Best Of :: Food & Drink
It takes balls for a young chef to move cross-country to open a restaurant for Charlie Palmer, then leave after barely more than a year to open his own place and name it after himself, but that's the type of guy Amar Santana is. His Broadway opened to immediate acclaim, helped not only by Santana's refreshing take on New American cooking, but also his ability to convince other young guns to join his efforts. The bar team of Gabrielle Dion and Ricky Yarnall successfully experiments with cocktails with the ease of Albert Einstein in front of an algebra book; recently, they debuted Moscow Mules on tap. The three could've easily made a killing just filling the stomachs and livers of Laguna Beach's millionaires, but their brilliance doesn't allow it, making Laguna Beach a must-visit culinary place for the first time since the days of the old-school Shake Shack.
Kareem's is one of the oldest Middle Eastern restaurants in Anaheim's Little Arabia, and it's legendary for its falafels: emerald-green and poofy on the inside, dark-brown and crunchy on the outside. But while a falafel plate is fine, the better option is the pita sandwich, with the falafels lined up in a row, accentuated by the sharpness of tahini sauce, freshened by the red onions and fresh tomatoes within, all kept orderly by warmed bread. It might not seem like much and is pretty straightforward, but wash it down with a Vimto, and Anaheim returns to its rightful spot as the Happiest Place on Earth.
It's been screamed from the corner booths, the mountaintops and even these very pages, so it bears repeating: Nick's Pizza (not to be confused with worthy contender Nick's Pizza D'Oro) serves the best pizza in Orange County. Zip it with that it's-not-real-pizza-unless-it's-thin-crust-like-in-New-Yawk crap: The kitchen will deliver a thin crust at Nick's if you ask, but why the hell would you when the normal crust is similar to a piece of the best hot, fresh bread you'll eat all week? Crunchy on the outside, perfectly chewy on the inside, the pizza dough joins all the other ingredients (hell, all the other entrées) in being perfectly prepared from the best ingredients around, including fresh mozzarella and a sweet, never-burnt homemade tomato sauce. Topping choices, which adhere to the same taste and freshness standards, include all the favorites, from olives, mushrooms and eggplant to sausages, pepperoni and meatballs. The pies cost more than, say, Pizza Hut's, but you pay for quality, tightwad.
Having a bagel boiled is the best way to make it delicious—otherwise, it's just bread with a hole in it. East Coast Bagels does it right, offering flavors such as pizza, cheese jalapeño, plain, everything, cheese and onion, garlic—all of them chewy yet soft, toasted and yeasty, and concentrated in its particular flavor. Add a multitude of sandwiches that arises from said bagels, great coffee and a crowd that looks straight out of pre-gentrification Brooklyn, and it's as close to a New York bagel heaven as you can find in this goyim county of ours.
Inside Mitsuwa Market food court are eaters bouncing from stall to stall, depending on whether they want ramen or udon for the day, Japanese-style Chinese food or even Hawaiian grub. But the only option that is more than a one-trick pony is this humble spot, easily identifiable by its plastic food displays behind a glass counter. Miyabi-Tei's pork-cutlet curry offers an ocean of the murky, sweet sauce and a crunchy cutlet for 7 bucks; a combo with cold soba noodles goes for $9. The most expensive thing is the bento special, which varies from day to day yet never costs more than $15. While other Japanese restaurants in OC are fancier or more studied in their approach, Miyabi-Tei is Japanese at its finest: fast, furious, shared among masses and cheap as hell.
Pita is now so common to the American palate we assume the entirety of the Middle East eats it, but each country in the region has its own bread traditions—and the best of the bunch is the khubz popular to Iraq. It's similar to pita bread except fluffier and the diameter of a basketball hoop, and it's made fresh every day at Al Tannour, the county's first Iraqi restaurant. Get it with any order, or take some home.
Feeding a groggy, cynical, sleepy group of reporters at the weekly staff meeting at Weekly World Headquarters is always a daunting task, with little room for error. That's why we always get our doughnuts from Oh Those Donuts. The staff forsakes trendiness in favor of an honest old-fashioned, a sugary glazed, cinnamon rolls as large as a face, raspberry fillings that are neon-red yet not saccharine. Best of all? It's open 24 hours, making late-night doughnut runs not only a great idea, but also a prerequisite—and the free wifi is pure genius.
We think we know what a good flour tortilla is, but we don't. What we eat here is almost universally tripe (with no insult meant toward fatty, juicy, sweet tripe, mind you), with no flavor whatsoever, far removed from the buttery, flaky flatbread wonders of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas borne from their closeness to Northern Mexico. Thankfully, this year has seen the emergence of not only OC's first edible flour tortilla, but also a fantastic one: those made by Roland Rubalcava at his family's bakery. He got the recipe from a family friend from Sonora, where flour tortillas reach perfection, and his is right there—stretchy, slightly crispy, perfect for turning into burritos or rolling up and dunking into some menudo. If you want these miracles, call in advance: Rubalcava's only makes them by special order and by the dozen, but this will be perhaps the best $4 you'll ever spend.
At $5, this is not a cheap taco, but once you take your first bite and recover from the onslaught of the ghost chili's eye-watering heat, you'll realize the texture of the thing—the combination of tender, braised pork; crunchy, crouton-like cracklins; and chili threads—is worth the few extra dollars. Plus, it's a big taco, with a fist-sized hunk of meat wrapped inside a handmade flour tortilla that manages to withstand the grease. Two of these make a meal, and if you put on a few extra dollops of the restaurant's bottled ghost chili sauce (made from bhut jokolia peppers flown in from Hawaii and available for $10), your mouth will be so scorched you won't be able to taste the third. That's where Taco Asylum's beer enters the picture, especially whichever pale ale happens to be on draft or, if you drink your juice from the can, try an Allies Win the War.
Sometimes, the best thing about getting a milkshake is what's around you: your significant other; a group of friends; your mom; whoever has just taken your broke ass out to dinner. At Bruxie, you are surrounded by waffles. (Just as good as the previously mentioned things around you, if not better.) Whether you've stopped at Bruxie for its savory or sweet offerings, you can make your meal even richer and more amazing by adding on one of the shakes, offered in traditional flavors (vanilla, Belgian chocolate or a host of seasonal favorites) for a little less than $5 or premium flavors for just a quarter more. Chocolate-covered banana is a favorite: a banana milkshake with the cup sides coated in chocolate syrup. Topping these shakes is a tower of whipped cream that overflows the cup. Bonus points if you've got the stomach to plunge a deliciously crispy Belgie into your milkshake.
Gelato is a special breed of creamy Italian goodness, a delicate blend of butterfat and air. Café Lucca's artisan gelato is homemade with fresh seasonal fruit and less fat than that scoop of Thrifty in a sugar cone you're used to getting at Rite Aid. There's also 15 percent less air, which means that as you're stuffing your face and screaming from the brain freeze, you not only get more (gelato and brain freeze), but you're also actually saving the planet because that's 15 percent more air you get to breathe that's not being wasted on dessert.
Strickland's makes its ice cream in the form of custard, which gives the treat not only a slightly different flavor, but also a different texture. There are also Dole ice-cream floats, for far too long exclusive to Disneyland. Just one warning: The flavors are limited, as is the quantity.