Best Of :: Food & Drink
One of the oldest all-vegan restaurants in the county remains the best. Au Lac's menu focuses on the Buddhist principle of maintaining a healthy lifestyle through eating a purely vegetarian diet. The chef/owner pushes his devotion to Buddhism to a monk-like vow of silence. You will have to ask his waitstaff to describe the menu, which is split between traditional Vietnamese dishes that are cooked and an equally lengthy menu of "living food," or raw vegan dishes. By not heating them, the enzymes in the vegetables, nuts, legumes and juices supposedly convey all their delicious, vital powers, as nature intended. Au Lac predates all the recent trends and brings a delicious Vietnamese sensibility the new kids don't have.
It's a pity OC has a real lack of luscious, outdoor beer gardens. However, a good attempt is at Rose Canyon Cantina & Grill. The sprawling deck is hidden away in Trabuco Canyon and snuggled by shady oaks, so much so you might just drive right past it. Here, patrons drink margaritas instead of beer—and Rose Canyon makes a great one (so long as you have nothing against Patrón). During the day, the wraparound patio gives a gorgeous view of the hills, but we prefer it after dark; as the sun sinks, the canyons get draped in blues and the oaks enclose you in twinkling lights.
Remember that Arrested Development episode in which Tobias is working at Swallows in Reno, the family-style restaurant by day and anything-goes pan-sexual bazaar by night? TAPAS in Newport Beach is sort of like that, but with fine Spanish food instead of malts and a kicking house-music scene instead of the leather pony. Focus, its Tuesday-night alter ego, manages to pull some great talent, as well as a slew of resident DJs including Nonfiction and Wobs. The dance floor is ample, the outdoor taco grill is more than ample, and the cosmos ($3.50 before 10 p.m.) are affordably—yep!—ample. You'd never guess that, mere hours ago, servers were passing 12-inch Toro Skewers and massive, steaming plates of paella.
If you've dined at just about any restaurant opened within the past three years, chances are you've been served some of the best bread in the county. And it was baked by Dean Kim and his team at OC Baking Co. His artisan rolls house the links at LinX and melt butter at the RANCH. His ciabatta blanket the Italian wonders at Paninoteca Maggio. And his baguettes hug the pickled veggies and grilled meats of East Borough's bánh mìs. But the most magical are the challah rolls, particularly when combined with the slow-roasted brisket at Smoqued BBQ. Get thee to a farmers' market (particularly Homegrown in Orange or the Great Park in Irvine) to pick up some lavish bread (and even lavash once in a while) of your own so you can create magic in your kitchen.
A bagel has to be pretty shitty to be considered a bad bagel, yet Orange County notoriously lacks many good ones—which makes Shirley's Bagels that much more valuable. Its doughy treats are just the right thickness and taste freshly baked no matter when you visit or which of its three locations you choose. The staff is inviting and helpful, giving the place more of a mom-and-pop feel. And it's so hard to go wrong with something smothered in cream cheese. Plus, the specialties here go beyond (un)glorified turkey sandwiches; try the everything bagel topped with whipped cream cheese and avocado slices, then sprinkled with lemon pepper. You'll never want a plain bagel again.
If you're looking to see half-naked chicks, move along—the Tilted Kilt is just a Google search away. If you want to dine in the presence of real beautiful people, then visit the North Left, and see it as a mere bonus on top of the choice culinary experience. Sure, they're all hipsters—but as much shit as the wait staff get, there's something sexy about a good beard in a button-down and hip chicks with tattoos. You can roll your eyes as much as you want; we'd bring them all home. But the best thing about North Left's staff isn't just their bone structure and sleek dress—it's that they're made even hotter by the conversation. True, North Left was already working with a great staff from the Crosby, and they did pull in much of the best help from around downtown SanTana, but you can never have too much of a good thing.