Best Of :: Food & Drink
Let's get one thing straight: when we talk about the best fries around, we're talking about thick-cut, slightly salted, long-stemmed beauties that fry aficionados seek out like hounds. And in OC, there's solid competition. This year, we're in love with the savory pommes frites at Brussels Bistro. Okay, so they're not French, but who cares? These long Belgian fries, served in a tall, paper-cone-wrapped glass with a side of yummy dipping sauces, are the perfect complement to the light, citrusy Belgian beers here.
This remains the closest thing to a perfect cup of coffee in Orange County. Kéan coffee beans are hand-roasted by owner Martin Diedrich—yes, that Martin Diedrich, son of the man who founded Diedrich Coffee in Costa Mesa after moving here from Guatemala 40 years ago—to bring out the full flavor of each particular batch. It's a tad sweeter than the cappuccino you're likely used to—that's the Viennese influence, as opposed to Italian purism. And the latte art (scalloped swirls in your foam left by your barista) is something you won't find anywhere else.
But the Diedrichs aren't the only one who know how to roast a bean in these parts. The marvelous, full-bodied taste of Kaffa! coffee is so extraordinary it's a small wonder the place was founded by a biochemist. But apparently the same drive that had Justin Wong mixing chemicals in beakers sent him around the world to concoct the perfect cappuccino. First, it was six months in northern Italy, where Wong honed his craft in Milan, Trieste and Florence. Then it was on to Australia, South America and Hawaii to learn how coffee is cultivated. (He also spent time in China to learn a thing or three about tea.) Thankfully, Wong returned to Orange County to treat us all to the fruits—or beans—of his travels. A recent cup of Classic Cappuccino, with espresso shots pulled "ristretto"-style, was less foamy than the way most joints pour it. Wong keeps with the beverage's true origins with Cappuccine monks who drank to remain alert during long chants. The first sip, very hot, is finished with a strong blast of coffee flavor. The freshness of the beans is evident from the get-go, and the blend with steamed milk is perfect. It's never too watery at Kaffa!—as it can be at certain corporate coffeetoriums. You are thus left at Kaffa! to marvel at hints of different flavors with each sip, like you would with fine wine. The ambiance of the room sustains the mood, with local art for sale on the walls, a living-room-like seating area in the back, and calm lighting throughout. The service is friendly, and some pretty fine sandwiches and salads are served. Newbies will no doubt quibble at the long wait for their orders. Relax: Perfection takes time.
These days, when you're in Mexico, hot chocolate is usually, sadly, made with powdered Nestlé crap. The crumbling of pure dark-chocolate bits into a slow melt-and-simmer dance with milk or water is quickly becoming a thing of the past. But not at Viento y Agua (Wind and Air), where the coffee shop's purveyors have taken the old Mexican tradition to new heights with their Mexican Mocha, a sumptuous blend of crumbly Ibarra chocolate (okay, kind of mainstream for Mexican hard chocolate, but better than Nestlé), espresso, a pinch of cinnamon, and a thick, multiple-spoon-dip layer of foam. Take it slow—you won't regret it.
This boulangerie/patisserie in Long Beach's Belmont Shore bakes its own bread and pastries, but you're missing out if you don't try one of their omelets, which are always cooked to tender perfection. You can't go wrong with any egg dish on the menu, including quiche, but the true piéce de résistance is the French Omelet. Filled with thin-sliced smoked salmon and goat cheese and topped with an elegant sprinkle of herbes du Provence, it's a sophisticated alternative to the standard beach-town grub found at most hip diners. Scalloped potatoes on the side are a nice touch, as is the fresh-baked mini-baguette you can substitute for toast. Stand in line to order and peruse the pastry shelf; waiters bring your food and coffee.
Ever since Oprah plugged it, the Counter has been a runaway hit in LA. And chances are you've already been to the first OC branch in Irvine. But if you haven't, here's a tip: Forget even picking up that pencil. Just put it down. We know it's tempting, what with all the burger toppings at your disposal. But trust us—you don't want the apricot sauce, the dried cranberries or the hard-boiled eggs. It's a road that leads to nowhere but a tall, unstable burger that you won't be able to fit in your mouth. Simply order the Old School ($8.50): Cheddar, tomato, onion, pickle and relish. And when you taste it, it'll be thick and juicy—the burger you've always craved, but never found. Until now.
At a glance, it's difficult to see inside Biagio's Italian Restaurant from behind its big wooden doors. Those who have, however, know that this is the place to get salad dressing. Humbly titled "House Dressing," its recipe is a securely guarded secret passed down only to members of the family who have owned and operated Biagio's since 1975. While many a patron may ask for its secret, the owners of the restaurant have yet to reveal how to make the dressing that is so popular it is sold separately by the quart ($4.50) and the pint ($7).
According to the restaurant's chef, it's just a generic Mexican salsa recipe. Key word here is Mexican. Instead of the mild, bland salsa you find at most gabacho-friendly Mexican joints, which tastes like a combination of tomatoes and water, this stuff has spice. And it's made fresh every day from ripe tomatoes, onions and a hefty dose of arbole, also known as dried red peppers. Calamar also serves fantastic guacamole and a plethora of leviathan-sized seafood dishes.
It's green and creamy and goes with chips like angels with heaven. In fact, it goes with everything just divinely. Use it as a salad dressing? Sure! Sandwich dippage? Of course! We're pretty sure it's blended . . . maybe. And there could be a smidgen of mint . . . possibly. The truth is that nobody can decipher what this delicious concoction consists of, but one taste, and you'll want to go swimming in it. Besides, it's fun to ask for a side of herb.
With the perfect amount of chewiness on the outside and airy squishiness on the inside, the bagels at Katella Deli are the best around. The restaurant has an expansive menu, featuring everything from knishes and matzo-ball soup to Cobb salads and bacon omelets, but it's the stand-alone bakery that can't be missed. Bagels in classic flavors such as egg, poppy-seed and onion are kept in open bins behind the refrigerated case of pastries. If regular old bagels aren't your thing, Katella Deli also offers a few other munchies to satisfy your needs: the amazingly addictive bagel chips, which come in both garlic-Parmesan and cinnamon-sugar flavors, and mini-bagels, which are about half the size of the regular ones and great for those who have a love/hate relationship with carbs. Their bagels are made with no preservatives, so eat them or freeze them within a few days. Either way, you'll be ruined for store-bought bagels forever.
Seemingly every third restaurant in Little Saigon sells pho, but few specialize in pho ga—chicken pho, a gentler, sweeter take on the Vietnamese soup. What distinguishes the smallish diner Pho Dakao from the hundreds of other pho palaces is the chicken itself—slaughtered that day at a sister company that sells live chickens a couple of blocks over. The difference between freezer hen and the fresh, just-plucked deal is as easy to taste as the difference between real horchata and the stuff frat boys make with powder. The chicken chunks also contribute to the broth—this is the chicken soup Campbell's could never quite master. Pho Dakao also offers a great beef pho.
Okay, so Pho Hien Vuong is supposed to be a pho house—Orange County's oldest, in fact—but the best thing on this Vietnamese soup joint's menu just might be the bun tom and cha gio, a fantastic pile of rice vermicelli topped with pork egg rolls, peanuts and charbroiled shrimp. The shrimp are always perfect—two or three grill lines per crustacean—and are a perfect accompaniment to the chopped egg rolls, which are crispy on the outside and filled with minced, aromatic pork. It's served with a small bowl of fish sauce, which you should immediately dump on your noodles, and comes loaded with fresh vegetables, everything from shredded lettuce, onions and carrots to cilantro and cucumber. Eat it with chopsticks and use a spoon to shovel the juice left at the bottom of the bowl.