Best Of :: Food & Drink
Too often, a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee (ca fe sua da) lacks proper balance between strong coffee and creamy sweetened condensed milk. The problem either originates with the coffee, brewed to the point it's bitter and acidic, or with the condensed milk, poured so liberally the coffee may as well not be there. The iced coffee at Pho Saigon Pearl in Irvine, however, is the Goldilocks glass. The restaurant, one of the best Vietnamese joints in South County, starts with rich, dark-roast coffee that is remarkably non-bitter and combines it with enough condensed milk to achieve a silky mouthfeel. A hint of unidentified spice furthers the depth of flavor—the owner calls it a secret ingredient. It may be liquid crack because it's hard to not finish the glass before any food hits the table. It's a shame because the cool, silky beverage is the perfect contrast for slurping down hot noodles.
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.
Jason Quinn's attitude may get as much attention as his food, but who cares! We'd rather bow down to the work of art that is Playground's sticky toffee pudding. The fluffy sponge cake is baked with organic eggs and dried figs and arrives at your table under a molten layer of toffee pudding. Upon your first bite, the feeling can only be described as . . . earth-shattering? Mind-boggling? Rip-roaring? The kind of happiness that only comes with 10 puppies? The combination of earthy fruitcake, rich toffee and fresh whipped cream is incredible—so incredible the kitchen often runs out of it. So, if you're planning dinner at Playground, maybe it's best to have dessert first.
In a dreary strip mall parking lot on Euclid Street in deepest, darkest Anacrime, behind dark and almost uninviting shades, there is magnificent, home-cooked Italian food. Rufino's Ristorante Italiano packs a ton in a little space, and it's no wonder—it's been around since 1967. Slide into a black leather booth, peruse the affordable menu and choose from a dizzying array. After you order, sip on wine and enjoy the complimentary garlic breadsticks that are so good you'll want to pay for them. And don't worry about cleaning your plate—the huge portions taste even better the next day.
Psst. Lean in close. We don't want everyone to hear. Because then they'll know. And the line will get longer. . . . Tucked inside a Chevron station on Chapman, just before the 241 and 261 toll roads, is a caffeinated oasis. Jungle Java Café serves up brews of Kéan's fair-trade beans, with the baristas trained to make those specialty drinks to perfection. We haven't had a finer café au lait outside New Orleans. And seasonal, flavored lattes and mochas aren't tooth-achingly sweet, but rather crafted with your taste buds in mind. It's the perfect way to get you ready for your next adventure, even if your grand road trip takes you no farther than your office.
Wilson Coffee hits every check mark—organic, fair trade, locally roasted, mom-and-pop—and gets brownie points for being historical. It began as Alta Coffee in 1984 (yep, that Alta Coffee), originally a business owned by Patti Spooner and Tony Wilson; after Alta sold in the 1990s, Wilson opened, well, Wilson. After he retired a couple of years back, a longtime employee asked to purchase the venture—turns out it was Spooner's nephew. Today, the hunky Jim Schwartz runs Wilson as a one-man show out of his Costa Mesa warehouse. His California Certified Organic Farmers-approved organic beans are given a cleaner roast with the fluid bottom method, which means you can actually taste the beans in every cup and one of the reasons why Seaworth uses it for all its cold brews. Buy it at Grower's Ranch in Newport Beach or try it at the North Left, Monkey Business, Ho Sum Bistro and a slew of other hip businesses. Soon enough, you'll understand the slogan "If you're out of Wilson Coffee, you're fucked."
Each time Carlos Salgado takes on a new challenge, he has not only succeeded—but he has raised a bar that everyone futilely tries to grasp as he goes on to the next stupendous height. When the Orange native returned home from years in San Francisco to open a taco truck, Salgado quickly dominated OC's luxe lonchera scene with nuanced, delicious tacos and burritos. When Salgado evolved from that into a brick-and-motor, he immediately wowed with a four-course prix fixe menu that challenged everyone's idea of what a Mexican restaurant should be. When Salgado finally worked out the opening-day kinks to offer his vision of alta cocina—locally sourced meats and veggies centered on the seasons, but with flavors that maintained Mexican food's wab essence—it immediately called out all of OC's usual fine-dining suspects for their simplicity. And then Salgado offered this H-bomb: aguachile, a seafood dish from the cantina scene transformed into something simultaneously as delicate as papel picado yet as menacing as a Cadetes de Linares accordion riff. Salgado isn't done yet: Taco Maria recently introduced brunch, and the new No. 2 is Roland Rubalcava, giving Taco Maria the best 1-2 punch since Muhammad Ali's jab-and-cross.
We've been raving about the breakfast burritos here for nearly a decade, and this Buena Park dive is finally getting national recognition. In ESPN's Burrito Bracket, which seeks to identify the best burrito in the United States via a combination of data-mining and experts that includes our resident Mexican, Athenian Burgers #3 was placed in the Group of Death, alongside Hall of Famers Al and Bea's, La Azteca Tortilleria, and Manny's El Tepeyac. But rather than fold in the face of Mariana Trench-style pressure, critic Anna Maria Barry Jester gave it 94 of a possible 100 points, losing out on the crown by just two points. "My only complaint," Barry Jester wrote, "was that I couldn't put the burrito down."