Summer Eats

Part Two

[BREAKFAST] The chicken-fried steak was on special at Peachtree Country Restaurant, which seemed like a stroke of good luck until we were right in the middle of ordering and there came this horrible suspicion. "Uhhh, is this chicken-fried steak good?" we asked, with no humor in our voice, looking hard into the waitress' eye for any sign of deceit—or worse, of ignorance, of not knowing that there is nothing worse than bad chicken-fried steak. She didn't flinch. Her smile evaporated. She understood the implications. "Don't worry," she nodded assuringly. "It's good." AND IT WAS!! Breaded, fried and soaked with creamy gravy, it was accompanied by hashed-brown potatoes—crispy on the outside and tender inside—a couple of scrambled eggs, coffee, and lots and lots of water. And she brought Tabasco and ketchup before I even asked. [LUNCH] The late-winter weather had mutated into an early-summer scorcher on the day we wandered into El Rancho, and the sight of those cooks glistening next to the stove behind the counter didn't make us feel any cooler. But the sight of coktel de camaron (shrimp cocktail) at the bottom of the menu did. We ordered it immediately, along with an extra-large glass of tamarindo, and took a seat next to a jukebox that had the room alternately swimming and swooning with the fun and drama of ranchera music. The coktel de camaron was pleasantly chilled, filled with pinky-finger-sized shrimp playing tag with chunks of avocado and snippets of cilantro in a thick and flavorful tomato-based broth. I upped the ante with blasts of Tapatio sauce, squeezes of fresh-cut lime and sprinklings of black pepper, occasionally stuffing a soda cracker into my mouth when I went too far. [DINNER] The Golden Steer is what a family restaurant used to be—not just inexpensive enough to feed a family, but tasty and wholesome enough to feed it well. It also harkens back to the time when a family meal meant meat-meat-meat. The place is crowded, but good acoustics keep it from sounding like a mess hall and incredible service keeps that growl in your stomach from turning into a bad mood. We had the New York cut and a baked potato with the works after a crisp green salad with ranch dressing and washed it all down with iced tea. Coffee and an ice cream sundae for dessert. Yep, that's eatin'. (DW) Peachtree Country, 11200 Beach Blvd., (714) 893-2705; El Rancho, 8040 Orangewood, (714) 893-8442; Golden Steer, 11052 Beach Blvd., (714) 894-1208.

TUSTIN

Diversity, thy name is Tustin. [BREAKFAST] Filipino breakfast at Mangga Grill is two eggs cooked to order, Longanisa (a sweet or spicy sausage) and tasty garlic fried rice, topped off with ice-cold mango juice. Be forewarned: the portions look small to pigs like me—the sausages are about the size of a pinkie—but they're just right if you think "sated," not "stuffed." Chicken Tocino—glazed meat tenderized with the same spices as Longanisa—is also savory, especially if you're avoiding the "other white meat." [LUNCH] Avoid Thai BBQif you have peanut or coconut allergies—their best dishes contain one or both. Wing of Angel's crispy, boneless chicken wing stuffed with meat, topped with ground peanut; tangy coconut chicken soup that rocks your world without spot-welding your lips together; green curry chicken and coconut milk; Masa-Munn (beef curry with peanuts, potatoes and coconut milk). The Thai iced teas are addictive but not overcaffeinated. I had two, but I didn't get the common accompanying buzzy, nervous stomach. [DINNER] Cuban restaurants tend to overdose on atmosphere, but not Rafi's Cuban Café. You can see the people with whom you're dining, background music plays quietly, and there's not a single pseudo-Havana objet d'art to be seen. Mystery item tasajo is my fave. It isn't for everyone, and according to my server, it's rarely ordered, which makes it all the more interesting. Shredded, salt-cured beef, loaded with enough garlic to give Anne Rice nightmares, a soupy bowl of spicy red beans without (to this palate) a touch of lard, topped off with divine fried bananas. Mmmmm. Trust me, you'll be taken to the brink of odd-food heaven and drop-kicked through the gourmet goal posts. (DB) Mangga Grill, 341 E. First St., (714) 730-1332; Thai BBQ, 13572 Newport Ave., (714) 731-1711; Rafi's Cuban Café, 425 S. El Camino Real, (714) 505-4071.

VILLA PARK

Villa Park's dark view of strip malls cluttering its upscale, tree-lined neighborhoods has resulted in its limited array of eateries clotting together in the same small shopping center on Santiago Boulevard. For [BREAKFAST] and/or lunch, go straight to the chain restaurant Bagel Me!for a plethora of tropical fruit drinks, eggy breakfast melts, salads and sandwiches. I had a green-chile melt (jalapeño bagel, Jack cheese and big strips of spicy green chiles). The tangy cranberry chill smoothie is tart enough to send a kidney infection screaming from the room. Check out the eerie painting in the dining room while you're there. Its blocky, oblong figures playing ball, fishing and boating, all surrounded by green, foreboding trees, is eerily reminiscent of John Wayne Gacy's stuff. [LUNCH] First Class Pizza has been around forever for the past 20 years, and the name ain't false advertising. They're short on space to sit—only one table outside, without any shade—but any place offering a Tabasco, garlic and red pepper-dependent pizza called the Afterburner holds a special place in my Tapatio-drenched heart. Skip [DINNER], go a few shops down, and sink your teeth into Rockwell's Café &Bakery's moist, creamy desserts. Their cakes have the best frosting this side of a can, and most of them are adorned with an abundance of shaved chocolate. (DB) Bagel Me!, 17767 Santiago Blvd., (714) 998-1212; First Class Pizza, 17853 Santiago Blvd., (714) 998-2961; Rockwell's Café & Bakery, 17853 Santiago Blvd., (714) 921-0622.

WESTMINSTER
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