Brunch a Bunch Across OC!
See even more Remember that episode of The Simpsons in which Marge nearly has an affair with Jacques the French bowling instructor, and the lothario invites her to brunch, but Marge doesn't know what brunch is? "It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end," Jacques explains. "You don't get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal!"
That episode originally aired in 1994, and thank God brunch has evolved from those trendy, yuppie days into something all of us can enjoy come weekend. (The other great Simpsons brunch quote: Homer wins an award at his high-school reunion for the alumnus who has gained the most weight. When asked how he did it, Homer replies, "I discovered a meal between breakfast and brunch!") Orange County now has three distinct brunch experiences: the ethnic, the ones with gorgeous views, and those where the mimosas and Bloody Marys usually never end. And below are those with the best food (Las Brisas in Laguna Beach has the most legendary view in OC and stiff drinks, but the food? Let's be honest—meh). There is overlap between the three, of course, but hey: view this as an easy guide to decide where to eat comfortably with your mother, your love or your pals who don't freak out that English isn't the primary language. Enjoy!
BRUNCH WITH A VIEW
Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel
All these years later, even as its cost has risen from $50 just five years ago to today's $65 and gas prices have made a visit to Dana Point nearly impossible for most of Orange County, the Ritz-Carlton's Sunday champagne brunch remains the standard by which all OC brunches are compared. It's no longer the all-you-can-eat buffet-table excess of years past, but now held at the resort's excellent RAYA as a three-course special with endless bubbly. The stunning views remain, as does the Ritz's impeccable service, making even the most yeoman among us feel like one of the lords of Orange County—if only for an omelet. 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 240-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com.
River's End Cafe
Here is perhaps the only place in Orange County outside San Clemente where brunch on the beach is affordable and delicious: patio dining alongside the mouth of the San Gabriel River, with families, beach bums and tourists alike sipping Bloody Marys and enjoying the restaurant's mix of Mexican (quesadillas, crunchy chilaquiles), American (omelets, puffy pancakes, sweet French toast) and Mexican-American (a greasy-good chorizo scramble, hefty breakfast burritos). Brunch like a Corona del Mar-er at Stanton prices. 15 First St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-5558; www.riversendcafe.com.
Belgian waffles just like you'd find in Belgium! In fact, you'll find two kinds of waffles at this buzzed-about place: the dense, sweet Liège-style waffle studded inside with crunchy pearls of sugar and the savory, light, Brussels-style kind that Bruxie uses to make its namesake sandwiches. What's the difference? American waffles use baking powder for lift, while waffles in Belgium rely also on yeast to give them an even airier, lighter and crisp texture. The unsweetened Brussels waffle makes a versatile vehicle for both savory and sweet sandwiches. Bruxie's regular menu features favorites such as the smoked salmon, cucumber and herbed cream cheese; the applewood-smoked bacon and Tillamook Cheddar sandwich; and the Belgian chocolate, graham cracker and toasted-marshmallow cream. But there's also a rotating menu of daily specials, which, on Saturdays, might make use of whatever ingredients the farmers bring to the Orange Home Grown market just two blocks away. And afterward, you can mosey through Old Towne Orange, the best post-brunch, non-coast stroll in the county. 292 N. Glassell St., Orange, (888) 927-8943; www.bruxie.com.
The Restaurant at Tustin Ranch Golf Club
If you've ever craved seafood and prime rib at 10 in the morning and relish flushing it down with bottomless mimosas, then the Restaurant a Tustin Ranch Golf Club just might be your mecca. A Sunday brunch here includes foods you'd expect (waffles and eggs from their own stations), as well as some you don't (sashimi and Korean chicken). As you gaze over the green, undulating hills of the course, you eat it all, drink yourself tipsy on the never-ending mimosas, for this, you realize, is the last hurrah for a weekend that'll be over in less than 24 hours. 12442 Tustin Ranch Rd., Tustin, (714) 734-2111; www.tustinranchgolf.com.
Storytellers Café at Disney Grand Californian Hotel
Disney did a lot of things wrong when it built that second theme park, mistakes it's trying very hard to correct now. But one thing it got right is the Storytellers Café, the Vegas-style buffet inside the Grand Californian Hotel, which doesn't surprise you so much as it fulfills your every Disney-fan expectations. What Disney lacks in kitchen panache, it makes up for it with consistency and efficiency. Costumed Disney characters frolic to delight your kids, and Mickey Mouse-head waffles dusted with powdered sugar are sized exactly to fit inside little hands. It all sets the right tone and gets you in the mood for a day at the park. 1600 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 635-2300.
Rick's Atomic Cafe
To be clear, Rick LeBlanc stops serving his breakfast at around 11, give or take an hour, so technically, his Atomic Cafe doesn't do brunch. And he's only open weekdays, which puts a damper on the weekend ritual we're talking about here. But we're including him just the same because more than once, he has cooked us an egg breakfast at the same time he made us a sandwich. He'll do it because he's a nice guy, a food nerd with horned-rimmed glasses and a buzz cut that makes him look more like a NASA engineer than a cook. He'll salt things with care and put in some elbow grease to hand-squeeze a dozen oranges just so he can give you one glass brimming with pulp. And oh, Rick's potatoes! The cubed spuds burst with flavor, steam and other intangible toe-curling properties. It's worth taking the morning off from your workday and calling your lunch a brunch. 3100 Airway Ave., Ste. 113, Costa Mesa, (714) 825-0570; www.ricksatomiccafe.com.
Irvine Farmers' Market
While University Plaza is full of places to get great brunches—Britta's Cafe, Le Diplomate, Cha for Tea, Peet's Coffee, Lee's Sandwiches, etc.—on Saturdays, the best way to eat is to graze while walking up and down the aisles of the huge Irvine Farmers Market held on its parking lot from 8 a.m. to noon. While fruit samples are the obvious choice, pair them with a packet of granola from Sconeage Bakery and Greek yogurt from Soledad Goats. Buy brioche from Picket Lane Bakery, and add apple butter from Ha's Apple Farm. If you want food prepared for you, there are tamales and Vietnamese rice-paper wraps. And just try walking past Blackmarket Bakery without stopping. For that morning pick-me-up, there's usually fair-trade coffee available in the aisle with Dry Dock Fish and 5 Bar Beef. Campus Drive and Bridge Road, Irvine; orange.cfbf.com/cfm.htm.
The real surfers of OC hit the waves before the tourist mobs and the groms invade, but Main Street is pretty dead—except for the Sugar Shack. Grab a table outside if you can, and abuse the free refills of coffee while you watch Surf City wake up. The food is standard American-diner brunch fare, from pancake plates and egg plates to tuna melts and burgers; the omelets are the best bet. While nobody in his right mind would describe it as quiet—it's usually uproarious—it's pretty bro-free and laidback, a slice of old Huntington Beach before the huge development of the late 1990s. 213 1/2 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 536-0555; www.hbsugarshack.com.
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BRUNCH WITH YOUR IMMIGRANT PALS
This dive at the southern edge of Santa Ana is busy from morning until night with locals and workers, but the weekend brunch hour brings out families from across Orange County who have a mami who doesn't want to cook that day. The menu is straightforward home cooking—huevos rancheros and huevos with chorizo, steaming bowls of menudo or birria, and tacos as big as your palm. But the most popular dish during this hour is the chilaquiles, a big mess of ripped-up tortilla strips that are lightly fried, then topped with an egg prepared your way and buried underneath a sea of red or green salsa. The beans and rice on the side are almost pointless, as the chilaquiles on their own are almost the best in Orange County. That's because . . . (read the next blurb!) 3121 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 557-0907; www.taqueriazamora.net.
Amorelia Mexican Café
. . . the best chilaquiles in Orange County are at Amorelia Mexican Café, an otherwise too-expensive Costa Mesa restaurant. The chilaquiles are not only cheaper than Zamora's take, but also delivered as a bigger serving and more refined. The eggs are artfully prepared instead of served as a glorious slop, and the tortilla chips achieve the impossible—a meeting between the just-hardened-and-fried pieces of a Mexican mother's chilaquiles and the softness of Zamora's. And the sauce—a tomato-based condiment that nevertheless sneaks up on unsuspecting sinuses—is as intricate as a harp. 2200 Harbor Blvd., Ste. C-110, Costa Mesa, (949) 646-1422.
Menudo gets all the attention from gabachos when it comes to hangover-curing Mexican soups served on weekends, but it's birria that's the true beaut: roasted goat served in its drippings, furious and gamy and smelly and magnificent. Better yet, you don't have to be borracho to enjoy it, as evidenced by the families patronizing El Cabrito in Santa Ana every late morning (not just weekends). You can order the birria seca (shredded and dry), on the bone or in a soup, but always ask for the consommé on the side, so you can spike it with oil-based salsa, throw in some oregano and enjoy the greatest morning pick-me-up to your day since Cuban coffee. 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8461.
Dim sum restaurants come in two varieties: the traditional type where matronly ladies push steaming carts loaded with batches of food, or the type where you select off a menu and the chefs cook your food to order. Crystal Jade serves in the newer, order-off-a-menu style, so your siu mai, har gow and cha siu bao arrive piping-hot from the kitchen. As with a good cover band who know how to win over a new audience, the dim sum selection mostly focuses on the genre's greatest hits rather than the innovative-but-unfamiliar. The attractive room has the quiet, modern elegance of upscale Cantonese restaurants that have opened in the past decade in the Los Angeles region. 6511 Quail Hill Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 725-3368; cjasiandining.com.
King Lobster Palace
King Lobster Palace's dim sum carts are filled with an immaculately prepared array of morsels as epic as you'll find in any of those San Gabriel Valley places with Ocean or Harbor in their name. The prices hover around the $2 to $4 range for items such as har gow, chicken feet and sticky rice steamed in leaves. After 11 a.m., you can transition to the lunch specials, which include a dish of your choice served with rice, soup, an egg roll and a pork shu mai—in case you didn't already get one from the carts. 2045 N Tustin St., Orange, (714) 282-9788; www.kinglobsterpalace.com.
Champion Food Co.
For a different, non-dim sum Chinese brunch experience, try Champion Food Co. The choice beverage to sip isn't tea, but rather steaming soy milk, which becomes the thing for dipping foot-long, flaky, oily golden crullers called "Twist Dough" or you tiao. Onion pancakes—essentially nothing but flour, salt, fat and scallions rolled thin and layered over one another—are pan-fried with an egg cracked over the top. The sesame pie with beef, which is more like a shredded beef taco than a pie, is savory enough for lunch. But the best things to munch are the rice rolls: gummy and glue-y because of the glutinous rice, crunchy and savory thanks to the filling they put in the center. When it seems a bar brawl between Snap, Crackle and Pop has broken out in your mouth, you've got the right dish. 17090 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley, (714) 841-0398.
Tacos el Chavito
There are high-end brunches and low-end brunches in Orange County, but the county's cheapest late-morning meal is at Tacos el Chavito, a popular taco truck that moves between two locations in the Slater Slums of Huntington Beach. While the draw is the tacos—two of them will set you back a dollar, and there are usually eight or nine choices of meat, from spicy carne adobada to tender cabeza— the truck sends out its share of tortas and even a few burritos. The red cups you see people drinking from contain nothing more than agua de piña (pineapple drink), so sweet it will give you a pseudo-caffeinated kick. It's free with purchase; just ask. Six or eight small tacos garnished with the self-service pickled vegetables located near the front of the truck, plus the aforementioned pineapple drink, eaten on the curb? The perfect budget brunch. On Morgan Street between Slater Avenue and Speer Drive (Mon.-Fri.); or on Queens Lane at Barton Drive (Sat.-Sun.), Huntington Beach.
While Kareem's is well-known for some of the best falafels in the county, its menu includes a huge section labeled "breakfast." Unfortunately, it doesn't open until 11 a.m., so the so-called "breakfast" menu is really a brunch menu. Try fuul mudammas, like a creamy hummus made of fava beans, or get an omelet made with onions and plenty of parsley. Shakshuka, the Levantine mixture of spiced tomatoes with eggs cooked into it, will require an entire basket of pita bread to soak up all the garlicky sauce. For a lighter, more traditional Arabic breakfast, order tea, labneh (creamy cheese), olives and pita bread, then sit in the warm sun. 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-6829.
Whichever Filipino genius invented the concept of a silog ought to be nominated for sainthood; the tradition of your choice of fried eggs, garlic fried rice and your choice of protein, all in huge portions alongside coconut vinegar, atchara (pickled green mango) and fresh tomatoes is a gut-busting way to kick your brain into overdrive. Pinoy Fiesta, a long turo-turo, or steam table, joint in downtown Anaheim, has several types. While cured or vinegared whole fish such as tuyo or daing nab angus may be out of reach of the typical non-Pinoy, anyone should be able to enjoy the tapsilog with sweet cured beef or the tosilog with sweet cured pork belly—bacon's Pacific Island cousin. The sticky longganisa sausages, a holdover from the old days when it was Kalesa Grill, are a winner. Amd none of this should set you back more than $5 or so per plate. 160 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 778-1250.
Because China Garden serves dim sum every day, you'd think some of the folks who line up every weekend would take advantage of a less-busy workday. But people have been queueing for years at the grand dame of Irvine's Cantonese restaurants because the carts get filled with more items on weekend brunch hours and turn over quicker. Sure, such usual suspects as baked or steamed char siu bao, shiu mai, har gow, and sweet tofu are there any time. But Saturdays and Sundays are when you'll find various seafood dumplings, the xiao long bao (known in English as soup dumplings), and the live seafood specially trucked in for the weekend's crowds. Check the handwritten menus for specials on live shrimp and lobster, as well as seasonal seafood such as live king crabs, Dungeness crabs and geoduck clams, if you want to splurge on your dim sum meal. 14825 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 653-9988.
Pho—the assemble-it-yourself beef noodle soup—is the all-day breakfast of Vietnam. In the morning, when the broth is younger, the soup is lighter and easier to approach; by evening, after the broth has been replenished several times, it's deep and rich. While dozens of pho shops in Little Saigon open early, Pho 86, a sliver of restaurant located in a prototypical Westminster strip mall next to an unremodeled Albertsons, stands head and shoulders above the competition thanks to the meat, especially the sublime, quivering cubes—yes, cubes—of fatty brisket that soften in the hot soup and lend an unctuous sheen to the broth. 14576 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 839-4591.
Jang Mo Gip
Sulungtang is a soup prepared by simmering beef bones for 12 hours until they surrender their nutrients to a broth as murky as milk. The dish will bear comparisons to Vietnamese pho, Mexican birria and Japanese tonkotsu, but unlike those, it's ladled out and served where most soups begin—before it's seasoned. You season the brew from a vessel of sea salt and chopped scallions. Add just a pinch of salt, then taste; keep adding until you notice the soup transforming from dishwater to a rich, fully bloomed, buttery-rich, beefy elixir. A typical single-serving sulungtang contains shavings of brisket and some jiggly vermicelli noodles. Most of those who come to slurp this supposed-morning-after hangover tonic do it after dumping mounds of a potent garlic-powered kimchi into it, a kimchi that has garnered Jang Mo Gip coverage from coast to coast. 9816 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714)534-1340.
Loreley Restaurant at the Phoenix Club
It's easy to forget Anaheim was settled by Germans, given the United Nations-like diversity the city now boasts, but a taste of the old country lurks along the Santa Ana River. Best known for Oktoberfest, the Loreley Restaurant at the Phoenix Club also serves an outstanding Sunday brunch, and the German pancakes—thin, lacy creations wrapped around a lemon-flavored, fresh cheese filling—might be the best sweet breakfast in Orange County. The savories include a wide selection of hot and cold sausages, some cured in-house; eggs in a few preparations; sauerbraten with potatoes; and a hot carving station that usually serves ham and either roast beef or standing rib roast. The service is old-fashioned and gracious, and the room itself looks like a throwback to social clubs of the 1950s. 1340 S. Sanderson Ave., Anaheim, (714) 563-4164; www.thephoenixclub.com.
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BRUNCH WITH BOOZE
Plums Café serves food that's distinctly Pacific Northwestern, a grub devised to fortify lumberjacks and other hardy souls against damp weather and rugged terrain. Dutch babies, its signature brunch item, is described as a deep-dish pancake, but with its girth and puffiness, it can double as Paul Bunyan's shower cap. And, of course, there is smoked salmon, scented of sweet alderwood and tossed into a chunky hash with red potatoes, onions and peppers. To this, a poached egg with Hollandaise makes the plate perfect for an Oregonian day, whether it's jamming with a grunge band or hauling lumber. 369 E. 17th St., Ste. 7, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586; www.plumscafe.com.
Break of Dawn
Dee Nguyen is no stranger to lists like these. As far as this rag is concerned, the former Ritz-Carlton chef who struck out on his own to create OC's preeminent brunch stop in the shadow of the Laguna Hills Mall is the Godfather of Brunch. Who knew that what we've been missing all these years is the thing he calls tempura-poached egg? Or that Portuguese sausage, scallion purée and pickled green papaya salad are the multicultural friends your sunny-side-up has always needed? We could write about the beef short rib or the crème brûlée French toast with Mexican chocolate, but really, by now, you should've already paid your respects and had your lives and bellies enriched by il capo di tutti brunch capi. 24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418; www.breakofdawnrestaurant.com.
Ramos House Café
By OC standards, the Ramos House Café is a relic, an antique from the 19th Century nestled across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano. The food served in the restaurant, though, is thoroughly modern. Rather than a huge buffet, the Ramos House offers a two-course menu. As a starter, try the sweet hush puppies served with sweet-pepper jam or the caramelized citrus salad. For a main course, pain perdu (French toast) is updated with strawberries and basil, and the crab hash might be one of the most sensuous breakfast foods around. The indecisive can also opt for a $25 tasting menu, with small portions of five items ranging from duck hash to an apple-cinnamon beignet. 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-1342; www.ramoshouse.com.
The Mexican concept of brunch usually involves things such as barbacoa, menudo or birria eaten with the family; the Taco Rosa version is more like a Mexican spin on American brunch. The Irvine location used to serve a prix fixe table-service brunch; it has since moved to the buffet model like its big sister in Newport Beach. A large selection of pan dulces, an omelet bar with the option to make yours into a breakfast burrito, and made-to-order pancakes are the mainstays of the buffet. It's a champagne brunch, but if you ask nicely, you may be able to get a glass of its good sangria instead. A mariachi strolls around taking requests—earn some Mexican credit by asking for something other than the usual five songs he always sings; try "Cucurrucucú Paloma." 2632 San Miguel Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 720-0980; also at 13792 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (714) 505-6080; www.tacorosa.com.
The Sunday Jazz Brunch at TAPS is the saving grace for a city otherwise reduced to eating at Denny's, Carrows or IHOP. Reservations are a must, and the $36 price tag is not for the faint of heart, but the buffet is admittedly impressive. While nearly everyone makes a beeline for the huge platter of boiled, chilled shrimp, the smart money is on the house-smoked salmon and oysters on the half-shell. The buffet features a full carving station, the required omelet station, even a station where bananas Foster is made to order. Most Sunday brunches come with champagne, but TAPS is as much brewery as fish house, and one of its excellent beers is likely to pair better with your food choices. 101 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 257-0101; www.tapsfishhouse.com.
The Italian-Mediterranean menu takes a back seat to American favorites such as steel-cut oatmeal, French toast and buttermilk pancakes during Lucca Cafe's weekend brunch service. The thing to get is the eggs Lucca: country ham and grilled asparagus served over two crisp baguettes and topped with two perfectly poached eggs and a Bearnaise sauce whisked with coarse-grain mustard, tarragon and cognac. There's no bar, so Bloody Marys are off the table, but mimosas are made with fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the café has a good wine selection with many grape varietals. 6507 Quail Hill Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 725-1773; www.luccacafe.net.
Nick's Laguna Beach
Nick's isn't a greasy-spoon sort of dive, but rather a posh, downtown Laguna Beach bar-and-restaurant where you'd expect to see Hollywood celebrities on a staycation. The high-end touches show up not only in the food, but also at the bar, where all the juices, save for the cranberry, are fresh-squeezed. The aroma of essential oils from a just-squeezed orange brightens the house mimosa, which you can mix to your taste with a split of Freixenet cava. The house Bloody Mary has a kick of Serrano heat from a salsa-like tomato mix and comes with a breaded olive deep-fried to order. The menu is small and focused, with omelets and eggs anchoring the selection, and chilaquiles, brûléed oatmeal and Belgian waffles thrown in for a little carb variety. Keeping the menu small allows the kitchen to pay attention to such details as crisping up hash-brown potatoes with a thick, dark crust that every restaurant ought to imitate. And those potatoes look and taste hand-shredded, with perfect texture and the skins left on for flavor. 440 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-8595; www.thenickco.com.
Old Vine Café
There's technically no brunch at this Costa Mesa gem, but it doesn't matter: Its omelets and sweet dishes are impeccable, and the lunch sandwiches are hearty enough to soak up all the booze of the previous night. But what's most impressive is Old Vine's side business of selling wine: champagne, sure, but also Prosecco, cava, and all the other bubblies that make killer mimosas with Old Vine's organic orange juice. Just ask—better yet, buy a bottle to take home. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 545-1411; www.oldvinecafe.com.
Weekends turn the always-experimenting Avanti Café into organic-brunch central, with vegan biscuits and gravy that taste straight out of a Route 66 diner, sweet French toast and all the other signature brunch dishes. But its shining star is a fantastic margarita, perhaps the best in OC: It's a bit more tart than what you're used to, and that's because honest-to-goodness lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit juices are tempered by a citrus-scented organic cane syrup. And, oh, yeah, the alcohol: fermented vodka and tequila, just to tickle your brain that much more. One margarita, two margarita, three margarita, floor! 259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-2224; www.avantinatural.com.
This article appeared in print as "Bunch of Brunch! OC's Best Brunches: The Ethnic, the Gorgeous Views and the Bottomless Booze!"
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1 Ritz-Carlton Dr.
Dana Point, CA 92629
12442 Tustin Ranch Rd.
Tustin, CA 92782
1600 S. Disneyland Drive Anaheim, CA
Anaheim, CA 92802