Photo by Jack GouldYou've got to know that a DA can get mighty hungry when he's ramrodding innocent kids through the legal process. And it's thirsty work for a judge to wade through phone-book-thick depositions all day. Even if you've only got the job of cleaning gum off the gleaming marble edifice of Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan "Hey, Didn't I Try to Dismantle the Federal Government?" Federal Building and United States Court House, it must be nice to be able to repair to Shelly's Courthouse Bistro just across the street.
Attention gold-diggers: you can sidle up to more attorneys at Shelly's ornate, wooden, mirrored bar than you can shake an overstuffed briefcase at. If you just like to people-watch and eavesdrop on government functionaries, dining there is equally rewarding. It's a great guessing game:
Who's the lawyer? Who's the perp? Who's the clerk who does all the work?
I will be forever envious of the great Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiassen for living in a town so utterly corrupt that when it was found that a calamari-gorging judge traded favors for free food, Hiaassen was able to accurately state, "This is a perfect example of a squid pro quo."
They have calamari at Shelly's, along with dishes from enough different regions to qualify as a mini food court, resulting in Italian-Hawaiian-Cajun-Asian-American cuisine, and add Mexican, too, if you count the chips and salsa. Along with geographically distinct items such as gumbo or chicken alfredo, the dinner menu also offers "China camp steak," a New York steak served in oyster sauce with mushrooms, and teriyaki chicken linguine, which, unlike one short-lived county restaurant, Shelly's had the good sense not to title "Japaghetti."
One does not even know where to begin classifying the chicken margaritas, other than as pretty damn good. Usually, if you saw chicken, margarita mix, avocado, onions, lemon juice and tequila on the same plate, you'd conclude someone's kids had been left at home without adequate supervision. But rather than being the sweet glop you might suspect, Shelly's creation is a subtle, adult dish that essentially tastes the way a good, dry margarita poured into your pasta might. The chicken margaritas are $13.95 at dinner, $6.95 at lunch, and you can substitute shrimp for a buck more.
The gumbo is a lunch-time bargain—$2.95 for a good-sized bowl—crowded with the okra oft omitted by others as well as chicken and spicy andouille sausage. It's greener than most gumbos and with a thick mouth feel reminiscent of a potato chowder. If it's not "the best gumbo outside of New Orleans" as advertised, it's at least different enough to warrant your attention.
The place has one of the cleanest dirty rices I've ever had, with none of the engaging mystery meat juju of Burrell's. Rather, it has a vinegary tartness that doesn't offer an adequate respite from the spices in some of Shelly's other dishes.
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The blackfish, their version of the blackened fish pioneered by Paul Prudhomme, was well-executed, not the burnt offering some places offer or the wan BBQ potato chip-tasting affront found at some other bistros. Done properly—and Shelly's catfish offering gave every indication of this—it is flash-fried in a dangerously hot skillet, leaving the fish moist yet encased in a spicy black crust.
Among the items we leave it to you to try are the cioppino, the tempura-fried shrimp and chicken, and the Hawaiian chicken, which is pineapple laden with bird, snow peas, broccoli and mushrooms.
Shelly's is a far more appealing place in its current digs than in its original sunny Tustin locale. It's dark enough for intrigue, yet light enough to tart up a tort. The interior has distressed brick walls, the aforementioned wooden bar, some downright odd dcor (truncated Roman columns, anyone?) and tables large enough to hold even the most tedious depositions.
Shelly's Courthouse Bistro, located at 400 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-midnight; Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight. (714) 543-9821; www.shellysbistro.com. Full bar. Dinner for two, $26-$45, food only. MC and Visa accepted.