Best Of :: Food & Drink
Aaron Barkenhagen's labor of love is a cavernous warehouse in an unlovely part of Fullerton, within stumbling distance of the Amtrak station, in a plaza with an auto-body shop and no fewer than three storefront churches. An eclectic crowd stands around Thursdays through Saturdays, drinking beers of many colors out of Mason jars. The left-hand beer menu lists the house productions, available on a seasonal but more or less continual basis, while the right-hand menu contains the experimental batches, available in half-pints only to gauge reaction. Hand over $3 for a five-beer tasting (2-ounce pours, but they're flexible about what 2 ounces look like). Prohibition Mild may be the greater LA area's only English-style mild beer; it's what Budweiser wishes it could be; 77 Anniversary ale is a subtle barleywine with a hoppy, grapefruity taste. Rustic Rye IPA is a dark amber pour, with the hops tamed slightly by the rye used in the malt; for a similar style minus the rye, the Knuckle Sandwich double IPA is a winner. The first two parking spaces to the left of the roll-up industrial door are perpetually reserved for a rotating cast of gourmet-food trucks that parks there during normal business hours. It's best to leave Bootlegger's with a full growler ($5 one-time purchase for the glass and $10 to $12 for the half-gallon fill).
Foodies have long loved Break of Dawn for its extraordinary breakfasts and lunches—including this paper, which deemed it Best Breakfast last year. But let's call Break of Dawn what it is—an extraordinary restaurant, period, a culinary treasure with few peers. It's not just the food—chef/owner Dee Nguyen uses his ethnicity (Vietnamese) and experience at the Ritz-Carlton equally, offering everything from abstract chilaquiles to a Hawaiian-style breakfast combining papaya slaw with a purée of green scallions. But Nguyen's great attribute is that he's constantly experimenting, whether offering piping-hot cinnamon buns that are more frosting than bread yet light on the stomach or surprising eaters with a habanero salsa. Add in Nguyen's limited hours, necessitated by his caring for his disabled son, and Break of Dawn becomes as fragile and beautiful—and necessary—as what it's named after.
A pizza buffet replete with a fresh-doughnut maker and all-you-can-pour soft serve is exactly what parents don't want for their already sugar-loaded, barely controllable offspring. But at least John's Incredible Pizza—a gigantic, kid-friendly über-eatery that takes up almost the entire lower floor of what used to be Buena Park Mall—has multiple themed dining areas, some of them geared toward adults. Plus, there's no giant rodent singing rote songs. Instead, you can train your future Las Vegas compulsives on the excesses of Sin City with token-based games of chance and all-you-can-eat binging. The peanut-butter pizza is exactly as it sounds: terrifying. Same goes for the nacho pizza, which actually isn't that bad. But for an 8-year-old, it might as well be Thomas Freakin' Keller.
It takes a certain kind of blind optimism to call your hot-pot restaurant "Four Seasons." Such places are decidedly one season. It's a heat-generating meal that's only apt and appetizing when the weather is chilly and you can see your breath. But whatever the climate, the balding owner is always dressed in a suit and tie to welcome guests. In the summer months, most customers shun him and his cook-it-yourself Mongolian hot-pot concept. No one wants to sit over a roiling vat of broth spiced with aromatic spices, ginger and garlic, dipping thinly sliced meats, veggies, and tofu, especially when they've got a day at the beach in mind. But the man is still at it, going on four years. Let's hope he can last till this year's winter.
Motel restaurants, when they exist, are typically eateries of last resort, places where dried-up chicken, overboiled vegetables and bland starches go to die. Open the menu at Formosa Chinese Restaurant, inside a Best Western-turned-Quality Inn, and you'll wonder what it was smoking. The first half of the menu is a depressing hodgepodge of fried junk tossed in sweet, sticky sauces or brown, cornstarch-y glop. The back page, however, contains the reason to seek out the place: a laundry list of Taiwanese specialities, from pai gu fan (pork chop rice) to san bei ji (three cup chicken—soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, in case you wondered). A bowl of niu rou mian (beef noodle stew), fragrant with ginger, star anise and just a hint of preserved cabbage, is the perfect dish to chase away winter rains or June gloom. The xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are light and juicy, an awesome find so far from their U.S. spiritual home in the San Gabriel Valley. On weekends, stop in for the traditional Taiwanese breakfast of hot soy milk with fried-to-order you tiao (huge savory doughnut twists). Daily specials are written in Chinese on a whiteboard near the kitchen door; insist politely that the staff translates them. Prices are as low as you'd expect, given the proximity to McDonald's.
Hangover remedies abound in every culture, from coconut water to tripe soup, but they involve insider information: You have to know what dishes are meant for the overindulgent. In the Korean culture, it's simple: Their hangover cure-all, haejangguk, translates as "soup to chase a hangover." Made of pork bones, doenjang (the Korean answer to miso), garlic, ginger, mushrooms and radish, the soup arrives unsalted; you spoon salt from the large pot on the table to your liking. Die-hard hangover nursers should consider requesting ox blood be added to the soup. Get your fix, which will run you about $8 for a huge bowl, in this pair of no-décor one-stop shops located in the Korean-heavy areas of Garden Grove and Buena Park, and make sure to drink the bland toasted-rice water you'll be given for hydration—the Koreans have morning-after syndrome down to a science.