Best Of :: Food & Drink
While the debate over whether Trader Vic or Don the Beachcomber invented the mai tai will rage as long as the magma of Pele, we've got to hand Don the award for tastiest tropical beverage. Often referred to as "The Original," Don's Own Mai Tai is the ambrosial result of decades of artisan bartending, cocktail crafting and ingredient sourcing, all mixed into one glass tumbler. The initial sip is citrusy and tart, followed by mellow rums and liqueurs, ending with a lingering sweet spice taste. Copycat recipes abound online, and none contain less than 10 components—but it seems only Don has the magic formula. Every time we say we're going to have just one cocktail, it turns into five or six and a taxi ride home.
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.
Everyone knows about Harbor House's encyclopedic menu, its open-all-the-time ethos, and the satisfying quality of its food, but the best part of this OC landmark is the people watching. In the afternoon, we've seen expensively dressed moms with kids in tow hand off the family's doggie bag to a man sitting on the ground who looks as if he has been living on the streets since the fall of Saigon. In the middle of the night, your fellow diners are drawn from, well, everywhere. It's almost akin to a commissary at an old movie studio at which extras from 20 different B-movies eat in costume. Or is that just 79 years of movie décor come to life?
Dean Kim is probably the most influential Orange County food producer you've never heard of, a man whose expertise in bread provokes local restaurateurs to hound him at midnight for a dinner roll, a hot-dog bun, a baguette, a loaf of olive bread—anything involving wheat and leavening that might emerge from Kim's hands and massive ovens imported from France that appear as if they were stolen from a Lockheed-Martin plant circa 1968. Having long stocked OC's better eateries with his creations, Kim has carved out a slightly more public presence with a stand at the Old Towne Orange Farmers Market every Saturday, his workers selling until customers have taken home every last bag. If you're interested in seeing what the fuss is about, this is the only place Kim sells to the public—everything else is wholesale and will remain as such for the foreseeable future because the humble Kim wants his customers to get the glory. Him? He's content to bake.
This downtown SanTana madhouse has food for everyone—epic burgers for the gluttons, adobo-sauced hot wings for the multiculti, flatbreads for groups, bacon doughnuts for sweet tooths—yet its best dish is the simplest: the organic OC vegetable basket. Every couple of days, the chefs get a shipment of vegetables from a local farm and sautée the harvest, only adding a sauce (sumptuous romesco, tangy vinaigrette, simple olive oil) as dressing. Something anyone can make? Let's see you make broccoli, kale, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots and celery into something that's not a wussy salad. Go ahead—we're waiting!
James Republic isn't perfect. But with every new day, it gets closer. As with any new restaurant opened in this century, the ingredients are seasonal and the menu non-permanent. One visit, the Pacific walu—a beautifully seared fish from Hawaii, with snow-white flesh as moist as the meat off a freshly steamed crab—can come with sharp goat cheese, sautéed broccolini and splotches of beet vinaigrette, but whether the sides or the fish will be around at all the next week is anyone's guess. Things are ever-changing, reinvention the only overarching theme. The staff count the days the eatery has been open on a chalkboard and on the menus, a reminder to all who work here that every evening is full of possibilities. Whatever you get—be it the Kurobota pork chop that eats like a steak, or mashed potatoes turned to froth in a jar, or a salad of grilled asparagus with crisply fried fingerling potatoes as croutons—James Republic will delight, frustrate and keep you coming back to see what's on the plate the following week and the week after that. . . .
Come in the morning or late afternoon, and Vishnu looks like any of the other anonymous businesses in this monochromatic John Wayne-adjacent office park: unremarkable. But when the lunch hour strikes, it begins. First, you see a trickle of people, then, all of a sudden, a crowd as thick as what you'd find at a Mumbai train station at rush hour shows up. The space is probably not intended for this many people, but they swarm anyway for a lunch buffet that includes freshly made dosas, curries, two kinds of biryanis and vadas (fried morsels that crunch like falafel). Along with Harry's Deli down the road, Vishnu has secured its cult status without much advertising. Ask the people in line ahead of you, and they'll tell you they found out about the place the old-fashioned way, by word-of-mouth, through friends who took them here, saying "You need to come check out this Indian place with me."
In owner Scott Brandon's words, his job at LinX is simple: to bring Dean Kim's OC Baking Co. buns and Paddy Glennon's sausages from Europa Specialty together and "just not fuck up their hard work." But Brandon has done more than practice restraint. Starting with these premium components, he has elevated the tube-steak sandwich to art. The lip-numbing Sicilian, the juice-spurting kielbasa or the complex chicken Florentine, whatever sausage sandwich you end up with is a picture of loveliness in an oblong bun. Onions are carefully micro-diced, mustards are applied with an artful swish. But as with any good dog, when you eat one, your fingers get greasy and your napkins thoroughly soiled. You don't consume a hot dog at LinX; you spelunk with it. A few dogs are embellished with one or more of the 30 house-made sauces and adornments. Brandon sticks to tradition when it is due. He slathers his Chicago Dawg with neon-green relish and showers it with celery salt. "The Ripper"—an homage to New Jersey's legendary hot-dog stand, Rutt Hut's—has a homemade mustard relish. It's a yellow, baby-food mush of wondrous flavor and piquancy that can make canned Vienna sausage tasty.