Best Dining

Nestled in the kinda spooky Old World Village, drizzled with wonderfulness, Paolo's Ristorante is like a fire hydrant of Northern Italian flavor aimed at your mouth. Chef Paolo Pestarino—known to many from his long tenure at Newport Beach's Issay Restaurant—cooks the most tender seafood and refined pasta sauces, and he makes the best tiramisù we've had anywhere, but his rustic pasta fagioli soup is reason enough to go there. He buys the white beans direct from Italy, and his celery, carrots, onions, potatoes and such grow in local dirt. Taste the way he combines them, and you'll know that this is a good planet we have here. 7561 Center Ave., Ste. 37, Huntington Beach, (714) 373-5399.


Gourmands usually allot chicken the same modicum of respect they save for a chunk of spiced cardboard, but poultry prices would approach pâté levels if supper snobs ever tasted what José "El Cuatro" Martínez burns up at his Surfin' Chicken. The Jerez, Zacatecas, native cooks his cluckers with fiery reverence, slapping whole hens onto an open-fire grill, coaxing the flames to fire-marshal-alert heights that fuse dust storms of chili powder and showers of lemon juice upon the meat. Whether El Cuatro afterward chops up his chickens into thick slices, lops off a leg and a wing and presents it with steaming pinto beans and rice, or serves it as one magnificent whole, it doesn't matter: the Surfin' Chicken is the epicenter of chicken in Southern California. 71 Via Pico Plaza, San Clemente, (949) 498-6603.


La Cave is wonderful, but you can only run in that high-octane world for so long before you know that one night it'll be your brain that's there under the glass when they roll the entrée cart out for you to order from. But maybe before that day, you'll discover Nesai, where just about everything on the menu will melt your cares away and send them down the river of get-outta-here; where with every drink, the glass rim is rubbed with the rind of oblivion; and where your mother-and-daughter hosts Michico and Shima Soffer will lead you from the wine list to the path of wisdom. It all tastes particularly delicious on Tuesdays, when you can bring your own bottle and glasses in and there's no corkage fee. 215-17 Riverside Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 646-2333.


The favorite spread of Green Party fund-raisers tends to exhibit all the vigor of Peter Camejo. But Kareem's in Anaheim serves hummus that could be the Jesse Ventura of the Middle East—brash, unafraid to buck the trend, best experienced in small doses. The hummus spread is thick enough so that it doesn't dribble off pita bread, but more impressive are the grilled-beef bits emerging at opportune moments, the shimmering pool of olive oil in the center with its many tributaries spreading the liquid evenly throughout the chickpea purée, and enough chili powder to open up the sweat glands without turning on the mucus. 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-6829.


Industrial-park workers cringe come lunchtime—it's time to visit the local code-violating deli, bagel shop or lunch truck. But the drones at the industrial park at the corner of Tustin Ranch and Walnut welcome the noon hour with joy. Like an oasis in the Gobi lies Jamillah Garden, the county's only restaurant specializing in Islamic Chinese cuisine, a type of dining tradition combining Middle Eastern opulence with the austere tastes of Northern China. Corporate types crowd the restaurant in a sort of hunger haj throughout the day, drawn by the affordable lunch specials; curry chicken; and the sesame bread, a Frisbee of flour speckled with scallions that is probably the best thing baked since the holy wafer. 2512 Walnut Ave., Tustin, (714) 838-3522.


Gordo Mellony's has normal burgers, cheeseburgers, chili cheeseburgers and bacon cheeseburgers. Then there are the "special" burgers—stacks of meat so gravity-defying that eating one would make for a good stunt on Fear Factor. Their King Kong Suicide comes with three kinds of cheese and four patties and rises to a height of 12 inches, held vertically aloft by a skewer (for a quicker snack, try the Empire State, which tops off at about half that size). They also have chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and real New Yawk pastrami, but, really, what's the point when the burgers tower over everything else? 430 W. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 694-4456.


Some seafood restaurants attract customers with holding tanks almost as large as some Minnesotan lakes; others overwhelm with the various entrées captured from the sea daily. But Mariscos Licenciado #2 (No. 1 is in the 909) doesn't bother with such opulence. A tiny restaurant where Venetian blinds cover the windows even during the night, Mariscos Licenciado concentrates on the seafood of Sinaloa, the Mexican Pacific Coast state as renowned for its marine meal miracles as it is for banda, narcotraficantes and the shrine of San Jesús Malverde. Ceviche and shrimp cocktails are the most-ordered item here, as in most Mexican seafood restaurants, but you haven't lived until you try the agua chile: scores of shrimp, cucumbers, red onions and tomatoes crammed onto a large molcajete—the mortar-and-pestle contraption used by Mexicans since before Jesus that gives agua chile an earthy tone rare to marine cuisine. Agua chile is an incredible contradiction: light yet debilitating, intensely sour but curiously cooling, burrowing itself into the recesses of the palate yet its redolence remaining immediate. 1052 N. State College, Anaheim, (714) 776-3415.

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