Best Dining

The faux-western décor is about as charming as Dubya's Texas credentials; the wait is Donner Party-lengthy nearly every day. But these minor quibbles for Pinnacle Peak quickly stride into the sunset once dinner is served: giant obsidian slabs of steak slathered with a sauce containing the viscous charm of sugared oil. Knock the carnal pleasure down with an honest-to-goodness sarsaparilla, and let the tumbleweeds of your mind drift away under a beef moon. 9100 Trask Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 892-7311.


"Open 25 hours," as its motto boasts, Earl's is a non-manufactured time machine to the '50s and '60s, back when cigarettes were aperitifs and grease was a welcome flavor. Even the salads taste of grease at Earl's, not to mention the nicotine clouds that float over from their smoking section. What you say? California law prohibits smoking in restaurants! You're right—but Earl's doesn't care. In a bit of cancer advocacy, the Earl's folks built a room a couple of years back that ostensibly serves as a smoking patio. But last we checked, smoking patios don't come with screen windows, indoor lighting, cheap-plastic booths, and a roof over your freaking head. 807 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 639-8590.


The problem with Central American restaurants is that most skew their offerings toward Mexican selections, exiling native dishes to a small section of the menu containing no more than half a dozen selections. Try telling that to Pupusería San Sivar, the county's most extensive Central American diner. They, of course, make their namesake pupusas, griddled discs of toasted masa and salty cheese topped with pickled lettuce. But the San Sivar folks also please the demanding appetite of Orange County's hidden Salvadoran community, boiling up El Salvador's real national dish, sopa de pata (cow's foot soup); the oatmeal-meets-yucca nuegados con chilate; and platano con frijoles, a fried banana, sweet black beans, and a snowball of tart Salvadoran cream that is the best breakfast invented since mother's milk. 1940 S. Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-2952.


Judged on food alone, Regina's Restaurant is the best South American restaurant in Southern California—subtle Italian-Argentine pastas, body-warming empanadas, and more chunks of meat than found at the Yard House during weekends. But it's more than the grub that makes this the most authentic section of South America outside the continent. It's the western wall stacked to the ceiling with produce from Argentina, Uruguay and other Andean nations. It's the magazines and newspapers from across Latin America. It's the three televisions—one next to the bathroom!—constantly broadcasting soccer matches as if the restaurant's business license depended on it. It's the Wednesday-night games of truco played deep into the morning by always-arguing Argentine expats. Most delightfully, though, it's owner Elías Níquias, who embodies all that's wonderful in the South American persona—gregarious, respectful and a kiss on each cheek when receiving you for your second meal, gracias. 11025 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 638-9595.


The view isn't the greatest at Renaissance Bistro, unless your idea of a romantic setting is a poorly lit parking lot and a Bookstar. But the Brea eatery is the ultimate date restaurant: classy, pricey, but not so classy and pricey that your date thinks you're trying too hard. You'll get originality points for being able to locate an independent eatery in Brea, a city that never met a chain restaurant it didn't like. They'll give you bonus points because the both of you can dine either in a cozy patio area armed with heaters for chilly nights or an elegant interior with scenic pictures of the Italian countryside. But ultimately, your hypothetical honey will give you a kiss for treating him or her to some of the finest Northern Italian cuisine in North County. 955 E. Birch St., Brea, (714) 256-2233.


The story of Abel's Bakery—a Jewish bakery owned by Mexican Mormon Abel Salgado, one of the few Jewish bakers remaining in Southern California and one of the rare Latino Jewish bakers ever—alone qualifies it as Orange County's finest bread barn. But then there are the actual pastries: rugala moist with chocolate chips, and the holy hamantashen, a fruity triangle-shaped turnover sold by the thousands during the festival of Purim and by the hundreds the rest of the year. And, of course, the challah, the Jewish holy bread possessing a full, thick body and the slightest hint of egg. Salgado's challah is so divine even Jerry Falwell would convert so that he'd eat it every Friday sundown. 24601 Raymond Way, Ste. 7, Lake Forest, (949) 699-0930.


Thai dining is one of the county's fave ethnic epicurean excursions, but you ain't done Siamese supper until you visit the county's Thai Town. It consists of two perpendicular strip malls on the corner of La Palma and Euclid in Anaheim where OC Thais get their hair done, buy produce at the two grocery stores, wait for dental checkups—and eat at the county's three best Thai restaurants. Each maintains a delicious rivalry with the other by focusing on different aspects of their homeland's cuisine. Win Thai Cuisine (1151 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, 714-778-0940)impresses with 116 entrées that run from the typical (pad Thai) to the experimental (a green mussel soup pungent with the ocean). Thai Hot Pot & BBQ (1739 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, 714-956-8444) brags to the county with its fiery northeast Thailand salads and the flashiest karaoke shows outside the Thai Elvis. And E-Sarn Restaurant (1721 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, 714-999-0563) beats all with an untranslated menu, waiters who speak little English, and a pig tripe soup that makes offal taste like filet mignon.

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