Best Of :: Food & Drink
We know. We picked California Fish Grill last year. But in these times of foreclosures, lost jobs and general economic malaise, how could we, in good conscience, pick anything else? Seafood ain't cheap, after all. But somehow, California Fish Grill still manages to charge no more than $10 for meals that usually go for double everywhere else. Salmon, ahi, mahi mahi, swordfish and other Finding Nemo friends are fried or grilled, then served up with nutty rice or crisp fries and coleslaw. Tipping isn't compulsory, but you'll feel like a complete criminal if you don't drop at least some loose change in the jar.
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.