By Kristine Hoang
By Ryan Ritchie
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Cleo Tobbi
By Dominique Boubion
photo by Amy TheligDamned is the soul drawn to South County. Damned am I, condemned to wander wall-eyed through the region's few remaining beach-shack restaurants, reminders of an era before development, before Aliso Creek was a cesspool, back when Dana Point was a field trip for kids reading Two Years Before the Mast.
First stop: the two Schleppy's in San Clemente. These are the prototypical beach shacks: tiled roof caked with bird crap; a side business in such curios as seahorse wind chimes; host to seagulls and pigeons that warily eye patrons for the first signs of a tumbling scrap. Rule of thumb about ordering at any beach dive: avoid any hint of the exotic. About the fanciest entrée here is the clam strips, for instance, and their taste approximates marine lard. Instead, order Schleppy's burger combo: a small drink that qualifies as a medium nearly anywhere else, snappy fries bursting with earthy potato pride and a flavorful hamburger featuring some of the finest beef patties grilled since the last Labor Day. More impressive, the hot sauce of choice here is Cholula, a furious, gritty, lava-like topper that makes the more famous Tapatío brand taste like milk. 250 Ave. Calafia, San Clemente, (949) 498-6484; 615 Ave. Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 492-8335.
From San Clemente, take El Camino Real until it becomes Pacific Coast Highway, asphalt inspiration for a thousand songs of romance and racing. You're headed toward Aliso Beach Snack Bar, a South Laguna landmark that anchored Aliso Pier until the pier's 1999 demolition. The Snack Bar remains unchanged since its 1972 opening, save for the prices, yet a wooden menu dating back to the start shows that even that isn't dramatically different. The wait is always long, but don't hold it against owner Barbara Perry—she's usually the only person working. She no longer makes the funnel cake that seared itself into my lingual memory many years ago, unfortunately, so I always salve my disappointment with a sip of a powerful banana shake and a surprisingly tasteful chicken gyro. All things must pass, I guess—even funnel cake. 31131 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-6811.
Next comes the crawl through downtown Laguna Beach and, just beyond the city's northern border, the real artifact: the 61-year-old Crystal Cove Shake Shack. You'll no doubt endure another Disneyland-long line, but no argument from anyone, what with its location on a sagebrush-bearded cliff above stunning Crystal Cove. After about a half-hour in line, fill your gullet with a cold-cut roast beef sandwich and the Shack's creamy, intense date shake—best use of the fruit outside the Holy Land. While dining, gaze westward toward the majestic Pacific; no one wants to acknowledge the synthetic Newport Coast development at their backs, across PCH, a project that eradicated some of the most beautiful hills God ever formed to make way for . . . Starbucks?! 7408 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-9666.
Thoroughly bloated, you're racing north on PCH, Crystal Cove a rapidly diminishing speck in your rearview mirror. In Corona del Mar, let the ramshackle Gallo's Italian Deli seduce you. You've zoomed past Gallo's many times, ignoring its pastel-blue exterior and fenced-off parking lot. Its hangdog appearance is as beach shack as Corona del Mar gets. The thirtysomething-year-old deli is little more than counters, chips and sodas—which is to say, it's perfect. Request the Gallo's combo; the server will no doubt reply (as he once did to me), "Are you sure about that?" When he grabs sausages and begins hacking off massive slices, you'll understand his skepticism—the sandwich is bigger than most house cats. He somehow shoves cotto salami, mortadella and turkey slices into an eight-inch baguette; adds creamy provolone triangles; and then slathers the sub in a tart relish of carrots, tomatoes and onions. Next come the gobs of vinegar, mustard and mayonnaise. The thing is wonderfully unmanageable; I tend to place the Gallo's combo on a tiny table and munch on it as if I were a horse feeding at a trough, an apt ending to this gluttonous, glorious summer. 3900 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 675-7404.