By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
2043 Westcliff Dr., Ste. 100, Newport Beach
The only downside to Kéan Coffee is that it's not a countywide or nationwide chain like Diedrich Coffee or Starbucks, which is a shame because unless you live in Newport Beach or Costa Mesa, you're probably going to settle for a more generic cup rather than battle the traffic on the 55 Freeway. Founder Martin Diedrich—yep, the surname is no coincidence: he's the son of the founder of Diedrich Coffee; Martin was forced out of the business after it was bought up by Irvine-based Taco Bell—grew up on a coffee finca in Antigua, Guatemala, and still roasts beans by hand in the coffee roaster his brother invented, which is based on the antique roaster his father used.
Kéan Coffee is the only place where you can buy hand-roasted coffee that's so fresh they only sell it in paper bags—no plastic to artificially extend the life of the beans—that even tell you what day Diedrich personally roasted the coffee. More than three-quarters of the beans at Kéan are fair-traded, which means they were grown by farming cooperatives in the Third World, who actually don't get ripped off by the industry's notorious middlemen. So the coffee not only tastes great, but it's also guilt-free. But the best thing about Kéan Coffee is the guilty pleasure that comes with drinking it. Because Diedrich, who has decades of experience selecting and roasting beans, knows how to roast each blend—whether its an earthy Huehuetenango or a silky Sumatra—to fully realize the bean's flavor. No fast-food, one-(dark)-roast-fits-all approach here. And if you order a latte or cappuccino, take a moment to savor the spoon-tooled artwork in your foam. And stick around to drink it: On any given day, you're likely to see Diedrich himself behind the bar, carrying out the family tradition with an infectiously broad smile.
Readers' Choice: Starbucks
Best French Toast
4114 E. Third St., Long Beach
Eeeeevery now and then, it's okayto treat yourself to some nostalgically wonderful, sugary confection of a breakfast food. Especially if it's the Broiled San Francisco Stuffed Toast from the ever-adorable Starling Diner. The place is decorated with all sorts of precious tchotchkes and gramma-'n'-pop-pop sort of wall art. Wicker chairs and Mason jars used as cups top off the charming feel of this tiny eatery. Cuisine that tastes like it was homemade (like, you know, if your mom could actually cook well), but still abundant, with touches that make it just that much more extraordinary. Example? The complimentary cucumber water or creamy potato polenta that anchors just about every dish served up there. Starling's breakfast menu is the perfect way to introduce yourself to the cozy neighborhood restaurant. Besides their various scrambles served with polenta and sliced baguettes and basket of freshly baked scones, their take on the traditional and once-familiar French toast is particularly notable. Made with sliced baguettes, the bread is broiled, stuffed with a velvety Marscarpone and an even-more-velvety crème fraiche, and then topped with fresh seasonal berries and whipped cream. It's pretty to look at, but it tastes even better going down.
Le Croissant Dore
9122 Bolsa Ave., Westminster
When you're looking for a good croissant in Orange County, go to Vietnam. A mix of Parisian and Vietnamese tastes makes the meaty croissants at Le Croissant Dore in Westminster's Little Saigon something of a cross between a hearty Chilean empanada and a flaky Turkish baklava. In addition to the varieties listed in Vietnamese—chicken (gá con) and raisin (nho kho)—you'll find plain, almond, ham and cheese, and chocolate, all of which are hearty, buttery and freshly baked. A big mural of a quaint Parisian street covers the back wall of the little bakery/café, which is generally stuffed with locals sipping tea and chatting in their native tongue.
Blue Mountain Bagels
12115 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach
Who doesn't love a good bagel in the morning. And Blue Mountain Bagels knows how to bake a killer bread circle. Try their cranberry bagel. Cut in half and toasted, then topped with cream cheese, tomato slices and lemon pepper, it's a bagel-lover's dream. They also make some killer coffee. But wake up early—this bagel bakery closes its doors at 2 p.m.
Readers' Choice: Shirley's Bagels
15333 Culver Dr., Ste. 660, Irvine
Here's a bakery that does it all and does it well. The petite cakes are topped with fresh fruit or layered with ganache; neither too sweet nor too rich. The fried bread is stuffed with breaded pork cutlets, and the white bread loafs have their crusts already removed. Airy buns are glazed to a mirror shine, and the curry puffs stay hot just until you bite into them. These are the delights of JJ Bakery; a proving ground for all things flour.
Best Boba Tea
665 N. Euclid, Anaheim
No doubt you've heard the array of monikers (tapioca ball, pearl tea, black pearls, boba, bubble, milk tea) that make ordering that milky, pastel-colored cold drink with a fat straw and dark marbles on the bottom of the cup a little tricky. The craze was born in Taiwan about 25 years ago, when stands sold the cold teas as an after-school treat for kids. The gummy "pearls" are balls of cooked tapioca starch, reprocessed cassava or "yucca" root. TenRen's Tea in Anaheim gets our vote for being around for 10 years, long before the boba craze became mainstream in the U.S. And they do their boba old-school-style: no shrink-wrapping over the plastic cup, no powdery artificial-tasting teas, and a good selection of flavors (including flan!). And their pearls are the perfect consistency: pliant and smooth.
Best Non-Chain Chai
Tandoor Cuisine of India
1132 E. Katella Ave., Orange
Forget the watered-down Starbucks bastardizations of chai. Or the powdered Trader Joe's, for that matter. If you're going to do chai tea, do it good and proper. Tandoor Cuisine of India has the right idea with their masala chai, or "spiced tea," boiled to perfection with milk, water and spices. The warm concoction is slightly bitter on its own, but a little sugar solves the problem. This is not for the lactose intolerant, but it's definitely worth half a dozen trips to the throne.
Best Snacks That Look Like Your Grandmother
BeBe Kho Bo Snacks & Candies
Asian Gardens Mall
9200 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 146, Westminster
Isn't it ironic how the folks who eat prunes the most tend to look just a little bit like them? Perhaps it's for that reason that some stores have taken to calling the withered snacks "dried plums." Whether you're a youngster who actually enjoys such things, or an oldster desperate for some variety in the regularity-inducing sweetmeats, BeBe Kho Bo is a godsend. Tired of that musty plum flavor? Try coffee-flavored dried plums. Or milk-flavored. Sweet and sour, even! And, of course, the Mexican favorite, salted.
14081 Newport Ave., Tustin
This place serves a variety of French-influenced Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and noodle specialties, but it makes our list because here's where you can find the freshest, biggest, saltiest and Frenchiest baguettes in Orange County. A large loaf will put you back just $1.75. Just make sure you eat that bread—or stick it in an airtight breadbox—the same day. Unlike the crap you buy at an American supermarket, it goes hard overnight.
Crepes del Mar at Felix Continental Café
36 Plaza Square, Orange
This Orange Circle staple serves up a delicately chewy confection stuffed with crabmeat and drowning in a slightly spicy Cajun broth that's crave-inducing. (The broth also adds zing to the dish's accompanying Spanish rice.)
Food Court at Asian Garden Mall
9200 Bolsa Ave., Westminster
Orange County isn't immune to the frozen-yogurt craze sparked by LA's Pinkberry. And this is even before Pinkberry has had a chance to open a single outlet here. With lines akin to geeky movie premieres, Yogurtland is fast becoming Orange County's own fro-yo phenom. There is the original store in Fullerton, but the action is centered on the new Irvine location—a space so Sanrio cute it'll make your teeth rot even before you eat. Yogurts and toppings are self-dispensed and priced by weight. In this veritable dessert buffet, 16 yogurt flavors, fresh-fruit toppings and even cereal are available. Never mind that the dessert is nonfat and has less than 30 calories per ounce—it's just plain fun to create your own masterpieces.
Best French Fries
2991 Michelson Dr., Irvine
Fries these addictive should not just belong in a restaurant like Houston's. They should be sold on every street corner and for pennies, not as a side to a piece of steak that will cost significantly more. But we suppose it just provides an excuse to eat the steak. Houston's fries are of the shoestring variety; as thin as matchsticks, as crisp as chips, and so tasty they must have been fried in something unholy.
Readers' Choice: Slidebar Cafe
Best Chicken Wings
3030 Harbor Blvd., Ste. H-3, Costa Mesa
26711 Aliso Creek Rd., Aliso Viejo
You can't really compete with the West Coast's first restaurant to specialize in chicken wings, one that offers 30 different sauces ranging from roasted garlic parmesan to honey mango habanero. Of course, if the only flavor you want on your wings is "hot," they can do that too—the Double Dog Dare sauce is recommended only for masochists, though for the rest of us, it's fun to mix a little of it in with one of the other flavors. Charred whiskey barbecue is a standout, and can also be had on ribs. And if you order 100 wings, they're only 50 cents each, which helps when racking up points in the restaurant's Pile High Club. We recommend getting extra sauces on the side—even if the wings can't soak 'em all up, the potato chips they come with will. There's other tasty-sounding stuff on the menu ("far-east nachos" on wonton strips sound crispy-good), but it's so easy to stuff yourself with wings, you may never get around to anything else.
3544 E. Chapman Ave., Orange
Someday we'll get burned out on pizza, we're sure. It will probably be on the same day we get tired of fresh ingredients; a thin, smoky crust; a sense of authenticity; and thick, stretchy cheese that bends from here to the shores of the Mediterranean. On that day, we will stop going to Pascale's, home of Orange County's finest pizza. Just thinking about it is distracting enough to pizza pizza pizza—we mean forget about whatever it is that we're pizza. Not only are Pascale's pizzas tasty, but they're also beautiful. Pascale's is really an all-around quality Italian restaurant, and the visual aspect of their delicious menu has obviously been taken into consideration. Oh, and the $6.75 pitchers of domestic beer don't hurt, either. So bring pizza the whole pizza, pizza.
Readers' Choice: Laventina's Pizza
Best Halal Pizza
San Giovanni Pizza
1001 N. Euclid St., Anaheim
Beef pepperoni. Turkey bacon. Turkey ham. Pizza never tasted so good for OC's many Muslim residents who usually have to defer to veggie pieces when ordering their slices. But San Giovanni's offers pizzas with halal-certified meat (no pork; beef and poultry slaughtered and blessed by a Muslim), which is purchased from local halal grocery stores. For those who are not Muslim, you won't miss the pork. San Giovanni's serves up a tasty pizza with a crispy crust, good sauce and generous portions.
Best Place to Drink Sake By Yourself or With Friends (If You Have Any)
18450 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley
It may sound more like a car dealership than a killer place to down a glass of sake, but don't hesitate to step in—you won't be sorry. Plopping yourself onto a chair at the counter is a capital idea if you're on your own. From there, you'll get a view of the snazzy Japanese grill master and his swashbuckling moves, as he tames the flames and cooks a variety of skewers to perfection. Hakutsuru Draft Sake is a cold, cheap but classy option that tastes great with the tender cubes of marinated meat the Fountain Valley restaurant serves. But for the big spenders, enormous $40 bottles of sake are available—Kappo Honda will even hang onto your bottle if you don't finish it, so next time, you can pick up where you left off.
Best Cheap Drinks at Fashion Island
401 Newport Center Dr., Ste. 987, Irvine
You don't often hear "cheap" and "Fashion Island" together. There are certainly plenty of places to drink, from the upscale Daily Grill to the seaside view of the bar in the Cheesecake Factory. And if you're a guy, there are also plenty of reasons to drink—chances are you're only there to humor your lady's shopping fix, and there aren't a whole lot of obvious "man hangouts" in sight. So pay attention because the cheapest cocktails are somewhere you'd never suspect: Red Robin, the corporate burger joint upstairs by the movie theater. You can't beat a $6 zombie, or a $4.79 Jack-and-Coke—when was the last time you got prices approaching that at an actual bar? Great service, too, and the burgers aren't too shabby.
Best Place to Get Advice About Wine
Symposium Wine Bar
2963 Michelson Dr., Ste. B, Irvine
Wine bars are making a big showing in this year's Best of OC, and there's a reason for that: It's where adults go to have a few drinks, where the floors aren't wet with beer and . . . something wet, and where a jukebox isn't blasting the immortal hits of Journey, Boston or Aerosmith. At the Symposium Wine Bar, there's another reason there isn't any music blasting, and that is owner Don Katz's love of conversation, something that doesn't go with Foreigner. The place is cozy, well-decorated and educational—and the wine is really, really good. Beginners and longtime connoisseurs come to the wine-tasting seminars, and not just to learn what the hell all the swirling, sniffing and swishing is all about. Blind since a bout of spinal meningitis, Katz's sense of taste— taste in wine, taste in style, taste in humor, taste in people—reigns. He'll not only show you what good wine tastes like, but he'll also show you what to look for so you can start deciding for yourself. If you're still not sure what you want, decide on a color, and then order one of the flights ($11-$13), three generously poured samples for you to try and critique. Each wine comes with an identification card, so as you make your way toward the door in a Dionysian stagger, you can hand the card to the cashier, and purchase a bottle to take home. So put down the plastic cup, pick up a glass, and find out what you've been missing.
Best Ice Cream
4523 Campus Dr., Irvine
Strickland's is the lone California outpost of an Ohio franchise. Their claim to fame: soft-serve "frozen custard" sold within minutes of churning from steel contraptions that look like they came out of a '50s sci-fi flick. The ice cream is silken, smoother than Haagen Dazs before it hardens. Always offered is chocolate and vanilla, while two special Flavors of the Day get rotated monthly. The best way to enjoy Strickland's ice cream is in a cone, where their signature conical scoop sculpts the ice cream into stiff, undulating curves that end in pointed peaks. But you can get them to doll it up into a sundae or whipped into a cold shake. Summer never had it so good.
Readers' Choice: Cold Stone Creamery
Bonert's Lemon Meringue Pie
Bonert's Slice of Pie
2727 S. Susan St., Santa Ana
Driving up to Bonert's Slice of Pie's outlet store, sandwiched between factories in Santa Ana, we were skeptical. The place looked too industrial to house the best pie in town. But we were gloriously, fantabulously wrong. Stepping into the little pie shop at the side of the hulking structure, we found the best lemon meringue we've ever tasted. Thick and spongy, the meringue was bursting with vanilla; the lemon filling was tart, but not overwhelmingly so; and the crust was nice and thick. And only $2.50 for the 8-inch variety! On the day we visited, they had a buy-two-mini-pies-for-$1 special. Snag a tempting couple, and see if you don't drive back to work with one hand lifting the meringue to your gluttonous face, the other gripping the wheel.
Best Cheap Surprise
Kinder Surprise Egg
7561 Center Ave., Ste. 49A, Huntington Beach
For $2.25, you can have some of the best chocolate on the market—and a wacky German toy to tinker with while you stuff it down your trap. That's the beauty of Ferrero's Kinder Surprise Egg, available by the piece or dozen at Huntington Beach's Euro Market, Bakery & Deli. Beneath the crinkly orange-and-white wrapper lies an egg-shaped layer of smooth, two-tone milk and white chocolate. Inside that tongue-melting treat sits a pastel plastic capsule containing . . . well, that's the surprise. Toys range from Lego-like robots to wooden trains and puzzles. Note: The small pieces make the toys a bad idea for kids under 5.
Best Chocolate Shop
17290 Newhope St., Fountain Valley
The now-famous home of the chocolate "Virgin of Guadalupe" also happens to make and sell damn good chocolate. Headquartered in Fountain Valley, the chocolatier sells dark, creamy confections that the truest connoisseur would appreciate.
You can get ice cream anywhere. But gelato? No, you have to look for gelato. Why? Well, anyone with a freezer and a scoop can sell ice cream. Gelato, on the other hand, has to be made fresh on site. Gelato Paradiso is the best of those places, where it's presented in rippled heaps and in more flavors than Newport Beach has silicone implants. Each milky serving is sweet but not cloying, cold but not freezing—like ice cream, but better.
Best Birthday Cake
Marble Cake at French's Cupcake Bakery
French's Cupcake Bakery
273 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa
French's marble cake, covered in frosting and laden with twists of vanilla and chocolate sponge cake, is childhood in a box. Even if it's not your birthday today, it'll sure feel like it as you dig into those choco-vanilla (with a touch of almond) depths, watching co-workers dig plastic forks and fingers into the rest of the cake. It'll be gone in less than five minutes.