Best Of :: Food & Drink
Without so much as a plane ticket, you can eat Thai food at its most authentic, here in Orange County. The place: Thai Nakorn. Sure, there are plenty of other Thai restaurants to choose from, but none has a fan base so devoted that one patron actually offered to pay for a new restaurant when the first burned to the ground. Now resurrected in Stanton and serving scorching plates laced with Thai bird chiles like no time had passed, Thai Nakorn continues to wow. The best of the lot exists on a section labeled "Specials," where the funky, sweet, salty, hot and sour flavors of Issan cooking cut a path through your taste buds and leave you begging for mercy one moment, for more the next. The mango salad with crispy catfish, for instance, will burn a hole through your mouth and set your head ablaze, but you won't want to stop eating. Innocent shreds of the tart, tropical fruit meld with onions, chiles and crunchy crumbles of catfish the size of Grape-Nuts, making for a refreshingly bright, but unimaginably spicy ordeal for your palate. Now you know what that tall glass of iced Thai tea is for.
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 cleanlinessmonks never get sick.
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 breador stick it in an airtight breadboxthe same day. Unlike the crap you buy at an American supermarket, it goes hard overnight.
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.
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.
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 drinkchances 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-Cokewhen was the last time you got prices approaching that at an actual bar? Great service, too, and the burgers aren't too shabby.
For $2.25, you can have some of the best chocolate on the marketand 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Orange County lacks the great Filipino joints our neighbors in Artesia and Cerritos take for granted. So where to go to satisfy your adobo addiction and other Pinoy pinings? Kapamilya in Fountain Valley, where the turo-turo is tasty-tasty and eight different almusals (the Filipino answer to the all-American breakfast) are served throughout the day, complete with a fresh tomato, a fried egg and enough rice to sop up its runny yolk. The longanisa, the porkiest of pork sausages, pops with sweet fat. Their tapa has lots of sugar and love, and their corned beef is salty, sloppy and wetprecisely how a Filipino mom would make it.