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

Cafe Casse Croute

656 S. Brookhurst St.
Anaheim, CA 92804

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Anaheim

Native Foods

2937 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Category: Restaurant > Eclectic

Region: Costa Mesa

Dalton's Restaurant

9575 Valley View St.
Cypress, CA 90630

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Cypress

Harbor House Cafe

34157 Pacific Coast Highway
Dana Point, CA 92629

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Dana Point

Thai Rama

2500 E. Chapman Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92831

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Fullerton

Anna's Mondu

9972 Garden Grove Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92843

Category: Restaurant > Korean

Region: Garden Grove

Delicias de Mexico

13466 Harbor Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92843

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Garden Grove

Assal Pastry

14130 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Irvine

Bistango

19100 Von Karman Ave.
Irvine, CA 92612

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Irvine

The Melting Pot Restaurant

2646 Dupont Drive
Irvine, CA 92612

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Irvine

Imperial Burgers

241 E. Imperial Highway
La Habra, CA 90631

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: La Habra

Casa Olamendi's

1100 S. Coast Highway, Ste. 202
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Laguna Beach

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ANAHEIM

CAFÉ CASSE CROÛTE
This modest diner is the only place in OC to find authentic specialties from the Great White North. Try the tourtière, a mixture of slow cooked ground pork and beef seasoned with garlic, onions and cloves that has been turned into a lidded piecrust and baked. 656 S. Brookhurst, Anaheim, (714) 774-8013. $

CAROUSEL BAKERY
Customers cram this cramped emporium not for the pan dulce—which is delicious, by the way—but for raspados, the Mexican version of snow cones made with the vivacious fruits of the country in syrup form. Choose quickly from the 14 options because a line is no doubt forming impatiently behind you, already shouting out their orders. 1509 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 778-2051.¢

 

CEDAR BAKERY & RESTAURANT
Cedar Bakery distinguishes itself from the other Middle Eastern restaurants in Anaheim's crowded Little Gaza district by specializing in such small meals as sambouseks, cinnamon-dusted ground beef turnovers. Mornings begin with a bowl of kishek, a sort of Lebanese oatmeal of yogurt, bulgur wheat and salt that doesn't do much for the sweet tooth but bulks you up for the day like a one-hour free weights session. 930 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 991-5888. $

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. These 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. ¢

 

MR. STOX
Last year the Nation's Restaurant News enshrined Mr. Stox into its Fine Dining Hall of Fame. But the venerable spot—one of the county's first serious haute cuisine emporiums—is so much more than scintillating steaks, poached salmon and duck sauced with a sweet, luring glaze. Where else can you spend a couple of hundred for Mom's birthday dinner and get a complimentary photo? 1105 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 634-2994; www.mrstox.com. $$$

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

JANG MO
Jang Mo Restaurant specializes in soup, offering six aromatic choices. Add generous amounts of granulated salt, scallions, white rice and pungent hot mustard to unlock the potential of the peppery yook gejang (advertised as vegetable soup but laden with beef shreds) and the three types of gomtang (as delicious as its much-celebrated cousin pho, it is slowly simmered in beef bones) that makes this joint a must-slurp. 4546 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 228-0767. $

CORONA DEL MAR

CAFÉ JARDIN
Located at the tranquil Sherman Library and Gardens, the café's menu is well thought out. The mushroom soup is the color of a spa mudpack with an earthy mushroom flavor, and all of the desserts are made on the premises. 2647 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-0033. $$

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. $$$

BEACH PIT BBQ
Former baseball player Tim DeCinces focuses his menu on pan-Southern fare like sausage, pulled pork, chicken, brisket and ribs—no regional styles yet, although the off-the-menu pork taquitos hint at what Southerners can expect as more Mexicans settle in Dixie. I'm partial to the smoked sausage, each about the size of a kielbasa and arriving five to an order, prepared in a manner that allows the skin to maintain a distinct smoked flavor even as the interior comprises a wonderful mix of juice, spice and pork. 1676 Tustin Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-RIBS; www.beachpitbbq.com. $$

GLOBE EUROPEAN DELICATESSEN
Sausage is but one appetizing aspect of Globe European Delicatessen, which has been hawking German, Dutch and other European produce from the same address for more than three decades. There's beer, jams, chocolates, even wafers that taste like fruit. Load up on these and other goods—if you're a sucker for pickled herring, the fine liberal German weekly Der Spiegel,or cheese wheels large enough to fire from mortars, Globe European Delicatessen is your lollipop. 1928 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-3784; www.europeanfoods.com. $

NATIVE FOODS
Screw the hippy-dippy milieu: Native Foods is about chow as welcoming for your senses as it is for your health. Sure, Native Food's mission statement—"a prosperous lifestyle in harmony with the balance of nature and its energy through the wonders of food"—might be as hopelessly New Age-y as the menu and environs. Unlike most vegan mavens, though, Chef Tanya Petrovna doesn't ditch the flavor while thinking of invigorating ways to fool flesh fanatics or improve your aura. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-2151; www.nativefoods.com. $

CYPRESS

DALTON'S
"Family-style" before the phrase meant "Norm's," Dalton's has gabby servers with odd hairstyles, a mostly older clientele, hearty extra large egg breakfasts served all day, and a menu dominated by meat and fried stuff. 9575 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 229-8101. $

DANA POINT

HARBOR HOUSE CAFÉ
Besides Denny's, this is basically the only 24-hour joint in the area and thus a popular hangout for high school kids. After the one in San Clemente closed something like a decade ago, this became the hangout for San Clemente High School students, too. As far as eats go, it's known for its wide omelet selection and thick shakes. 34157 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 496-9270. $

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

MOONLIGHT CHICKEN & PIZZA
Moonlight's soujouk pizza, grazed with the spicy Armenian beef sausage, is grander than mere foodstuff: it's an ambassador for that mythical melting pot, for the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation of owners Vazgen Akoyan and Karine Karpetyan. Add pineapple, and you have the best retort to the anti-immigrant crowd since the Statue of Liberty. 9895 Warner Ave., Ste. G, Fountain Valley, (714) 963-4488. $

FULLERTON

AMAZON CHURRASCARIA
This Brazilian beef barn ignores the multicultural influences predominant in most Brazilian dishes for the straightforward flesh diet of the sertão. Impeccably dressed waiters serve 20 types of meat, everything from the Homer Simpson fantasy of bacon-wrapped turkey to well-charred chicken hearts to a great alligator sirloin. 1445 S. Lemon St., Fullerton, (714) 447-1200. $$

THE GREAT ZUCCHINI
The hearty bun kebab combo—a hamburger with a Pakistani patty, fries served with chutney and a Pakistani cola: the melting car gone car-hop—is but one of the highlights of the Great Zucchini, whose name sounds more appropriate for a Little Italy diner than for one of the county's three Pakistani eateries. It's a small list, and you have to ask for a special menu to see it but the Great Zucchini's preparation of Pakistani standbys attracts subcontinent expats from North County and beyond. 765 St. College Blvd., Ste. B, Fullerton, (714) 879-8522. $

 

THAI RAMA
Making tempura is a delicate process, but when it's cooked right it's better than Jesus. This quaint little restaurant offers a vegetable tempura—lacy, golden, spot-on perfect with fresh vegetables, cooked to a slight snap and coated in a batter so light it floats—that walks on water. 2500 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-0777. $$

GARDEN GROVE

ANNA'S MONDU
Anna's Mondu keeps an English-language menu and bright pictures on the wall hint at its specialty: the massive Korean dumplings known as mondu—steamed giants of minced meat, buckwheat noodles and green onions. But the true revelation is the dduk bok ki, a plateful of stretched gnocchi over which the chef has drizzled a sweet and spicy chile sauce. Just three of the dduk will meet your daily caloric maximum; the plate comes with at least 20. 9972 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste. F, Garden Grove, (714) 530-0102. $

DELICIAS DE MÉXICO
Delicias de México (Delights from Mexico) is one of the county's precious few neverías: ice cream shops that specialize in resolutely Mexican flavors such as velvety mango, smoky mamey, sour guanábana and many other tropical luscious fruits. Don't forget to order at least one of their paletas: frosty monoliths of vim, each balanced on a sturdy wooden stick and wrapped in a plastic sheet that requires a sensuous tugging motion to remove. 13466 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 636-7163. ¢

ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF ORANGE COUNTY
During Ramadan, Fatima Rahman (known to all as Auntie Fatima) lords over the best religious-minded buffet in the county at Orange County's largest mosque, preparing $2 Styrofoam cartons of delicious Indian food and the stray baklava. The rest of the year, Auntie Fatima prepares it only during Friday services. Some of the tastiest Indian food around—and no faith in Allah required! 1 Al-Rahman Plaza, Garden Grove, (714) 531-1722. $

MAHINA HAWAIIAN BBQ
Mahina serves an array of delicious standards: shredded kalua pork so thin it looks like fabric; teriyaki beef and chicken grilled to succulent zeniths; breaded shrimp, pork and chicken platters that crumble in your mouth like a rain of soft butter; bowls of steaming, succulent, soy sauce-slathered meat. But it's the Spam musubi—the supreme example of the island's mishmash diet of indigenous, Japanese and postwar Americana cuisine—that will never leave your mind. Or, perhaps, your intestine. 12546 Valley View St., Garden Grove, (714) 890-0198; www.mahinabbq.com. $

HUNTINGTON BEACH

ALOHA GRILL
Strapped for cash but need a reasonable location for a date? This is the spot. If you're not sure what to try, the pupu platter is a deal, with samples of Maui-wowie rolls, Hawaiian drums, Surf City rolls and chicken satay sticks. 221 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-4427. $

BODHI TREE VEGETARIAN CAFÉ
Deciding what to eat at Bodhi Tree—there are more than 100 mock-meat choices—involves the same deliberation needed for a koan. The tofu-drop soup, bobbing with meaty chunks of bean curd, bamboo shoots and cilantro, is free. Not free but worth the somewhat-pricey $3.50 is the chicken satay baguette sandwich full of faux fowl, tomatoes and so many julienned carrots it could be classified under the salad portion of the menu and mislead no one. 501 Main St., Ste. E, Huntington Beach, (714) 969-9500. $

LUCCI'S DELI AND MARKET
Lucci's offers more than 30 hot or cold sandwiches under $5, not counting the house specialty torpedoes that go for $2.99 and $5.25. There is pizza. There are the standard Italian dinners like spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna and eggplant, along with classics like linguine with clam sauce and fettuccine alfredo—all between $6 and $10. Lucci's does catering, too. They even bake wedding cakes. 8911 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-4466; www.luccisdeli.com. $$

PERUVIAN KITCHEN
The folks at Peruvian Kitchen don't dumb it down for the city's bros at all. In addition to their blackened but moist hen, they offer fried rice adorned with raisins, carrots and corn, sturdy French fries with snappy hot dog slices, and a fabulous mesquite-smoked yam. But go for the anticuchos: two skewers of dark brown beef heart glazed with garlic. The anticuchos were chewy, intensely meaty, the best offal in the county. 17552 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 847-7555. $

IRVINE

ASSAL PASTRY
Sholeh zard—a rice pudding brilliantly yellow and so peppery you'll find yourself gasping after eating it—is but one of the side dishes at Assal Pastry, a chic bakery in Irvine's Little Tehran enclave. The primary attraction here is cookies: dozens of just-baked trays that rely on different types of flour and infinite pistachio presentations rather than sugar for their sweetness. Purchase a pound of any cookie (cheap at $6), and Assal packages your order inside an emerald green box that gives Tiffany's jewelry container a run for its color. 14130 Culver Dr., Ste. H-1, Irvine, (949) 733-3262. $

BISTANGO
California cuisine. When we're dining on someone else's account, we like the prix fixe. Key attraction: ambiance. A rotating art exhibit features contemporary artists of the West (for sale) and lite—we mean helium-filled—jazz on the weekends. Always a business buzz. 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, (949) 752-5222; www.bistango.com. $$$

THE 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 Drive, Irvine, (949) 955-3242; www.meltingpot.com. $$$

WHOLESOME CHOICE
Wholesome Choice is the most diverse supermarket in Orange County—maybe Southern California—a garden of produce delights where Armenian cherry preserves, Polish kielbasa, Middle Eastern cream cheese, organic eggs and Tapatío exist within a three-aisle radius. But its greatest treat is the sangak: crispy Persian flatbread as crucial to Iranian identity as Rumi, and about four feet in length. 18040 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 551-4111; www.wholesomechoice.com. $

LA HABRA

IMPERIAL BURGERS
Imperial Burgers serves many more things besides their Cheddar cheese-heavy pastrami burritos—their namesakes, for instance, charbroiled marriages of meat, soft bun, sweet cheese, girth and lettuce. Or standard breakfasts of pancakes, hash browns and sausage. And always sip on ultra-sweet Orange Bang whenever you find this increasingly rare beverage. Everything is good here, really. But La Habra is so far away, and the pastrami burrito is so good—why would you ever order anything else? 241 E. Imperial Hwy., La Habra, (714) 525-1611. $

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

CASA OLAMENDI
Casa Olamendi's is the sort of place in which you ask for a balcony seat for a sunny lunch or come later and watch the sun sink into the sea over the two T's: tamales and tequila. Tamales typically arrive on a combo plate, served without the husk and covered with a little cheese, with good corn masa and delicious tender chicken chunks. 1100 S. Coast Hwy. Ste. 202, Laguna Beach (949) 497-4148. $$

CAFÉ ZOOLU
If you're into seafood, go for the jumbo-sized swordfish. Expect to empty your wallet or purse—but Café Zoolu is one of the few places in OC worth every penny. 860 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-6825. $$

ROMEO CUCINA
At Romeo Cucina in Laguna Beach the carpaccio appetizer—a large platter caked with carpaccio—is preposterously delightful and, at $11.95, a steal of a meal. Both shaved and chunky, the soft morsels are complemented with zingy lemon and capers, freshly shaved Parmesan, artichoke hearts and salad bits. Other Italian platters are excellent, but the carpaccio is like a beef-flavored Listerine strip for the gut. 249 Broadway, Laguna Beach, (949) 497-6627; www.romeocucina.com. $$

LAGUNA HILLS

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 he's made nearly every morning to his Jewish bakery since 1987. 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; www.solomonsbakery.com. $

LAGUNA NIGUEL

THAI DINING
Start with their tom kah gai soup, a creamy, flavorful offering of the popular Thai chicken and 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

EL PARAÍSO
El Paraíso prepares sit-down platters: aromatic soups of chicken, beef or cow's foot with about four different squashes and potatoes, nicely grilled meats and yucca sancochada, a golden and chewy version of the tuber doused with lemon. But no matter who's ordering what or working where, everyone who comes to El Paraíso forks through at least two chewy sweet pupusas, the Salvadoran griddle cake that's the sole unifier of the fractious Central American nation. 25252 Jeronimo Rd., Ste. B, Lake Forest, (949) 770-2775. $

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. $

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 Forrest's Shrimp 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. $

LA CRÊPERIE CAFÉ
Someone once said, "Simplicity is the spice of life." Snicker all you want but they must have been referring to the Bolero crêpe at La Crêperie Café. This sorta-Provençal café offers perfection drenched in butter and sugar with a twist of lemon. C'est bon! 4911 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8499; www.lacreperiecafe.net. $$

LOS ALAMITOS

ISLAND GRILL
Island Grill sells Hawaiian food with a Japanese bent, so that means you can get your sushi and bento box fill along with sumptuous teriyaki bowls. But regardless of main course, your dessert should be the shaved ice: a frosty, chilled monolith flavored with fruit and so delicate you could whittle it down with dental floss. 4390 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 431-6496. $

MISSION VIEJO

MAYA INN
Ah, the chicken chimichanga: seasoned (but not molten), tender chicken in a deep-fried tortilla with ample salsa, guacamole and sour cream flying atop the thing like a Mexican flag on a submarine. Cheap! 25571 Jeronimo Rd., Ste. 8, Mission Viejo, (949) 768-0401. $

NEWPORT BEACH

GULFSTREAM
Yes, Gulfstream is big but you'll never be served an entrée that is outweighed by a power garnish, and no heaps-o'-chow that scream Claim Jumper, either. Proportions are just right, as is the wine list. Desserts aren't a big deal at Gulfstream, but they make a fabulous hot fudge sundae with candied pecans. 850 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 718-0188.$$$

HOAG HOSPITAL CAFETERIA
There are bagels and muffins and, a friend swears, "killer" breakfast burritos in the morning at Newport Beach's ritzy Hoag cafeteria. In the refrigerated case you can get a grilled chicken caesar salad or roast beef horseradish panini. Want sushi? They've got vegetarian rolls for $3.75 and spicy tuna cut rolls for $4.15. Newport Beach class at cafeteria prices. 1Hoag Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 645-8600. $

PAVILION
The clam chowder at Pavilion—a lump of something indistinguishable 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 ostentatious but with the substance to warrant the flash. Everything is expensive but damn worth it. 690 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 760-4920. $$$

PESCADOU BISTRO
Despite its location—in a storefront across from Newport Beach City Hall—Pescadou manages to impart a south of France feel with vibrant colors and eclectic table settings. You'll find traditional French dishes—frog legs and coq au vin—as well as such bistro fare as rib-eye steak, bouillabaisse and a variety of fish dishes. 3325 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 675-6990; www.pescadoubistro.com. $$$

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. $$

ORANGE

CAFÉ LUCCA
Gourmet paninis are the jewels here, from hot soppresata 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 gelatos: 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 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 citrus-y 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

SOPHIA'S
The food is simple and perfect for long lunches in the pretty dining room or the small garden patio. I love their chicken and lemon soup. They serve a whole range of roasted meats, including lamb and fresh seafood. Their pistachio baklava tends to be very rich. 1390 N. Kraemer Blvd., Placentia, (714) 528-2021. $

SAN CLEMENTE

SONNY'S PIZZA AND PASTA
Home of a monster marinara sauce that is nearly orgasmic. The sauce is ladled on to your choice of spaghetti, mostaccioli or rigatoni with Italian sausage or meatballs the size of your fist on a plate big enough to feed three. 429 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 498-2540; www.sonnys.com. $

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

CARNICERÍA EL CAMPEÓN
All things being equal, we find that the less we comprehend of a menu, the higher the odds we're going to get authentic food. "Tamale" at Carnicería El Campeón was arranged on the menu near some other foods that only a Mexican mama could recognize. Unlike the other joints, their tamales are unencumbered by frills. It is a Bauhaus dish: cornhusk, moist masa, chicken. 31921 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 240-3141. ¢

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. $

BENJIES
Benjies is mostly about big, meaty food served quickly. After chucking any hopes of swimsuit modeling, the Francheesy may be for you: grilled knackwurst with bacon and American cheese just oozing off the sides. It's angioplantastic! 1828 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 541-6230.$

MARISCOS LA SIRENA
This little palace serves caldo de caguama (turtle soup) but also represents its own endangered genus—the restaurant whose métier is stunning Sinaloan Mexican food with a side of stereotypes—blistering aguachile with wooden parrots, nuclear ceviche served under drooping nets, and deer steaks that are almost as tender as each waitress' top is low. 515. S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-0350. $$

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. $

SANTA ANA FARMER'S MARKET
This Wednesday afternoon farmer's market is standard save for its bacon-wrapped hot dogs, the stuff of after-concert Los Angeles curbside vendor legend. Preparation is simple: Father grabs an all-beef hot dog and wraps it with strips of pale bacon as if it were gauze on an injured thigh. Son slaps the coiled wiener on the grill, where the bacon begins to fry. Sizzle. The fat of the bacon seeps into the hot dog, which plumps quickly while the bacon burns until it's black and crispy. Every Wednesday on the corner of Third and Birch, Santa Ana; www.grainproject.org.

SEAL BEACH

PHILLIPS' FAMILY RESTAURANT
After a lifetime of frozen supermarket chicken pies these are a revelation. The crust is thick and flavorful and, unlike its frozen brothers, Phillips' isn't stingy with the chicken. Also, Phillips' doesn't bother with vegetables. Who needs 'em? Just about everything chicken is worthy here! 13936 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 596-1437. $

STANTON

MITSUYOSHI
Mitsuyoshi, a humble, rock solid Stanton restaurant patronized by the North County Japanese community, makes a particularly alluring version of sukiyaki with a heavy, sweet broth packed with thin slices of beef, green onions, cellophane noodles, mushrooms, tofu cubes and bamboo shoots. And in traditional fashion, there's a bowl of raw egg in which to dip the beef strips. 12033 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 898-2156. $$

SUNSET BEACH

CAPTAIN JACK'S
Opened June 25, 1965, this steak and seafood restaurant supposedly serves 53,000 pounds of Alaskan king crab per year—more than any other restaurant in the U.S. It prides itself on consistent quality and hearty portions. The bar is one of the few that still use the "Super Well," meaning that if you order gin, you get Bombay, and if you order vodka, you get Absolut. 16812 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-2514. $$

TUSTIN

BLACK SHEEP BISTRO
For the superlative paella, a couple of days advance notice is needed, but for good reason. You won't find a more complex, beautifully presented or better tasting dish in OC. The scrumptious leftovers made for the 10 people in our party weighed at least a pound each. 303 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 544-6060; www.blacksheepbistro.com. $$

NAAN & KABOB
Naan & Kabob should be renamed Rice & Kabob, since the Tustin Persian eatery prepares the latter platter 36 different ways: Rice with lamb kabob; rice with fish kabob; rice with beef, chicken and shrimp kabob; rice with a type of falafel kabob. Redundant? No, regal. 416 E. First St., Tustin, (714) 66-KABOB. $

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

CAJUN CORNER
Cajun Corner is the latest in a rash of Little Saigon restaurants that attract mostly young Vietnamese looking for Louisiana seafood favorites like crab and crawfish, beer, and a messy dinner—bibs and butcher paper on your table at Cajun Corner are gospel. The special is a whole Dungeness crab, brought out in a plastic bag heavy with chili rub, awaiting your cracking to reveal soft, buttery meat. 15430 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 775-7435. $$

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. $$

KIM SU SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
A funky little place to eat lunch: traditional Chinese, great dim sum; but we usually go for lunch specials like sweet and sour pork, broccoli beef and kung pao chicken. Weeklings like this place because you can mix and share food so easily—and because we're cheap bastards. 10530 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 554-6261. $

LAZY DOG CAFÉ
The menu is either eclectic or scattershot depending on your point of view, with everything from pizza to kung pao. But there's no denying each entrée's inherent tastiness. The Shanghai tacos are quite the treat, coming in the form of a large bowl filled with chicken ground to the consistency of hamburger, stir fried with water chestnuts and shredded carrots and accompanied by a plate of iceberg lettuce leaves. 16310 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 500-1140; www.thelazydogcafe.com. $$

SEAFOOD WORLD
Seafood World lives up to its name by wheeling out goodies like fried scallop rolls (large scallops in a flaky pastry served with mayo and a maraschino cherry!), crab and shrimp balls with peas (wrapped in rice paper) and very large, juicy and spicy deep fried shrimp. 15351 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 775-8828; www.seafoodworld.com. $$

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

ATHENS WEST
Many Greek restaurants offer French fries on their menu, but few treat them with the care you find at both Athens West locations. They fry long, skinny potato strips until golden and firm and then dust them heroically with—is it parsley I taste? Or oregano? The feta cheese on top is melted slightly, just enough to lend creaminess without producing a gooey disaster. Put some of Athens West's kebabs on top, and you have impromptu Greek chili billies. 7101 Yorktown Ave., Ste. 106, Huntington Beach, (714) 536-6112; also at 303 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-6500. $

 

BÁNH CUÔN HÔNG MAI
This chain of two near-closets in Garden Grove and Santa Ana offer most of their dishes—fragrant com tam, slippery bún and satisfying drinks—in 27 different fashions. But Hông Mai's ultimate specialty isn't numerology but rather the studious preparation of its namesake, the rice roll delicacy known as bánh cuôn: Silky, light, furtively filling and a good sponge for the accompanying fish sauce. The rice paper itself is a bit bland but that neutral flavor somehow amplifies a bánh cuôn's innards tenfold. 10912 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 534-4526; 5425 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 554-9190. ¢

 

BIRRIERIA Y PUPUSERIA JALISCO
Whether you order Mexican or Salvadoran food at Birrierías y Pupusería Jalisco, make sure to mix and match condiments, if only in the name of Latino solidarity. Add curtido (the Salvadoran slaw that accompanies pupusas) to Birrierías' bottle-sized burritos—enjoy the contrast between the garlicky, pickled curtido and the unspiced beans, rice and meat simplicity of the burrito. Spread the chilled, citrus-tinged house salsa on the pupusas to tweak the hearty appetizer. 404 N. Grand Ave., Ste. A, Santa Ana, (714) 836-4409; 17292 W. Mcfadden, Ste. D, Tustin, (714) 573-1586; 6999 E. Cerritos Ave., Stanton, (714) 826-3382; 2525 N. Grand Ave., Ste. A, Santa Ana, (714) 288-8931; 1212 S. Bristol Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 662-7400. $

EL CARBONERO
Owner María de Jesús Ramírez ensures that El Carbonero #1 and #2 use the same recipes of her hearty native cuisine, the primary reason why the county's pioneering guanaco restaurant persists while so many other Salvadoran restaurants disappear. Imitate the regulars and order at least one pupusa, the masa griddlecake that Salvadorans consume from crib to crypt. And El Carbonero's horchata, heavy with cinnamon and toasted rice, makes Mexican horchata taste like a Tijuana gutter. 803 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-6653. Also at 9516 W. Katella Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 520-0771. $

CALIFORNIA FISH GRILL
California Fish Grill is one of those middle class mini chains common to Orange County—fancier than Knowlwood or Natraj but a step below Sage or the Daily Grill. The massive charbroiled fillets feature deep grill marks and shine, thanks to a powerful garlic butter coating. All should also order the grilled zucchini and its juicy, smoky innards. 10569 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 252-0001; Also 5675 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-5710; 3988 Barranca Pkwy., #B, Irvine, (949) 654-3838; www.cafishgrill.com. $$

THE DAILY GRILL
This is where you can learn to love the cobb salad, an orchestrated event of chicken, tomatoes, avocado, bacon, blue cheese, scallions, egg, and romaine and iceberg lettuce mixed in a creamy Italian dressing. Also American comfort food—don't miss the meat loaf—prepared at its highest level. 957 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-2223; also at 2636 Dupont Dr., Irvine, (949) 474-2223; www.dailygrill.com. $$

JOHNNY REBS' SOUTHERN ROADHOUSE
With plastic flamingos and a stuffed catfish wall trophy the size of a walrus, the South lives on here. Delight in the Yankee cheese grits and fried green tomatoes, but don't forget to try the catfish. 4663 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 423-7327; also at 2940 E. Chapman, Orange, (714) 633-3369; www.johnnyrebs.com. $

KNOWLWOOD
The place serves scrumptious one-third-pound burgers as big as your head. What else needs to be said? 150 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 879-7552. Also at 5665 E. La Palma Ave. Anaheim, (714) 779-2501; 14952 Sand Canyon Ave., Irvine, (949) 857-8927; 28061 Greenfield Dr., Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-1593. $

PASTA CONNECTION
If you haven't dined at this Italian-Argentine chain you're at least familiar with its logo, a picture of a howling toddler with spaghetti dripping from his head—an Orange County advertising icon as beloved as Mickey Mouse or the Spanky's guy. As the name suggests, Pasta Connection likes to prepare pasta: silky fettuccines, blockish raviolis and lasagnas that look like a Bicycle pinochle deck. 1902 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-3484; 2145 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 541-0053; www.pastaconnection.net. $

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