Huntington Beach: If there's a city in our fair county that people not from around here think of when they think of California surf culture, this is what they see in their heads. Well, at least the beachy parts. The Beach Blvd. part? Not so much.
Point is that there's more to HB than Main Street and the pier.
This is a list of your humble food scribe's essential Huntington Beach restaurants. Some are old standbys even the tourists know about. Some are newer. All make HB one of the best eating towns we got.
As usual, the list is alphabetical. What's missing? Tell us in the comments.
Liza and Tim Goodell's self-described "bordello meets burger and wine bar" is overtly sexualized and slutty in its theme. The wallpaper pattern looks like it was picked out from the lacy unmentionables section of a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog. But its meals ply the manliest of appetites with hefty portions of the manliest of meals: burgers with patties as thick as a DC comic-book superhero's biceps, cooked bloody.
If you had to describe Black Trumpet Bistro to friends, you'd tell them about the paintings of Miles Davis, Satchmo and Johnny Coltrane on the walls. The space is small, the appropriate size for a restaurant calling itself a bistro. It has velvet-lined benches, an open kitchen and shelves of vino near the back. But because the Black Trumpet cherry-picks its dishes from Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Morocco, you're better off just telling them it cooks everything. It's entirely possible to construct a meal here in which every course hails from a place nowhere near the last. Start with pita bread and a complimentary house dip concocted by mixing feta cheese, olives, pepper flakes and olive oil into a chunky slurry. A falafel can be had as an appetizer followed by an Italian caprese salad. After that, a fuming crock pot of French onion might be your soup. And your main course could be Spanish paella studded with shellfish and squid.
You've been to the other Alessa's, now make your pilgrimage to the original. The butternut-squash-stuffed ravioli swims in a lick-your-plate-clean brown-butter sauce and is sprinkled with crispy fried sage leaves. The caprese smacks of garden freshness and has puffy, light-as-helium cheesy breadsticks with which you wipe the plate clean. And the carpaccio of cured filet mignon—thin tissue-like sheets of prime beef, drizzled with olive oil and spritz of acid—would normally cost five times as much at Italian joints of this caliber. The pizza is also worthy and so is the crispy calamari, which is as greaseless as they come.
Be lulled into a happy mood by the serenading ukulele player and the refreshing, faintly apple-cinnamony mai tais, just like everyone else in the place. If you're looking for the term to classify your fellow revelers—normal, everyday folks who dress up like tourists in their off-time and converge upon places like Don's for the pure escapism it brings—they're called tikiphiles, members of a not-so-hidden subculture who long to relive their tropical vacations past. There are waterfalls, lots of bamboo. It's like being in Disney's Tiki Tiki Tiki Room, except that it's places like this that inspired the Disneyland attraction, not the other way around.
Despite being located one avenue shy of Main Street's foot traffic, North Shore Poke Company is already doing steady business on what seems like ex-kama'aina word-of-mouth alone. Shawn Gole, who conceived of the concept with his father, Mark, is the chef, but his duties don't have so much to do with cooking as it does mixing the poke together like a garden manger operating on overdrive. At a cold station behind the cashier, he spoons out cubed raw ahi from a chilled trough, tosses it with sauces and vegetables as soon as he gets an order. He produces five distinct flavors and packs them up with rice in clamshell containers. This is poke as it should be—served as take-out or eaten in a sunny room with reggae in the background.
They have many iterations of fries here. You need only order one set. As is everything else on the menu, it's meant to be shared. Order the deviled eggs, which come with a spicy sauce, or the bacon-wrapped dates. Both will go quickly. But for all the creativity and confidence chef Louie Jocson exudes, there's always something personal, casual and warm in his cooking and this space. You order at the counter and sit yourself in a shabby-chic room that looks like some eccentric person's attic. The kid's meal is offered at no charge. And even if you didn't know that the Red Table cupcake is an ode to Jocson's late wife and a favorite of their young daughter, the red velvet batter baked inside a coffee mug and topped with a swirl of vanilla cream cheese would still be intensely heart-tugging, lovely in its intent, effortlessly beautiful in its execution, just like the Red Table itself.
Fish Camp is the new kid on the block among Sunset Beach's old-guard seafood joints. Like all those before it, trophy fish are mounted high, twisted and frozen in valiant poses. But this offspring of the King's Fish House chain is the most forward-looking of all the county's fish joints. Meals are ordered at the counter, drinks are self-serve, and there are homing-beacon devices on each table allowing the servers to bring you your food, no matter what corner of the restaurant you choose to sit. And you want this food: mussels served with a bowl of the dripped juices or peel-and-eat shrimp dusted in Old Bay—the kind of thing you need a wet-nap for afterward.
Everything is served in paper baskets. From the Carlsbad Aquafarms Oysters to the grilled fish specials to the sandwiches, Slapfish dispenses with china and proper silverware because, if you didn't already know, it used to operate out of a food truck. Old luxe lonchera habits die hard. The chefs still make their chowder fries like they did on the road, in which they take perfectly good fries and perfectly good chowder and drop them into the same cup. It's a favorite of the food-truck faithful who used to have to eat standing on their feet—now, in a sit-down.
The item that everybody will ask about is owner/hef Chris Grodach's "48-Hour-Fries." The effort undertaken to make these potatoes seems Thomas Keller-esque in its meticulousness—appropriate, since Grodach once worked at the French Laundry. They're soaked in water overnight to wash away all surface starch, then slow-poached in saltwater, dried with fans, frozen stiff, and, finally, fried to order. It would be a disappointment if they ended up tasting like any old French fry, and they don't. The crust has a crunchy, grainy texture, as if it was coated in microscopic sugar crystals. But the interior texture isn't fluffy like mashed potato; it tastes like the root itself.
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From this iconic location in Huntington Beach overlooking the Pacific to the genteel, leafy suburbs of Mission Viejo, each branch of TK Burger is happily assimilated into the neighborhood in which it resides. But it all started here, in a shack not much bigger than a garden shed. The few tables it has surrounds the kitchen in a room so small it would probably have to be evacuated if the ventilation system ever crapped out. You eat here while inhaling the atomized beef fumes, sitting elbow-to-elbow with surfers. Unshakeable trademarks established at this seminal TK Burger are now part of every store in the chain: surf stickers and vinyl album covers; framed surf photos of local beaches; modern rock blaring from stereo speakers; and of course, the unwritten TK Burger company rule that requires all cashiers must be cute and female.