Summer Eats

Part Two

LAGUNA WOODS

Nothing against giant chain restaurants, but I wouldn't consider the Olive Garden a restaurant so much as a feeding center—what happens inevitably when, as Marx predicted, the thesis of capitalism meets up with the antithesis of communism and produces the synthesis of socialism. But in Laguna Woods, that's about all there is, this synthesis embodied in the Olive Garden, which really isn't much of an option, if you ask me. I've got three meals to write about, and from what I hear, the only thing worse than eating institutional Italian food is reading about it, and I'll be goddamned if I'm going to serve readers that kind of overboiled pasta. Given that the vast majority of land in OC's newest city is located within the gates of Leisure World, it would seem to me that the only way to get a real meal is to become a guerrilla diner—to somehow penetrate the walls of the elderly enclave and rustle up some native grub. Here is my diary. [BREAKFAST] In the wee hours, I scale the barbed-wire-topped wall of Leisure World, which is easier than I thought it would be—until my landing on the other side is noticed by the guards working in the security kiosk at Gate 5, who promptly give chase. Eluding the elderly security guards is easy—like, well, like running away from old people —until I notice blood gushing from a vampiric gash on my right hand, presumably caused by the barbed wire. I wake up on a couch in Clubhouse 4 three hours later, where I was taken, I'm told, after I was apprehended when I lost consciousness and collapsed on the sidewalk. I am given a breakfast of a few stale butter cookies from a tin (to replenish my strength) and a Styrofoam cup full of water before being escorted out by a pair of snickering security guards (average age, 68). [LUNCH] I am instructed to leave the city. Considering the clusterfuck now known as the Breakfast Incident (as reported in that day's edition of the community newsletter), but still refusing to subject my taste buds to the bland-o-rama that is the Olive Garden, I head over to neighboring Laguna Hills for a meat-loaf sandwich at the Split Rock Tavern. The way I see it, if there isn't a decent meal to be found in Laguna Woods, perhaps it is only a matter of importing one. I take the sandwich to go. At a comfortable spot within the city limits on the shoulder of El Toro Road, a rapping on the driver's-side window turns out to be produced by the knuckles of an OC Sheriff's deputy inquiring about the wound on my right hand and informing me that eating in my car on the shoulder of a busy street is against the law. I will have to find a more appropriate location. I explain, to his bewilderment, that I absolutely had to eat the rest of the sandwich within the city limits—foog wavyoo, I say, meaning "food review," but it comes out "foog wavyoo." If I don't beat it, Fife says, I'll finish my sandwich in the back of his squad car. And while proud that I have managed to eat half of my lunch in Laguna Woods, I consume the balance of it in a Target parking lot in Laguna Hills. [DINNER] It looks as if serendipity is going to smile on me for dinner: I remember a story that appeared in the Weekly last summer about Leisure World resident Bob Ring, whose pro-incorporation organization helped the community gain cityhood last spring. I find a pay phone and give him a ring (get it?), dialing with my good hand and holding the receiver under my chin. He turns out to be just as kind as he seemed in the article, patiently listening to my quandary and informing me that within a year's time, Laguna Woods will indeed have more restaurants. In the meantime, he kindly offers to cook me dinner at his home, but I balk at the image of Ring cooking for the Weekly's 215,000 readers (he is in the autumn of his years, you know). Before hanging up, he suggests I go to the Olive Garden. Defeated, humiliated, lacerated and rejected, I wind up eating salad, ravioli and at least a dozen bread sticks at the only place I can think of. As it turns out, the Olive Garden is pretty good. I would probably go back. (TM) Split Rock Tavern, 24635 El Toro Rd., (949) 458-7939; Olive Garden, 24256 El Toro Rd., Laguna Hills, (949) 583-1020.

LA HABRA

Don't believe what you may have heard from bitter ex-residents—like, oh, me—but breakfast, lunch and dinner in La Habra does not necessarily translate into McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King. You just have to work a bit harder on your search for non-corporate eats. A good example for [BREAKFAST] would be Arthur's coffee shop, which is all lonely and isolated at the back of a Pic N' Save mini-mall yet somehow welcoming with its building-length sign proclaiming that the place has the "GREATEST BREAKFAST IN TOWN." Yeah, the food's good and all, but the atmosphere is even better, like scenes from an unwritten Tom Waits song—waitresses sporting "OKIE SPOKEN HERE" T-shirts take the orders of Korean War vets who have axle-grease stains on their well-worn Dickies; blue-collar couples make camp at a corner table and complain about high taxes and the Idiot Politician of the Moment; and everywhere you look, there's finely polished, simulated-wood-grain paneling plastering the walls, a hallmark of highway truck-stop chic. Arthur's serves real food for real people, damn it. For [LUNCH], my mom (who also lived in La Habra for 19 years) swears by the Chicken Box, a tiny room on Whittier Boulevard that always seems to be quite packed. They fry up all the bird parts you'd expect—legs and breasts are the most demanded—with just enough grease to keep things tasty, as well as ribs, batter-fried fish, and reasonably healthy stuff like salads (what's the point?). La Habra is also a fine burg for Mexican food, especially the [DINNER]s at Ricardo's El Ranchito, a muy caliente casa in yet another mini-mall on the city's Southwesternmost tip. Go here for three reasons (though you'll come up with more): to watch the tortilla makers do their thing inside a glass booth (tip nicely); to mack out on the light, flaky flour tortilla chips they give you to nibble on while you wait for your meal; and to feast on the superb camerones rancheros, a droolingly wonderful dish of shrimp cooked up in a sauce with peppers, onions and tomatoes. Really, there's more to La Habra than those krappy Krispy Kreme doughnuts. (RK) Arthur's, 1281 E. La Habra Blvd., (562) 691-7793; The Chicken Box, 330 E. Whittier Blvd., (562) 691-1701; Ricardo's El Ranchito, 1351 S. Beach Blvd., (562) 943-6020.

LAKE FOREST

[BREAKFAST] I arrived three minutes before the posted 9 a.m. start time at Cabo Loco Grillto find the front door locked. Someone who had just arrived for work unlocked it for me at about 9:03 a.m. It took several moments before anyone showed up at the counter to take my order. My request for coffee and the $20 bill I used to pay for my fare were met with sighs of objection (no coffee in the pot; no change in the register). Oh, did I come at a bad time? My breakfast burrito made up for it. A flour tortilla warmed on a griddle (a pox on anyone who throws them into microwaves) was filled with beans, chorizo, diced green peppers, Mexican-style potatoes, and Cheddar and Jack cheeses. At $2.79, it's an affordably delicious way to start the day. And here's a health tip: the hot chile verde at the help-yourself salsa bar does wonders for postnasal drip. Spying a sign touting $1.89 halibut, salmon, shrimp or mahi-mahi tacos all day, I knew I'd be back, but NOT for the coffee. [LUNCH] The left-leaning political discussion at my table must have caused a few South County stomachs to turn at Biagio's Italian Restaurant, but it wouldn't have been enough to keep anyone who'd joined me in ordering the Sicilian-style linguine from digging in. Basil, oregano and anchovies were blended into a marinara sauce and poured over a healthy serving of thin spaghetti. It was delicious, but I could only finish half the platter because I had filled up on the accompanying salad and warm, crusty, homemade bread. After my Partner in Dine finished her bountiful booty of ravioli, our pleasant waitress came over and—rather than admonishing us for mixing pasta and politics—asked, "Whatever happened to Ralph Nader? He was my favorite." Take that, Antonello's. [DINNER] We turned up the noise another notch or three at Yee's Chinese Restaurant, but that was because we had a buncha stinkin' kids at our table. My personal history has been hit-and-miss with Chinese food in Orange County. Fortunately, Yee's—which has been around since 1973—falls squarely in the plus column. The meats and veggies were fresh, the dishes brimmed with flavor, and the service was excellent. In fact, our tireless waiter, Peter, barely batted an eye when one of the brats knocked a full platter of shrimp chow mein on the floor. Highly recommended: Sizzling 3 Flavors (sliced shrimp, chicken and beef sautéed in a tangy brown sauce and served in a sizzling platter); Buddha's feast (snow peas, water chestnuts, Chinese cabbage, broccoli and mushrooms in brown sauce); and orange chicken (breast of chicken deep-fried until crisp and drenched in sweet hot sauce; you'll appreciate the made-to-order quality if you've sampled this dish at places that keep their orange chicken in warming trays all day). (MC) Cabo Loco Grill, 20702 Lake Forest Dr., (949) 707-5346; Biagio's Italian Restaurant, 24301 Muirlands Rd., Ste. H, (949) 837-3850; Yee's Chinese Restaurant, 23684 El Toro Rd., Unit U, (949) 837-1181.

LA PALMA

[BREAKFAST] If you're rolling down the open road, you find your fine food by looking for the truckers outside the lonesome diner. When you're stop-and-going in claustrophobic suburbia, you place a random call to City Hall, closing your eyes and poking at the telephone keypad in response to every voice mail prompt. Eventually, you get a live person, and you ask: What's the best place in town for breakfast? And that's how you end up at Johnie's Jr., preparing to clean off a plate covered with a well-packed Western omelet, crispy-lush hash browns and two slices of warm, buttered sourdough toast while downing a couple of cups of coffee. The place is a converted old Taco Bell, but the most obvious changes are the decals bearing the likeness of the Johnie's mascot—Fat Boy, who appears to be a surviving relative of the late Big Boy—affixed to every tabletop. Ordering and serving is still done fast-food style, and if you're not the type to remember to grab the Tapatio sauce or the cream for your coffee, you'll likely be squeezing in and out of those '60s-era booths a few times. [LUNCH] A little past noon, we asked a cop sitting in his squad car for a mealtime suggestion, and let's just say they love their Johnie's Jr. in La Palma! But we were in the mood for something a little more relaxed and upscale. And different. A'Roma Ristorante Trattoriaaccomplished this from its motif to its menu. A modern décor in deep, soothing colors—no red-checkered tablecloths here—and attentive servers put us in the mood for the chicken-breast special, which is cooked to golden tenderness; seasoned to a subtle richness; stuffed with mozzarella and mushrooms; and accompanied by flavorful vegetables, colorful corkscrews of pasta and glasses of iced tea. The main course was preceded by a small mixed salad chopped to a fluttery lightness and enhanced with the house Italian dressing and a basket of warm bread with a cream-cheese-and-marinara-sauce. Dessert was the waiter's favorite, a chocolate mousse in raspberry sauce. [DINNER] La Capilla looks like an old Taco Bell on steroids and attracts the Acapulco/El Torito crowds, but despite the kitschy mission look and the six-page menu, the restaurant admirably holds on to its gastronomic integrity—even when it dances across cultural lines. We started with a bowl of savory tortilla soup and a bowl of chips with salsa that was wonderfully savory instead of merely scorching. The main course was camarones criollos—that is, shrimp creole—and the medium-sized little critters came plump, tender, peeled and sautéed in a hearty ranchera sauce. The requisite refried beans and rice came along for the ride, and both did their duty, which was to force us to take a few shrimp home. We might have had dessert, except for a long-ago bad experience with flan. (DW) Johnie's Jr., 7811 Valley View Ave., (714) 228-0464; A'Roma Ristorante Trattoria, 30 Center Pointe Dr., Ste. 1, (714) 523-3729; La Capilla, 4997 La Palma Blvd., (714) 821-6191.

LOS ALAMITOS

[BREAKFAST] I start at the Katella Deli, at which (if I were so inclined) I could stay for lunch and dinner and be very, very happy. The place has a voluminous menu that spans matzo to mud pie, spinach salad to skyscraper sandwiches, knish to kippers. Possibly the only thing that would chase me away is the truly monstrous, double-decker strip mall that sits next to the deli: stores stacked cord-like with all the élan that distinguishes your better mass graves. Still, it's easy to avert your eyes to the deli's full bakery. Fresh loaf of zucchini bread? Sure. Sweet rolls? Fresh bagels? Absolutely. I sat in the restaurant and had a terrific Denver omelet. You can get lox, eggs and onion; you can get corned-beef hash; you can get bologna and eggs; and, thank the God of Abraham, you can get potato pancakes. And if you look outside, you can get sick. [LUNCH] Though some people would prefer to ignore this, the best-known attraction in town is the Los Alamitos Race Course, around which stands a gaggle of restaurants that serve not only the course's patrons but also the folks who work there. I resolved to eat lunch in one of the popular haunts around the track, deciding finally on St. Paul's Place. It features that triumvirate of working man's food: burgers, pastrami and steak. Add to this gyros, carne asada, Piña Colada Bang—which sounds vaguely illegal—and broasted chicken, which, like Hank Aaron and Hans Conreid, has never gotten its due in this country, and we're talking good eating. The food is great, the clientele colorful—dusty grooms and trainers tucked tightly into jeans clamped by license-plate-sized belt buckles—and the price is right. I got a club-sandwich plate that included French fries AND onion rings AND a green salad AND a pickle for about 6 bucks. Hee-haw. [DINNER] I met a friend and his date at the Los Alamitos Fish Company, which is about as close to a sure thing as you're going to get in this town. The beer's cold, and the chowder's the best. We had a lovely time drinking and talking over swordfish, halibut, crab legs, garlic mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. Great bread, great place . . . though I did notice the clientele was a little uptight. Many of them kept glancing over as my friend's female companion told numerous stories of adventures in tanning salons, bathroom stalls and strip clubs. Hey, man, free your mind! "Did you enjoy your crab?" I asked my friend's guest. "Yes," she said. "Are you going to write about my lesbian experiences?" "Would you like me to?" "Yes, I'd prefer that you do." Just lovely. (SL) Katella Deli-Restaurant, 4470 Katella Ave., (562) 594-8611; St. Paul's Place, 5008 Katella Ave., (562) 431-1165; Los Alamitos Fish Company, 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., (562) 594-4553.

MISSION VIEJO

I grew up in Mission Viejo when it really was a one-horse town, or perhaps there were 16 horses but just one restaurant. That one little family-run place, Patio Mexicana, survives only in memory—a memory colored by the fact that the restaurant was just outside the front doors of the Mission Viejo Co. and the company's execs frequented Patio Mexicana while discussing destroying the rural qualities that had drawn us there in the first place. I eyed them suspiciously over Soviet-style tacos and burritos and entertained monkey-wrenching schemes of revenge:capsized outhouses, pilfered survey stakes, crudely lettered signs begging construction workers not to fill in my previously secret turtle pond. The town has grown—from 4,000 or 5,000 to a bazillion or so—and with it, restaurant choices have multiplied. We have lost a world but gained a satisfactory cuisine. [BREAKFAST] is fine in any one of the hopping coffeehouses or in Albertacos, a 24-hour taco stand (with outposts in Vista, San Diego and Cypress) just outside the Liquid Lounge and downhill from Saddleback Valley Community Colleg. But the local hideout breakfast joint remains the country-clubbish restaurant at Casta del Sol Golf Course (that's "People of the Sun," a reference not to Rage Against the Machine, but to the eponymous retirement community next door). Outside the windows, golfers slap at the pill; inside, most of the aging patrons are knocking back fistfuls of pills with their orange juice. The food is fine and cheap and quick; the interior is Coco's Modern. If you can get around the shame of uttering absurdly named plates—the Sand Wrap, the Bunker Sandwich, the Hole in One—tell the waitress you want the Triple Bogey Omelet, an immense, pillow-sized concoction for which every kind of meat has been murdered. [LUNCH] The boys at Capriccio Italiano have set the standard of eating in South County for more than a decade. Everything on the menu is fabulous and produced on the premises; the décor is inelegant, upscale strip-mall (travel-poster pictures and piped-in easy-listening music); the five-star service is designed to allow for several speeds, from get-me-back-to-the-office fast to pour-me-another-Chianti languorous. We recommend most highly the penne alla Arabiatta, a biting pasta dish of sensuality expressed through the medium of the noodle. [DINNER] There's a story about the owner of La Ferme that has something to do with the cornucopia of the global marketplace, about how an exile from one country stops in a second where he picks up a trade and settles in a third where he practices it. Which perhaps explains how a chef/owner who looks Iranian ends up at the back end of Mission Viejo cooking up some of the finest French food in OC. At La Ferme, I have eaten things I would touch nowhere else. Like François Mitterand, who is said to have eaten a sacred songbird at his last meal, I have dined on snails—garlicky, buttery mollusks helped down my gullet with the aid of whatever wine the waiter suggests. And not merely snails, but duck, veal and sweetbreads. And drunk great rivers of good wine. And gone back to work knowing that the experience would cost me a month's salary. And regretted nothing. (WS) Albertacos, 28431 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 365-0695; Casta del Sol Golf Club, 27601 Casta del Sol Rd., (949) 581-9700; Capriccio Italiano, 25380 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 855-6866; La Ferme, 28451 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 364-6664.

NEWPORT BEACH

[BREAKFAST] Across Coast Highway from the labyrinthine Balboa Bay Club is Galeos, a small café perfect for that early-morning summer breakfast by the bay. The tables are intimate, and the walls and ceiling are splashed with color. Oh, yeah—the food is incredible. If you're walking over from the club, try the scrambled eggs and prosciutto for $7.75. Others, like me, can be content with the more frugal fresh-baked bagels and buttery croissants. But watch out for the beautiful Russian woman who takes your order—she messes with your mind. Once, after I'd ordered my food, she looked at me pleasantly and asked in a kind of naive, ontological way, "Why?" [LUNCH] Balboa Bay is nice, but in the summer, everyone wants to see the beach. Conveniently located for the pale out-of-towners is Italiano, a tiny shop next to a hair salon not far from the Balboa Pier. The décor is plain—heavy, high-backed chairs surrounding tables draped in the typical red-and-white tablecloths. But the service is friendly (the guy behind the counter also serves your food and buses your table), and the food is great. The front door advertises a medium one-topping pizza for $4.95, but the meatball sandwich is one of the best items on the menu. It drips with lots of melted mozzarella and tangy sauce. [DINNER] The blazing sun that burned your skin only an hour ago is now a glowing red ball sinking into the Pacific beyond Catalina. For dinner, you want something light served someplace romantic. You stayed away from the typical beach pizza at lunch, so ride the ferry over to Balboa Island and get a gourmet pizza at Ciao. Each is a plate-sized disc of bread loaded with just about everything. My preference for all things ham and pineapple leads me to the Maui, but others may prefer loading theirs with onions, sausage and grilled eggplant. There's also a great cheeseless pizza. (Anthony Pignataro) Galeos, 930 W. Coast Hwy., (949) 574-0202; Italiano, 524 W. Balboa Blvd., (949) 673-1930; Ciao, 223 Marine Ave., Balboa Island, (949) 675-4070.

ORANGE

[BREAKFAST] PJ's Abbey is an honest-to-God former Baptist church erected in 1891. Enter through the side door, amble to the simple, clean wooden bar, and order something hot and steamy—I meant the coffee. Don't forget a bagel or muffin; regarding the latter, I recommend the tasty pumpkin-spice. Station yourself at one of the chest-high tables surrounded by tall stools and contemplate wandering through the Plaza's antique stores in search of treasures. (Don't bother with the expensive-looking places banking on kitsch collectibles; instead, haunt the stocked-to-overflowing coolness of Summerhill Ltd. and the Barn.) [LUNCH] at Zito's Pizza, which is tucked inside a strip mall across from the near-lifeless Orange Mall. As you enter, notice the photos of sports figures on the walls and smell the fresh pies being pulled from the brick-walled oven. Order an Italian, a meatless, modestly cheesy, spice-loaded house specialty. There's a wall-mounted TV on which sportscasters spew sportspeak; the place usually hosts a mob of kids, drawn there by the arcade, a throwback to your bad youth when you hung out in a New York pizzeria scoring like a playboy on Pac-Man. They don't make 'em like this anymore. For [DINNER], head to Juana Maria, home of real Mexican food; beware the slippery, spicier-than-at-your-usual-Mexican-joint salsa. My advice:order whatever the waiter suggests. The fish is invariably tender, and the sauces aren't overwhelming. When you ask for the check, they bring wonderful fruit-flavored hard candies; my favorite is the mango. Stuffed, but not ready for day's end, drive into Orange's hills for mochas at Cyrano's. The night air is cool, but sit on the back patio anyway. Tiny lights twinkle above you as you chat over a thick slice of cheesecake slathered in strawberries. Aren't you glad you went to Orange? (Patrice Wirth Marsters) PJ's Abbey, 182 S. Orange St., (714) 771-8556; Zito's Pizza, 2036 N. Tustin St., (714) 974-6191; Juana Maria Mexican Restaurant, 510 E. Katella Ave., (714) 639-5000; Cyrano's, 7446 E. Chapman Ave., (714) 289-1031.

PLACENTIA

[BREAKFAST] Maria's Bakery is an anti-bakery. There are no tables, no chairs and no lattes. A few cases along the wall overflow with Mexican sweet breads, cookies and cakes, some frosted with pink, green and blue icings. My favorite is the empanada (a cross between a puff pastry and a pound cake filled with custard). On a recent trip, I picked up seven different pastries for a Tijuana-cheap $2.45. That's less than the cost of coffee and a bagel. Grab some milk or juice from Bargain Basket next door and head over to Tri-City Park to enjoy a lakefront breakfast with the ducks and geese. [LUNCH] I should have realized from my first serving of chips that everything at El Farolito, located in the historic Santa Fe district, would be irregular and oversized. A basket of thick square- and half-moon-shaped chips came with a fresh, spicy salsa bearing a hectare of cilantro. Remember your mother's admonition—"You're eating with your eyes instead of your stomach "—when you order. I picked the ostensibly modest chicken quesadilla; what emerged from the kitchen was something the size of a small hubcap, topped with guacamole and refried beans. Definitely order the sour cream. It has a tart, cream-cheese-like consistency designed to cool the palate after all the salsa and exotic cinnamon coffee they serve. [DINNER] And speaking of your mother—ay, Dios mioHavana Grill serves the food your mother would make if you called your mom "Mami" and she were Cuban. This 4-month-old restaurant serves huge portions of Cuban favorites in what feels like a family dining room. I swear, at one point, I thought Mami would come around and say, "Mija, clean your plate!" The grass-green walls are covered with old family photos, pictures of 1950s Cuba—ah, for the glory days of Batista and Ricky Ricardo—and musical instruments. Even the dinnerware is bright, with Fiestaware-like platters, pitchers and plates. This is simple food with intense flavors of sweet, salty and spicy on one plate. The black beans and rice have a wonderful nutty flavor. The gloriously tender ropa vieja is cooked with garlic, onions and oregano and paired with a generous serving of maduros—my favorite. If you have room for anything besides a café con leche after dinner, try the creamy rice pudding with lots of cinnamon or the intensely sweet caramel flan. (Shelle Murach) Maria's Bakery, 642 W. Chapman Ave., (714) 993-5098; El Farolito, 201 S. Bradford Ave., (714) 993-7880; Havana Grill, 1221 E. Imperial Hwy., (714) 993-4393.

ROSSMOOR

[BREAKFAST] Unable to resist a pink restaurant shaped like a giant umbrella—or, if viewed from above, a giant breast—we began our Rossmoor adventure with breakfast at The Parasol. We decided to find its proximity to Leisure World and the Naval Weapons Station charming, rather than ominous. The breakfast skillet of red potatoes, eggs, cheese and bacon would have been perfect had we remembered to ask for onions in it. As the only civilian patrons under 65, we received special attention from the young, adorable staff, who informed us that after hours the Parasol becomes a ragin' club called the Pink Nipple. We returned at 12:01 a.m. in our gold hot pants and leopard-print bra to find that, sadly, they were joking. [LUNCH] Since we could never afford to go there for dinner, we lunched at the Los Alamitos Fish Company. Their patio plants were carefully arranged to shield diners from busy Los Alamitos Boulevard. Aside from the gargantuan Washington Mutual sign looming across the street, their efforts were successful. We had a genteel soup-and-salad lunch—clam chowder and a caesar salad with crab—while the businesswoman across from us loudly lectured her lunchmates on the problems of male-dominated society. We didn't know whether to shout, "Testify, sister!" or move to another table. Our food arrived quickly, and we were able to immerse ourselves in all its fishy glory. [DINNER] The Yucatan Grill's baffling neon color scheme nearly dissuaded us from entering, but our bravery was rewarded with a stunning offering of Caribbean specialties. Their steak Palomilla —a husky chunk of marinated steak topped with a garlicky garnish they call mojo—is the only piece of meat we have ever considered marrying. Dinners come with fried plantains, which erases all interior-design sins. (Marcia Simmons) The Parasol, 12241 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 598-3311; Los Alamitos Fish Company, 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-4553; Yucatan Grill, 12147 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 430-4422.

SAN CLEMENTE

[BREAKFAST] There are moments in Tommy's Restaurant when you would swear that you are a black person trapped in an Alabama diner in 1955. Everywhere you look there are Caucasians—the ones with way-too-big heads and way-too-big ears and way-too-big feet and who chew way too slowly as they stare blankly at you. Social etiquette is unique down South, but we thought it a bit much when one of the older jumbo-sized white women sitting at the counter turned, walked to our booth and said, "Can I drink your water?" Without waiting for an answer (we were justifiably confused), she grabbed one of our water glasses, gulped, smiled, handed the glass back and returned to the counter. No one else seemed to think anything of it. So, after we asked for another water, we pretended it was normal, too. Moral of this story: if you're craving old-fashioned, southern-style breakfasts (like Momma used to make: soaking in bacon drippings) and are in the mood for Dixie, Tommy's is the place to be. [LUNCH] Yes, Newport and Laguna: there are strikingly beautiful people in San Clemente, too, and the place to find them (other than the beach) is at Sonny's Pizza and Pasta. Sadly, this restaurant has no ocean view, but the food and neighborly atmosphere more than make up for the loss. We started immediately with a smooth house Chianti and a generous Italian salad. After clogging our arteries at Tommy's for breakfast, we were determined to skip the enticing list of pasta specials (which change daily) and went with a small homemade pizza (all fresh veggie toppings). We were assured by fellow diners Matt and Lisa (newlyweds who had driven all the way from Costa Mesa) that their lasagna and spaghetti dishes would bring them back for more. Could there be any better testimonial? [DINNER] Almost lost in the middle of this sleepy town's shopping district off Avenida del Mar is San Clemente's dinner-time jewel: Carbonara Trattoria Italiana. We accidentally stumbled upon the place one night when the waiting line for Sonny's was too long. If you appreciate Laguna Beach's renowned Ti Amo restaurant, you'll more than likely appreciate this slightly less expensive but equally tasty relative. In advertisements, the darkly lit Carbonara is billed as "great food in a romantic atmosphere," and it's true, but don't let that stop you from going without your spouse or significant other. Jen—our attentive waitress—expertly guided us through the menu, and we couldn't have been happier. We recommend the tagliolini caprini (linguine with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, garlic and goat cheese) and the vitello sorrentino (veal layered with prosciutto, eggplant and mozzarella cheese). (RSM) Tommy's Restaurant, 1409 S. El Camino Real, (949) 492-1353; Sonny's Pizza and Pasta, 429 N. El Camino Real, (949) 498-2540; Carbonara Trattoria Italiana, 111 Avenida del Mar, (949) 366-1040.

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

[BREAKFAST] You do not approve of people who describe food as "sinful" or say it was a "revelation." But you begin your morning in San Juan Capistrano at the Ramos House Cafe in the Rios Historical District (behind the train station), where sexy, blowsy, show-offy flowers burst forth into the sunshine, and, well, it is the toast. Raisin toast. With golden raisins popping forth from the bread that are as sweet as sugar. With butter flecked with the gold of honey and lemon zest. And lime zest, too. The toast is a revelation. You will not begrudge the restaurant the $9 it is going to charge you for eggs. Oh, it will all be worth it. You sit under the spring-green canopy of leaves on the tree that grows in the middle of the fashionably "distressed" patio and watched the blond people. Of a dozen people relaxing here at midmorning on a Wednesday, all are blond. Even the chef has bleached-blond hair—and a goatee. And oh! It is so down-home here, with the crescent moon on the gate like on an outhouse door in an old-timey comic and the tall, hip serverettes in overalls. But the Ramos House Cafe does not fall into the trap of being "precious," like the place next door where there is an old-fashioned sign offering "pickles." No, the Ramos House Cafe keeps on the safe side of bleeccccch, and you contemplate the peach pain perdu with toasted almonds and cinnamon whipped cream as big as your head that has arrived at a neighboring table. Yeow. But you are in the mood for something tangy, savory, and the huge, volcanic mound of scrambled eggs with roasted garlic, wild mushrooms and tomatoes arrives topped with nasturtiums and lying on a bed of something fried and crunchy, which combines with the mushiness of the scrambled eggs and it is not too pungent but zesty enough to make a perfect foil for the sweet toast and oh! you are so happy, and the clang of an oncoming train combines itself with the loud tolling of the mission bells, drowning out the soft wind chimes of the house itself, and there is a small brown bird on the patio, and you find yourself talking to it as if you were in a children's story. "Hello, little wren, or sparrow, or whatever you might be," you say, for you are city girls and do not know. [LUNCH] You move on to the less grand Aldo's Sidewalk Caffe, where you stand in line to order your paninis. The service is, shall we say, minimalist (you have to go back three times to ask for two separate items which they keep forgetting to bring you). And the ambiance is trés strip-mall. But the paninis! Fresh, crusty tubular rolls hold slim piles of turkey and salami, tomatoes fresh and bursting with red, and cheese melted into the bread. There is no vulgar pile or pound of deli meat on the roll, but rather a pleasantly light pile, a European-feeling one. A strawberry milkshake is not gloopy and thick but light and frothy. A cookie thing is shredded coconut dipped in chocolate and the three times you asked for it are all worth it, and indeed you would happily ask for it twice more, and you don't even have a sweet tooth! [DINNER] Having eaten so much delicious food already, you decide that you are quite willing to forgo gastronomic delightitude for some history, some ambiance. So you swing by el gigante El Adobe de Capistrano, the favorite Mexican eatery of el Presidente Richard Nixon. Except when he told the media he liked to go there for Mexican food, it was in fact a restaurant serving American delectables. No matter! Owner Dick O'Neill—a lifelong OC Democrat—changed the menu just for the former commander in chief. Stop by the presidential booth and order the President's Choice (guacamole, chile relleno, chicken enchilada, beef taco, Spanish rice and refried beans). You'll be glad you did. And do stop by and say hello to the older blonde drinking alone in the bar. It's the nice thing to do. (RS) Ramos House Cafe, 31752 Los Rios St., (949) 443-1342; Aldo's Sidewalk Caffe, 31882 Del Obispo, (949) 443-0423; El Adobe de Capistrano, 31891 Camino Capistrano, (949) 493-1163.

SANTA ANA

[BREAKFAST] Mexican bakeries aren't usually known for delicate pastries, but I love the sugar-dusted, cream-filled cones at El Metate Plaza with coffee for breakfast. Apple-laden empanadas are my next favorite, but I'm even a sucker for the dyed and sprinkled galletas and pan dulce. If you can't decide, grab some tongs and load up a tray; the sweets are a measly 35 cents to 65 cents apiece. For [LUNCH], hit El Toro Tortilleriajust down the street. Mexican food connoisseurs should tour the adjoining supermarket first. The loud music and looming Teletubby piñatas make shopping a weird leap into the global economy. You'll find the best hot sauce/salsa/dried and fresh chile-pepper selection around. But back to the tortilleria. The whole NO LARD thing so popular in South County Mexican joints would be a death knell for this place. A sign proudly proclaims MANTECA 100% DE PUERCO—that's pure pork lard, my friends, and you can buy it here by the bucket for cooking at home or taste it in the creamy, flavorful beans and tamales that melt on your tongue. Forty-pound bags of Mississippi Lime line the place, and steaming tortillas for your tacos are lifted right off the conveyer belt. The carne asada combo comes with a huge mound of marinated steak, beans, rice, tortillas, salsa and a delicious premises-made chicharron (fried pork skin) on top—all for $4.95. If you're still thinking of [DINNER] after eating all this, Taquerias Guadalajara has inaugurated their Chiva Mobiljust around the corner at Bristol and Chestnut. A combination homage to Guadalajaran soccer team Las Chivas and the birria tacos they serve, the gleaming quilted metal food truck with the smiling goat on the side parked in the pitted asphalt lot of Dora's Liquor stands out like a purple and orange beacon. The truck opens at 5 p.m., with ranchera music blasting on the custom indoor/outdoor speakers, but the crowds come between 8 and 11 p.m. You can find the truck there on Friday and Saturday nights and at Centennial Park on Sundays for soccer games. Try some of the delicious tacos al pastor or a juicy chicken burrito. (KM) El Metate Plaza, 838 E. First St., (714) 542-3913; El Toro Tortilleria, 1340 W. First St., (714) 836-1393; Taquerias Guadalajara's Chiva Mobil, parked at Bristol and Chestnut, no phone.

SEAL BEACH

[BREAKFAST] With a hard day of antiquing ahead of them, locals don't have a lot of time for breakfast. The tourists might like walking down the pier to Ruby's, but the Seal Beach Pier is longer than the Corona del Mar Freeway, and we have things to do. The answer is simple and delicious: Nick's, the kind of place where selections are written on oversized note cards placed overhead. There are a lot of choices, but only one in the morning: the breakfast burrito. Filled with eggs, chorizo, bacon, potatoes, cheese and salsa (there's also a veggie burrito), it's wicked good. Soon you're on your way—sated, happy and ready to face a full day of milling about the kite store and siccing parking-enforcement officials on the rubes who misjudged how long it takes to walk a real pier. Us? We're on to [LUNCH]. Seal Beach is a lot like New York, except that it's a lot smaller, has virtually no effect on global markets, and, save for the Lifeguard Games, you rarely see Al Sharpton around town. But, like Gotham, you can walk just about anywhere in this compact little burg. After Nick's, it's just a jaunt across PCH to Coach's. If Nick's is unassuming, Coach's doesn't give a rat's ass what you think. The décor amounts to table, chairs, some pictures of Babe Ruth and a few TVs. But the place is beloved by local sportsmen and -women, who hang there at all hours. What do they eat? Well, the fish and chips is to die for, which, not to get heavy on you, some fish did. And, may I say, well done, my bug-eyed brethren. How delicious you are fried hot, slathered in tartar and chased down with a cold beer. You left an exquisite corpse. With dinner a few hours away, we can stick around Coach's, lie about past athletic accomplishments and watch a replay of the 1997 NCAA Lacrosse Championships. Life is good. [DINNER] Things get even better at Restaurant Koi, the town's best sushi joint. Seal Beach is a great fish town, with the likes of Walt's Wharf and Bayou St. Jean. Koi offers the opportunity to order a little lighter. We partake of terrific spicy tuna and albacore and something called a crunchy roll, which is shrimp and I don't want to know what else. I try sea urchin. Koi is a small place, and you're advised to get there early. It's very popular, and you might have to wait, especially if you want to sit at the small bar. Of course, you can always have a beer or three while you wait. We had a few as we ate, which led to these notes: "Sushi good!" "Mmmm beer." "Sea urchin = Play Doh." (SL) Nick's, 223 Main St., (562) 598-5072; Coach's, 1025 Pacific Coast Hwy., (562) 431-5266; Restaurant Koi, 600 Pacific Coast Hwy., (562) 431-1186.

STANTON

[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

[BREAKFAST] No surprise that the best dim sum in Orange County is in Little Saigon at a strip mall just before Bolsa (if you're driving north on Brookhurst from the 405). It's hard to miss: flags fly atop the restaurant (defunct S. Vietnam, Britain, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, America; of course, no commie flags from China or Vietnam). Dim sum is really brunch, but go there early (10:30 a.m. or so) and miss the lunch crowd. Go with friends—the more the merrier—so you can try more dishes. If you're lucky, you might catch a Vietnamese wedding in a cordoned-off area of the huge dining room (with a singer crooning Vietnamese love songs), or even a press conference by anti-commies. But I go for the food, and at Seafood World, the selection is always fresh. Invariably the women (why are they all women?) pushing the carts of steaming-hot delectables speak to me in Vietnamese. I respond in Cantonese; you can speak English. But no words are necessary—just point to what you want. I could orgasm over the har gow (shrimp in the thinnest rice-flour wrapping), but on my last visit, we tried the twice-as-expensive (still just $4) soy-sauced jellyfish salad, and I was in culinary heaven. It's my revenge for being stung by vicious jellyfish in my youth on a Hong Kong beach. The gai lan (Chinese broccoli) is cooked in front of you and slathered with oyster sauce. For dessert, I always grab a miniature custard tart. They come three to a plate and taste as good as any French pastry. [LUNCH] Go north from Seafood World up Brookhurst, and on the left as you turn onto Bolsa, in the heart of Little Saigon, is a perfect place to escape the hot sun. Thanh's dining room is bright and kewl, lined with tall, potted plants swaying in the breeze from ceiling fans. It's as if you're in the other Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City), sans the oppressive humidity. The bilingual (Vietnamese/English) menu—108 items ranging from bo nuong (BBQ beef) to hu tieu (noodle soup) to com (rice)—is a gastronomic delight. It's also cheap: the costliest dishes top off at $6.95. But I wanted a light lunch, so I went for my usual: the precisely named rice with bean-curd skin wrap with shrimp and barbecued pork chop ($4.95), which I drowned in a dish of nuoc mam (fish sauce) topped with slivered carrots and turnip. The tofu-wrapped shrimp tempted me, and it is worth every bite. As a side order, I got the $1.50 bowl of bo vien (beef balls) that evoked further memories of my childhood, when I skipped home-cooked meals to eat at the ubiquitous street food stalls in Kowloon. But this tiny dish decades later is better; the soup is spiced with grated onions and preserved cabbage, and the meatballs are quartered. Undoubtedly, the meatballs contained MSG, which I usually avoid, but hell, one has to have some vices. The daring can also try chao (congee, or rice in soup): there're eight varieties, including those with intestine or pork blood. [DINNER] On the northern edge of Westminster (bordering Garden Grove), and next to the more famous Seafood Paradise (which also serves dim sum but is known for its $7.99-per-pound lobsters), lies the smallish Peking Restaurant. Despite its name, it is really a Mandarin-cuisine establishment, best known for its sumptuous and meaty kuo tieh (pan-fried dumplings) and chiao tze (pork or shrimp boiled dumplings). (They also offer homemade noodle soups.) But we've had lunch, and with a fellow KUCI public-affairs news-show host, we choose the four-person family dinner (for once, he's paying) at $26.50, even though there're only two of us. We get to choose four items from a long list of 19 dishes, including steamed fish. What a deal! I've had the fish before (you must try it), but this time, we go for something different. The chicken with shrimp and Chinese pea pods is just right, with crunchy bright-green pea pods perfectly cooked. The shrimp omelet (Chinese style) surprises me. My Caucasian food partner raves about it; I think it's weird—an omelet for dinner? Crazy gweilo (foreign devil)! The crab meat with bean curd excites me: tofu used to be just the itinerant poor man's food, but now it graces the best tables. Its smooth, soft texture turns me on as I swirl the tofu inside my mouth ("grinding tofu" is Chinese slang for lesbian). The owner (who thinks I am a lawyer from the Chinese news accounts of my fighting police abuse) offers my perennial favorite as the fourth dish, something not even on the family-dinner list—chopped mustard greens with strips of pork, as well as soybeans mixed with pieces of spicy hot peppers. It's a delightful way to top off the meal. (Daniel C. Tsang) Seafood World Chinese Restaurant, 15351 Brookhurst St., Stes. 101-106, (714) 775-8828; Thanh, 9872 Bolsa Ave., (714) 531-3888; Peking Restaurant, 8566 Westminster Ave., (714) 893-3020.

YORBA LINDA

Okay, so I've never eaten [BREAKFAST]—or any other meal—at the Original Pancake House. I've never even been inside the damn building —they close at 2 p.m. every day, and I keep getting there late. But it sure looks like it must be good, all homey and everything, with frilly curtains in the windows to preserve an endearing, idealistic small-town innocence. And anyway, restaurants can't really do too much damage to breakfast, so how bad could it be? It's original! It's pancakes! It's housed in a building that used to be a Koo Koo Roo—which is, like, total corporate food! Now, for our next trick, we'll review concerts that we've never gone to! But we have been to Fitness Pizza & Grill for [LUNCH] many times and have never had a bad meal, even though the room's décor looks like an ugly LA industrial-dance bar. The oval-shaped thin-crust pizzas have deceptively healthy names like Triathlete, Iron Man and Gymnast (it is pizza, after all, but they claim that they're all very low in fat); the pasta and sandwich selections make you wanna hunt up extra tummy room; and their salads are made with all sorts of exotic-looking plants and greens that you're tempted to take home and smoke, just to see what'll happen. For a Yorba Linda [DINNER], it can only be the Blue Agave, a fantastically fabulous Southwestern place where everything on the menu—no, really, everything—is nothing short of orgasmic. But if you stop in only once, be sure to at least order the Montego Bay coconut-shrimp appetizer—big, plump prawns fried in shredded-coconut batter and served with an orange-chipotle marmalade for dipping—and thank us later. (RK) The Original Pancake House, 18639 Yorba Linda Blvd., (714) 693-1390; Fitness Pizza & Grill, 18246 Imperial Hwy., (714) 993-5421; Blue Agave, 18601 Yorba Linda Blvd., (714) 970-5095.

Summer Eats, Part One

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