Photo by Keith MayThat the words "yuppie haven" spring to mind about this newly born city isn't totally off the mark. Scores of tract homes and some apartment complexes (usually billing themselves as luxury apartments, not to be confused with rinky-dink ones) dot the hillsides. Clustered together to create make-believe communities, some of these developments seek to bring back the so-called good old days (Twelve Picket Lane), while others sell posh living (San Simeon, Tiburon). Located in the city's center, the bustling Aliso Viejo Town Center is the hangout for teenagers and middle-aged folks alike; it's basically the only hang out, home to a huge Edwards Stadium and such standard retail stores as Barnes & Noble and Pier 1. Should you venture here, be warned: parking has become a scarce commodity, and even when you find a space, it usually takes some clever maneuvering to squeeze your car between two monstrous SUVs. If the great outdoors is more your thing, AV (as the homies call it—word) has plenty of breezy, grassy rolling hills. It has also managed to retain some natural wildlife areas, with Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park located along one of its borders. Of course, there's a darker side to such idyllic scenery. The 73 toll road (a.k.a. the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor) might make this area more accessible and the drive to work quicker and more serene, but it also cuts off some major wildlife corridors. Then there's the highly questionable water quality of Aliso Creek, which feeds wastewater from a bunch of South County cities. Not to mention that if the El Toro International Airport ever does get built, Aliso Viejo lies directly under its proposed flight path. Living in Utopia doesn't come without a price.
Cosmo's Italian Kitchen. One of the yummiest dishes in the wide menu selection is Cosmo's homemade, chicken-filled ravioli. Topped with a creamy, garlicky pesto sauce, it tastes like nothing Chef Boyardee could ever fathom. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the restaurant is named after a friend of the owners and bears no relation to Seinfeld's Cosmo Kramer—even though they've got a poster of his frazzled mug hanging on the wall. 23411 Laguna Hills Dr., Ste. A, (949) 448-9040.Luke's Chicago Pizza. After being swayed by his parents' raves about Orange County's great weather, Luke Roberts moved out from Chicago and opened this joint, mostly geared for takeout. Having worked in a pizza parlor while studying finance, the 25-year-old Roberts knows how to make damn good pizza pie. Cooked in a pan, the deep-dish concoction features layers of cheese, toppings and a spicy diced-tomato sauce. It makes for a hearty departure from California Pizza Kitchen, and you'll have lots of leftovers. 23411 Laguna Hills Dr., Ste. M, (949) 362-4060.Opah Restaurant & Bar. Owned by the folks who brought you Laguna Beach's popular 230 Forest Ave., this place has received rave upon rave—packing it full of patrons every night of the week. Fourteen martini selections are shaken and stirred at the neon-lit, glass-topped bar, which is straight out of Star Trek. There's even an update to the humdrum shrimp cocktail: the seafood martini, featuring roasted vegetable gazpacho shaken tableside with jumbo shrimp and crab. Seafood of all sorts is featured here, but the signature dish is grilled Hawaiian opah (moonfish) served with a sesame-ginger glaze, pineapple salsa, lemon beurre blanc and a drizzle of raspberry vinegar. 26851 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. C, (949) 360-8822; www.opahrestaurant.com.Thai Bite. It may scream chain fast-food restaurant, but in fact the eatery is owned by an exhibition designer who knows how to make it look professional. The best deal is the lunchtime Pad Thai combo, with two items and rice, for $5.95. It's a greasy, flavorful bargain. 26921 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. 1, (949) 643-0627.
Aliso Creek Market & Deli. This small store has competitive prices on a great selection of wine, beer and liquor. A gift box featuring two bottles of the frothy, golden Belgian beer Duvel and a logo glass is not only a rare item but also costs $6.99—about $5 cheaper than what it's worth! And to nurse your hangover in the morning, you can order a $1.99 breakfast burrito, packed with lots o' eggs, from their deli. 23411 Laguna Hills Dr., Ste. F, (949) 362-7505.Ketel One Vodka North American Headquarters. Take a peek through the glass doors and see paintings of lemon-drop and apple martinis (recipes included), chandeliers, and a front staircase with marble floors. The facility isn't open to the public, but you can order a free videotape called Generations about the history and traditions of the Dutch distillery's Nolet family on their website. 30 Journey, (800) 243-3618; www.ketelone.com.Stadium Brewing Co. Adjacent to Aliso Viejo Town Center's fountain plaza, the restaurant/microbrewery is an ideal place to kill time while you wait for a later showing of the sold-out flick you planned to see at the megaplex. Brews such as hefeweizen and oatmeal stout are served alongside a menu that has plenty of somewhat funky, beer-complementary items. 26731 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. C, (949) 448-9611.
Pet Suites. Even Fifi sometimes needs a vacation, and leave it to AV to have a pet hotel that offers Caribbean, Mediterranean and Hawaiian suites. There are even cyber-pet visual boarding guest suites, so people can check up on Foofoo online. For $24, you can enroll His Highness in doggie day camp, featuring social time, group play outdoors, TV, nap and pool times, and, to wind down after a strenuous day of prancing around, yappy hour. Puh-lease. 19 Journey, (949) 425-0700; www.petsuites.com.Twelve Picket Lane. With white picket fences and porches, the multihued tract homes in this mini Midwest-style neighborhood seem eerily unreal. Driving down the narrow streets lined by electric gaslamps, you get an unsettling feeling that you've intruded on the set of The Truman Show. 12 Picket Lane, (949) 425-0484.
Aliso Viejo Public Library. A 40-foot granite clock tower marks the corner of this slick, almost brand-spankin'-new library. In fact, at two years old, it's the newest one in OC. Yep, that's right—no yucky, circa 1970 shag carpet or paperback novels. We're talking new, new, new! 1 Journey, (949) 360-1730.Soka University of America. Just opened for students this fall, the four-year school is the first private liberal-arts college to be built in California in 25 years. Founded by the mainstream Japanese organization Soka Gakkai, SUA is open to students of all beliefs and is based on advancing peace through education. Built on a hillside, the campus looks more like a fortress. Kind of makes you wonder which tower houses the academic disciplinary dungeon. 1 University, (949) 480-4000; www.soka.edu.
Aliso Viejo Ice Chalet. Originally named the Ice Palace, this is one of only five remaining ice rinks in OC. In a temperate area like ours, it's nice to have somewhere that you can pretend, just for a few hours, that it's really winter and not the extended fall/spring-like weather that we Californians call winter. 9 Journey, (949) 643-9648; www.avicepalace.com.The Gelato Factory. This marks the first retail location of the Garden Grove-based company, which was dubbed "Best Gelato Factory" in last year's Best of OC issue. It offers such Euro-iffic flavors as tiramis and donatella, a creamy hazelnut/chocolate mix reminiscent of Nutella, the marvelous Italian spread of the gods. 23411 Laguna Hills Dr., Ste. J, (949) 831-0600; www.thegelatofactory.com.
Crestview Park. One of many scattered throughout Aliso Viejo, this park doesn't impress in size but in location. From the top, you get a fine 360-degree view looking out over the sprawling hillsides. The main path leading to the top is so steep that someone has even scrawled "Lombardo Street" at the top in chalk, albeit slightly misguided and misspelled. On the off chance that someone might not realize it's a hill and wind up suing the city, there's a no-wheelchair sign posted. (For those in wheelchairs, there is a winding, less steep path to the top.) Cedarbrook and Laguna Hills Drive, (949) 362-5890.
Illustration by Bob Aul
Fossils. There's a dirt service road just off Aliso Creek Road and Westwing (by El Toro) where one can find hundreds of sea fossils just lying on the ground. They're almost all the same variety of corkscrew-shaped shells: some as small as fingernails, others as large as dog turds (and very similar in appearance, so be careful). Special bonus: numerous rabbits dine on the adjacent grassy area. Woodpeckers swarming a dead tree, Whiting Ranch State Park. About half a mile up the main trail at Whiting Ranch, one of the oak trees is near death. However, the termites that have infested this tree attract numerous woodpeckers who come to feast. In other parts of the country, woodpeckers are common, but not out here—especially not these guys, who really look and sound like Woody Woodpecker. (John Stephens, Aliso Viejo)
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