Best Of :: Food & Drink
When you see Sichuan food-lovers wiping away sweat, rubbing napkins over their noses, panting and looking generally miserable, you know they're having a damn-good meal. Chong Qing Mei Wei—the Beautiful Flavor of Chungking—is the county's most legitimate source for the addictive, mouth-numbing regional fare, with its time-honored belief that most dishes taste better when tossed with sliced serrano chiles, peppercorns and peppery oil. But it's not simply the fact that you might not feel your lips when you walk bleary-eyed out the door that makes the Irvine dive so memorable. It's that each bite is a flavor-packed thrill, a dose of sensory nirvana, whether you're digging into a plate of Sichuan fried tofu, pork spareribs, stir-fried lamb with cumin or, for the boldest of palates, fire-exploded kidney flowers. Just make sure to have plenty of bing shui (ice water) within arm's reach.
Seven small tables, one of them covered with cookies, pastries and other Filipino desserts in plastic boxes. Not a single white face in the place. All good signs you're going to be eating the real deal. Go to the counter and tell the woman behind the glass what you want. Served turo turo (cafeteria) style, she drops two huge scoops of rice on a plate and looks at you patiently while you try to decide. Two large barbecue pork skewers, generous with smoky, flavorful meat, not too fatty? Or kaldereta, a hearty, chunky beef stew with bell peppers, chile and other veggies? Beef mushroom overflowing with large sliced mushrooms and slices of beef reminiscent of boeuf bourguignon? The calamares is a little more of an acquired taste for a white palate, but the tender squid is cooked in its own delicious, salty ink.
If you'd like to get away from the standard artery-cloggers posing as fast breakers 'round town, the Blue Frog Bakery's Vegi-Burrito will stuff your gut without stopping your heart. The O'Brian potatoes, scrambled eggs, avocado, zucchini and tomatoes stuffed into a large tortilla is a two-fister topped off with a side of salsa perfection. If cholesterol isn't an issue, the breakfast machaca's shredded beef, eggs, bell peppers and onions or the insidiously addictive Egg Muffin Breakfast—scramblers, meat and cheese on an English Muffin—beats the hell out of any fast-foody junk you'd pick up elsewhere. The inside can get full quickly some mornings, so get in early and snake out one of the four small café tables under the Bakery's eave. Catch up on your reading, drink a latte and start your day with a full stomach (and mind). Inside tip: If you're into anime or all things nerdist, chat up friendly and funny counter girl Red. She's our favorite.
"This is my favorite bar that isn't a bar," says a regular inside Left Coast Brewery's tasting room as he sets down two empty growlers and sits at the bar. He picks up a pint glass with the brewery's logo on it and asks if it's the biggest glass they have. It is. You can taste whatever's chalked on the brew board in 5-, 10- or 16-ounce vessels. As the bartender fills the guy's glass with Left Coast Baltic Porter, there's a general discussion about how to pour a black and tan and which Left Coast selections would make one best. Everyone happily disagrees. The guy loves his porter so much he says he'd pour it over ice cream, which leads to a unanimous desire for a stout float. It's Saturday afternoon, and people flow in to get their growlers filled, and all of them stay to have a big glass of something barrel-aged (not available to-go) or dark or hoppy or even double-hoppy—Left Coast claims it's one of the pioneers of the double IPA. Its version is an award-winner called Hop Juice that lures you in with a sweet maltiness, then delivers a multihop wallop of fun bitterness, followed not too long after by the full-body effects of its 9.7 percent ABV.
Whichever individual 5-inch pies you choose at this Aussie newcomer, comfort food meets up-to-the-minute freshness and inventiveness. "Shortcut pastry shell with a puff-pastry lid" is how Pie-Not describes the perfect enclosures for the tender, juicy fillings. The Dog's Eye is the place to start, a ubiquitous meat pie Down Under; it's like having the best tomato-basil-mozzarella panini of your life at a Rome train station. The filling comes in many lively variations: two we liked are Shroomin, with crimini and field mushrooms, and the premium Drover, which has petite peas and carrots, topped with garlic mashed potatoes instead of the puff pastry.
The fresh peach pie is a mountain of sliced-fruit perfection altered only enough to be called pie.