas that celebrate a diverse array of world cuisines – and that will momentarily have you forgetting that the Pacific Ocean is even nearby. Think of it as a cheap vacation.
Here are our top three food picks for each of OC’s cultural neighborhoods.
Little Saigon: Westminster
Be prepared for an authentic pho experience. Choose from a wide variety of pho additions, including thinly sliced chicken, beef, tendon, brisket, or Vietnamese meatballs, all in delicious beef broth. Two potential limitations: It’s cash only and English is limited, but we think that makes the experience even better.
Deep brown broth, delicious and tender additions like oxtail, and fresh cilantro and basil make for one of the best pho restaurants in Little Saigon.
Thach Che Hien Khanh
Don’t ask us what the name means or how to pronounce it, but if you’re in the mood for dessert after a big bowl of pho, this is the right place. Just remember this: Get everything with coconut milk sauce – and don’t forget the sticky rice.
Little Arabia: Anaheim
Beirut, Lebanon, was the location of the first Zankou, but it has since spread California-wide. Famous for its roasted chicken and fresh Mediterranean-style plates with hummus, vegetables and rice, Zankou is at the top of our list.
Forn Al Hara
This bakery specializes in Arabic pizza. Try the one with spinach and cheese, or get the soujuk (sausage) and cheese pizza. For dessert, we recommend the khishnah verion of kanafeh, a dessert made with thin crunchy noodles and soft cheese and then soaked in sweet syrup.
It’s not fancy, but Kareem’s has the best falafel in town. Crispy on the outside and light and soft on the inside, it’s a treat for those who appreciate simple things done well.
Little Tokyo: Costa Mesa
The piece de résistance at this bakery is the flaky strawberry croissant stuffed full of vanilla custard and freshly sliced strawberries, but they also have savory sandwiches and a plethora of other baked goods beautiful enough to make you swoon.
Find any Japanese product you could possibly need at this marketplace, or stop by their food court for lunch, where you’ll find everything from fresh sushi to authentic ramen and udon soups.
714.557.6699 :: mitsuwa.com
Those who are sushi-weary will find rejuvenation at Tsuruhashi, a Japanese barbecue restaurant that uses USDA Prime meat (kobe, short ribs, skirt steak, etc.) and fresh seafood and vegetables to create an atypical barbecue for American palates. Make sure to try the kimchi fried rice.
714.593.8393 :: tsuruhashibbq.com
Trend of the Year: Waffles
There’s no denying that Eggos are delicious. A smear of butter, a swirl of maple syrup, and we were happy campers before the start of a long day of second grade. But then waffles disappeared entirely off our culinary radar until recently, when a number of new restaurants began featuring the crimped and baked batter in new and glorious ways. No longer are waffles just a breakfast food that’s a good alternative to the pancake; they’re the building blocks for a wide variety of sweet and savory fillings that take you from breakfast to dinner to dessert. Check out these local places for a sure fire way to revisit that same second grade glee.
The Iron Press
Now this is waffle dining for adults. Not only are Iron Press's waffle sandwiches prepared with interesting flavor combos (buttermilk fried chicken with jalapeño maple syrup) but they have over 30 microbrews on tap. And make sure to try the waffle fries with garlic aioli and Sriracha ketchup. Located inside Costa Mesas’s OC Mart Mix shopping center.
714.426.8088 :: theironpress.com
If there’s anything better than a stationary waffle, it’s one that’s on wheels – as in Waffle-icious’s truck, which cruises the streets of OC, bringing traditional Belgian Liege waffles to the masses. Using imported Belgian pearl sugar, which caramelizes during baking to give an unmistakable crunch, the waffles are all made from scratch in a variety of sweet and savory options such as the s’more waffle or the bacon and cheese waffle.
Now with three locations in OC (Orange, Rancho Santa Margarita and Brea), Bruxie isn’t waffling around with their concept. The strictly waffle-only restaurant makes everything from hot pastrami waffle sandwiches to peanut butter and jelly waffles to our personal favorite, the Nutella and banana waffle with sweet cream. There’s no alcohol, but there are seasonal milkshakes.
If you thought snow cones were just for kids, think again. Chef de Cuisine at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel’s RAYA restaurant, Marissa Gerlach, has recreated the summer confections in a way that recalls childhood in an adult manner. The snow cones come in a trio of flavors: blood orange margarita with black salt; coconut-rum with coconut milk; and chicha morada with pisco, pineapple, clove, cinnamon, and sweet purple corn.
949.240.2000 :: ritzcarlton.com