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

Ara's Pastry

2227 W. Ball Road
Anaheim, CA 92804

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Anaheim

Sweet Jill's

123 Main St.
Seal Beach, CA 90740

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Seal Beach

Stubrik's Steakhouse & Bar

118 E. Commonwealth Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Fullerton

Steer Inn

801 S. Tustin Ave.
Orange, CA 92866

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Orange

Steer Inn

801 S. Tustin Ave.
Orange, CA 92866

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Orange

Santa Monica Seafood Co.

154 E. 17th St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Costa Mesa

Knowlwood

150 S. Harbor Blvd.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Fullerton

Cedar Creek Inn

20 Pointe Drive
Brea, CA 92821

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Brea

El Carbonero

803 S. Main St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701

Category: Restaurant > Central American

Region: Santa Ana

Athens West

7101 W. Yorktown Ave.
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Huntington Beach

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ANAHEIM

ARA'S PASTRY
A domino effect of ordering everything in sight possesses anyone who enters Ara's. Quadruple-layer columns of trays extend across the bakery, heavy with cookies, Bavarian cake slices, cream tarts and other European confections. And, of course, there's baklava, the Middle Eastern dessert standard baked here in eight distinct styles: shaped into diamonds, hexagons, flaky cylinders . . . nearly every shape in the Game of Perfection. 2227 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 776-5554. ¢

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. ¢

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. ¢

RASTHAL VEGETARIAN CUISINE
The South Indian food served here ain't your Green Party fund-raiser spread of bland samosas and lukewarm lentil broth. Rasthal is the type of dive where kaju karela—a peppered, unctuous mush combining cashews with coconut oil and bitter gourds—is among the more conservative dishes, where a chili-laced farina called upma is celebrated with the reverence with which a Punjabi restaurant serves up tandoori chicken. 2751-2755 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-3800. ¢

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

ALOHA CHICKEN
The soy sauce-fueled sizzle of meat slapped upon a grill is a constant at Aloha Chicken—that and a powerful punch-in-the-palate scent, the collective odors of thousands of chicken lunches and acrid macaroni salads gobbled within the restaurant's tiny premises. The chicken/macaroni smell is about as showy as Aloha Chicken gets; the rest of the place is a paragon of the Spartan setup characterizing the best Hawaiian restaurants—Spam musubi, loco-moco, and don't forget the poi! 10488 Valley View Ave., Buena Park, (714) 826-6672. $

CORONA DEL MAR

BUNGALOW
The filet mignon at this steakhouse is round and plump—like a muffin. Its ideal cut, deep flavor and tender texture make it possible to eat the entire thing without encountering a morsel of fat or gristle. In essence, it's a tremendous piece of meat. 2441 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-6585; www.thebungalowrestaurant.com. $$$

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. $$

EL CHINACO
Owner Mirna Burciago made a name for herself by publicly opposing Costa Mesa mayor Allan Mansoor's efforst to turn his city's police department into a mini-migra and selling one-dollar Minutemen tacos. But she's more comfortable patting out great pupusas, which themselves from the competition by their size—almost the width of an outstretched palm and as thick as an iPod, each centimeter composed of sweet crisped masa, salty cheese and the stuffing of your choice (squash and shredded pork are the most popular). 560 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8632. $

CYPRESS

CAFÉ HIRO
Café Hiro is a three-year-old Cypress eatery that has everything going for it except the design scheme, a setup that would only happen elsewhere if Goodwill decorated Denny's. But Hiro's exquisite entrées—a fantastic fusion of Japanese, Italian, French and American—ensures a steady stream of suitors; ridiculously cheap prices guarantee many rendezvous. And the ahi poke appetizer special—the buttery fish seared, warm and salty on the outside and chilled on the inside, wonderfully contrasting the accompanying field greens' snappiness—launches a thousand romances. 10509 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 527-6090. $$

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, do yourself a favor—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

MEL'S DINER
When you want to throw caloric caution to the wind, there's no beating Mel's. The cooking is home-style, the portions huge and the waitresses friendly. Other than a hot cuppa joe (yep, that's here, too), what more do you want? You'd be a knucklehead to leave without ordering the hubcap-sized, homemade cinnamon rolls topped with generous dollops of pure melted butter (served weekends only). 9430 Warner Ave., Ste. 1, Fountain Valley, (714) 963-2662. ¢

FULLERTON

MONKEY BUSINESS CAFÉ
This small restaurant, run by the young male wards of the nonprofit Hart Community Homes, is Dickens by way of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. As heartwarming as Monkey Business' story may be, none of it would matter much to foodies if the sandwiches weren't great: constructed with the care and elegance of a panini store but at half the cost. 301 E. Amerige, Fullerton, (714) 526-2933. $

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. $$

RUBEN'S BAKERY
There's about a dozen coolers of pan dulces at Ruben's, each containing multiple trays holding a specific pan dulce genus, each genus boasting mucho diversity, and so forth. Stock up on empanadas, turnovers gorged with fillings and adorned with unique crusts. The camote empanada houses its sweet yam innards within a firm, buttery crust; the same crust also gives refuge to fillings of the lemon and cream variety. 438 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 992-0414. ¢

GARDEN GROVE

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. $

KEKO'S FOODS
Keko's Foods is the only mass American distributor of alfajores, the Argentine shortbread cookies filled with chocolate or quince. They specialize in the Marplatenses type of alfajor, offering two flavors: two varieties: cocoa cookie alfajor covered in chocolate and vanilla cookie alfajor covered in white chocolate. To place an order, visit www.kekosfoods.com. $

THUYEN VIEN
Since it opened in 2002, Thuyen Vien has attracted eaters not just because it seamlessly replicates all its meats with soy, but because it also nails the complex flavors of Vietnamese cuisine in a way few other Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants can. The curry soy "chicken," a lovely stew of coconut broth, chile oil, potatoes, onions, tofu and fake chicken, is bueno. 11080 Magnolia St., Garden Grove, (714) 638-8189. $

HUNTINGTON BEACH

BREWBAKERS
Part fraternity, part bakery, part miniature brewery, Brewbakers is as much a bonding experience as an eating establishment, a gustatory amusement park in the midst of chain-heavy Huntington Beach. While the personal beer-making process is the main attraction, owner Dennis Midden maintains that baking is his first love, and a chomp through his pretzels—chewy loops with a perfect crustiness and enough salt to enhance the taste but not cover it—confirms it. 7242 Heil Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 596-5506; www.brewbakers1.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 chilled ox tripe. 16883 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 848-4940. $$

MANGIA MANGIA
If you've sworn off beef and pork but still eat birds, Huntington Beach's venerable Mangia Mangia is your kinda place. For nearly 20 years, Sicilian-born brothers Giuseppe and Pietro Cefalu have served herds of veal, poured vats of meat sauce over their homemade pasta, and earned a solid rep for fresh seafood, calamari fritti and outta-this-world eggplant dishes. But the house specialty remains their chicken "Mangia Mangia," An ample chicken breast beaten flat is sautéed with ginger, shallots, asparagus and red bell peppers in white wine to produce a near-breaded, scaloppini effect, with veggies, spice and vino then spooned over the bird. 16079 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach, (714) 841-8887; www.mangiamangiarestaurant.com. $$

PERUVIAN KITCHEN
The folks at Peruvian Kitchen don't dumb it down for the city's bros at all. In addition to their black-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

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. $$

CHUAO CHOCOLATE CAFE
We first read about Chuao in Forbes, where the Carlsbad-based chocolatier achieved the dubious distinction of appearing on the magazine's list of "most expensive chocolates"—at $79 a pound, well below something called Chocopologie by Knipschildt ($2,600 per pound) but considerably more than a 10-pack of Reese's for a buck. Its Irvine location shows why it's worth it. Spectrum Shopping Center, 95 Fortune Dr., Ste. 603, Irvine, (949) 453-8813. $

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

GREAT WALL MONGOLIAN BBQ
In a culinary tradition that varies little whether you're chopsticking through Mongolian BBQ in Ulan Bator or Utica, Great Wall differentiates itself by offering grub more fiery, more nuanced and a bit more bountiful than other charcuteries. Their daily lunch special is one of the most rewarding in the county—$4.50 for a bowl of Mongolian BBQ, along with a better-than-average egg roll, a thimble of fried rice that tastes vaguely Mexican and a small tureen of unctuous egg flower soup. 1261 Harbor Blvd., Ste. A, La Habra, (714) 680-3569. ¢

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

CLAES
Whether you're up for blowing the per diem, meeting friends for a quiet dinner (on them!) or sneaking into a corner for a romantic rendezvous, it doesn't get much better than Claes, where chefs play with seafood recipes like scientists with compounds. 25 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9283; www.claesrestaurant.com. $$$

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. $$

FIVE FEET
It's no secret why snazzy Ritz-Carlton guests in Dana Point head north to Laguna Beach each night. For more than a decade, chef/owner Michael Kang has ranked among the most creative in California. Particularly popular is the whole catfish in hot braised sauce or the pan-roasted scallops. Reservations are a must. 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-4955. $$$

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, fresh-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. $$

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-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

MANILA FOOD MART
Every Filipino joint offers the same meals; Manila Food Mart differentiates itself by hawking various products, from such Filipino wares as handbags and barongs (an ornate, light, long-sleeved shirt similar to the Caribbean guayabera) to a freezer stocked with ready-to-eat meals such as bags of plump, sugary longansina pork sausages. And while all Filipino restaurants fry turons—bananas wrapped with egg roll paper—few do it as delectably as Manila Food Mart, which dusts each burrito-big turon with brown sugar so that the interior caramelizes just so: the epitome of sweet. 24601 Raymond Way, #10, Lake Forest, (949) 461-0113; www.manilafoodmart.com. $

LONG BEACH

ALEGRÍA COCINA LATINA
The Spanish-styled brocheta vegetariana isn't like any bruschetta we're used to. The bread is replaced with corn tortillas, topped with skewers of grilled vegetables in a light sesame sauce on a pile of Peruvian corn, fresh-chopped tomatoes and tofu. That's right—tofu! 115 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 436-3388. $$

TWO UMBRELLAS CAFÉ
Many French toast options here: Like the Elvis: filled with peanut butter and banana. Or the Flasher: peanut butter and banana and bacon. And the Apple Guy (granola, apple, raisin, maybe some kind of glaze) and the Banana Guy (bananas, mandarin orange, maybe some almonds?) And the S'mores: whole hot gooey marshmallows and chocolate. And there's more: one with caramel, one with berries (seasonally dependent), one with peanut butter and jelly—a kid-in-a-candy-store selection. 1538 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 495-2323. $

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

SANTORA'S PIZZA SUBS & WINGS
Matthew 20:16 taught us that the last shall be first, and that's the best way to describe Santora's Pizza, Subs & Wings, a dank tavern just down the street from the sterile opulence of the Shops at Mission Viejo. Santora's pizza is passable; the subs nothing a Togo's drone can't slap together in three minutes. But Santora's Buffalo wings are the gourmand Gospel manifest: the Good Word transubstantiated into fleshy appendages ready to burn through your alimentary canal like the fires of Gehenna. 28251 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 364-3282. $

NEWPORT BEACH

BLUE CORAL SEAFOOD
Dinner is extravagant here as befitting any Fashion Island-area restaurant, but also substantial. Take the sea bass, for instance, done not with the usual lemon and capers but with red and golden peppers, or take the lobster. Four men do nothing but clean and strip the little buggers all day for the 300 dinners Blue Coral will serve. It's big-house volume but a small-house mentality. 451 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 856-BLUE; www.bluecoralseafood.com. $$$

THE LIDO SHIPYARD SAUSAGE CO. AND SABATINO'S FAMILY RESTAURANT
The meals begin like an explosion at the back end of a cornucopia. The sausage is made on the premises and is meaty, clean and flavorful. The stuffed pasta is also incredible. 251 Shipyard Way, Newport Beach, (949) 723-0621. $$

MULDOON'S
The perfect fish-and-chips search ends here. Five pieces of fresh red snapper are piled atop skin-on shoestring fries made from real potatoes. The batter on the fish is golden and puffy, like fried cumulus clouds. And the Irish soda bread will make you a regular. 202 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-4110. $$

ROY'S
Roy's is all about Hawaii—from the "Aloha" you get when you come in the door and the Israel Kamakawiwo'ole playing over the speakers to the blah, blah, blah about Tokyo-born founder Roy Yamaguchi, whose childhood visits to Maui, we're told, indelibly shaped his palate (and his palette). Whatever: Yamaguchi has been fusing ever since, and with great success; he is now the Wolfgang Puck of some 31 namesake restaurants in North America with entrées such as rib-eye or wild Scottish salmon. 453 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-7697. $$$

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 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. $$

CHA THAI
The yellow curry selection is optimal for those who sport the same color on their bellies, so be brave and step up a spice level to the red curry. Its marvelous mixture of bamboo shoots, bell peppers and coconut milk will give you the sensation of having had sex for two hours in a sauna. 1520 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 978-3905. $

GABBI'S MEXICAN KITCHEN
Until Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, Orange County lacked a place where the high and low met, where Mexicans two days removed from Oaxaca could enjoy the mole raved about by Newport Beach trophy wives. This cozy restaurant in Old Towne Orange's hippening antiques district is a great union of Mexican cuisine's many charms and features regional cuisine alongside Tex-Mex classics, offers both wines and tequilas, and pairs English music with ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar. 141 S. Glassell, Orange, (714) 633-3038; www.gabbimex.com. $$

PLACENTIA

MINI-GOURMET
The Mini-Gourmet is a Placentia strip-mall diner where adults wear T-shirts proclaiming allegiance for the football squad at nearby El Dorado High while sipping coffee alongside no-frill omelets. The Ortega omelet is all about the mild chili, ripe tomatoes and liquefied cheese awaiting its scraping up with toast. 1210 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., Placentia, (714) 524-1611. $

SAN CLEMENTE

WHITE HORSES
At the bottom of Avenida Victoria, below a bed-and-breakfast and a short jaunt from the ocean stands this stunning, cozy bistro, named for what the British call foam-crested waves. Every six weeks or so, owners Mark and Aileen Norris redesign everything. Menu. House breads. Appetizers. Everything. There's only one constant at White Horses, and that's that the Norrises are consistently spectacular in their epicurean experiments, as dependably memorable and adventurous as riding Trestles. 610 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 429-1800; www.whitehorses.us. $$$

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

LA FONDUE
The closest Orange County comes to the decadent Roman banquets of the past is at La Fondue in San Juan Capistrano. This is where fondue, the art of dunking various foodstuffs in a pot boiling with flavorful goo, will leave your senses overwhelmed, your insides bloated and your life on hold for a couple of postprandial hours. 31761 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 240-0300; www.lafonduerestaurant.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 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-type 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. $

PROOF
Here is a bar where the food is actually good—chicken bites, breaded with butter crumbs and accompanied with a sweet-sour Thai sauce; pickled cucumber and carrots; and other appetizers from the next-door Pangea. Stay clear of the Proof martini unless you want to spend the next day in hung-over bliss. 215 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 953-2660. $$

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

MAHE
Mahe offers a delicious meeting of sushi and meat as God and Stewart Anderson, in their mercy, intended. Besides the raw atuff, the house special is the filet mignon stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon. Kill you? Sure. But it tastes damn good. 1400 Pacific Coast Hwy., Seal Beach, (562) 431-3022. $$$

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

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

DOSA PLACE
There are so many dosas at Dosa Place—dosas crammed with goat, stuffed with cheese, oozing with curried potatoes—you'll probably overlook the rest of the platters. Don't. Once in a while, scan over the South India portion of the menu and devote a lunch to the idli, two rice-flour dumplings touched with a molten chile powder, or an uttapam, a flour Frisbee the menu advertises as a pancake but is really more of a veggie-gorged omelete. 13812 Redhill Ave., Tustin, (714) 505-7777; www.dosaplace.com. $

SEVENS STEAKHOUSE AND GRILL
Owner-chef Craig Rouse plays with the traditional steakhouse menu with slight, crucial tweaks. Onion rings come with mango chutney. Scallops sit on potato cakes. In fact, the only standards on the menu are the actual steak cuts—rib eye, New York, you know and love these. But the true potential lies in Rouse's chops—the combination of kurobuta pork with honey and mustard glaze is culinary artistry at its most appetizing. 17245 17th St., Tustin, (714) 544-0021; www.sevenssteakhouse.com. $$$

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. $$

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 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. $$

KIM SU
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. 10526 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 554-6261. $

SAIGON BISTRO
The place has an interior seemingly boxed up and mailed from fin-de-siècle Paris. The distinctly cosmopolitan appearance of the restaurant carries over into the song selections (we hear English-, Spanish- and Vietnamese-language tunes) and menu (escargot, flan and Vietnamese offerings). 15470 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 895-2120. $$

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, 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; 303 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-6500. $

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 griddle cake 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 9304 Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-4542. $

CEDAR CREEK INN
The various Cedar Creeks offer similar menus featuring prime rib, rack of lamb and homemade desserts. The Brie-and-pecan-stuffed chicken breast comes with a creamy pear-sage sauce that draws out the fine, nutty flavor of the pecans. The large butterflied scampi is served with capers and diced Roma tomatoes. And the pot roast is a tribute to hearty Midwest German-American cooking. 20 Pointe Dr., Brea, (714) 255-5600. Also at 26860 Ortega Hwy., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 240-2229, and 384 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8696; www.cedarcreekinn.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; www.knowlwoodrestaurants.com. $

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. $

SANTA MONICA SEAFOOD
Tucked inconspicuously in the corner is a takeout counter with cheap chowders, fried seafood, sandwiches, stir-fry and grilled fish. The smoked-salmon chowder is simply amazing and so delicious you'll kick yourself after inhaling the cup because you could've had a pint for only a little more. 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862; also 424 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 456-0234; www.santamonicaseafood.com. $$

SCHLEPPY'S
The two San Clemente Schleppy's are the prototypical beach shacks: tiled roof caked with bird crap; a side business in such curios as seahorse wind chimes; host to seagulls and pigeons that warily eye patrons for the first signs of a tumbling scrap. Rule of thumb about ordering at any beach dive: avoid any hint of the exotic. Order Schleppy's burger combo: a small drink that qualifies as a medium nearly anywhere else, snappy fries bursting with earthy potato pride and a flavorful hamburger featuring some of the finest beef patties grilled since the last Labor Day. 250 Avenida Calafia, San Clemente, (949) 498-6484; 615 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 492-8335. ¢

STEER INN
"Get the 'small but mighty,'" my friend counseled. "It's the best." This steak is more mighty than small. The meat has enough texture to create a tooth-gnashing gusto reserved for Discovery Channel feeding frenzies, yet no steak knife is required to cut the beautifully seared surface. 801 S. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 639-2434. Also at 444 N. Lakeview Ave., Anaheim, (714) 974-5321. $$

STUBRIK'S
A steakhouse that co-owner Craig Voorting says is "all about the steak." With the best damn steak this side of a factory town and a pretty decent selection of white meat and seafood. 118 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-1290; also 28241 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 218-0790; www.stubriks.com. $$

SUN-DRIED TOMATO CAFÉ
Rack of lamb is as ubiquitous to fancy American bistros as falafels are to Middle Eastern bazaars, but the Sundried Tomato Café prepares a version fit for hoity-toity cavemen—meaty bones doused with a tart cranberry sauce, the lamb cooked to pink perfection. Great, zesty namesake cream soup as well. 31781 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661-1167; also 361 Forest Ave., Ste. 103, Laguna Beach; (949) 494-3312; www.sundriedtomatocafe.com. $$

SWEET JILL'S
Bakery standards at Sweet Jill's—peanut-butter brownies, cookies, lemon bars and a cornucopia of fruit-flavored muffins—taste like a church fund-raiser held outside the Pearly Gates. The cinnamon rolls are the biggest sellers, as is the great peach coffee cake, a snowdrift of cream smartly balanced by unsweetened peaches in the cake's center. But beware of the German chocolate cake coated with a tan coconut frosting that Pharis could successfully export to the Fatherland; the stuff's denser than uranium. 123 1/2 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 598-3445; also at 5224 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 438-4945. $

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