Best Of :: Food & Drink
Truth in advertising: River's End Cafe is at the mouth of the San Gabriel River, at the absolute end of Orange County—the Pacific Ocean on one side, Los Angeles County on the other. Here, then, is Orange County's only true riverfront dining. And while the San Gabriel isn't as scenic as, say, the Mississippi or even the Santa Ana, it's still a pleasure to see a moving mass of water, with the requisite kiddies maneuvering their makeshift sailboats to victory, with surfers on the other side, while the sun sets on another glorious day. Outside a wooden building that must have been stolen from a Gidget set, with wooden flooring and fences and umbrellas to offer shade, this is beach dining at its finest. (Don't bother eating indoors—why would you with a view like this?) The actual food at River's End? A mixture of greasy spoon (Mike's Special, an egg scramble containing pastrami and Muenster cheese, oozing with delicious grease) and surfer Mexican (crispy chilaquiles fused together with Parmesan and mozzarella, sharper than the usual Mexi offering). Make sure to bring a blanket‚ but if you don't, they have some for you!
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.