Grub Guide

Tasty morsels from OC'c 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

Dunarea

821 N. Euclid Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92801

Category: Restaurant > European

Region: Anaheim

Siam Chili Paste

1739 W. La Palma Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92801

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Anaheim

Super Corokke

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

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Costa Mesa

Irie Jamaican Restaurant

9062 Valley View St.
Cypress, CA 90630-5802

Category: Restaurant > Caribbean

Region: Cypress

Au Lac Vegetarian Restaurant

16563 Brookhurst St.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Fountain Valley

TAAL

2720 Nutwood Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92831

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Fullerton

Table Ten California Grill

124 W. Commonwealth Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92831

Category: Restaurant > California

Region: Fullerton

Light Town House

8902 Garden Grove Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92844

Category: Restaurant > Korean

Region: Garden Grove

The Chicken Co.

9017 Adams Ave.
Huntington Beach, CA 92646

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Huntington Beach

East Winds Asian Cuisine

7114 Edinger Ave.
Huntington Beach, CA 92647

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Huntington Beach

TACOS EL CHARITO

Florida St.
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Huntington Beach

Darband Persian Cuisine

Heritage Square, 14210 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604

Category: Restaurant > Persian

Region: Irvine

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ANAHEIM

AL-WADEE BURGERS
This old burger stand in the middle of Anaheim's Little Arabia district offers delicious halal burgers and shakes and a galaxy of Middle Eastern fast-food specials—best is the cheese sticks, dignified rods with a sweet crust encasing milky cheese with parsley—refreshing, sweet, Muslim, American, heaven. 10441 S. Magnolia, Anaheim, (714) 828-2770. $

 

DUNAREA
Over the course of colonized centuries, the Romanians picked up cooking tips from each oppressor—grilled kebabs and searing coffee from the Turks, unctuous beef stroganoff from the Russians, goulash and paprika from the Hungarians, and the sarmales, reminiscent in their pungency of Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves. All are present at Dunarea, and all are magnificent. 821 N. Euclid Ave., Anaheim, (714) 772-7233; www.dunarea.us. $

 

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, is 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. $

VICTORY BAKERY
Order the Lebanese sub—it doesn't have a special ethnic name, it's just a sub. After slicing a crunchy baguette in half, tossing in tomatoes, parsley, onions and the meat of your yen and sluicing everything with suety garlic sauce, Victory Bakery places the sandwich inside a press iron and clamps it down for about five minutes. Afterward, the garlic deluge. 951 S. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 776-4493. $

BREA

BREA'S BEST BURGERS
The perfect non-chain burger, a quarter-pound patty all gussied up with the Thousand Island dressing, the lettuce, the onions, the tomatoes and the sesame-seed bun. Brea's Best also has sandwiches, hot dogs, tacos, burritos and breakfast fare. You could even eat healthy by ordering an ostrich burger—but why would you? A word of warning: the place gets mobbed during the weekday lunch rush, so plan accordingly. 707 S. Brea Blvd., Brea, (714) 990-2615. $

BUENA PARK

CHONG KI WA TOFU
The tiny Korean eatery offers nine different tofu-centric soups, ranging from tofu and oysters to their namesake house specialty. At your request, the server will crack an egg into your dish, giving the tofu a yolkier taste. You can order any tofu dish on a sliding spice scale to give it an even better seasoning, ranging from one (white, clear broth) to five (hydrochloric acid). 5238 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 562-8989. $

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

AIRE
An hour or two getting fat, drunk and happy at Aire is the kind of worldly pleasure that could turn Gandhi into a Republican. Fusion is the name—the wasabi-smeared Kansas City steak strips are luscious, even if they come with a dumb moniker—and the array of drinks and beautiful people will have you celebrating like Nero with a fiddle. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-7099; www.aireglobal.com. $$$

AVANTI CAFE
While the Avanti menu is strictly vegetarian, with faux meats and even cheese, the steak-and-potatoes crowd will hardly notice or care. Every entrée, appetizer and dessert springs with flavor and heftiness; is there anything more mainstream than a morning cup of joe washing down crunchy waffles? 259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-2224. $$

GREEK TOWN GRILL
You can sing the praises of Greek Town Grill in Costa Mesa's happening East 17th Street District for its sleek décor (ceiling-to-floor windows, mosaicked counter, sexy lighting and chairs), delicious takes on such Greek-American classics as pitas and dolmades, and the fact that owner Jim Marutsos works with fresh ingredients. But also hum some bars for the pear salad, a glistening hill of leaves, candied walnuts, long pear slices and melted gorgonzola. 279 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 515-2788; www.greektowngrill.com. $

 

SUPER COROKKE
Super Corokke offers nine different versions of the corokke, a 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. $

CYPRESS

IRIE JAMAICAN RESTAURANT
This mom-and-pop place serves an excellent ackee and salt fish that is a must-have. But you would 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

MIRABEAU BISTRO
The eatery's appellation derives from the famous Cours Mirabeau, a tree-lined avenue of bistros in Aix-en-Provence dear to the restaurant's proprietors. And the food offered here—lamb osso bucco with a North African bent, fine wines, and an addictive pork-and-duck confit—is just as renowned. As the French Revolution-era orator Mirabeau might have shouted, c'est magnifique! 17 Monarch Bay Plaza, Dana Point, (949) 234-1679; www.mirabeaubistro.com. $$$

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

AU LAC
Au Lac is as soothing and tranquil as any place you'll find in a strip mall. They specialize in gourmet Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine, but what really lines the kids up outside is the soy-meat masterpieces found on their almost entirely vegan-friendly menu. 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 418-0658; www.aulac.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. $$

TAAL
A deviation from the usual buffets and quickie curries, Taal is a comprehensive take on northern Indian cuisine with a couple of Chinese-Indian dishes—spicy chow mein!—to delightfully confuse eaters just so. 2720 Nutwood Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-7846; www.taalrestaurant.net. $$

TABLE TEN CALIFORNIA GRILL
Table Ten is a place where you can eat tacos filled with glossy maple-tinged corned beef in a sleek strip-mall boîte. The delectable caesar salad features hand-torn greens jacketed with a caesar vinaigrette. 124 W. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 526-3210. $

GARDEN GROVE

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. $$

MAN MI BAKERY
Home to some of the most luscious whipped-cream cakes imaginable. Their most famous is a confection of two layers of yellow cake filled with a rich custard, kiwi fruit, pineapples, peaches, cherries and grapes and topped with a whipped-cream frosting. 8942 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 537-4955. ¢

NIZAM'S NIHARI HOUSE
Nizam's features the mainstays of the Pakistani diet—kebabs of lamb, fish and beef; goat, shrimp and chicken curries; many vegetarian selections; and an impressive roster of biryani, basmati rice moistened with chunks of meats and veggies; beef samosas furiously spiced, nicely fried and garnished with mint and onion chutneys. And the brain curry, hidden on the menu as maghaz masala, will eliminate your aversion to offal forever. 14204 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 636-2223. $

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 the phrase weren't copyrighted, we would tell you they do chicken right. So we'll just say 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. $

EAST WINDS ASIAN CUISINE
East Winds offers an attractive measure of the wild and the mild both, with staple Asian fare available for enthusiastic customization—an attentive and experienced waiter recommended super-fit orange peel chicken made with all white meat—and mix-and-matchers like teriyaki buffalo wings and kung pao pasta to dissolve the film off more jaded palates. 7114 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 841-1800. $

TACOS EL CHARITO
Here is Orange County's best deal: two tasty tacos for a buck, with free, unlimited pineapple juice. Who cares that this taco truck is in the middle of Surf City's notorious Slater Slums—two tacos for a buck with free pineapple juice! On Morgan Street between Slater and Speer aves., Huntington Beach. No phone number. ¢

IRVINE

CHICAGO'S BEST
This tiny counter in a nameless Irvine food court serves all your Chicago faves—hot dogs, roast beef sandwiches and the fascinating Chicago tamale, a sweeter, fluffier version of the Mesoamerican standard stuffed with chili. Not bad at all—you could sneak one into a Mexican household come Christmastime and no one would complain. 2540 Main St., Irvine, (949) 757-1802. $

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 thing filled with ground chicken meat, ginger and herbs. 14825 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 653-9988. $$

 

DARBAND
All Persian restaurants feature shirin polo, basmati rice mixed with shredded chicken and fragments of orange peel, pistachios and almonds. Darband outdoes them all by including a whole half chicken instead of chicken strips. And, instead of mixing it into the shirin polo, the Darband cooks bring it out simmering in a bowl of chicken broth. The result is a chicken so succulent and tender that you can eat it with a spoon. 14210 Culver Dr., Ste. H, Irvine, (949) 857-8265. $$

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

ARTHUR'S COFFEE SHOP
"Best Breakfast in Town," proclaims the sign out front, and they probably don't hear too many arguments. While the food's good, the atmosphere is even better, like scenes from an unwritten Tom Waits song. Waitresses sport "OKIE SPOKEN HERE" T-shirts as they take orders from Korean War vets who have axle-grease stains on their well-worn Dickies. Arthur's serves real food for real people. 1281 E. La Habra Blvd., La Habra, (562) 691-7793. ¢

LA PALMA

HANNAM SUPERMARKET
The city says 1,500 shoppers file into this Korean grocery store every day. That's no surprise: this place is stocked with plenty of Korean squash—which resemble flattened pumpkins—frozen vegetable dumplings and corn buns for all your authentic Asian dining needs. 4941 La Palma Ave., La Palma, (562) 865-4116. ¢-$$

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 many years ago, unfortunately, so salve your disappointment with a sip of 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.$$

 

MOZAMBIQUE
It advertises itself as a South African restaurant, but Mozambique most 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. $$

 

PENGUIN CAFE
Whenever I visit Penguin Cafe, I always order the same item: the Penguin Burger combo, a half-pound burger sparsely decorated with lettuce, pickles, a tomato and a glorious patty. Thousand Island dressing is on the side; thin, crispy fries come as well. The Penguin Burger may seem unremarkable, something you can grill in your back yard, but this is the sweetest burger around: a luscious, massive pillow of juice, man's perfect burger. 981 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1353. $TACO LOCO
At Taco Loco you can feast for cheap without the insult of fast-food taste. Whether it's the delicious à la carte Mexican food or the cheap prices, the place is constantly swarming with the beautiful surfing crowd. 640 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1635. $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. $$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

BIAGIO'S
Order the Sicilian-style linguine with basil, oregano and anchovies blended into a marinara sauce and poured over a healthy serving of flat spaghetti. You'll also find delicious the accompanying salad and warm, crusty, homemade bread. 24301 Muirlands Rd., Ste. H, Lake Forest, (949) 837-3850. $

LONG BEACH

BUBBA GUMP SHRIMP CO.
The inheritor to the dumb Forrest Gumpfranchise actually fries some good seafood—shrimp, steaks, fillets with stupid names. Guaranteed to please are the Shrimpin' Dippin' Broth, a half-pound of spicy steamed shrimp served with dippin' bread for dippin' and coleslaw, and Shrimper's Net Catch, a massive basket of beer-steamed shrimp served with garlic and Cajun sauces. Ignore the dumb names and stick to the food. 87 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, (562) 437-2434; www.bubbagump.com. $

 

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. Do 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

THE ORIGINAL FISH COMPANY
Both restaurant and market and far from the sea, the Original Fish Co. is where you can chomp through swordfish as a sandwich, on a skewer, as a fillet, mesquite-smoked or combined with a hunk of beef. Its other seafood platters are rightfully popular, but don't forget their accompanying sourdough rolls: slightly bitter, around the size of an enlarged orange and brilliant. 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-4553; www.originalfishcompany.com. $$

 

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-cheese burgers 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. $$$

PAVILION
The clam chowder at Pavilion—a lump of something undistinguishable that turns into the most delicious clam chowder of your life, redolent of ginger and marine goodness—is an apt metaphor for Pavilion: showy to the point of ostentatiousness, but with the substance to warrant the flash. Everything is expensive but damn worth it. 690 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-0808. $$$

SEJOUR
Fancy place in Newport's Lido district with fusion cuisine and an atmosphere that recalls the British Empire as the sun finally set. 3400 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 675-9800; www.sejour.us. $$$

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

CAFÉ LUCCA
Gourmet paninis are the jewels here, from hot sopresata and pepper-studded mortadella glued together by provolone and luscious red pepper pesto to a chocolate rendition for the Waldorf set. But also content yourself with the wondrous gelati: 16 separate flavors constructed daily with just water, sugar and fruit—no preservatives, chemicals or other artificial gunk. Each flavor not only tastes like its corresponding fruit but also leaps onto the tongue: furious, refreshing, delicious. 106 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 289-1255; www.cafelucca.com. $$

COSTA AZUL
Everything at Costa Azul—great empanadas, spicy enchiladas, delicious chocolate-dipped alfajor shortbread cookies—is secondary to its terrifying, glistening asado: five pieces of cow for a ridiculous $11.50. No extra spices, sauces or sides adorn any of these cuts in Costa Azul's asado—just pure, monumental beef. 121 N. Lemon St., Orange, (714) 628-0633. $

EL PORTAL DE VERACRUZ
Most people pick their El Portal meal from a buffet that surprises hourly. Sometimes you'll find fried bananas sidling against 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. $

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

WAFFLE LADY
Waffles with the circumference of chessboards, topped with coconut, rife with pecans or drowned in maple syrup—fine and all. But have you ever chomped on the burger at the Waffle Lady? The certified-Angus-patty burger? The burger with a crescent of avocado, sinewy red onions and just-perfect mild salsa? You haven't? You just like the waffles here? Good for you—but eat the burger someday. 107 Via Pico, San Clemente, (949) 361-9132. $

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

RENDEZVOUS
This restaurant is beauty manifested in an old Pullman railroad car, with fascinating takes on American cuisine (bison covered with chicory) and a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler topped with sweet corn ice cream that's all that's great with America. 26701-B Verdugo St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-1006; www.rendezvoussjc.com. $$$

SANTA ANA

AMI SUSHI
Ami Sushi is the perfect Japanese restaurant: efficient during lunch, stately enough for a date, staffed with serious chefs who can wow you with off-the-menu stunners (ask for the wrap that looks like a burrito) or a simple crunchy roll. The Sunset Action is a California roll topped with albacore, the fatty fish melding nicely with the light crabmeat. 1804 N. Tustin Ave., Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 567-0018. $

 

MARISCOS EL PESCADOR
True to its name, Mariscos El Pescador (The Fisherman's Seafood) specializes in marine treats, everything from shrimp covered in garlic sauce to shrimp ceviche so plentiful that it's stacked on two tostadas. But there is also a small business in cordoniz (Cornish game hen) and guilotas (quail), two small game birds sweeter, smaller and oilier than chicken. Also on the menu are burritos, tacos, enchiladas—your basic Mexican menu, except bigger and cheaper than most dives. 315 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 664-8815. $$

 

RICAS TORTAS AHOGADAS
Ricas Tortas Ahogadas offers no seating except a shade-free street curb where it parks on Santa Ana's Fifth Street, next to a host of auto shops. But this lunch truck is a barrio culinary school: the guys inside slap out hellacious tortas ahogadas, the Guadalajara specialty involving luscious carnitas, crispy French rolls, cold onions and a pool of salsa: the best burn since Chris Rock ragged on his own kind. On the corner of Fifth and Townsend sts., Santa Ana. No phone number. ¢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 as 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. $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

CREMA CAFÉ
Crema is a good place to take a balmy window seat and nurse a newspaper as the beach people bounce along outside while you enjoy omelets and crepes filling enough for a man but tasty enough for gourmands. 322 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 493-2501. $STANTON

MAD GREEK
Reasons to go to the Mad Greek: this place began the zucchini stick "craze"; the Greek salad comes in Herculean portions; uncouth vegetarians have proclaimed the falafel sandwich "Fuckin' radness"; and anything on the menu above $6 you won't be able to finish yourself. 12120 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 898-5181; www.themadgreekrestaurant.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

HK FOOD MARKET
Like most ethnic grocery stores, the Korean-centric HK Market functions more like a Costco, a capitalist wonderland where jewelry stands abut gumball machines and towers of bags swelling with rice are visible from the counter where a cute girl sells designer purses. The most enjoyable feature here, however, is the aisle stands where you can sample its products, from fat Korean sushi rolls to an infinite number of kimchis. 14554 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 731-6801. $

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 was "such a perfect sensual experience that the monochromatic bistro seemed ablaze with color." 17440 E. 17th St., Ste. A., Tustin, (714) 838-8855. $$

VILLA PARK

FIRST CLASS PIZZA
Go for the employee sampler, which features four different pizzas, including barbecue chicken, zesty Italian, the 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. $

 

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. $$

 

PHO NGUYEN HUE
It seems like any other Little Saigon pho factory until you come across the pho pin xe luabull cock pho. It's not that tasty, so once you've ordered it for the fear factor, move on to the escargot with tofu and green banana, an appealing array of colors, seasonings, smells and textures essential to multidimensional and flavor-balanced dishes. 10487 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-8916. $

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 all 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, onion 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. $

MOTHER'S MARKET
This organic mini-chain is an Orange County institution: a place that, along with the Gypsy Den, hipped up vegetarian eating in Orange County years ago. They offer an extensive breakfast-through-dinner menu, but constant is their remarkable soyrizo —chopped up with onions, tomatoes and a bit of salsa instead of prepared in greasy, crispy cylinders hours after being removed from a pig—but this soyrizo is lean, hearty and even a bit spicy, and all-vegan. 2963 Michelson Dr., Irvine, (949) 752-6667; also at 225 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-4741; 19770 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 963-6667; 24165 Paseo de Valencia, Laguna Woods, (949) 768-6667; www.mothersmarket.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. $$

ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE
The restaurant's massive mascot looming over Lincoln Avenue at Original Pancake House—a grinning two-dimensional cook in a poofy hat flipping flapjacks—is a city icon as reassuring to Anaheimers as the Big A. And so are the pancakes—wheels of flour soaked with any number of syrups and gobs of butter. Chase them down with coffee. Good morning! 1418 E. Lincoln, Anaheim, (714) 535-9815; also at 18453 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 693-1390; 26951 Moulton Pkwy., Aliso Viejo, (949) 643-8591; www.originalpancakehouse.com. $

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 puritan 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; for other locations, go to www.eatphillysbest.com. $

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