Best Of :: Food & Drink
Haley Nguyen is a juggernaut. Part teacher, part chef and all restaurateur, this woman seems to do everything. She teaches culinary courses at Saddleback College, and she cooks the coursework at her restaurant, Xanh Bistro. She is the ultimate rebuke of the aphorism "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" because, well, she can do it all. Whatever you order, she will singlehandedly make it. Sure, there's a sous chef around when things get busy. But even then, it will still be Nguyen's delicate, beautiful face you'll see within inches of the flames. It's her hand that threads the chicken skewers, one side covered with kaffir lime leaves, the other the kiss of char. And it's her signature sizzling plates of Thang Long fish that routinely wow her appreciative customers. But it is Nguyen herself who impresses most. The woman, like we said, is a culinary juggernaut.
For more on Nguyen, see her 10 OC Survival Tips.
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.
You never know when terrorists, Commies or zombies will make their way down PCH from Long Beach, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be prepared to defend your way of life. Oh, you'll shoot them with your cherished firearms? Well, what happens when you run out of ammo, smarty-pants? You'd better hope you're in the re-creation of Don Beach's tiki paradise when it happens; you can pry his prized collection of South Seas daggers from the walls, do a Maori war cry and have at the enemy with the fury of a thousand angry moai. Once you've driven the Taliban, the Soviet Menace or the Nazgûl off to find easier pickings, celebrate with a huge, fruity rum-based drink and a pupu platter.
Sit down at Stephanie Dinh's upscale Vietnamese dining room in an outlying building of the Westminster Mall, and you'll be given three menus: the food menu, the wine list and the tea list. Ask for a fourth. There is a separate vegetarian menu of surprising length and creativity, full of foods such as an outstanding lotus-root salad with Vietnamese mint and tofu, deep-fried vegetable spring rolls, and mock fish bathed in a light coconut curry. The main menu features family-style specialties far removed from the corner pho shop. Oc nhoi are periwinkles and pork steamed in banana leaves; thit kho trung cut is pork loin and quail eggs braised in caramel and black pepper. Even the children's menu is an upgrade from mac and cheese: Fried wonton purses of pork and shrimp or grilled boneless short ribs with jasmine rice and a cucumber salad are comforting enough for the little tykes. The service is excellent by anyone's standards, a refreshing change from the sullen glares of the counter help at the county's bánh mì shops.
They never say "sir" or "madam." Instead it's Mr. or Ms. [insert your surname here]. What's more, the servers at Studio Restaurant remember to use it throughout the night. Ask where the restrooms are, and they'll not just point you the way, but they'll also escort you there. When you come back to your table, your crumpled napkin has been folded neatly. If you're part of a large party, each plate served gets its own attendant, who will put the food in front of the diner who ordered it without asking whom it belongs to—and at precisely the same choreographed moment as everyone else. No detail is missed. Everyone has a demeanor that is nothing short of impeccable. You will be eternally spoiled.
Park Avenue is Mad Men brought to life: satellite chandeliers, faux-stone walls, pictures of celebs in a bar where the Old-Fashioned isn't an adjective but an intoxicating noun, and a menu in which early-1960s-Americana grub rules. But chef/owner David Slay has improved on his restaurant over the past couple of years, adding a lawn for receptions and an ever-growing garden from which he picks most of the veggies for his salads and sides. Expect those offerings to increase as the planters bloom—and for Park Avenue to do the same.
Ah, Paris. It's expensive. Pascal Olhats knows this, which is why the French-food impresario has created what is arguably the most Gallic of all his French restaurants as an affordable alternative to a plane ticket. The space, inherited from the failed French 75, evokes the City of Lights, but the food is mostly Provençal-inspired. The ratatouille comes fuming-hot in its cooking vessel, every bit tasting as you imagine a certain Pixar rat would've prepared it. Olhats' roasted beef-marrow bones are served with a tiny spoon to spread the fatty bone butter on toasted bread. Feed it to your partner, and then daydream together of the day you two can finally see the Eiffel Tower.
The businesses on Avenida Victoria as the street dips near the Pacific offer perhaps the most underrated beachside view in Orange County—the train track, the beach, the ocean, tourists, hills, cars, all of what makes San Clemente so damn charming. And the restaurant to enjoy this view is La Galette Creperie, home to paper-thin crepes stuffed to burrito proportions. Don't let the Amtrak horns scare you too much!