Announcing the First Class of the OC Food Hall of Fame!
Illustration by Jeff Drew
It's been a long road, but Orange County finally gets proper nationwide recognition as a place where important food happens, where people look for the next big trends instead of us waiting four years before ripping off something from Los Angeles (seriously, those of y'all who create "concepts"? Nashville hot chicken is SO 2013). So in that spirit, we present the inaugural Orange County Food Hall of Fame. The following people, chains, restaurants, dishes, and even fruits and vegetables all played an important role in defining Orange County food culture, and many of them went on to influence eaters nationwide. No, seriously: I recently ate at a restaurant in Chattanooga that offered a Southern take on aguachile, the Mexican seafood dish immortalized by Carlos Salgado at his Taco María in Costa Mesa. It was okay, but its taste wasn't the point: It's that we've finally arrived.
Remember: This is a Hall of Fame, not the Greatest or Most Beloved Restaurants of All Time. And this is the inaugural class, which means many worthy people were left off (maybe next year, Mother's Market!). But it's time we recognize our pioneers, in alphabetical order, and teach youngsters about the legends. Know your OC food history!
Afters Ice Cream. It's amazing that no one ever thought of stuffing ice cream into doughnuts until Andy Nguyen and Scott Nghiem debuted their milky buns in 2014. The dessert is now slowly conquering the United States—watch out, Choco Taco. Various locations; www.aftersicecream.com.
Sayre (in suit) surrounded by SanTana's lonchera class; Alebrije's Grill owner Albert Hernandez is in red
Photo by Jeanette Duran
Alebrije's Grill. In addition to its delicious, chilango-inspired food and the legendary taco acorazado (battleship taco, a beautiful beast of breaded beef, rice, cactus and cheese on a corn tortilla as thick as a pinkie), Alebrije's has led loncheros for more than a decade in the fight against loser politicians who want to ban taco trucks in SanTana. In 2006, founder Roberto Guzmán filed a successful lawsuit against the city that won the right for taco trucks to park without harassment, sparking a scene in Southern California rivaled only by Los Angeles. Now, current Alebrije's owner Albert Hernandez is rallying his colleagues in another fight because the current City Council threatened to legislate them out of existence earlier this year. A taco man for mayor! On the corner of Main and Cubbon streets, SanTana.
Alex Foods Inc. Sonoran migrant Alejandro Morales began selling tamales in Anaheim from a horse-drawn wagon in 1894—and an empire was born. His XLNT beef tamales, fat and soft and delicious, were Southern California's favorite frozen tamales for decades and are still available at supermarkets; his Alex Foods Inc. scored a commissary contract for many of Disneyland's first restaurants when the theme park opened in 1955. That's where an Alex Food worker invented Doritos, which were first manufactured at the factory on what's now the corner of Lemon Street and Carl Karcher Way in 1966. www.xlntfoods.com.
Alta Coffee. Gypsy Den before the Gypsy Den—and still great more than 30 years later—Alta brought back a bohemian vibe to OC coffeehouses after many were shut down in the 1960s. It doesn't get nearly enough credit for this—until now. 506 31st St., Newport Beach, (949) 675-0233; www.alta-coffee-co.com.
Anaheim Pepper. Fuck oranges; this Anaheim-by-way-of-New Mexico pepper is our most famous culinary export, even if it's not exactly the best pepper around (get poblanos to make your chile rellenos, instead). Consider it the Rube Marquard of this list.
At Home On the Range. Orange County gave the world three cult TV shows: Hot Seat With Wally George, Robert Schuller's Hour of Power, and this 1990s cooking program, which paired RV magnate John Crean with self-proclaimed ditzy redhead Barbara Venezia. You can watch nearly all the episodes online and witness the two invent many of the onscreen hijinks everyone now uses on their YouTube cooking channels, Snaps and Instagram stories: the mugging, the wisecracks, and the Burns-and-Allen back-and-forth between Crean and Venezia as they tried to cook everything from ribs to dog food. www.hotrange.com.
Break of Dawn. The first buzz restaurant of our internet age—you gotta try this place in Laguna Hills! Yes, Laguna Hills!—is also historic: Chef Dee Nguyen was OC's first Vietnamese cook to gain acclaim for something other than his native cuisine, offering breakfast and brunch that jumped from the Mekong to Paris to Mexico to Hawaii and Route 66 diners. He was also on the pop-up restaurant trend years before everyone else—#respect. 24291 Avenida De La Carlota, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418; breakofdawnrestaurant.com.
Brodard. The Dang family didn't introduce nem nuong cuon to Orange County, but it did popularize the pork spring rolls to the extent that Brodard is one of the most famous Vietnamese restaurants in the United States. People take the spring rolls across the country in suitcases, so delicious they are! An upcoming move to Fountain Valley will reduce the wait from about an hour to 30 minutes—and it'll still be worth it. 9892 Westminster Ave., Ste. R, Garden Grove, (714) 530-1744; brodard.net.
The Bruery. Orange County is now so awash in great suds that we forget the scene was far Budweiser-ier back in 2008, when Patrick Rue opened up the Bruery at a Placentia industrial park. It wasn't OC's first craft brewer (Left Coast down in San Clemente was already strong), but it was the first to gain national acclaim, with its Black Tuesday imperial stout initially leading the way. As the Bruery's decade anniversary looms, Rue and his crew remain kings locally and lords nationally thanks to an insatiable drive to experiment and expand. 717 Dunn Way, Placentia, (714) 996-6258; www.thebruery.com.
Marie Callender. Yes, she was real. Yes, she really baked all the pies in the early days. And with the help of her son Don, Marie Callender opened her first restaurant in Orange in 1964, launching a new genre: grandma chic. It's not exactly the hippest place anymore, but it was never supposed to be. Besides, the pies are still awesome. Various locations; www.mariecallenders.com.
Larry Cano at Anaheim's El Torito Grill
Larry Cano. El Torito didn't start in Orange County, but founder Larry Cano moved here as soon as he could in the late 1960s, while he was on the way to becoming a millionaire by teaching America that margaritas were delicious and Mexican restaurants could be a sit-down dining experience. Cano was also the hombre who bought the long-neglected Victor Hugo Inn on the cliffs of Laguna Beach and transformed it into Las Brisas, which prefigured both high-end Mexican food and resort dining in the county by a good two decades. More important, Cano's coaching tree rivals Bill Walsh's for star power, including alumni David Wilhelm, Pascal Olhats, Ivan Calderon of Taco Mesa, as well as the founders for Pick Up Stix and Yard House. El Torito (whose food has always been better than expected) is slowly fading away as consumers desire more "authentic" experiences—but Cano's legacy remains.
Photo by William Vo
Martin Diedrich. Diedrich's family taught non-hipster Southern Californians how to drink premium coffee with their namesake coffeehouses, so much so that Martin is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Specialty Coffee Association. But when Diedrich Coffee's corporate bosses strayed from the family's vision, Martin resigned and restarted with Kéan Coffee, teaching OC how to drink quality joe anew. Portola, Hopper & Burr, and other new-wave coffee shops get more attention nowadays, but Diedrich and his Kéan continue to do killer business. 2043 Westcliff Dr., Ste. 100, Newport Beach, (949) 642-5326; also at 13681 Newport Ave., Ste. 14, Tustin (714) 838-5326; www.keancoffee.com.
Golden Spoon. Frozen yogurt gets popular every couple of years, and it's gracias to Jeff Barnes buying a Tustin shop called Yogurt and Things in 1981. The first Golden Spoon opened in Lake Forest two years later, and while fro-yo is going through a lull right now, expect the chain to capitalize once the icy delight becomes à la mode again. Various locations; www.goldenspoon.com.
Tim and Liza Goodell. The husband-and-wife team's résumé reads like a Restaurant of the Year column for the past two decades: Troquet. Aubergine. 25 Degrees (which has locations nationwide). Red Pearl Kitchen. A Restaurant and its charming market in Newport. Tim's recently opened Royal Hen. The Goodells succeeded not by embracing fads, but by staying true to a vision emphasizing decadent dishes with substance.
Wine from around the world fill Hi-Time's shelves
Hi-Time Wine Cellars. The greatest liquor store in Southern California is run by the Hanson family, which has seen, helped kick-start and called all alcohol trends in the U.S. for the past 60 years. Be a mensch and pay Mr. Hi-Time a visit to wish them a happy anniversary—and thank them by doing your best impression of that scene in Leaving Las Vegas in which Nicolas Cage fills a grocery cart full of booze. 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463; www.hitimewine.net.
Frieda Caplan. Among the fruits that Frieda's Specialty Produce of Los Alamitos introduced to the United States are Asian pears, jicamas, kiwis, snap peas, habaneros, spaghetti squash, pine nuts, elephant garlic, dragonfruit, starfruit, mangos, shallots and so many more. The 94-year-old Caplan also set an example for future generations with her media savvy and girlboss power, as her daughters and grandaughter help her run the family business to this day.
Kareem's Restaurant. Perhaps the first Middle Eastern restaurant to open in what's now Anaheim's Little Arabia district in 1996, Kareem's now sits in the largest Middle Eastern enclave in the United States outside of Michigan. Its falafel mix now appears in Middle Eastern grocery stores across Orange County—time to make it national. 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-6829.
Carl Karcher. Carl's Jr. sucks now, and Carl Karcher was a right-wing burger baron—but he was our right-wing burger baron. He introduced the salad bar and self-serve soda fountains to the industry, and he was such a paragon of fast-food culture done correctly that the Carl's Jr. story is the lead to the immortal Fast Food Nation. We can never truly hate a man who introduced the Western Bacon Cheeseburger to the world.
Korean Taco. This fusion dish launched America's modern-day foodie movement thanks to its mainstreaming by Villa Park native Roy Choi and his Kogi BBQ truck. And while no one knows who invented it, we do know from where Kogi got the idea: photographer Dylan Ho, who wrote on his blog in 2008 how he and his Asian-American friends used to make Korean tacos at UC Irvine parties during the 1990s.
Ignacio Lujano. The last naranjero in Orange County, Lujano took care of orange groves in San Juan Capistrano from the 1950s until 2008, when city officials unceremoniously kicked him out and let the orange trees at the old Swanner Ranch die. He passed away in 2015 and is buried at the Old Mission Cemetery, where San Juan's city fathers and elites rest.
Memphis Cafe. Diego Velasco and his boys are innovators thrice over: They cemented Costa Mesa's reputation during the 1990s as a hip factory, helped to kick-start downtown SanTana's restaurant scene during the early 2000s and opened one of the first craft cocktail bars in Orange County. Under the tutelage of Dave Mau, many famous county bartenders, from Ricky Yarnell to Johnny Sampson to Jefferson Van Billiard and more, either learned or perfected their craft. The Memphis location at the Santora Building is still dearly missed, but the original is as popular and delicious and boozy as ever. 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685; memphiscafe.com.
Mos 2. The modern-day Southern California teriyaki bowl most likely began in Boyle Heights and its longtime Chicano and Japanese-American communities, but it reached its apotheosis with Mos 2. Mos Burgers started in Santa Ana, then dropped the burgers and expanded into the four-spot chain (two in Anaheim, two in SanTana) of today. Here is where the teriyaki bowl became Mexicanized: Tapatío alongside teriyaki sauce, meat cut thin like carne asada, and horchata to wash everything down. And the Lincoln Avenue location in Anaheim is where I first learned that fusion cuisine was a thing. 1933 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-5997; also at 221 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 835-8288; 1008 Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 772-8543; 117 S. Western Ave., Anaheim, (714) 761-5283.
Photo courtesy Naugles
Naugles. The original iteration of the Mexican fast-food chain happened in the Inland Empire. But its biggest fan base was always in OC, and that's where its resurrection is happening thanks to Christian Ziebarth, a superfan who took on Del Taco for Naugles' lapsed trademark and won in a shocking upset. He established a permanent spot in Fountain Valley, is opening another in Huntington Beach soon and plans to bring hundreds of Naugles to the Southwest in the coming years, to which we say: More cheese burritos, please. 18471 Mount Langley St., Fountain Valley, (657) 845-7346; nauglestacos.com.
Northgate Gonzalez Supermarkets. There are four Mexican supermarket dynasties in la naranja: the Bonillas (El Toro Market in SanTana), the Rubalcavas (La Reina), the Murrietas (El Metate) and the Gonzalezes of Northgate fame. But only the latter ever branched out of Orange County: The family's 41-market business spans from San Diego to Inglewood and basically any city in OC with more than five Mexicans, and it's now one of the largest Latino mercado chains in the U.S. Northgate's flagship Anaheim location seeks to Whole Foods the Mexican grocery experience, which has the potential to fundamentally change the Latino supermarket business. Not bad for a family who named their business Northgate because they didn't have enough money to replace the first location's marquee, ¿que no? Various locations; www.northgatemarkets.com.
Pascal Olhats. Olhat's résumé reads like a history of French dining in OC: Piret's, Le Meridien, Chanteclair, and his multiple namesake spots over the past 30 years. And unlike the voluble reputation of his fellow Gallic gastronomes, Olhats has always comported himself with grace, a virtue he has taught his many students. pascalrestaurants.com.
Pho Hien Vuong. Orange County's first place to sell pho, which is now as OC as tacos. 2525 Westminster Ave., Ste. H, Santa Ana, (714) 554-2696.
Placentia Grass Eaters. All vegetarian and vegan restaurants, from Seabirds Kitchen to Rutabegorz and the Stand, owe gratitude to this 1880s cult, who subsisted on a raw diet of fruits and vegetables and were ostracized for it by OC residents. But they had the last laugh, as the Societas Fraternia (their official name) set off a Southern California health-food craze that has never stopped. "Their example encouraged [early Orange County] settlers to experiment with adding new foods to their diet," wrote a contributor in the 1967 collection Rawhide and Orange Blossoms: Stories and Sketches of Early Orange County, "and through their contributions to subtropical fruit culture, the . . . Colony helped pave the way for the vast subtropical fruit and vegetables industries of Orange County."
Jason Quinn. Orange County chefs are now regulars on reality-TV competitions, from Hop Phan to Chris Tzorin and Amar Santana. But only one has won a season-long competition: Quinn, who was on the winning team of the second season of The Great Food Truck Race with the Lime Truck. He used his share of the prize to create Playground in downtown Santa Ana (DTSA), which ushered in the era of Yelpers and Instagrammers dominating OC's foodie world inspired by his brash attitude and spectacular dishes. After trying to create a mini-fiefdom in DTSA, Quinn has wisely dialed back to concentrate on Playground and the next-door 2.0 as he gets ready to wow diners every night, if not hour. 220 E. Fourth St., Ste. 102, Santa Ana, (714) 560-4444; www.playgrounddtsa.com.
Royal Thai. It was one of the first proper Thai restaurants in the United States when it opened in 1977 in Newport Beach, and it remains one of the oldest, along with its Laguna Beach location. Founder Sammy Tila's son, Jet, remains one of the most prominent Thai-American chefs and hosts the SoCal Restaurant Show every Saturday morning on KLAA-AM 830 from Angels Stadium. 4001 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 645-8424; also at 1750 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8424.
Salgado (left) and Mexico's most famous chef, Enrique Olvera: The greatest Mexican team since Zapata and Villa
Photo by Cynthia Rebolledo
Carlos Salgado. He wasn't the first person to introduce high-end Mexican cuisine to Orange County—Danny Godinez of Anepalco and Gabbi Patrick of Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen beat Salgado by a couple of years. But they were the voices in the wilderness preparing the way for the chingón, who's gotten national recognition for Taco María's Alta California desmadre to the tune of a James Beard Award semi-finalist nomination two years in a row. His aguachile is the greatest Mexican-American Orange County contribution to Earth since Zack de la Rocha. While still young, his mentorship of chefs is already influencing county dining: Ryan Garlitos is teaching county eaters about Filipino food at Irenia, while Roland Rubalcava just did a Mexican take on Nashville hot chicken with Rojo's Hot Chicken. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444; www.tacomaria.com.
The Segerstrom Family. From humble lima bean farmers to the family that runs South Coast Plaza, the Segerstroms have played an outsized role in OC's cultural life. Not as appreciated, though, are their contributions to pushing OC dining to higher levels. From Gustaf Anders in the 1980s to Marché Moderne the past decade to Vaca today, the Segerstrom's restaurant tenants bring it. And the Segerstroms still farm lima beans, although the bulk go to England because OC diners are ungrateful bastards.
Bruno serves his guests and the local community, feeding 1000+ kids every night.
Meranda Carter/OC Weekly
Bruno Serato. The owner of the Anaheim White House is probably the best-known OC chef in the world, less so for his sumptuous Italian dishes than for his status as a secular saint for feeding thousands of at-risk children daily. That guarantees him a spot not only here, but also in heaven. When his restaurant burned down earlier this year, it inspired hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to guarantee the paisano doesn't stop.
Taco Bell. The first one was in Downey . . . and is now at Taco Bell's Irvine headquarters. Hate them all you want, but they were America's first hillbilly heroin.
Taquería de Anda. OC's first taquería chain started as a cart the De Anda family set up during soccer games at La Palma Park during the 1970s. From there, they opened up a tiny spot in Fullerton's Tokers Town in 1981 that soon turned into a success story that Mexican restaurateurs have tried to emulate ever since. Various locations; www.taqueriadeanda.com.
Cathy Thomas. The dean of OC food writers, Thomas started with the Orange County Register in 1987, when the county was just about to start its seismic culinary evolution from a perpetual Stepford downer into the wonderland it is today. She now writes and records videos for Orange Coast and is as vital and vibrant as ever.
Wahoo's Fish Tacos. Three brothers married fish tacos, action sports and rock to create the ultimate 1990s OC chain. They're still strong as they approach their 30th anniversary next year—da kine grinds, brah! Various locations; www.wahoos.com.
David Wilhelm. OC's first celebrity chef, ever since he wowed eaters in the 1980s and 1990s with Southwestern flavors at Kachina, Pavé, Zuni Grill and Chimayo Grill, then turned to elegance with French 75 and Savannah Chop House. His companies weathered Chapter 11 bankruptcy twice, yet Wilhelm is more popular than ever thanks to Jimmy's Famous American Tavern, showing that just because you're a legend, it doesn't mean you can't take on the young guns and win.