Soil to Soul

Orange County’s freshest farmers, farmers markets, food purveyors—and the chefs who love them

The chef at the just-opened Mesa (the latest entry from the owner of Costa Mesa's Habana) gets all his produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, but we won't hold it against him—he has spent the past couple of years in England and still lives in Venice. Otherwise, the man creates fabulous, Italian-heavy meals: shrimp-and-lobster bouillabaisse on top of mini-pasta strands, a creamy tomato soup, and so much more. The epitome of Slow Food, however, is the scallops—served almost raw, on a gazpacho lake and surrounded by baby heirloom tomatoes that will make you swear off the beefsteak variety forever. 725 Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6700.

THE FARMS
Tanaka Farms
is an Orange County treasure, and not just because its organic strawberries ooze wonderful juices (now out of season, but here come those watermelon patches!) or because its tours teach kiddies about the county's almost-gone farm life. It's run by the Tanaka clan, one of many Japanese-American farming families that are Orange County's last ties to its agricultural past. The farm's primo location in Irvine—you can see Fashion Island from the highest hill—is a stubborn, beautiful patch of undeveloped territory in the face of the ever-encroaching Irvine Co. And manager Aimee Buck has the most infectious laugh since Krusty the Klown. Go now before Don Bren decides to erect another bland development. 5380 3/4 University Dr., Irvine, (949) 653-2100; www.tanakafarms.com.

One of South County's last farm stands—and last farms, for that matter—is in the idyllic South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano. From sunrise to sunset, you can buy dozens of fresh fruits and vegetables picked that morning from South Coast's fertile field, from heirloom tomatoes to sweet Walla Walla onions, peaches, flowers and muchossquashes. Too lazy to visit? Enroll in their Community Supported Agriculture program: Every week, South Coast Farms will send you a 25-pound basket of the latest crops harvested from their fertile soil for $28. Support the farm, and get rewarded with yummy food—you'll never have to deal with freezer burn again. 32701 Alipaz St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661-9381; www.southcoastfarms.com.

Most of the farms left in North County are part of Manassero Farms, and most of Dan Manassero's farms grow strawberries: small, potent rubies sold every morning in the spring from quaint roadside stands on plots of land. As with any agricultural anachronism in Orange County, however, visit now: Next season, an infestation of strip malls may very well stand where Manassero once ruled. 4925 Via La Granja, Yorba Linda, (714) 695-9346.

Churn Creek Meadow Organic Farm operates in Redding, California, but keeps a small farm in Yorba Linda, where they grow buttery organic avocados that even an avocado-hater can love. 18710 Oriente Dr., Yorba Linda, (530) 949-9508; www.ccmof.com.

Out of all the small independent farms that dot the area where Westminster, Garden Grove and Santa Ana nearly merge, none is more telling of our county's agricultural heritage than Bunya Farms. The folks now growing strawberries here are young, scions of Japanese-American pioneers who battled discrimination and internment camps to carve out a living. Unlike other farmers, the Bunyas still live on the property in a house decorated with beautifully sculpted bonsai trees. More important, those strawberries are damn good. 14471 Euclid St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2286.

And now, a word of lament for Fujishige Farms. For decades, Disneyland coveted this 56-acre farm—located just down the street from the Angriest Place on Earth—for a second theme park. But owner Hiroshi Fujishige wouldn't sell, despite million-dollar offers and heavy browbeating from Anaheim politicians. Fujishige's heirs unfortunately succumbed to Disneyland after Hiroshi passed away, but they're still growing crops for the time being. Go while you can, before Disney installs another lame, overpriced theme park on top of the farm that made the Mouse roar. 1854 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 750-3833.

Though both are in the Inland Empire, Purple Hill Ranch and ZRanch operate from Irvine and Costa Mesa, respectively. Purple Hill specializes in kaffir lime leaves, perfect for Thai cooking and not to throw at non-Muslims, while ZRanch provides local Indian stores with such fresh Indian veggies as okra, ravia eggplants and various fruits. Find out more about both companies at purplehillranch.com and zranch.com.

Mckay Smith claims he was Orange County's first organic farmer—a dubious claim considering the padres of Mission San Juan Capistrano didn't have access to pesticides. But one cannot deny the beauty of his Fountain Valley-grown watermelons: seedless, cooling, with enough juice to sip straight from the rind. Smith grows at four different Orange County locations, but it's his Fountain Valley plot—on busy Ellis Avenue, surrounded by homes—that is the most charming and productive. The nectarines sold here also rock. 9736 Ellis Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-3188.

Located on the outskirts of Camp Pendleton, Phobe Farms in Fallbrook is a constant presence at Orange County farmers markets. That's because it's owned by OC Organics, a Costa Mesa-based family farm that grows more than 30 types of vegetables and fruits. On the market right now are tart plums, peppers (of both the regular and blistering variety) and shiny, crunchy apples. The eggs, on the other hand, are plopped out year-round by free-ranging gals. For more information, call (760) 723-4455, or go to www.ocorganics.com.

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