OCs 97 Best American Restaurants

Photo by james BunoanAmerica! Love it, hate it—I prefer to eat it. For the past couple of months, I've tried the best the Republic offers within the confines of this county. I've dined with the Lords of the Universe at Aqua, slummed it with the hoi polloi at numerous burger and hot dog stands, and enjoyed more broasted-chicken joints than is cardiovascularly advisable. And then there was Norm's . . .

1. Snicker all you want, but hear my story first: Norm's is my America. Norm's is where I first learned the joys of steak, of flooding a glistening sirloin with the sanguine tang of A-1 Sauce, of gumbo. Norm's is where I find true multicultural consciousness—blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites; Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus; teens, toddlers, coffin-dodgers, the middle-aged—all squirming in itchy plastic tables while scarfing down cheap grub. Norm's is where my family goes after a funeral, after morning Mass, for Christmas, New Year's or a birthday. Norm's is where my father, a proud citizen for almost 20 years, always asks my mother—whom he disrespects at all other times—"Honey, what do I order all the time?" Where he continues to mispronounce what he's ordered without deviation for 30 years—"One T-bone esteak y eggs." Norm's is where I first discovered a commie fag rag called OC Weekly, where I ate after staying out past midnight for the first time, where—for the only time in my life—I asked a total stranger for her number (she said no). Norm's is comforting, loving and nostalgic. And their mineral-packed liver and onions is delish. Located on every third corner of the Free World;

2. While other restaurants feature more choices, it's strictly robust sandwiches and the finest date shakes this side of Indio at the Crystal Cove Shake Shack. And heaven knows visiting the tiny business nowadays requires a day trip thanks to the ever-increasing PCH traffic that's transforming our once-docile southern coast into a permanent SigAlert. Still, there is no better metaphor for the America of Orange County than the Shake Shack. Gaze westward while slurping down those intense date shakes, now in their sixth decade, and you're privy to the majestic Pacific and the sagebrush-bearded cliffs below. Glance toward the east, across PCH, however, and shudder at the synthetic Newport Coast development that rose a few years back, a project indistinguishable from 75 percent of the county with one major exception—this development eradicated some of the most beautiful hills God ever formed to make way for . . . Starbucks?! 7408 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-9666.

3. Whenever a food critic compiles a "Best Of" list for county restaurants, Anaheim's La Palma Chicken Pie Shop invariably cracks the Top 10, and with good reasons. Take your pick—the eponymous meal? Flaky, gravy-drenched golden heaven, heavy with mashed potatoes and moist chicken chunks, baked in foil bowls. The milieu? Geezer-dominated clientele, Googie-dream architectural design. The staff? Latinos in the kitchen, white women wiping down tables and fielding calls up front. This is the Orange County that once was and will disappear once owner Otto Hasselbarth decides to call it a life. Please don't. 928 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 533-2021.

4. Plum's Café is the county's premier place to enjoy the timber-soaked flavors of the Pacific Northwest. It's also what independent dining should be about: a spare design, gallery-deserving artwork, plus owner/chef Kim Jorgenson's ever-evolving experiments. We like the apple-infused pancakes, salmon platters redolent of the Chinook, and the marionberry cheesecake that forever elevates marionberry to our favorite obscure fruit—barobo, take a hike! 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586;

5. I defy anyone to find a finer summer Friday night than the kind you get at Angelo's: a burger-fries-and-Coke combo for six bucks, a girl/boy by your side, nameless kids chucking pickles at one another, buxom waitresses skating without pause, and the half-Latino, half-white crowd communally willing another Vlad Guerrero horsehide bomb into the television sky. 511 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 533-1401.

6. Hush is an architectural beaut, with a hilltop view of the Pacific and a main dining hall that recalls the great steak houses of yore. But power couples and gourmands return for the bold eats, American standards such as roasted chicken and pork chops paired with obsidian rice grains or multifruit sauces turned into creations homey, epicurean and filling. The prices might delay next month's electricity bill, but the tastes will make the darkness worth it. 858 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-3616;

#7 Dad's Donut Shop & Bakery
(Photo by Amy Thelig) 7. Dad's Donut Shop & Bakery might not have invented the Balboa Bar—that honor goes to Sugar 'n Spice just two doors down Marine Avenue on lovely Balboa Island—but the art of welding multicolored sugary shards to a vanilla-ice-cream slab with boiling chocolate syrup reaches artisan levels at Dad's, as the Vietnamese family that now owns the place freezes their Balboa Bars so your mini-Picasso doesn't instantly melt. Dad's ham-and-cheese croissant is nummy as well. 318 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 673-8686.

8. You'd figure Burrell's Bar-B-Que—once in the heart of Santa Ana's ghetto, now part of its ever-expanding barrio—would've followed the county's African-American exodus to points Riverside long ago. But Fred Burrell smokes on in his beloved shack, his North Carolina-style 'cue still sublime, the pulled-pork sandwich as bracing with vinegar as what they slow roast in Raleigh. Lunch at the picnic-table seating out back is our communal Fourth of July party. 305 N. Hesperian, Santa Ana, (714) 547-7441.

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