Best Of :: Food & Drink
More than Sri Lankan black curry, more than a torta ahogada, even more than habanero salsa chugged from a shot glass, the spiciest dish ever to grace Orange County is the pork spareribs offered at Chong Qing Mei Wei. So many dried, gnarled red chiles adorn the dish that it looks as if someone exploded a red party popper over your lunch. But that's just the beginning: Chile flakes top the peppers, and spicy cooking oil slicks the plate. The cut-up spareribs feature a chile-based rub and absorb the astringent juices of sauteéd onions. Jalapeño slivers dot the mixture, the tastiest example of piling it on since the three-scoop sundae. Craziest thing about this dish, though? It actually has flavor—just make sure to have an acre-foot of cold water handy.
Bagels don't need to leave you in a carb coma, and Krazy Eddy realizes this. His are thinner than the average bagel and toasted to leave the outside crispy and the innards soft. The ingredients pop: The jalapeño bagel is actually spicy, the sesame-seed bagel actually flavorful. And most topping combos—try the heaping, green mountain that is the avocado special—come with the surprising, refreshing flavor of sliced tomatoes dabbed with lemon juice.
By the time you read this, the 85°C Bakery Café bakery in Irvine will have been open almost a year. But the lines? They'll look exactly like they have since Day One. Newcomers will wonder, "What is it with these people? Have they never seen a bakery before?" Yes, but not like this. Crusts crackle at their most optimal; rolls are still wet from a finishing swipe of melted butter. All are minutes, if not seconds, from the oven. In this carb-crazy frenzy for freshness, supplies are continually replenished since nothing stays unbought longer than a few minutes. And the longer the line, the fresher everything is. The cycle is self-feeding, and you—yeah, you, stuck in the line—you're part of it.
Located just across the street from Medieval Times, this mammoth amphitheater-style restaurant features a life-size pirate ship with full rigging surrounded by a moat of water. The food is on the bland side—would you like chicken with beef or chicken with shrimp? Both go great with Bud Light—but if you are under eight years of age, have a child who is, or if you happen to be very drunk, you will get a big kick out of the entertainment. Pirate duels, cannon shots and a dancing gypsy girl all compete for your attention. Diners, all of whom sit in color-coded sections corresponding to one of the pirates, are encouraged to participate in the show by cheering their pirate on and booing the other pirates as they fight one another on a trampoline or chase one another off the rigging. Keep in mind, however, that if you sit in the front row, you are likely to get wet, inhale a bit too much dry-ice vapor, or both.
You think you've got this whole boba thing figured out. It's not that mysterious, really. Big ol' cup of flavored iced tea, big ol' balls of tapioca, all sucked through a big ol' straw. But . . . hold on a sec—are the tapioca balls at Tastea actually green? Don't balk at the offbeat color; they're the perfect consistency: soft, chewy and fun. As for drink options, there are the usual milk-tea affairs and green-apple slushy, but there are also colorful combinations you will not find in many boba places, such as pineapple-coconut and mango-strawberry. And with drink names such as "Like Wow!" (strawberry and lychee) and "Ohh La La" (coconut, pineapple and strawberry), ordering at Tastea becomes a test of dignity. None more so than when ordering a "Bootea Shaker." But you'll enjoy that nice, thick, tea concoction filled with real fruit (mango, peach and pineapple)—priced at only $3.50—so much you can ignore its moniker.
There's always a catch, right? Overpriced, a lot of OJ, a time limit, really cheap champagne—something. The bottomless mimosa is such a rarity these days that to see it is on a menu is to not actually believe it's real. But at 212 Bistro, where an affordable Sunday brunch is served up gourmet, the mimosas that complement their tasty fusions are blindingly bottomless. Served in huge wine glasses with fresh orange juice, the $12 deal is worth every penny. Best of all, you can enjoy all of it in the café's huge, hidden back patio, which is where most of the lushes tend to boisterously guffaw their way through their brunches.
Four feet of burnt, chewy, warm Persian flatbread for less than $3. Only problem: The wait is usually half an hour. Mitigating factor: Persian women are hot.
Nearly lost in a Fountain Valley strip mall, Mel's Diner is more buried treasure than greasy spoon—if you can find it, good things await you. But in the quest for the perfect biscuits and gravy, Mel's is a bona-fide champion. Fresh, fluffy biscuits topped with smoky sausage perfectly cooked (just a little crisp around the edges), and everything's smothered with rich, savory gravy. If sweets are more your style, Mel's cinnamon buns come ooey-gooey and stretching to the edges of the plate.
Any brewery with its city's name in the title needs to do two things: attract locals, and get them drunk. That's what happens at Newport Beach Brewing Co., where the bros and bro-ettes of the county's glitziest burg congregate either before or instead of a night in the clubs at the tip of the peninsula. But unlike so much in coastal OC, there's not much pretense here. The crowd is pretty, yeah, but everyone's dressed casually. The menu is as massive and as greasy as you'd like. The digs are spacious, inviting and smell only slightly of seafood (the place used to be a fish market). The beers? Meticulously crafted for tastiness. What's not to love about a Newport Beach blonde?
If White Castle suddenly went gourmet, it might look something like this: A tiny, cloud-like bun cradling a juicy little mound of steaming beef, turkey or ahi tuna, as well as any of a range of tiny toppings—sautéed onions, avocado, gruyere cheese, roasted tomatoes, garlic pickles, red peppers—and a dollop of feisty aioli or a creamy mayonnaise infusion. Thankfully, this very real, very gourmet (but affordable) little dream exists. And it's not made by White Castle. Bouchees' chef/owner Anthony Cervas has done wonders for the small bite, crafting micro versions of his equally satisfying (if not quite as magical) burgers into delicate handfuls to be marveled at before they're devoured. Add to the equation a draft beer, Bouchees' signature Parmesan fries and a homemade ice-cream sandwich for dessert, and you'll be in tiny-burger heaven. Bouchees offers a monthly special burger (bison, wild boar, black-bean-brown-rice patty, etc.) and has enjoyed a growing following—so much so it recently relocated to larger digs on Pine Avenue, where bigger crowds and bigger appetites will no doubt continue to devour this mouth-watering little bite.
You could take the 57 north, then the 60 west to the San Gabriel Valley to eat in Chinese-food mecca, or you could go to Orange, where you can feast like those suckers who made the hour-long trek. Here, King Lobster's signature dish, the House Special Lobster, outdoes even the grandest seafood temple on Valley Boulevard. It will be the most tender, easy-to-eat, deep-fried lobster you'll ever encounter. And in the morning, you can drive the short distance again to have their excellent dim sum.
You might not think of Finbars Italian Kitchen as a great place to get a cup of coffee (more like a great place for an Italian dinner), but the brand they brew up is one of the finer joes around. It's called Lavazza, and it's been delighting coffee-lovers for more than a century with its deep, rich taste. While Lavazza is huge in Italy, don't expect to find it many places or order it yourself from the company—you've practically got to own a restaurant . . . and speak Italian.