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Grub Guide

Tasty morsels from the county's best damn dining guide

Visit the rest of Orange County's best damn dining guide at ocweekly.com/food, where it says "Where to Eat Now" on the right side of the screen. If there are any bugs with it, e-mail Gustavo at garellano@ocweekly.com with your complaints!

DINNER FOR TWO:

¢ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Less than $10!

Location Info

Map

Siam Chili Paste

1739 W. La Palma Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92801

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Anaheim

Bismillah Halal Tandoori Restaurant

8901 Knott Ave.
Buena Park, CA 90620

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Buena Park

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant

3344 E. Coast Highway
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Corona Del Mar

Pinot Provence

686 Anton Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Category: Restaurant > California

Region: Costa Mesa

Super Corokke

675 Paularino Ave., Ste. C
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Costa Mesa

Chanteclair

18912 Macarthur Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92612-1411

Category: Restaurant > Fine Dining

Region: Irvine

230 Forest Avenue Restaurant & Bar

230 Forest Ave.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Category: Restaurant > Eclectic

Region: Laguna Beach

Anastasia Cafe

460 Ocean Ave.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Laguna Beach

Seaside Bakery

2108 W. Oceanfront
Newport Beach, CA 92663

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Newport Beach

Poul's Danish-american Bakery

770 N. Tustin St.
Orange, CA 92867

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Orange

TLAQUEPAQUE

101 W. Santa Fe Ave.
Placentia, CA 92870

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Placentia

Vine

211 N. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: San Clemente

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ANAHEIM

LA CASA DE FERNANDO
While this dimly lit nightclub specializes mostly in different versions of the national dish gallo pinto (black beans cooked with rice and eggs), stick to the weighty wonder that is the tamal tico. Wrapped in a canopy-sized banana leaf, this Costa Rican staple requires hiking boots to maneuver through its myriad flavors. Start at the pointy sweet end, studded with raisins and dates, then hack through the wet masa toward pork, red peppers, peas and carrots; a sprightly olive demarcates the sweet/spicy divide. 2500 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-2010. $

 

FOSCARI
The kitchen is right out in the open, so it's not like they're hiding anything. This place harks back to the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Italian diners with its elegance and distinctive dishes like risotto and salmon. Make sure to get a plate of carpaccio, thinly sliced raw beef topped with shaved Parmesan and lemon-herb dressing that melts immediately upon touching your tongue. 5645 E. La Palma, Ste. 170, Anaheim, (714) 779-1777. $$$

 

EL POLLO FINO
Though it's in an area long overrun by Mexicans, all races line up in equal numbers outside El Pollo Fino, a charbroiled chicken shop decorated with photos and paintings of fighting roosters, a bulletin-board collage of boxing cut man extraordinaire Chuck Bodak, and three portraits of Aztec nobles cradling naked, curvaceous damsels. The best spectacle, however, occurs in the kitchen, where the cooks scamper from freezer to butcher counter to grill to takeout counter in a ballet of hen preparation. 723 N. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 533-1160. $

SIAM CHILI PASTE
Siam Chili Paste's emphasis on Isaan-style cooking—the cuisine of northeast Thailand that simulates hell with intense doses of chiles and lime juice—ensures that even suburbia's favorite Thai dishes like pad Thai and satays possess bold tastes. 1739 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 956-8444. $

SUNDARA LAO MARKET
Pan-Asian megastore 99 Ranch Market is nice. But how about if you want the latest Thai karaoke tape? Or some Burmese action comedy with a heavy dose of romance? Or Hmong-prepared quail eggs? You can find all this and more at Sundara Lao Market. The packed-to-the-roof shop caters primarily to Thais and Laotians, so no chow mein here—only instant pad Thai and more sauces than Heinz. 1151 N. Euclid, Ste. C, Anaheim, (714) 758-8349. $

BREA

TAPS FISH HOUSE & BREWERY
Located in the desperately fine-dining-deficient Brea, this place has everything—from steaks, chicken and pastas to an immense oyster bar. Gorge yourself with abandon on such appetizers as tropical shrimp quesadillas or French Quarter egg rolls. 101 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 257-0101; www.tapsbrea.com. $$

BUENA PARK

BISMILLAH HALAL TANDOORI RESTAURANT
The karahi lamb will blow your mouth into a new orbit. Prepared with a dictionary's worth of herbs and spices, the taste is an unbelievable medley of flavors. And the nihara's beef is so tender it's like butter. 8901-D Knott Ave., Buena Park, (714) 827-7201. $

CORONA DEL MAR

GEN KAI
Many sushi bars don't stock hokegai, a generously two-toned Japanese clam with a mild flavor. It's a mark of quality that Gen Kai has it occasionally on hand, and their fish servings are out-of-the-net fresh! 3344 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 675-0771. $$

COSTA MESA

PINOT PROVENCE
Unlike other posh joints, where the idea of comfort is to make average folks feel uncomfortable, Pinot is nothing but inviting. The French-Californian cuisine and atmosphere manage to be classy without being stuffy, and the roasted-lamb noisette is one of the best cuts of lamb around. The Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel, 686 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 444-5900.$$$

PLUM'S CAFÉ
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., Ste. B, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586. $$

 

SUPER COROKKE
Super Corokke offers nine different versions of the corokke, the Japanese take on the resolutely down-home croquette: a shotput-sized cream corokke oozing with a puree of corn, squid and fish that tastes like marine-tinged mashed potatoes; the evocatively named Popeye, filled with spinach strands and bacon bits simultaneously bitter and crispy. Better is the curry corokke, a mash-up that fuses the light, almost imperceptible burn of Japanese curry with some good-ol'-boy crunchiness. 675 Paularino Ave., Ste. C, Costa Mesa, (714) 444-3418. $

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. 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. $

ZIPANGU
There are marvels here: the kabocha dumpling is baby lobster and pureed Japanese pumpkin in a balsamic glaze, garnished with some sort of flash-fried sage or mint. The New York steak, served as sushi-sized pieces in a tangy teriyaki sauce, is buttery and tender and perfectly done. And enough sushi is here to warrant a Greenpeace visit. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 545-2800; www.zipanguoc.com. $$

CYPRESS

IRIE JAMAICAN RESTAURANT
This mom-and-pop place serves an excellent ackee and salt fish that is a must-have. But you might be remiss if you passed on some of the other fine dishes, including oxtail, cow foot, curry goat and jerk chicken. 9062 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 484-0661. $

DANA POINT

MEGA BURGERS
You can't accuse this joint, located quite obviously in a former KFC, of false advertising. Their trademark is the mega mega burger, a cake-sized burger, served in slices, that is the equivalent of eight hamburgers. Note: if you think a mega mega burger sounds like an eat-alone kind of meal, take a good look in the mirror and have your cholesterol checked first. 34122 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 488-0849. $

DIAMOND BAR

ASIAN DELI
Asian Deli operated for years from a hectic Orange strip mall, a spotless Indonesian dive where patrons happily munched on vast rice dishes that resembled hail flurries along with satay skewers of sweet, spicy and smoky savors. Now based in Diamond Bar, it still saunters through the Indonesian cookbook—one of the world's most deliciously anarchic due to the country's archipelagic nature and position between various trade routes—as if bankrolled by President Megawati Sukarnoputri. 23545 Palomino Dr., Ste. F, Diamond Bar, (909) 861-1427; www.asian-deli.com. $

FOUNTAIN VALLEY

ASHOKA CUISINE OF INDIA
Never has bread been so uplifting as it is here. The Kabuli naan, for instance, is a minor meal masterpiece, stuffed with sweet nuts, raisins and cherry bits that clash with the bread's smoky shell with the intensity of an India-Pakistan cricket match. But the vegetarian offerings are Ashoka's finest creations, unpretentious stews and purées that allow greenery to taste like greenery while pulsating with spices. 18041 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley, (714) 593-2968; www.ashokacuisineofindia.com. $$

FULLERTON

ROMAN CUCINA
There's nothing pretentious or nouveau about the service or cuisine, no-nonsense Italian fare based on three kinds of pasta: fettuccine, linguine and penne. And you won't find veal, lamb, rabbit or anything else too far off the main Italian grub drag—pasta, beef and pork make Roman Cucina the simplest, most delicious Italian since Sonny Corleone. 211 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6000; www.romancucina.com. $$

SEAFOOD GRILL
Set up more along the lines of a fast-food restaurant than a fine-dining experience, the humble look of the Seafood Grill belies the quite serviceable menu. Shrimp, lobster, crab and fish tacos are all on the menu, but the real deal here is the fish and chips. 100 S. Harbor Blvd., Ste. D, Fullerton, (714) 446-0700. $

EL SOMBRERO PLAZA DULCERÍA
Though Cortés vanquished the Aztecs centuries ago, their taste for sweet and searing lives on in El Sombrero Plaza Dulcería, a Mexican candy store on the outskirts of Fullerton's rough Tokers Town barrio, the hellish equivalent of Willy Wonka's wonderland, an expansive, adobe-style building—it looks like the manse of a Gabriel García-Marquez protagonist. You'll find chile-centric candy in dozens of improbable combinations here, but also sweets, such as the neon-tinted alfajor de coco, that are so rich a single nibble per hour is the recommended consumption rate. 415 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 992-5441. $

GARDEN GROVE

KAJU SOFT TOFU RESTAURANT
This is an idyllic eatery that specializes in a soft and spicy tofu soup. Depending on what you want to put in the soup, it becomes a sort of paella, except that with paella, the waitress doesn't drop a raw egg into it as it is being served. The bulgogi—thinly sliced, seasoned beef with sweet caramelized onions served on a fajita-like skillet—is a good complement to the soup. 8895 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 636-2849. $$

LIGHT TOWN HOUSE
Korean barbecue rules here—pork belly, beef, eel, what have you. But don't overlook the mushroom tofu stew—not that spicy but containing enough chile to make you sweat and all the mushrooms you want. 8902 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-5757. $$

NOORANI HALAL TANDOORI RESTAURANT
The Indian selections are admirable—the sour minced-beef shish kebab in particular would make a desi nostalgic for the Punjab—but first-time Noorani patrons should indulge instead in the specialty of one of the county's few Pakistani restaurants. The haleem in particular, a sticky concoction of lentils, shredded wheat, ginger, dried chiles and beef so mashed it's not immediately discernible in the goop, is the tasty oatmeal Americans can only dream about. 14178 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 636-1000. $

NUOC MÌA VIEN TÂY
The best drink in Orange County is also the least advertised. Nuoc Mía Vien Tây in Garden Grove sells an ambrosial sugar cane juice renowned throughout the Vietnamese diaspora but little known outside. A deep sip reveals its greatness: frothy but smooth, the sugar cane's earthy sweetness is tempered by the citric candor of tangerine and kumquat. It is extraterrestrial, it is patient, it is kind—it's the I Corinthians 13 of the beverage world. 14370 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-9801. ¢

HUNTINGTON BEACH

BUKHARA
Bukhara—Indian for "strip mall"— is situated in, of all things, a Huntington Beach strip mall. It's an intimate and superb representation of its genre, featuring healthy food, an extensive menu and, most important, many vegetarian choices. The assault on one's taste buds is breathtaking from start to finish. 7594 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-3171. $$

CHICKEN CO.
If it wasn't copyrighted, we would tell you they do chicken right. So we'll just say that they do chicken correctly. They turn lowly poultry into buttery works of art. Forget chicken soup: this is what your soul is craving. 9017 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 963-0500. $

DUKE'S
Everyone from surfers in damp trunks to families celebrating special occasions feels welcome at this restaurant inspired by the Islands and the Pacific Rim. 317 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-6446; www.dukeshuntington.com.$$

LOTUS CHINESE EATERY
Lotus is the county's second Chinese Muslim restaurant and does a fine job of preparing that cuisine's emphasis on meat, magazine-thick noodles and sesame breads large enough to double as a Frisbee. Like almost every northern Chinese restaurant, Lotus trots out so-so egg rolls and egg-flower soup as appetizers, so it's better to start with the chilled ox tripe. 16883 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 848-4940. $$

IRVINE

CHAKRA
You can imagine Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai filming some steamy-but-chaste dance scenes in the confines of Chakra's opulent set. But, thankfully, Chakra owners Ravi and Sunita Koneru invested money not only in the décor but also in chefs capable of embarking on a trek through India's major foodie provinces not found in any other Orange County restaurant—Gujarat, Kerala and even Hyderabad. 4143 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-0009; www.chakracuisine.com. $$

CHANTECLAIR
Coffin dodger and whelp alike enjoy a sterling menu prepared by executive chef Yves Fournier, one in a long line of dazzling Chanteclair chefs that includes Pascal Olhats. Fournier maintains Chanteclair's multiyear tradition of Zagat listings with such items as his eponymous filet mignon, a dish that drips with enough blood to qualify as a Red Cross donation. Also lustrous is the steak Diane, a perfect compromise between no-frills meat fans and nuance-demanding foodies. 18912 Macarthur Blvd., Irvine, (949) 752-8001. $$$

CHINA GARDEN
The dim sum jockeys who patrol China Garden with their carts and filled plates want you to gorge immediately, but pace yourself: the visits will not cease, the goodness of the county's best dim sum will not end. Cha shu bao, filled with sweet red barbecued pork, perfectly foils the steaming cup of the sharp house oolong tea. So does the steamed chicken bun, a light, chewy morsel filled with ground chicken meat, ginger and herbs. 14825 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 653-9988. $$

MELTING POT
At the Melting Pot, it's hard to eat a full meal, with dessert and drinks, without leaving at least a C-note behind, but the spent Franklin is worth it. Such a cost gets you a bowl of cheesy fondue, fine salad, French-influenced meat entrées and a dessert that's flambeauxed in front of ya. 2646 Dupont Dr., Irvine, (949) 955-3242. $$$

LA HABRA

RICARDO'S EL RANCHITO
Go here for three reasons: to watch the tortilla makers do their thing inside a glass booth; to mack out on the light, flaky flour tortilla chips; and to feast on the superb camarones rancheros, a droolingly wonderful dish. 1351 S. Beach Blvd., Ste. 4, La Habra, (562) 943-6020. $

LA PALMA

ELLEN'S PINOY GRILLE
Ellen's attracts as many non-Filipinos as pinoys, perhaps because Ellen's offers a menu—a list of all 70 entrées, 10 of them available at any time in the always-steaming turo-turo buffet. The daing na bangus—milkfish stew marinated with garlic and cucumbers and cooked in a searing coconut-and-soy-sauce broth—is fabulous. 7971 Valley View St., La Palma, (714) 522-8866. $

LAGUNA BEACH

230 FOREST AVENUE
230 Forest Avenue's (it's both the address and the name of the restaurant) starter plates give you plenty to decide among, including wild-mushroom strudel wrapped in phyllo with dark garlic sauce; roasted-artichoke crab dip with warm herb-pita crisps; and salmon and mussel stew with white beans and applewood-smoked bacon, slow simmered in a vegetable fish broth. 230 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2545. $$$

ALISO BEACH SNACK BAR
This South Laguna landmark anchored Aliso Pier until the pier's 1999 demolition but remains unchanged since its 1972 opening, save for the prices. And a wooden menu dating back to the start shows that even those aren'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 many lingual memories in years past, unfortunately, so salve your disappointment with a powerful banana shake and a surprisingly tasteful chicken gyro. 31131 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-6811. ¢

 

ANASTASIA
A sweet little restaurant perfect for l'amour. The food is billed as French/California hybrid, but that is selling it short. 470 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8903.$$

 

EVA'S CARIBBEAN KITCHEN
Eva's occupies the same simple cottage that the dearly missed Drew's Caribbean Kitchen rented for many years. The best remnant from the Drew's days is an open kitchen that continues to flambé and sauté a cruise-ship tour of Caribbean cuisine, with stops for moist Bahamian conch fritters, a sweet St. Martin-style salad and enough varieties of rum to give Captain Morgan cirrhosis. 31732 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-6311. www.evascaribbeankitchen.com. $$

GOKO CAFE & DELI
Goko is one of the last remnants of the old Laguna Beach, the Laguna Beach of longhairs, coastal conservancy and a holistic lifestyle. Granola isn't an epithet here—it's the breakfast special. Goko also advertises breakfast burritos, beet-heavy salads and about 20 veggie takes on the pita sandwich from a couple of pastel-colored chalkboard menus that loom over the heads of customers. Great, healthy smoothies! 907 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-4880. $

MOZAMBIQUE
It advertises itself as a South African restaurant, but Mozambique best excels in its preparation of meat—pork chops, steaks, seafood and the great Durban curry, a dusky lamb dish that will warm you up wherever you may be. 1740 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-7100; www.mozambiqueoc.com. $$

LAGUNA HILLS

ONAMI SUSHI & SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Here you can partake of as much sushi as you want. You can gobble down transparent globules of ikura (salmon roe) like popcorn or tiny particles of masago (smelt egg) as if they're, well, tiny particles of masago. 24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1300, Laguna Hills, (949) 768-0500.$$

 

SOLOMON'S BAKERY
At 3 a.m., when most Orange Countians are halfway through their slumber, Solomon Dueñas leaves Aliso Viejo and begins the 15-minute commute to his Jewish bakery he's made nearly every morning since 1988. Glass displays at Solomon's are clean, highlighting all the favorites of the Jewish-pastry galaxy—stomach-stuffing babkas; fruity hamantaschen; crumbly rugelach available in chocolate, raspberry and apricot. Even better is a Dueñas original that he calls an apple-raisin bran, a block of caramelized flour so decadent that customers drive in from San Diego and even Washington state just for a sniff. 23020 Lake Forest Dr., Ste. 170, Laguna Hills, (949) 586-4718. $

LAGUNA NIGUEL

THAI DINING
Start with their tom kah gai soup, a creamy, flavorful offering of the popular Thai chicken-coconut soup; then try the beef panang. It rates pretty high on the beef panang scale—and it'll make you sweat. 28051 Greenfield Dr., Ste. J, Laguna Niguel, (949) 643-5521. $

LAKE FOREST

CORNER BROILER
Corner Broiler is the sort of intimate neighborhood steak house that fell years ago to the nationwide chains but is rightfully, slowly staging a comeback. True to its name, Corner Broiler specializes in revered American meat cuts: mountainous rib-eyes and porterhouses, nicely smoked barbecued chicken, blackened salmon, and halibut fillets. The steak-and-potatoes entrées complement the restaurant's hushed, humble décor: maybe 20 tables, a small bar, tasteful landscape paintings and warm, low lighting. 24301 Muirlands, Ste. Y, Lake Forest, (949) 581-1289. $$

LONG BEACH

BABETTE'S FEAST
Babette's Feast is a boulangerie/patisserie par excellence, laying out a spread of delectable, mouth-watering delights that makes you thank heaven above for the gift of taste buds and these ungodly desserts. 4621 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 987-4536. $

 

M & M SOUL FOOD
Ask the folks at M & M to comment on the peach-hued walls, lowered ceilings and general bunker-like atmosphere (livened up only by an animatronic James Brown doll and a display case full of dolphin-shaped oil burners for sale), and they'll decline. Wisely so. But the food—perfectly grilled short ribs, snappy okra with nary a touch of sliminess, nummy peach cobbler, amongst others—they'll praise with the intensity of a Sunday-morning gospel choir. 5400 Cherry Ave., Long Beach, (562) 422-8395. $

 

UNCLE AL'S SEAFOOD
Albert "Uncle Al" Fadonougbo has successfully drawn upon both sides of the Middle Passage in creating his restaurant's menu during the past 10 years. Though most of the entrées appear mundane on the menu, Fadonougbo's massive-but-delicate hands combine Cajun complexity with West African subtlety to inject some much-needed energy into Long Beach's soulless soul-food scene. Chomp through Uncle Al's po'boy menu and marvel at his cross-continental fusion. 400 E. First St., Long Beach, (562) 436-2553. $

LOS ALAMITOS

MUSTARD'S
Mustard's is a haunt for all artifacts Chi-Town: yellowed Tribune front page celebrating da Bears' Super Bowl XX victory; a picture of former mayor/god Richard Daley; and the bold yellow slogan for Vienna Beef, the brand with which Mustard's makes its bulky, peppery Chicago dog, complete with tooth-blackening poppy-seed bun, leprechaun-green relish, gritty celery salt and a giant dill pickle. Great Italian roast beef as well, with as many folds as a Cubs pennant run. 3630 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 598-1662. $

MISSION VIEJO

ROYAL DONUTS NO. 6
Do not be put off by the terrifying nominal collision of fats. The doughnuts are good, but it's the sloppy double cheeseburgers that really shame the chains. 24501 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. 5, Mission Viejo, (949) 837-3909. $

NEWPORT BEACH

BISTRO LE CRILLON
A quaint, Provençal-themed restaurant named after the village in Provence from which chef Chantal Berton's family hails. Thecassoulet c'est magnifique, a hearty mixture of flageolets blancs (white French beans), confit of duck and three types of sausage. Simmered and baked for days on end, the result is a mildly tangy bouquet of flavors. 2523 Eastbluff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-8181; www.bistrolecrillon.com. $$$

SEASIDE BAKERY
It's two in the morning, and you're stumbling out of some bar at the Newport Pier. Nothing soaks up the booze like a nice warm croissant stuffed with ham and Cheddar cheese. A few bites of this, and you can kiss your fears of alcohol poisoning goodbye. 2108 W. Oceanfront, Newport Beach, (949) 675-2533. ¢

SPAGHETTI BENDER
A many-roomed space, the Spaghetti Bender is like a home with its dark carpets, tiny candles and flowery wallpaper. Their gnocchi, an Italian potato dumpling, is the industry standard for good. 6204 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 645-0651; www.spaghettibender.com. $$

TACO ROSA
It's not just the wide swath of Mexico—Mexico City, Oaxaca, even the Yucatan—that makes Taco Rosa one of the few truly successful gourmet Mexican restaurants. Taco Rosa succeeds because its few tweaks are Mexican-based and surprising. Ask for the aguas frescas, and instead of horchata, waiters will recommend a frosted, freshly squeezed cup of cantaloupe or melon—¡delicioso! 2632 San Miguel Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 720-0980. $$

YI DYNASTY KOREAN BBQ
With a barbecue promising such exotica as honey-corn tripe, black pork bellies, barbecued bone marrow, wild boar and stingray, Yi Dynasty is sure to placate even the most demanding gourmand. Korean cooking protocol—panchan, DIY meat cooking, feuding tastes in your mouth—is in effect at all times. 1701 Corinthian Way, Ste. 6, Newport Beach, (949) 797-9292; www.yi-dynasty.com. $$$

ORANGE

EL PORTAL DE VERACRUZ
Most people pick their El Portal meal from a buffet that surprises hourly. Sometimes you'll find fried bananas sidling up to pork ribs slathered in a citrusy green salsa spiked with smoky cactus strips. Or you can go veggie and load up on grilled jalapeños, cheese-sprinkled refried beans and moist rice. But no meal at El Portal is worth eating without at least one masa-based Veracruzan snack: potato-y garnachas, lightly fried picaditas or fluffy chicken tamales. 4530 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 538-1660. $

POUL'S DANISH-AMERICAN BAKERY
Smells of sugar and cinnamon greet you at this bakery that has been a tradition in Orange since 1960. The glass cases are filled with sweet rolls, twists, cookies and Danishes with countless flavors. 770 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 532-5101. $

PLACENTIA

TLAQUEPAQUE
A place where Mexican Mexican food is served with items not found at Taco Bell. Try the mole with a salsa that has the texture of ketchup made from the sweetest ingredients on earth or spices harvested from Satan's flower garden. 111 W. Santa Fe, Placentia, (714) 528-8515. $$

SAN CLEMENTE

VINE
Vine is an epicurean stunner, a snug eatery that's been open for about a year now but continues to attract South Countians seeking a joyous repast. It focuses on California wine-country cuisine, meaning alchemies of seasonal flavors and ingredients that are as nuanced and numerous as the vineyards of Napa: pumpkin ravioli appetizers, sea scallops with fava beans and other assorted meal miracles prepared by owner/chef Justin Monson. 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 361-2079; www.vinesanclemente.com. $$$

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

THE TEA HOUSE AT LOS RIOS

The tea and scones here are quite delicious and genteel, just like the little story on the tea house's menu of its origins. And we quote, "A special place where guests could enjoy each other's company in a quiet, genteel setting. This would indeed be unique, relevant and healing in today's stress-filled society." Good shepherd's pie too. 31731 Los Rios, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-3914; www.theteahouseonlosrios.com. $$

SANTA ANA

NANCY PUEBLA RESTAURANT
Lurking within this seemingly mundane Mexican restaurant are delicious, complex rarities from the central state of Puebla, platters more familiar to an ethnography than an Orange County menu—dense mole poblano, pale goat menudo and guilotas, a chewy type of quail so region-specific that it's not even listed in most Spanish dictionaries. 1221 E. First St., Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 834-9004. $

ROYAL KHYBER
The self-proclaimed "restaurant of the year" unabashedly serves upscale Indian cuisine in a setting more suited for coats and ties than T-shirts and jeans. The spicy chicken Madras features big chicken chunks and sliced tomatoes buried in a potent curry highlighted by freshly ground black pepper. It torches. 1621 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 436-1010; www.royalkhyber.com. $$

RUTH'S PLACE
Open here for 11 years, Ruth's Place carries a tough-to-read sign out front advertising Southern-style soul food. You'll always find Ruth here, cooking catfish steamed and piled fist-high, yams sweet as Sade (the singer, not the sadomasochist), cornbread greasy as Pam Houchen's palms, and black-eyed peas that are soft and plump and just the proper earthen hue.1236 Civic Center Dr. W., Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 953-9454. $

WHOLE PITA GREEK ISLAND GRILLE
The Whole Pita's menu is simple—variations on gyros and salads, universal Mediterranean appetizers such as hummus and olives. But from this predictability emerges some of the finest Greek cuisine since the dearly departed Café Plaka. Pitas are Doric-big; the casseroles are hearty, meaty and teeming with layers of flavor. Remember to squirt in some fotia, the restaurant's hellish emerald-green hot sauce, but drink lots of water afterward—fire! 3940 S. Bristol St., Ste. 113, Santa Ana, (714) 708-3000. $

YELLOW BASKET
Eighteen whoppers are flipped at this Santa Ana food-mark, but the best is a triple cheeseburger that could out-Carl's-$6-burger any day—and at only $4.60. 2860 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-8219; www.yellowbasket.com. $

SEAL BEACH

KOI RESTAURANT

Koi's menu is uncomplicated, authentic and relatively easy on the wallet. For a starter, I adore their famous crunchy rolls made from shrimp tempura, a Japanese root called gobo and smelt egg. I know sea bass is politically incorrect these days, but what can you do? If you're an environmentalist, avoid it. If not, dig in! 600 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. 100, Seal Beach, (562) 431-1186; www.koisushi.com. $$

STANTON

THE GOLDEN STEER
The Golden Steer is what a family restaurant used to be—not just inexpensive enough to feed a family, but tasty and wholesome enough to feed it well. It also harks back to the time when a family meal meant meat-meat-meat. The place is crowded, but good acoustics keep it from sounding like a mess hall, and incredible service keeps that growl in your stomach from turning into a bad mood. 11052 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 894-1208; www.goldensteer.com. $$

SUNSET BEACH

HARBOR HOUSE CAFÉ
This 24-hour diner is a local institution that serves consistently good food. As it's incredibly popular with the late-night crowd, be prepared to wait for a table. 16341 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5404. $

TUSTIN

TOMMY'S SUSHI
This could be any OC sushi bar, but when you pop that perfect piece of soy-bathed yellowtail into your mouth and feel the wasabi burn the nether reaches of your sinus cavities, you'll know you're at Tommy's. 1051 E. Main St., Tustin, (714) 544-5241. $

ZOV'S BISTRO AND BAKERY
In his 1992 thriller Hideaway, Dean Koontz's main characters dine at Zov's on calamari and black-bean soup that is "such a perfect sensual experience that the monochromatic bistro seemed ablaze with color." 17440 E. 17th St., Ste. H, Tustin, (714) 838-8855. $$

VILLA PARK

FIRST CLASS PIZZA
Go for the employee sampler, which features four different pizzas, including the barbecue chicken, zesty Italian, Villa Park special with fresh basil and garlic, and the combo with pepperoni and sausage. 17853 Santiago Blvd., Ste. 101, Villa Park, (714) 998-2961. $

WESTMINSTER

DUONG SON BBQ
Chicken, duck and pork—these are the sole listings on the Vietnamese/Chinese/English menu at Duong Son BBQ, a smokehouse between a jewelry store and a skin-care center in Little Saigon's anarchic Cultural Court district. The pork features a ruddy, crisp skin; is nearly fat-free; and is roasted until it's as soft as a marshmallow. Duong Son's pork is a meat for eternity, one of the best arguments yet against PETA. 9211 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 115, Westminster, (714) 897-2288. $

 

MÌ LA CAY
Mì rice noodles are actually Chinese, but many Vietnamese places have incorporated them into their menus. Funny how 1,000 years of colonization can do that. Mì La Cay is continuously one of the most popular restaurants in the genre of mì cookery. Bring your appetite, and order a heaping bowl of mì la cay dac biet (the house special). 8924 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 891-8775. $

PAGOLAC
Pagolac will show you another side of beef—seven, to be exact. "Bo 7 Mon," the restaurant sign's subtitle, is Vietnamese for seven courses of beef, the restaurant's specialty. Ungodly slabs of sirloin are transformed into wisps of flavor-packed beef. 14580 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-4740. $$

 

SARA'S MERCADO
For the past four years, Sara's Mercado, a storefront in a section of Westminster Boulevard not occupied by Little Saigon, has imported Colombian produce directly from the homeland. Its three badly lit aisles tower above shoppers' heads with Colombian favorites: smoked oysters, slabs of arequipe (a decadent, silky milk candy), fruity cooking sauces and three different types of salty-sweet fried plantain chips for snacking. Don't forget to gulp down the sodas! 7134 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 903-0900. $

 

VAN HANH VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
Vietnamese cuisine includes a proud tofu tradition, and Van Hanh's menu represents its full, finest flowering. No limp kung pao and imitation orange chicken here. Instead, you'll find biting papaya concoctions drenched in chile powder and lime juice, noodle selections studded with tasty tofu and veggies, and more rice plates than in Uncle Ben's wildest dreams. 9455 Bolsa Ave., Ste. D, Westminster, (714) 531-4661. ¢

YORBA LINDA

LA BETTOLA
Delicious focaccia and a ramekin of butter-soft roasted garlic cloves glistening in olive oil arrive at your table when you sit down. Next, try the classic caesar salad (a better courtship tool than a dozen roses). 18504 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 695-0470. $$

MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

GYRO KING
It's a mighty gyro they spin at Gyro King: lamb and beef compressed into a hexagonal slab and twirled slowly on a spit so the meats meld into one another. When you order a gyro sandwich, a cook shaves lengths from this dense mass and lays them inside toasted pita bread alongside lettuce, tomatoes, onions and crumbles of feta cheese. Although the veggies are crispy, the feta salty and the requisite dash of tzatziki sauce creamy, the gyro's flavor remains bold: slightly spiced, soft but firm like licorice, with a dab of grease glistening on the dark skin that lends a fatty-sweet delight. 3601 Jamboree Rd., Ste. 4, Newport Beach, (949) 474-7300; also at 2626 Dupont Dr., Irvine, (949) 752-4976. $

OLDE SHIP PUB AND RESTAURANT
As authentic a British pub as you'll find anywhere in the county, with no surprises on the menu for anyone who has ever set foot inside a pub: fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, Cornish pasties, and Scottish bridies. 709 N. Harbor, Fullerton, (714) 871-7447; also at 1120 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 550-6700; www.theoldeship.com. $$

ONO ONO
The feast at this local Hawaiian mini-chain starts with the barbecue: kalbi ribs fat with spiced, charred meat that drips from the bone; baked Kalua pork rubbed with ginger and hickory sauce; chicken marinated, battered or slathered with a Korean hot sauce that, in a pinch, you could use to distress concrete. Other Hawaiian standards—poke tuna, saimin noodle soup, the taro-spiked lau lau—are delicious and plentiful. 17582 E. 17th St., Tustin, (714) 505-0750; also at 22205 El Paseo, Ste. A, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 888-1230. $$

PEPPINO'S ITALIAN FAMILY RESTAURANT
Joseph Moscatiello owns this restaurant, but it's his father Carlo who is the true patriarch. He's the type of dad who'll give you free sandwiches and make small talk with you. Even if he didn't exhibit such fatherly concern, the sandwiches—bulging with fresh meats, cheeses, peppers and onions—would have you coming back for more. 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest, (949) 951-2611; also at 651 E. First St., Tustin, (714) 573-9904; 27782 Vista del Lago, #26, Mission Viejo, (949) 859-9556; 26612 Towne Center Dr., Foothill Ranch, (949) 951-1210; 31371 Niguel Rd., Ste. A, Laguna Niguel, (949) 661-1250. $$

PHILLY'S BEST
All Philly cheesesteak houses boast they're true to Philadelphia down to the Richie Ashburn baseball card, but Philly's Best is almost puritanical in its obsession with using East Coast products to faithfully replicate the manic Philly bustle. All these factors congeal to produce the best little chain since Knollwood's. The cheesesteaks are moist and sticky—not soggy—with Cheez Whiz. The Amoroso roll expands depending on how many ingredients you request: grilled onions, mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, provolone or American cheese. 18691 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 968-2448; find other locations at www.eatphillysbest.com. $

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