The Chuck Wagon

Steakhouses, mess halls, eateries, barbecues, fine-dining establishments, & gratuitous & thematically inconsistent Tolkien references

Click here for Dave Martin's 7 Favorite Things.

Best Restaurant in Orange County
White Horses
610 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente
(949) 429-1800
If you're looking for the best place to buy two tacos for a buck—plus free pineapple juice—then we'd give this award to Tacos el Chavito. But this title demands class, a place where you can dress up and play rich. And that place is White Horses, a stunning, cozy bistro at the bottom of Avenida Victoria, below a bed and breakfast and a short jaunt from the ocean. White Horses changes its menus every six weeks, so you can try a new meal every time, not because of free will but rather necessity. Regardless of season, however, the plates always stun: vaguely British, with hints of Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine, and always, always delivered like you're the most important person since Jesus.

Readers' Choice: Ambrosia

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.

Best Steakhouse
Mastro's Steakhouse
633 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
(714) 546-7405
In every human lives a carnivore. When you decide to feed it the meat it craves, there's no better place than Mastro's. Their specialty? Steak. Beefsteak served sputtering in melted butter on a plate heated past the temperature of magma. Every slice you make will be an effortless task. The meat will offer little resistance to your knife. Order it medium-rare (why else would you eat steak), and you get a crimson core surrounded by a perimeter of pink, followed by a crust that's beautifully charred to black. Upon chewing, you'll find that it surrenders tenderly like Jell-O, a beefy, unobstructed taste of red meat worth its weight in gold.

Best New Restaurant
Old Vine Café
2937 Bristol St., Ste. A-102, Costa Mesa
(714) 545-1411
Old Vine Café has been open only a couple of months, but it's already besting veterans with its affordable gourmet entrées such as Spanish omelets (stuffed with artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, shitake mushrooms, proscuitto and Manchengo cheese) and a tapas-style dinner menu that guarantees many nights of swapping. But this tiny restaurant's best specials are in the refrigerator, where boutique wines, meats and cheeses are available at Wal-Mart prices, but Trader Joe's quality.

Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying
7952 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach
(949) 715-7373
As of this writing, the omakase meal at Bluefin runs $75 per person. But don't count on it staying that way, especially now that this classy sushi bar is becoming better known outside its exclusive Newport Coast neighborhood. Omakase, a meal set in six courses, is the best way to taste the creativity at work. There'll be an amuse bouche, where some items might be flecked with gold leaf; others, if in season, fresh caviar. Then slices of owner/chef Takashi Abe's freshest sashimi take form as a brisk salad course, followed by two immaculately cooked courses of seasonal ingredients. Expect these dishes to feature anything from a stuffed quail with foie gras to a whole deep-fried mackerel stuffed with pumpkin—maybe even some Kobe beef medallions, if you're lucky. But it's not over—a sushi course is next. Finally, a slice of their chocolate cake and ice cream will top off a perfect dinner that you hopefully didn't have to pay for.

Readers' Choice: Mastro's Steakhouse

Best Restaurant for Cheapskates
Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant
7971-7981 Westminster Blvd., Westminster
(713) 893-8364
For cheapskates, it doesn't get better than this place. The entire menu fits on the back of their business card. And yes, with the exception of four items, everything on it is $1.99. There are three types of noodles (rice, vermicelli and egg) that swim in soups, get fried to a crisp, or jiggle in a cooling salad with tiny egg rolls and crunchy veggies. Three kinds of rice (steamed, broken and fried) are paired with grilled pork, steak, or seafood. And if you can call it splurging, spend an extra $1.25 for their most popular dish: half a Cornish game hen with the fried rice. To drink, get the fresh-squeezed orange juice or the Thai iced tea for $1.75. And no, they won't give you ice water from the tap. You have to buy it bottled for a buck each. These folks may charge $1.99 for a hot meal, but they're not dupes: They know you for the tightwad you are.

Best Romantic Restaurant
Chat Noir
655 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
(714) 557-6647
Red is the color of passion, and it's used in ample amounts in velvet and silk at Chat Noir. Dimly lit and as sultry as your date, the rooms are inspired by the Moulin Rouge as imagined by Baz Luhrmann (minus the grating presence of John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec). Snuggle over French food prepared with a Parisian flair and feed each other soufflé drizzled with warm chocolate sauce. As for the rest of the night, you're on your own.

Best Restaurant for Tolkien Geeks
The Hobbit
2932 E. Chapman Ave., Orange
(714) 997-1972
You wouldn't want to work where two of the unluckiest Disneyland "cast members" do: inside a truck with a deep fryer parked at the end of Main Street. But their sweat and toil produce one of the best (if not the only edible) treats inside the park: the corn dog. Theirs is a thick and juicy wiener, hand-dipped in cornbread batter and deep-fried to the lopsided and gnarled shape of a caveman's club. Inherently greasy and decadent, it begs for a thorough slathering of yellow mustard to cut through it all. Once you finish one, your napkins and fingers will glisten with enough oil to lube the axle of a Disneyland locomotive. All aboard!

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