Photo by James BunoanOC should stand for "Ongoing Construction." Ever since the Spaniards forced Indians to erect Mission San Juan Capistrano under the threat of conversion, building and renovating have been the overriding scenic philosophy of county overlords. All suffer—with the exception of paid-by-the-hour Caltrans, of course. But especially vulnerable are restaurants, which because of the county's commuter-centric transportation infrastructure depend on navigable streets to entice the hungered. Eateries usually suffer a heavy drop in revenue as the slightest hint of orange signs or broken asphalt drives drivers away.
There are currently many restaurants where business is dying because of their city's never-ending efforts to appear like South County. Most of them are empty, some of them are delicious, but all are deserving of attention during their rough economic times.
One restaurant that just recently weathered such a period is Cuisine House (715 N. Main, Santa Ana, 714-836-7580). It was already difficult to find the place before construction; it has no parking of its own, it is dwarfed by a video store occupying the same building, and the storefront advertises itself with the perplexing sign "Chinese Food + Video Store." So when Main Street—as part of downtown Santa Ana's continued gentrification—underwent a massive upheaval last year, the owners stood outside, trying to wave commuters toward their place. But admirers of cheap Chinese are returning now that the renovation on Cuisine House's section of Main is complete. Especially appetizing is the shrimp curry (which retains a sweetly spicy essence) and a spicy, breaded chicken that most fast-food Chinese joints don't make, much less excel at. The combo-plate deal (three entrées, fried rice and chow mein for five bucks) has few county peers for taste, cost and spilling out of its container.
Construction on Melrose Street and Crowther Avenue in Placentia might not seem to directly affect business in nearby Old Town Placentia since it lies south of the tourist destination. But the complete shutdown of Melrose combined with the temporary narrowing of Crowther to a treacherous one-lane avenue thwarts would-be customers coming from Anaheim (who constitute a major portion of the strip's revenue). They now have to take an extremely roundabout path up Placentia Avenue, around Chapman Avenue then through narrow Bradford Avenue.
The Melrose/Crowther project affects not just one restaurant but also the entire district, so partake of as many of them as possible. In fact, an entire day's meal routine can be had here. Begin the morning with the filling breakfast plates of El Farolito (201 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, 714-993-7880), head across the street at lunchtime to Mr. Q's Tortas (220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, 714-993-3270) for titanic tortas (a better carne asada selection can only be found at baptisms), and return in the evening for a glorious dinner replete with mariachi at Tlaquepaque(111 W. Santa Fe Ave., Placentia, 714-528-8515).
Preparing for the destruction of construction is Billy Boy Burgers (300 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton 714-871-4181) on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Lemon Street. The place itself out-Norms Norms for greasy opulence, with an especially addictive appetizer being the fried zucchini. Creamy malts? Near-toppling hamburgers? Indigestible hot dogs? But of course! But the city is trying to attract more yuppies by constructing new apartments in its attractive downtown, of which Billy Boy lies on the edge. Consequently, Commonwealth is about to be torn apart, which will obstruct the diner's driveway and scare off most of its customers.
One restaurant that hasn't seen business suffer despite continuous construction, though, is Mos 2(1008 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, 714-772-8543). By repaving Lincoln Avenue and refurbishing the historic Five Points Building so it can house something more dignified than a wig emporium (which it did), the city is trying to revitalize the downtown it ruined about 25 years ago. Unfortunately, Mos 2 is in the middle of this mess, and midyear is the due date for the project's conclusion. The only way to get into the tiny shack is through a temporary driveway consisting of uneven asphalt slabs whose drop even the sturdiest shocks can't absorb. And yet the masses continue, drawn by obscenely giant yet affordable teriyaki bowls erupting with white rice and a choice of sake-tinged beef slices, chicken pieces or tender pork. The horchata (in a nod to the heavily Latino clientele) is surprisingly sweet, and the hidden gem is a teriyaki burger that in a just reality would relegate hometown hamburger hawker Carl Karcher back to his hot dog cart.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.