Best Dining

Photo by James BunoanHOST/MOST

We're not complaining but some Laguna Beach shop owners are a bit too snobby for our tastes. That's not the case with Joel Herzer, owner of Woody's at the Beach. The eternally smiling Herzer regularly takes the time to make patrons feel welcomed in his oceanfront restaurant/bar. On any given night, he probably knows the first names of half his guests. 1305 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-8809.

TACOS Best gabacho tacos: Whether it's their delicious blackened-fish tacos or the squash-blossom quesadilla, fine soups such as roasted tomato or tortilla purée, Taco Mesa is the best pseudo-Mexican food for non-Mexicans. Sure, their namesake meals are great, but when was the last time you ate at Taco Mesa and saw a Mexican that wasn't behind the counter or cleaning up after you? 3533 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 633-3922; also in Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0629; and Mission Viejo, (949) 471-3144. Best Mexican tacos: The real place for tacos is Taquería El Granjenal. Named after a Michoacán rancho that has sent thousands of its residents to Orange County, the colorful restaurant makes the best tacos in the county—in Mexico, even. They deviate from taco protocol by using full-sized corn tortillas and pile on chunks of your choice of grilled meat. The salsa is extraordinary, a dark-red lava extract whose burn factor is unknown outside Paricutín. 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-4964. Best fish tacos: What's that, Baja Fresh? You think you deserve the title? Maybe in a couple of years, after you learn a little something called taste! No, the title once again goes to Wahoo's. End of story. Located at a beach or asphalt sea near you.TIME WHARF

Walt's Wharf, a Seal Beach institution, has mastered the oak-grilled arts as well as the art of making people happy to wait an hour and a half for a table. Nice weather we're having, huh? My significant other, who eats more salmon than an Alaskan brown bear, swears Walt's salmon is the best she has ever had. Whatever you order, spend the extra buck and upgrade to a Chef's Special Dinner Salad; the combination of mixed greens, candied walnuts, golden raisins, gorgonzola cheese, red onions and mustard vinaigrette is worth every cent. 201 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 598-4433.

PIZZA

There are so many pizzerias around the county you almost think you're living in Brooklyn. Problem is most of them bake pies as appetizing as butcher paper and about as thick. Try instead the pies at the Fire Oven Pizza. The petite place offers 12 different styles of pizzas, from an actual-Italian version groaning under cappicolla, spinach, tomato and garlic slices to something called a "Spanish" pizza that actually seems more Mexican—last we checked, the Iberian Peninsula hated jalapeños, marinated beef and roasted onions, not to mention Mexicans. Regardless of ethnic classification, each Fire Oven pizza is what Verdi intended pizza to taste like: topping unobtrusive, each retaining their distinct flavor despite being baked in a oven until the cheese bubbles over the crust, and edible for weeks afterward without re-heating. 891 W. Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-4199.

Pizzas smothered with delectable toppings and cooked in a wood-burning oven have become as much of a California cliché as an actor being elected governor. But when an inspired combination comes your way—one that startles the imagination and teases the tongue—the cliché is undone, transformed into something you can experience again and again and never grow weary. The chef at the recently opened Lazy Dog Café has crafted such a dish. If the name Black and Blue Pizza doesn't catch your attention while reading the menu, then its list of ingredients certainly will. Chunks of Cajun chicken breast are combined with bacon, caramelized onions, blue cheese crumbles and diced tomatoes to create something that tastes like a cross between Jesus and Zorro—you know: nice but kind of pissed-off. If your home is like mine, the appropriately named Better Than Home Meatloaf is served in a portion that ought to feed a family; but if your family is like mine, it won't. The small bits of colorful vegetables cooked right into the meat? It's like Georges Serraut is working the oven. 16310 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 500-1140; TheLazyDogCafe.com.

SHAKING

This year makes 60 years since the Date Shake Shack was built on that sweet little shelf of land that hovers on a bluff above Crystal Cove, in the middle of that scary swooping curve along Coast Highway. It hasn't changed much. Sandwiches and smoothies are still ordered through a small window by making X's in boxes on a checklist. There's still a wooden deck a few steps away, great for having a picnic on the railing that overlooks the water—even though you've got to wince against the glare, clutch your napkins against the breeze and try to resist the temptation to feed the squirrels. It's still a perfect place to release your tense schedule—and stomach—for a few moments. But although the Date Shake Shack hasn't budged since 1943, it isn't an outpost anymore. Now it sits across the street from the massive Newport Coast Development. "Once, I saw a deer over there," recalls a waiter, whose order window faces inland. "You could see way back into the canyons. The view was amazing." Now the pristine hills are scribbled with roads, criss-crossed with fences and sprinkler pipes and anti-erosion netting, sprouting with the vines of non-native landscaping plants—and adorned with an eclectic collection of multimillion-dollar homes. A high-end shopping center recently polished off the transformation with a Starbucks. 7408 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-9666.

WE DO ZAGATS, AND BY "DO," WE DON'T MEAN WE HAD SEX WITH THEM; WE JUST MEAN WE COMPILED A BUNCH OF NICE THINGS WE SAID ABOUT RESTAURANTS WE'VE RATED AMONG THE BEST IN PREVIOUS BEST OF OC ISSUES. IRONICALLY, WE HAVE HAD SEX WITH SOME OF THE RESTAURANTS—SEE IF YOU CAN GUESS WHICH ONES; WE THINK YOU'LL BE PLEASANTLY SURPRISED: Nikki's Tandoori Express:Seems that every publication that puts out a "Best of Orange County" guide—including yours truly—settles on this place as the best Indian restaurant around. Vegetable side dishes in the combo plates change daily, and it's a documented fact that our office is so fond of Eggplant Monday that Nikki's management seems compelled, lest we sick our I-Team leader R. Scott Moxley on them, to offer it on Tuesdays after national holidays that fall on Mondays. 3705 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 850-0595. Las Brisas:One of the best views in Laguna doubles as a decent Mexican restaurant and, for those on the prowl, a nightly meat market for guys and gals. Serves guacamole the way God intended it to be served: rich and creamy, made from the best pulverized avocados, and laden with rich, juicy tomatoes. Makes for the absolute cheapest gourmet dinner around. 361 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-5434. Aubergine:One of the best French restaurants in the county, a statement that even the fussiest foodies fear to dispute. The recommendation here is to pay the $90 for the chef's nine-course tasting menu, which starts with drool-inducing appetizers and works through to a drop-dead-delicious dessert. Pay the 90 bills, and experience the best meal in Orange County. 508 29th St., Newport Beach, (949) 723-4150. Troquet:The best thing to happen to mall food since Hot Dog on a Stick. A Greek salad that came stacked like that guy in Kid 'N Play's hair. And it tasted even better. For dessert, something called megeve was simply one of the best things I've ever had in my life. 3333 Bristol St., Ste. 3001, Costa Mesa, (714) 708-6865.Gypsy Den:[Their lemon bars] makes me smile, the perfect combination of sweet and tart. Gypsy Den serves [crème brûlée]: rich, vanilla custard with blowtorch-glazed top in large, satisfying bowls, enough for a working man's appetite. Anti-establishment hippies with little pocket change could have lived, like, forever on the turkey noodle soup. So chunky it's almost a stew; so soothing it's comfort food in a bowl. 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840; also in Costa Mesa, (714) 549-7012. Felix Continental Cuisine:You'd be foolish to nix the chicken Embajador on the patio during a warm summer afternoon. Sumptuous paella. Tres leches, a sweet concoction of evaporated milk, half and half, and something else dairy poured over white cake. It's a mere $2.25 and worth every sweet-tastin', artery-hardenin', cholesterol-inflatin' bite. 36 Plaza Square, Orange, (714) 633-5842. La Palma Chicken Pie Shop:It's pure comfort to know that the same waitresses will serve you the same chicken pot pies year after year. Add points for hep, 1950s, unitalicized, anti-ironic interior design. Pies are the size of large talcum-powder puffs and have a flaky, golden-brown pastry crust. 928 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 533-2021. EAT YOUR PASTA, FAGIOLI
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