Soil to Soul

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

You sit on some of the most fertile land in America, Orange Countians. Dirt that propelled us into the national spotlight, that spawned millions of beets, celery, lemons, avocados, cattle and Valencia oranges. So what did we do? We threw asphalt and subdivisions on top of farms and ranches and never looked back. And while some might celebrate this as the inevitable march of progress, doesn't it disgust you that the most prominent reminder of the county's agricultural past is probably the ugly gray monoliths carved with oranges that decorate Highway 22?

Get back to the farm. This issue is devoted to everything wholesome and green, from farmers markets to chefs who use organic products to create magnificent dishes to the county's last farmers, those stubborn men and women who continue to coax bountiful harvests from tiny plots of land despite knowing that selling off their farms could bring them millions. Also featured are Orange County's first vegetarians (big surprise: They were a bit loco), a tucked-away tofu factory, and everything you need to know about reconnecting with the soul—and the soil—of Orange County.

THE RESTAURANTS
The prices tend to be steep, and the portions never quite fill the belly. But few restaurants better exemplify the beauties of the Slow Food Movement like Britta's Café, where you can track the seasons by the menu. The best time to visit is Saturday for breakfast, just after chef/owner Britta Pulliam makes a dash through the Irvine Farmers Market in case she's inspired to stray from her menu. Right now, the omelets with summer veggies—usually squashes, spinach and tomatoes juicier than oranges—will make you forget every previous egg you ever ate. 4237 Campus Dr., Ste. B-165, Irvine, (949) 509-1211; www.brittascafe.com.

Even Argentines will see the vegan light at Avanti Café, where Tanya Fuqua and Mark Cleveland eschew meat and dairy in favor of fanciful, flavorful creations. Avanti is proof of green cuisine's mainstreaming: When the café opened two years ago, most of the food would satisfy only a green-tea-sipping, Downward Dog-posing sissy. Nowadays, folks can dine on everything from pizzas with fake, delicious cheese and shop-rolled pastas to the best margaritas in OC: puckery, with grapefruit and spice overtones, it's summertime in a glass. 259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-2224; www.avantinatural.com.

Sapphire Laguna is nearly impossible to dine in these days because of all the well-deserved publicity it's received (including in this paper). But do try, and not just because chef Azmin Ghahreman's creations skip the globe or because his cuisine is high-end dining at its finest. Just look at the pictures on Sapphire's website: The burly Ghahreman studies bushels of bell peppers, holds grapes from a vine, stands next to a tomato cage holding a plump heirloom. Who knew that for someone so enamored with organic cuisine, Ghareman could be such a ham? 1200 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-9888; www.sapphirellc.com.

Nothing personifies the possibilities of locally produced food like Ramos House Café. First, consider the location: not a gleaming new development, but rather a century-old house in California's oldest continuously resided-on street (Avenida Los Rios), with chef/owner John Q. Humphreys living and working in the restaurant and growing the herbs and even a couple of the vegetables for his Southern-skewed menu out back. And the entertainment isn't canned music or ESPN loudmouths, but simplicity: tolling bells from nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano, chugging trains a stone's throw away from your table, and the aroma of the county's best breakfast. 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-1342; www.ramoshouse.com.

The grapevines outside Onotria are slowly crawling their way around wires—perhaps Massimo Navarretta will have enough grapes to squeeze some wine this year. If not, no problem: Navarretta is the county's premier practitioner of the Slow Food Movement, and as such he is privy to artisan wines, meats, cheeses and even olive oils from Italy. And for the stuff he doesn't import? Don't worry: Everything else is organic—even the vinegars. 2831 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 641-5952; www.onotria.com.

Old Vine Café isn't even a month old, but it's already impressing eaters with an affordable small-plates menu, breakfast-through-dinner hours and a wine list that belies its claustrophobic dining room. Not all the dishes are prepared with organic produce, but that's fine: The true green goods are in a small refrigerated case, where chef Mark McDonald stocks artisan cheeses, meats, olives and spreads, most from Spain. Old Vine also mushes its own jams and butters with produce from San Clemente's Morning Song Farms—try the macadamia nut butter jam, a spread as delicious as it sounds. 2937 Bristol St., Ste. A-102, Costa Mesa, (714) 545-1411; www.oldvinecafe.com.

So there was a double suicide-by-cop at the Montage this past spring. Who cares when it still boasts the wondrous Studio, the oldest of the Laguna Coast's high-end resort restaurants? Though the menu claims they specialize in French items with a California twist, the meals are really California cuisine at its finest—caught-that-day seafood, meats herbed to perfection, and vegetables so refreshing and crisp you can taste the fingers of the Mixtec laborers that picked them just a couple of days ago. Only dine here when someone else is paying, though: As great as the vinegar-braised short ribs may be, the $55 price tag will have you considering a purchase of pesticide stocks. At the Montage Resort & Spa, 30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-6420; www.studiolagunabeach.com.

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.

Most county residents only care about the Orange County Fair for its rides and fried Twinkies and usually don't pay attention to Centennial Farms, the four-acre parcel on the Orange County Fairgrounds that's home to livestock and crops tended to by local kiddies. Be a pal—donate some money to the nonprofit that runs Centennial Farms to ensure Americans don't forget how to grow food. 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1618.

Unlike other Orange County tycoons like Donald Bren and George Argyros, it's always been difficult to hate Henry Segerstrom. Yes, his South Coast Plaza is a world-renowned monument to avarice, his ego big enough to allow the new Orange County Performing Arts Center named after him and his late wife Renee, and his trophy wife so weird-looking, but the man is first and foremost a farmer—and the old billionaire still grows crops on land his family has tilled for over a century. God bless you, Mr. Segerstrom . . . wait, what's that? Your Segerstrom Home Ranch is now slated for office buildings? God damn you, Segestrom—there's no future in real estate! On the corner of Fairview Road and South Coast Drive, Costa Mesa.

If you're a macadamia fan—and what human being with a soul isn't?—you must enjoy the ones shucked by Morning Song Farm: buttery, sweet, as sublime as pure chocolate melting on your tongue. But Morning Song (technically located in San Diego County but with its base of operations in San Clemente) does more than merely grow nuts. Unlike other local farms, it concentrates on growing fruits—mandarins, oranges, apples and even something called wekiwas. Plus, this is the place where you can get llama wool sheared from real-life llamas! For more information, visit www.morningsongfarm.com.

THE VENDORS
The granddaddy of them all is the Orange County Fair. It's the place to see baby animals spend their last days with Mommy before Mommy gets sold to the highest bidder. Where honest-to-goodness ribbons still get rewarded for the biggest plants, the prettiest pigs, the ugliest quilts. An oasis of fried food that's nowhere close to being organic but is required eating for everyone. If you don't visit, your Orange County citizenship is hereby revoked, and you'll be deported to Riverside County. 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1500. Through Aug. 5.

Orange County now has some 20 farmers markets, but all of them combined don't match the wondrous Saturday Irvine Farmers Market. Its 70-and-growing vendors stock everything you can ever want in a market, from non-pasteurized fruit juices (orange, apple, pomegranate) to flowers, roasted peanuts, cheeses, meats, olive oil, sweet potato pie, seasonal veggies and fruits, fresh breads, hummus, succulents—even organic dog food,for chrissakes. There is even a Chinese section, where immigrant vendors haggle with customers over the prices of baseball-bat-sized ginger roots, bok choy and vegetables you never knew existed. What's best about Irvine, however, are the heirloom tomatoes on sale right now by a couple of vendors—whether they're as large as a softball or smaller than grapes, you'll never eat that red crap again. Across the street from UC Irvine, in the University Plaza.

Organic to Go is technically a Seattle company, but Orange County is one of just three areas in the United States the company serves. The concept is simple—marry America's obsession with fast food with organic produce—and delicious: wraps, soups and vegetables available for quick consumption and cheap prices. Organic to Go also caters and delivers—let's see McDonald's do that! 2030 Main St., Ste. 130, Irvine; 5 Park Plaza, Ste. 120, Irvine; 695 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (800) 304-4550; www.organictogo.com.

The physical address for Baker's Best Bread in Yorba Linda holds little more than ovens. Their true specialty is hawking baked-that-morning bread to different farmers markets across Southern California. Try them out at Irvine's Farmers Market every Saturday. Enjoy plump loaves of various styles—squaw, Irish, whole wheat, even bread dotted with jalapeños. Indulge in the sweet treats—bear claws, cinnamon rolls, croissants bulging with chocolate, all of which will make you swear off Yum Yum Donuts forever. Break the asiago rolls over dinner, and enjoy friends forever. And the cheese pockets—feta cheese baked inside layers of phyllo dough—will be the messiest, yummiest lunch snack you've had since that peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. 18166 Imperial Hwy., Yorba Linda, (714) 993-6865.

Even if you don't raise livestock, you can still spend many bucolic afternoons amidst the bales of hay and wood at Midway City Feed, one of the last remnants of the central county's farming life. Opened in 1943, this business—housed in a former lumberyard on a residential street—stocks feed for animals long gone from our day-to-day life: cows, horses, goats, ducks, turkeys, sheep, even niblets for koi and trout. There's also dog and cat feed for city slickers. 14941 Jackson St., Midway City, (714) 893-2613.

Hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants have moved to Midway City since Saigon fell, and most businesses print their signs in English and Vietnamese. Only Hoa Poultry, however, includes Spanish on its marquee, and only Hoa sells live chickens and ducks to immigrants and those of us who demand our poultry still clucking. The smell here is rank, but for this kind of freshness, you'll always pay through the nose. 8261 Bolsa Ave., Midway City, (714) 894-7796.

Think shopping at Trader Joe's or farmers markets makes you a good lib? Say hello to Community Supported Agriculture, the tastiest game of craps you'll ever pay. For a set fee, participating farms will deliver a basket of freshly picked fruits and vegetables to you. You don't get a choice in what they deliver, but the trade-off is wonderful—crisp greens, luscious fruit and the knowledge you're supporting local businesses. That's a good liberal! Participating CSAs include South Coast Farms, Tanaka Farms and Morning Song Farms; call each for more info.

THE TEACHERS
Slow Food is a worldwide movement that emphasizes locally grown produce, the preservation of culinary traditions, and the subsequent amazing dishes that result from promoting the two. Slow Food Orange County is the local chapter and has already sponsored an Italian food fair featuring artisan olive oils, vinegars and meats at Onotria and a tour of the Irvine Farmers Market. Food geeks? Slow Food is for you. For more info, please contact Kim at slowfoodoc@yahoo.com.

In the past, the Orange County Farm Bureau was little more than a puppet organization for powerful farmers and citrus growers who needed big subsidies and cheap labor from the government. Nowadays, the bureau helps out farmers who usually struggle in the face of conglomerates. Howdya like those organic apples? 13042 Old Myford Rd., Irvine, (714) 573-0374; orange.cfbf.com.

Yes, commuters: The barns on the northern end of Fullerton College are fully functioning, a living classroom for students across the street at Fullerton Union High School's award-winning agricultural program. High schoolers raise crops and livestock for competition and auction at the Orange County Fair. The only drawback of the program is the youngsters learn the facts of life, namely that the cute lambs and cows they lovingly tend to over the course of a year eventually become yummy meat for the rest of us savages. 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 626-3848.

You can't tell the story of Orange County agriculture without including Japanese-Americans, yet most accounts of local farming history usually omit them. To right this momentous wrong, the Fullerton Arboretum recently opened Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum. Learn about the different pioneers that influenced the growth of this county, like California Food and Agriculture Department secretary A.G. Kawamura and Seima Munemitsu, a Japanese farmer who entrusted Gonzalo Mendez with his farm during World War II and unwittingly set into motion the landmark civil-rights case Mendez v. Westminster. 1900 Associated Rd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3407; www.fullertonarboterum.org.

The Orange County Cooperative Extension is California's way of ensuring that agricultural traditions stay alive. From sponsoring 4-H clubs to assisting farming-inclined folks, this is your one-stop need if you decide to take the plunge, root up your front lawn and grow organic food. Next year will be the 90th anniversary of cooperation between the county and the University of California. See, Republicans? Government-assisted programs aren't always bad. 1045 Arlington Dr., Gate 4, Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1606.

Pomona is Pomona—namely, it's not Orange County. But we're including Cal Poly Pomona's College of Agriculture in this list because its students are frequent vendors at local farmers markets under the moniker Kellogg Ranch. If you can't wait for your local farmers market, just visit Cal Poly Pomona's Farm Store—a favorite veggie amongst the cornucopia here are the massive, cheap Maui sweet onions. Even better, the students grow and butcher their own pork and beef. 4102 S. University Dr., Pomona, (909) 869-4906.

THE RANDOM
Local filmmaker Mischa Hedges' latest movie, Sustainable Table, debuted this spring at the Newport Beach Film Festival and continues to make the film-festival rounds. It's as damning as Fast Food Nation (the movie, not the book) in its critique of agribusiness but shorter, with profiles of Irvine Farmers Market vendors, a vegan bodybuilding champion and even James Cromwell, who goes back to his Farmer Hoggett roots to argue for a humane, sustainable way to enjoy meat. And the slaughterhouse footage will make you swear off meat—at least for the remainder of the film. For more information, please visit www.sustainabletablemovie.com.

There are precious few orange groves remaining in the county that named itself after the sweet and fragrant fruit, but the most important one left is in Anaheim on the corner of Helena and Santa Ana streets. Not only does it still bear fruit, but it's also near the area where the county's Citrus War of 1936 began after nearly 200 Mexican women battled with Anaheim police officers for the rights of their husbands, brothers and sons to organize a union. There is no monument to commemorate one of the most crucial events in Orange County history—just a chainlink fence and nearby bulldozers that creep nearer to the grove every year.

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