Best Of :: Food & Drink
Downtown Orange seems like a natural candidate for a large farmers' market—walkable, with a university and plenty of upper-middle-class residences nearby—but attempts heretofore have been somewhat anemic. A group of chefs including the Crosby's Aron Habiger and Haven Gastropub's Greg Daniels have banded together to throw their collective culinary weight behind a new Saturday-morning market at the Villa Park Orchards Packinghouse, a couple of blocks off the main drag. The market, though new, is already larger than two-thirds of the farmers' markets in Orange County, with vendors who sell there and nowhere else, such as Grampy Pat's sourdough and the Guerrilla Beekeepers. There's plenty of room to expand, a bike valet and—remarkably—plenty of parking most of the time. As the market grows, expect it to rival the enormous market at UC Irvine, held at the same time.
If your own-of-town guests are keen on experiencing quintessential Orange County, take them to the Beachcomber. Here, they'll marvel at a prototypical OC scene: brunching trophy wives toasting one another on snatching deep-pocketed sugar daddies. Oh, the view of the beach is nice, too; reservations for the summer season are booked fast. What surrounds the beachside shack eatery is a post card come to life. The food is hardly the point. But if it is true that a hot dog eaten at the Grand Canyon tastes as good as a steak, the same concept applies here. The sunsets, the idyllic beach huts and the crashing surf cresting on sand just steps from the entrance are seasonings more essential than salt. $$
Dropped daintily on Pacific Coast Highway above Newport Bay is SOL Cocina, an elegant establishment dedicated to bringing the flavors of Baja to Orange County. But this is cuisine with a conscience. The environmentally friendly menu boasts low-fat, healthy items, and almost everything is gluten-free. The chefs use only sustainable fish and humanely raised beef and pork—and many dishes can be made vegetarian or even vegan. Try one of their exquisitely crafted margaritas (we love the cucumber jalapeño), any of about a dozen different salsas and definitely the taco vampiro. Snag a seat at one of the copper tables on the patio for a luxurious view of the boats, docks and houses you'll never afford. We recommend going at sunset, when the water turns as gold as the tequila in your glass. $$$
What haven't we said about Dave Emery that hasn't already been said? The man is an all-around crazy person—and we mean that with the utmost respect. He insists on making everything he serves at Sol Del Sur Bistro from scratch and doing it all himself, with no assistance from a sous chef or even a dishwasher. All evidence suggests he is self-taught and loves to cook just as most people like to breathe. He has working knowledge of Italian, Japanese, French and Spanish cuisines, gleaned from his travels and bolstered by the undying curiosity of a child. The menu he attempts is formidable and frenetic. When the small room he calls a restaurant is even half-full, he can be easily overwhelmed with orders. He creates a list of a dozen or so appetizers, traipsing borders and using uncommon ingredients, such as crosnes, aji amarillo and uni. His entrées are bold, complex and, at times, beguiling. As of this writing, he is serving grilled strawberries with lamb shanks braised in lavender and honey; by the time you read this, though, that dish will be history. Emery is never satisfied: He thinks of new ways to challenge himself and his customers; and he's been known to introduce a new dish one night and jettison it the next. Don't even try to convince him to edit his menu down or ask him to be less ambitious. We like our mad scientist just the way he is. $$$
Former Haven Gastropub partner Jeff Hall throws down the gauntlet with Chapter One, a challenge to not only his former colleagues, but also his neighbors at Santa Ana's burgeoning restaurant scene. The bar pours old-man drinks with equal jiggers of expertise and knowledge of the mixological arts. It's also up-to-date on the local beers. Meanwhile, chef Oge Dalken, a culinary raconteur in a city full of them, brings humor and lightness to dishes that are as fun to eat as they are to order. A beef culotte inspires other chefs to do better with bacon-wrapped steaks. And for a dessert called "Milk & Cereal," the breakfast food of our youths is deconstructed and reinterpreted: Panna cotta becomes the milk, and crispy Greek kataifi plays cereal. You have to order it to get the joke and realize that the culinary punch line is as delicious as the setup. $$
Old Vine is no stranger to these pages, having won Best Restaurant in 2009—and it has broadened its ambitions since then, hosting wine nights and even leading culinary tours of Italy. But the attention of brothers Mark and Brandon McDonald to the homefront hasn't suffered: You still see Brandon every morning through night, guiding customers old and new through the menu, maybe suggesting an omelet or the seasonal four-course chef's menu, and with a memory of the café's hundreds of wines that borders on That's Incredible! territory. Mark is almost as present on the floor, even though he's manning the kitchen, trading jokes with customers and making sure their experiences are always spectacular. Such attention to detail doesn't come out of economic survival or even hipster irony, but rather the McDonalds' honest-to-goodness enthusiasm for great food. They are redeeming their surname in the food industry. $$$