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

369 SHANGHAI

613 N. Euclid St.
Anaheim, CA 92801

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Anaheim

Brea's Best Burgers

707 S. Brea Blvd.
Brea, CA 92821

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Brea

Bismillah Halal Tandoori Restaurant

8901-D Knott Ave.
Buena Park, CA 90620

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Buena Park

Cafe Jardin at Sherman Gardens

2647 E. Coast Highway
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Corona Del Mar

Lingonberry Cafe

1475 S. Coast Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Costa Mesa

Marrakesh

1976 Newport Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Costa Mesa

Sweetee Thai Cuisine

10557 Valley View St.
Cypress, CA 90630

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Cypress

Mel's Diner

9430 Warner Ave.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Fountain Valley

Anita's New Mexico Style Mexican Food

600 S. Harbor Blvd.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Category: Restaurant > Southwestern

Region: Fullerton

Al Waha B.B.Q. Family Restaurant

9562 Chapman Ave.
Garden Grove, CA 92841

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Garden Grove

Hang a Ri Noodle House

9916 Garden Grove Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92844

Category: Restaurant > Korean

Region: Garden Grove

Regina

11025 Westminster Ave.
Garden Grove, CA 92843

Category: Restaurant > Argentine

Region: Garden Grove

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ANAHEIM

369 SHANGHAI

This one excels by alternating between the familiar and the esoteric. The culinary cowards in your dining circle can seek comfort in delicious versions of orange chicken, egg rolls and shrimp fried rice. Everyone else can savor entrées usually available only in the Middle Kingdom—or maybe the San Gabriel Valley—like the fish head casserole, a single head sticking out amongst a Sargasso Sea of noodles, with a flavor as sharp and pungent as its smell. 613 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 635-8369. $

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. ¢

EL POLLO FINO

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

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

BISMILLAH HALAL TANDOORI RESTAURANT

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

CORONA DEL MAR

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 mud pack, 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 game—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 as though you're Nero with a fiddle. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-7099; www.aireglobal.com. $$$

LINGONBERRY CAFE

IKEA's insane mealtime bargain includes not only food, but also free baby-sitting! So hightail it upstairs for the manager's special: a godsend that includes a large portion of Swedish meatballs with creamy gravy and two steamed red potatoes. 1475 South Coast Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 444-4532. $

MARRAKESH

The belly dancers at Marrakesh can get a bit distracting, but their veggie plates are another story. They have a lot of marinated and grilled vegetables and an amazing couscous. But the thing to get here are grapes that emit a beautiful rose perfume. The taste is even better. 1976 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-8384. $$

CYPRESS

SWEETEE THAI CUISINE

Thai food has become so common in the Southland that memorable meals in this particular culinary genre are difficult to come by. Sweetee Thai is the exception. Try the Spiral—long, skewered shrimps swathed in a swirl of soft bacon, accompanied by two orange dips: one hot, one not. 10557 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 828-7371. $$

DANA POINT

GEMMELL'S

The appetizers are memorable—a feuillette, puff pastry with shrimp in the middle, placed in an herb-butter sauce with shallots and parsley; and a mousse of duck liver surrounded by minced aspic and sprinkled with cognac—but even better are the main courses: buttery Dover sole, New York steak bathed in a creamy beige sauce of brandy and peppercorns, smooth French onion soup. Salivating yet? 34471 Golden Lantern St., Dana Point, (949) 234-0063; www.gemmellsrestaurant.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

ANITA'S NEW MEXICO-STYLE

This nondescript Fullerton mock-adobe is one of the few Southern California restaurants emphasizing true New Mexico dietary traditions: thundering pozole bowls and meticulously stuffed chile rellenos that strike the model balance between earthy cheese and mild spice. You can find those entrées at Mexican restaurants, though, so eat American with the sopapilla: Indian fry bread gussied up with honey, a dry sweetness foreign to your chocolate-spoiled mouth but one fantastic enough to linger there for good. 600 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-0977. $

SIDNEY'S VEGETARIAN CAFE

This charming café, right in the center of Fullerton's ever-expanding downtown-bar life, might capitalize on the needs of the health-starved—it's a vegetarian joint, opening daily at 7 a.m. with an almost entirely vegan breakfast menu—but in a home-cooked, motherly, it's-good-for-you-because-I-say-so way. Owner Sandy Sauers excels with small touches, such as a feta cheese and sun-dried-tomato dressing that sits lightly on the portobello mushroom burger, adding a freshness to the dusky fungus, or almonds and golden raisins on a surprisingly zesty coleslaw. 108 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-5111;www.sidneyscafe.com. $

GARDEN GROVE

AL WAHA B.B.Q. FAMILY RESTAURANT

This is America at its most yummily raucous, as Asian, Latino and white families join Muslims in the clamor, united under the brotherhood of good Middle Eastern grub. The buffet is the most popular choice, but hidden under the daily-specials menu heading are regional specialties unknown to other county Arabic restaurants that trump Frommer's in giving insight into the Middle East. 9562 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 539-0656. $

HANG A RI NOODLE HOUSE

The cult of gook soo at Hang A Ri Noodle House, a wood-paneled Korean restaurant in Garden Grove's Little Seoul district, might initially flummox your American palate—these buckwheat noodles are thin, slimy and pungent. But then you chopstick the noodles into your mouth—sluiced with chile, pared with fiery kimchi, supported by a fine complementary anchovy soup—and the frustrations of the evening vanish. 9916 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 537-0100. $

REGINA'S RESTAURANT

Argentina lives in this tiny strip of Garden Grove's Westminster Boulevard, and the results are incredible: cheesy, fresh Argentine-style Italian pastas; gut-busting dishes of beef (the parillada has five different types alone); and more than 30 native Argentine wines. But the best part is gracious owner Elías Niquias, who will greet you by name the second time you visit. 11025 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 638-9595; www.reginaargentina.com. $$

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. $$

SMOKIN' MO'S

A tour of barbecue traditions within the confines of a gleaming Surf City development, Smokin' Mo's redeems the red states from which it pulls its stuff. Tennessee shines with vinegary, massive, great pork ribs; Louisiana appears with hot links that please like a boat ride through the bayou. Better than that, we love its pig mascot—wide-eyed, holding a massive wooden spoon, grinning at the thought of eating its brethren, the happiest cannibal since that weird gay German guy. 301 Main St., Ste. 107, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-3033;www.mosbbq.com. $

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 chile. Not bad at all—you could sneak one into a Mexican household come Christmas time, and no one would complain. 2540 Main St., Irvine, (949) 757-1802. $

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 half a chicken instead of chicken strips. And instead of mixing it into the shirin polo, the Darband cooks bring out the bird simmering in a bowl of chicken broth. The result was a chicken so succulent and tender I was able to eat it with a spoon. 14210 Culver Dr., Ste. H, Irvine, (949) 857-8265. $$

KOCHEE KABOB HOUSE

Kochee Kabob might lack decorative charm and a relaxed ambiance, but its grilled meat is, well, hard to beat—eight kinds of kebabs, each paired with flurries of long-grained, nutty basmati rice and a salad that can't quite measure up. Kochee Kabob's meats are flavorful enough without condiments, but there are two available: sour chile powder and a green hot sauce that's a fusion of a mint chutney and emerald Tapatío. 4143 Campus Dr., Ste. 195, Irvine, (949) 854-0206. $$

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 barbecue, 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

A'ROMA RISTORANTE TRATTORIA

The restaurant has a modern décor in deep soothing colors, and the servers are attentive. Put yourself in the mood for the chicken-breast special, which is cooked to a golden tenderness and seasoned to a subtle richness. 30 Center Pointe Dr., Ste. 1, La Palma, (714) 523-3729. $

LAGUNA BEACH

CASA OLAMENDI

Casa Olamendi 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, with good corn masa and delicious, tender chicken chunks covered with a little cheese. 1100 S. Coast Hwy., Ste. 202, Laguna Beach (949) 497-4148. $$


GOKO CAFE & DELI

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

SAVOURY'S

Located in La Casa del Camino Hotel in beautiful Laguna Beach, the restaurant is run by executive chef Brad Toles, captain of Team California in the International Culinary Olympics. He melds Asian and European cooking with a New Age flair. You can have your Brie and pad Thai here, and you'll like it. 1287 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9716; www.savourys.com. $$$

LAGUNA HILLS

PALACE BAKERY

Palace Bakery is the county's second shop to specialize in Persian desserts, a sweet-tooth tradition similar to Arabic pastries in their sumptuousness but exhibiting bolder flavors. Palace's baklava is sweeter than what they hawk in Anaheim's Little Arabia—splashed with more rose water and honey, the phyllo dough tougher and rolled around a dense almond filling so it resembles a miniature cigar. And every boxed purchase comes with a cool golden sticker! 24751 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. D, Laguna Hills, (949) 768-6252. ¢

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

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. $

THE BLUE CAFÉ

This music venue's food emphasizes fresh salads and semihealthy fare. The Blue Café salad—featuring grilled chicken, mango chunks, pepitas, blue cheese crumbles and apple slices—makes a meal that is fresh, filling and packed with your recommended daily amount of something or other. 210 N. Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. $$

GREEN FIELD CHURRASCARIA

The phrase "food coma" was invented for the visceral carnality that clogs your pores at Green Field Churrascaria, which specializes in the terrifying meat onslaught known as churrascaria, or Brazilian barbecue. Churrascaria is pricey, but here's what you get: all-you-can-eat Brazilian sausage, tightly packed and burned to nirvana, like a non-sweet Chinese sausage; a chicken thigh, good but perhaps too dry; and beef loin, best ever, rare, but hot clear through. 5305 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 597-0906; www.greenfieldchurrascaria.com. $$

LOS ALAMITOS

PITTSBURGH CHICKEN & TATERS

Most Americans know the Steel City for its bankrupt hockey teams and bruising football squads, but this storefront restaurant with its goofy hen mascot (circa early Peanuts) makes broasted chicken. They pressure-cook the gals with the same relentless intensity the Steelers defense applies on third-and-15, producing meat that's plump and moist inside a fine gnarled skin. 3671 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-0140. $

MISSION VIEJO

ALOHA BBQ

Hawaiian staples such as manapua (steamed pork buns) and boiling saimin noodles are fine at Aloha BBQ, along with a Korean-skewed side menu filled with bimimbap and complimentary kimchi. As great as those are, the most impressive meat meal is the spicy pork ribs. Most rib places content themselves with giving patrons a couple of twigs, but Aloha BBQ carts over four massive things that appear to have been torn from a hippo. 24000 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. 4, Mission Viejo, (949) 581-0976. $

NEWPORT BEACH

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 and spicy tuna cut rolls for cheap. Newport Beach class at cafeteria prices. 1 Hoag Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 645-8600. $

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. $$$

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. $$

ORANGE

EGG ROLLS, ETC.

Naming a restaurant Egg Rolls, Etc., implies that the eatery specializes in various versions of Asia's preferred fried snack. This recently opened Orange establishment, however, creates but one kind—lumpia, the Filipino type that's bulky enough to wield for bruising purposes. The "Etc." portion of Egg Rolls' name is more accurate, referring to the turo-turo ("point-point") cafeteria tradition of Filipino cuisine to which the restaurant adheres. 1710 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 937-0800. ¢

SALAMAT MARKET & DELI

Salamat is more than just a takeout deli serving great kebabs, stews and soups. The tiny store stocks a surprising array of goods imported from Iran: traditional Persian cheeses and figs; oils, jams and spices; and Persian breads ranging from pita to lavash to the massive sangak, a 2-foot-long flatbread thing that looks like a miniature bed sheet—there's even something called Armenian cracker bread, which is wrapped in butcher paper but feels and weighs like a military-grade pretzel. 1718 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 921-0153. $

PLACENTIA

Q TORTAS

Q's is unique because it's one of the few restaurants in la naranja exclusively devoted to the torta-making trade. And the local landmark, having been there for nearly a quarter-century, does not disappoint, turning out juicy monstrosities only slightly smaller than the King James Bible. 220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 993-3270. ¢

SAN CLEMENTE

MOLLY BLOOM'S IRISH BAR AND RESTAURANT

The interior at Molly Bloom's has the standard Irish pub features: low lighting, Guinness posters and bricks. Lots of bricks. Both bar and restaurant offer sizeable menus featuring such traditional Irish dishes as fish and chips, bangers, and beans and mash (a surprisingly tasty combination of sausages, baked beans and mashed potatoes). 2391 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 218-0120. $$

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

RENDEZVOUS

This restaurant is beauty manifested into 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

50 FORKS

50 Forks, the student-run restaurant of the Art Institute of California's Orange County campus, is the final test for the school's culinary-arts students before they can graduate with a bachelor's degree, the classroom where years of theory and strategies get flambéed and presented to salivating, discriminating eaters who grade by pats to the gut and big tips. It's also one hell of a restaurant, with great, inventive platters, and it's more than affordable—probably the only place in the county where you can dine like Newport Beach at Santa Ana prices. 3601 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 429-0918. $$

LA NUEVA REYNA DE MICHOACÁN

If you get lost in the bustle of Santa Ana's Fourth Street on a hot day and need salvation, just follow the ice-cream drippings toward La Nueva Reyna de Michoacán, a veritable Baskin Robbins en español. La Nueva Reyna's ice cream is velvety, like a lover's tongue on yours—except for the wonderful chunks of fruit. Go for the harder-to-find flavors: sultry mango, bitter plum, luscious coconut and the fleshy aroma of guayaba (sadly a seasonal fruit, available only in fall). 300 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 835-0394. ¢

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

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

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

HARBOR HOUSE CAFE

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; www.harborhousecafe.com. $

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. $$

HONDA-YA

The Tustin Japanese joint continues to be a county chowhound phenomenon more than a decade after its opening, one of the precious few Orange County restaurants with a daily past-midnight closing time and a 150-plus-item menu that necessitates hours-long pilgrimages just to dent it. Per the izaka-ya tradition, Honda-Ya is all about time and placement: different sections provoke a different feel and warrant a different menu at different hours. You'll find it all: noodles, sushi, yakitori and tiny bowl-meals sautéed with enough butter to make it pancake-spread worthy. 556 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 832-0081. $$

VILLA PARK

ROCKWELL'S CAFE AND BAKERY

This neighborhood café and bakery is an ode to Norman with Rockwellian gilt-edged plates and prints covering the bathroom walls. Besides the interior-design salute, Rockwell's serves many great versions of eggs Benedict, all with hollandaise sauce made from scratch. 17853 Santiago Blvd., Villa Park, (714) 921-0622; www.rockwellsbakery.com. $

WESTMINSTER

CHEZ ROSE

The back-and-forth between French and Vietnamese décor at this vegetarian restaurant gets dizzying, even a bit annoying. But bickering soon dissipates under the brotherhood of great food, hybrids that you can imagine indulging along the banks of the Seine or Mekong. And as Edith Piaf begins to sing "La Vie en Rose"—for some serendipitous reason, the CD player always plays her torch song around dessert time—and you sip on a second order of coma-eradicating coffee, you can feel the world revert to a pre-Dien Bien Phu era, where French elegance and Vietnamese refinement waltzed tenuously. 7360 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 890-9711. $

Dragon Phoenix Palace

Get your chopsticks ready for the weekend dim sum because in minutes, you'll have a tableful of sizzling pork and shrimp pot stickers, savory dumplings, won-ton soup, and wonderful salt-and-pepper squid. 9211 Bolsa Ave., Stes. 201-208, Westminster, (714) 893-1976. $$

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. $

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

CLARO'S ITALIAN MARKET

Claro's is a fourth-generation family business with a passion for food as big as the 600-pound loaves of provolone they are known to display during winter. Besides a huge selection of imported groceries, Claro's houses a stellar deli and bakery. 101 W. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 690-2844; 1095 E. Main St., Tustin, (714) 832-3081. $

FLEMING'S PRIME STEAKHOUSE

Styled after traditional Eastern steakhouses, Fleming's offers an à la carte menu of appetizers, salads, side dishes, "red meat and white meat," and seafood. The steaks are cooked in a superheated gas flame to "seal in the juices," as the publicity goes. They are. A little salt is added to the cut before cooking. 455 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 720-9633; 1300 Dove St., Ste. 105, Newport Beach, (949) 222-2223. $$$

EL FORTÍN

In a country where each state has its unique version of the curry-like mole, Oaxaca is king, and El Fortín offers four stunning varieties of the royal family. I won't even bother describing the house mole, as my tongue cannot possibly articulate this creation—only eat. 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 773-4290; 10444 Dale Ave., Stanton, (714) 252-9120; www.restaurantelfortin.com. $

GYRO KING

It's a mighty gyro they spin at Gyro King: lamb and beef compressed into a hexagonal slab, 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. 2626 Dupont Dr., Irvine, (949) 752-4976; 3601 Jamboree Rd., Ste. 4, Newport Beach, (949) 474-7300. $

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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