The Chuck Wagon

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

Best Late-Night Dining
Lee's Sandwiches
13991 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove
(714) 636-2288
Norms is always great, and the Shore House Café chain will make pancakes at all hours. But for the past couple of years, ever since a cute Vietnamese girl broke our hearts but left the cheap Vietnamese sandwiches called bánh mìs in its place, we've fulfilled our midnight munchie cravings at the Lee's Sandwiches in Garden Grove. The prices at this chain (there are 11 locations in OC) have increased the past couple of years, but all that means is you'll spend $2.50 for a meal that rightfully should cost 6 bucks at least. Warning: Meals after 10 p.m. must be eaten on a parking lot curb and usually within elbow distance of loud teens. But again: $2.50!

Readers' Choice: Harbor House Cafe

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

Best Soul Food
Rick's Secret Spot
1030 Calle Sombra, Ste. G, San Clemente
(949) 429-7768
Rick's is in the unlikeliest of spots—on the San Clemente frontier east of Interstate 5, up a winding road, toward the back of an industrial park, a cubbyhole where the scent of sauces and meats smacks your senses like the summer sun dipped in molasses. Get there early— Rick prepares his barbecue and okra in the morning, but it's usually gone come lunchtime.

Best All-You-Can-Eat Vegetarian Buffet
Gauranga's Vegetarian Buffet
Hare Krishna Temple
285 Legion St., Laguna Beach
(949) 494-7029
You don't have to shave your head or drink the Krishna Kool-Aid to enjoy the dirt-cheap vegetarian feast every Sunday. Get in touch with the "source" as you meditate to instrumental music and, if you like, chant along. For just a $3 suggested donation, you'll be catered to by robed monks carrying a variety of delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. Chow down while sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the floor, but don't worry about cleanliness—monks never get sick.

Best Vegan-Friendly Restaurant
Native Foods
2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
(714) 751-2151
Even in California today, being a vegan isn't easy. Many restaurateurs seem to think vegans are members of an esoteric religious cult who remain best ignored, not a hungry demographic deserving of at least a few centimeters of menu space. Thankfully, a handful of enlightened entrepreneurs in Orange County sate vegans' picky palates, the most satisfying and worry-free of which is Native Foods. The airy, circular bistro (located in the Camp anti-mall) boasts a scintillating array of non-dairy offerings, as well as concoctions featuring tempeh and seitan as meat substitutes. Of course, vegetables are the stars of this production, and Native Foods' are all A-list caliber. Brown rice also does yeoman's duty in many dishes, and just because the joint's vegan, it doesn't mean it's full of flavorless fare. On the contrary, the items we've sampled saturated our taste buds with hedonistic glee. Ultimately, though, Native Foods is more than just another place to fill your stomach with healthy comestibles; it's the engine driving an entire lifestyle and philosophy. Pamphlets detailing the horrors of carnivorous habits are shelved near the door, along with PETA booklets and free magazines promoting alternative, mystical world-views. The chalkboards contain stats further explicating the dangerous foolishness of a non-vegan lifestyle. You might come to Native Foods for the Scorpion Burger and by meal's end decide to live on a commune in the country. Whatever the case, inner peace and excellent digestion await you.

Best Raw Food Restaurant
Good Mood Food Café
5930 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach
(714) 377-2028
Leave your expectations at the door when you enter the tiny Zen space at Good Mood Food Café. Don't let the idea of "raw" discourage you, though—what you'll find here is scrumptious, unusual and energizing. Diners can munch on vigorous salads, their own sandwich creations, or such Good Mood favorites as Ursula's Famous Nutburger (a hearty patty of mashed raw vegetables and nuts piled high, with just-ripe slices of avocado, date-carmelized onions, pickles and plenty of greens). Save room for dessert: You'll be amazed at how good an apple pie pressed into a nut "crust" can taste without an ounce of wheat, milk or eggs.

Best Japanese Restaurant
556 El Camino Real, Tustin
(714) 832-0081
Being that Honda-Ya is a pub, it's not open for lunch. But come 5:30 p.m., the beer starts to flow, and it doesn't stop till 1 a.m. The best seats are in the tatami room, where you sit cross-legged on a woven mat of reeds. Start the evening by ordering one of the Big Three beers: Sapporo, Kirin or Asahi. Then order some food, which you choose from a menu designed for grazing. As Honda-Ya is a proper izakaya (a Japanese pub/restaurant), the portions are as small as tapas. Most dishes are listed by cooking method, ranging from the deep-fried, to the simmered to the grilled and the steamed. Grilled yellowtail collar, crisply fried soft-shell crab, button-cute steamed dumplings filled with fish mousse, and teriyaki chicken can be had. Although you can get sushi, why bother when you can get it anywhere? Instead, opt for the skewered kushiyaki, produced by the grill master, whose lungs are probably jet-black after years of inhaling the emissions of the binchotan, the best charcoal in the world. But the expenses (and his health sacrifices) are worth the flavor that the ribbons of smoke impart to any food cooked over it. Quail eggs threaded on a stick, for one, get a carbon-laced complexity and subtle sweetness so thrilling it's hard to believe—a flavor impossible to get from your Kingsford grill (believe me, I've tried).

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