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

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.

CHICKEN

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.

DELICIOUSNESS REARS ITS TASTY HEAD

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.

HUMMUS

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 CUISINE

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.

HAMBURGER

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.

SEAFOOD

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.

BEEF

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.

LATE-NIGHT EATS

"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.

CENTRAL AMERICAN

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.

SOUTH AMERICAN

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.

DATE DIGESTIBLES

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.

MEXICAN MORMONS? WHO KNEW THERE WERE MEXICAN MORMONS? THAT BAKE?

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

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.

HONORABLE MENTION IN INDIAN DINING

Nikki's Tandoori continually takes first place in our Best Indian category, but the recently opened Ashoka Cuisine of India might make a run for the top slot next year. Vegetarians can rejoice here by loading up on Ashoka's unpretentious stews and purées that allow greenery to taste like greenery while pulsating with spices. Carnivores roam supreme with anything coming out of the restaurant's wondrous tandoor, and everyone can enjoy the naans, discs of leavened bread containing anything from greasy potatoes to finely pounded lamb. But the best thing Ashoka makes is its complimentary chutneys: a tangy tamarind, a mint version more scalding than fresh, and a pumpkin-orange onion chutney so furious it could double as bleach. 18041 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley, (714) 593-2968.

BEST-NAMED RESTAURANT

The conjunction within the name of the Lido Shipyard Sausage Co. and Sabatino's Family Restaurant doesn't serve to separate: that's the full name of the Lido Sicilian eatery, Orange County's longest-named eatery at nine (mostly long) words. And the food's good, too! 251 Shipyard Way, Newport Beach, (949) 723-0621.

SANDWICHES The real winner: Based out of San Jose, Lee's Sandwiches specializes in bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich that is an appetizing post-colonial amalgamation. The original Bolsa location was so popular that a second, 24-hour location opened in Garden Grove last year. That location received so much traffic that Lee's decided to open a third location in Fullerton about two months ago. Now North County crowds swoop to the Fullerton Lee's after catching a flick at the nearby Fullerton AMC 20. Though the always-endless lines at each spot seem imposing, Lee's service is so outstanding you'll quickly be savoring the most outlandish deal ($1.50 for a huge, nine-inch, delicious sandwich) in the world. 9261 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 901-5788; also in Garden Grove, (714) 636-2288; and Fullerton.. For the Americans:Philly cheesesteak houses dot the county like drunks at the nearly departed Veterans Stadium—I mean, they're ubiquitous—but John's Philly Grille is among the best, a squeeze of cheese and many peppers inside a firm loaf. If the meat were any juicier, it'd be a fruit. Thank owner John Carpenter for bringing along the cheesesteak's authentic zest from his native Philadelphia while leaving his city's beer stench back home. 1784 S. Euclid Ave., Anaheim, (714) 491-2733. Let's hear it for the Mediterranean:The pita's at Sophia are as esteemed as the Acropolis, stretched-to-its-limits bread encasing crumbly feta cheese, buttery lamb, fresh lettuce and cucumbers, and biting olives worthy of a Socratic riddle. 1390 N. Kraemer Blvd., Placentia, (714) 528-2021. And the Mexicans!The tortas at Q's Tortas barrel subtleness over with an onslaught of meat, repollo, onions, tomatoes, beans, and either salsa or jalapeños, all crammed into hard/soft bolillos (French rolls). The chorizo torta at this Placentia institution could comfortably feed a Brazilian soccer squad. 220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 993-3270.
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