EXPENSIVE Back in the late '80s—when the yen was all-powerful and Japanese businessmen descended on rich, corporate Orange County and tried to buy everything in sight—Kitayama was the ultimate restaurant for these raiders from the East. We've seen what has happened to Japan Inc. over the past three years, but Kitayama forges on because it's such a damn good restaurant. Kitayama's fans say it's as close to fine Japanese dining as you can get without flying to Tokyo. The restaurant is beautiful, with ornate gardens and sharply furnished interiors that exude priceyness. You could easily drop a few hundred here, but you will walk out satisfied with the great meal. No steamy ramen dishes here; we're talking savory steak and seafood dishes (and unbelievable sushi and sashimi, but that's another category). My favorite is the shabu-shabu: strips of the highest-grade raw beef waved through a pan of boiling water until cooked. Then there are all sorts of sauces and vegetables to accompany the beef. In total, it's the most fun and one of the best Japanese dishes around. (TV) 101 Bayview Place, Newport Beach, (949) 725-0777.MIDRANGEThe esoteric kappo—traditional single dishes prepared in Kyoto centuries ago for the shogun—are the specialty at Osaka Kappo, and presentation is everything. So don't insult Chef Ike Itsuki by ordering kappo dishes for takeout; the mere thought of these fragile dishes sloshing around on your floorboard among empty Camel cartons is enough to give him the willies. Itsuki is well-known in Osaka, where he has prepared the traditional dishes for network television. Consider some of the exquisitely prepared la carte courses I tried one night: assertive pan-seared bonito, rare in the center, perfumed with ginger, scallions, lemongrass and ponzu sauce and served on an eggshell-thin pink ceramic dish; a platter of tender squid ringlets cooked to tenderness with sesame seeds and mushrooms in a spicy sauce presented on an aquamarine-glazed tile; Japanese-style steak with an intense depth of flavor and tender texture. And all kappo dishes are as pretty to look at as they are delicious. Itsuki's strength is in making ordinary dishes into glimpses of greatness. (KvH) 13681 Newport Ave., Ste. 9, Tustin, (714) 730-7051.CHEAP Mitae Ramen's unassuming, diner-like restaurant across the street from the Lab is a haven for noodle lovers. The multitude of ramen dishes here defies belief: heaping bowls of rich, salty broth jammed with noodles, vegetables, meat and seafood. And cheap? Order something for five bucks, and you still can't eat it all. The house special is the shrimp ramen, and for $6, you more than get your money's worth with heaps of shrimp floating among the noodles. The spicy ramen is another specialty, but be warned: this soup is excessively hot and not for amateurs. Me, I like the chicken salad with cold noodles, a perfect lunch for only $6.25. In fact, it is almost impossible to spend more than 10 bucks here on yourself. All meals come with gratis iced tea and a little cabbage salad. The $4.50 chicken-teriyaki dish is as good as you'll find elsewhere for $12. Another keeper is the gyoza (fried dumpling) combo with rice and soup for $5.50; you get eight great potsticker-type dumplings—not bad. The service here is kinda slow, but the combination of People and Japanese magazines makes passing the time much more palatable. (TV) 750 St. Clair, Costa Mesa, (714) 545-3331.
japanese, sushi EXPENSIVE There's a lot of very fine expensive sushi in this burg. Really, very fine. Fine, fine, fine. But only Aysia 101is open when you need it—at 1 in the goddamn morning, when you need something to soak up all the cosmopolitans (cosmopolitans are back, you know) but the thought of heavy, greasy hash browns in an all-night diner is curdling your already-queasy stomach. Will you have to sit next to smarmy Newport Beach types? You betcha! But the tuna is fresh and blood-red, and the chefs make the plates look real purty, festooning them with autumn leaves and the like. You'll like it. Just hand over your wallet at the door. Or marry yourself a millionaire. You know you want one anyway. (RS) 2901 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 722-4128. MIDRANGE You probably think your sushi place is the best sushi place; everyone thinks similarly of their own place. But, except for the everyones who go to Sushi Wave, everyone is wrong. We've tried them all, people. And we've found ones we really liked—for a while. Then one day, the salmon would turn musty. Musty is bad. But Sushi Wave? Sushi Wave places before your greedy little hands the freshest halibut drowning in tangy ponzu sauce, the beefiest slabs of tuna, the most delicate piles of octopus sashimi. Sushi Wave is not a rock & roll sushi place, impressing you with piercing music and pretty peeps. It doesn't need to be. It's relaxed, with music that sounds suspiciously KBIG-FM 104 and laid-back surfwear moguls chowing on the crunchy rolls. And the sushi chefs? They will never put wasabe on your sushi if you specify "no wasabe." Everyone else always forgets. But not them. No. Never them. And if you take a really small child who loves sushi, the sushi chefs will be so impressed with your small child that your total bill will be $23, even though you ordered two tunas and four halibuts and three salmons and some other stuff, too, maybe some octopus sashimi. We forget. We love Sushi Wave. We want to marry Sushi Wave. Yes. Yes, we do. (RS) 2075 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8736.CHEAPThere's a difference between cheap Japanese food and cheap sushi. You don't want to eat cheap sushi. You can see the slabs of tuna decaying before your eyes on your cute little tray, and sometimes there are bugs in it. It is bad, and your stomach will hurt, and you will roil around in pain, gnashing your teeth and moaning. Cheap Japanese food, on the other hand, can be quite yummy. Just be sure you only order noodles. Matsuais a grocery-store-sized conglomeration of shit to buy—why not get your Christmas shopping started now with some lovely tea sets and electronics?—and noodle stands open to the smart Japanese lunch set. Soba noodles, udon noodles, other noodles I don't know the names of. They're there, and they're fat and yummy and swimming in tangy broths, and they cost an average of $4 to $5. Of course, when you've actually got some money in your pocket, go get a nice halibut in ponzu sauce—from somewhere expensive. (RS) 665 Paularino, Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6699. liquid dining (the north county edition) EXPENSIVEAmid caricatures of Dillinger, Capone and Machine Gun Kelly; a Dadaistic, hulking model of the Golden Gate Bridge; a guards' tower (complete with a rifle-wielding mannequin); wooden pelicans; barred windows; and booths cut out of rocks, Alcatraz Brewing Company—a luxuriantly sleek microbrewery—isn't all that threatening. The scariest thing about the Rock is its prices. Fortunately, the beer rules: Birdman Brown, an English-style ale, won a gold medal at the 1997 Great America Beer Festival—and helped deaden my nerves with sweet maltiness. After a couple of Lifer's Sport Mugs ($5.50 each), I thought I saw Dillinger's eyes move. (CJB) The Block at Orange, 20 City Blvd. W., Ste. R-1, Orange, (714) 939-8686.MIDRANGE Tustin Brewing Company is a microbrewery that provides a stone-floored, no-frills haven for local menfolk wearing their favorite button-down from the clearance table at the Gap and sporting a Supercuts 'do. The women outclass their male counterparts—as they always do—wearing tight, silky tops and clingy skirts, sitting coyly amid beer bellies and micro-belches. The Sample Set is a great excuse to get lugged-up while "sipping" five five-ounce tasters of house brews for a reasonable $5.25. The Golden Spike light ale (served with a lemon slice) is a malt-fermented, crispy ticket to stupidsville. Pints are $3.50, but lightweights can order a pilsner for $2.75. (CJB) 13011 Newport Ave., Ste. 100, Tustin, (714) 665-BEER. CHEAPCheap drinks!! Cheap drinks!! During happy hour, Q-Club's draft brews are only $1.25, and such mixed drinks as a gin and tonic, melon ball and white Russian are a meager $2.95. Of course, you can bet your bourbon they ain't made with premium liquor, but hey, a buzz is a buzz. This is a nice neighborhood billiard room and sports bar, where good ol' boys belly up to the short, kinked bar and talk smack about the game. It's a man's pool hall, by God, where you either talk sports or shut up and shoot stick. The women who come here are serious billiard players who don't seem to mind being immersed in a brazen jungle of men. (CJB) 1525 Mesa Verde Dr. E., Costa Mesa, (714) 662-2262. liquid dining (the south county edition) EXPENSIVE Sometimes you've gotta choose: the kid's college education, or another round of margaritas? Ah, but at Las Brisas—perched above Laguna Beach's Heisler Park, granting you a luxurious after-dinner view of the sun setting over Catalina, the margaritas are so good as to make temptation irresistible. The rough edge of the tequila and triple sec is well-punctuated by the tang of lime, and it's easy to savor the salt as it lingers on your lips. Besides, all the hip professional women are impressed that you've consumed so much liquor without maxing out your Visa card, so surely Junior can spend a year at OCC? Bartender, another round! (VDI) 361 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-5434. MIDRANGE If you want to do your serious drinking without all the excess of yuppie prices and dcor, we suggest the Saloon, the original no-frills watering hole. The beer's good, the drinks are strong, and it has all the atmosphere of more upscale places, but the Saloon cuts out all the needless frills that drive up prices, like chairs. That's right: you have to stand there all night, allowing you to see exactlyhow drunk everyone around you is. (VDI) 446 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-5469.CHEAP You want ambiance? Knuckleheads in San Clemente has a big neon sign in the window that says, "Sorry. We're open." There's sawdust on the floor and a jukebox playing Agent Orange and the Clash. Food? They have buffalo wings, and if you ask for a glass, you won't get a beer mug—you'll get a Coke glass. The woman behind the bar is gorgeous, but she's smarter than you'll ever be, so don't even try pulling shit with her. They have entertainment sometimes, but Knuckleheads is really about DRINKING, and sometimes, we're really happy it's there. (VDI) 1715 El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 492-2410. mediterranean EXPENSIVEThe legend of Zov Karamardian is one of the great stories in the Orange County restaurant world. Zov took her love of cooking and started a catering business that eventually blossomed into her Tustin bistro/ bakery. Zov's Bistro is so good that certain foodies from LA drive south once a week to eat here. Zov takes a little from Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and North Africa and blends it into one of the most intriguing menus south of Wilshire. There's pan-seared Moroccan salmon on a bed of couscous, rotisserie pork prime rib with sun-dried-cherry sauce, and a seafood tagine of mussels, clams, prawns and sea bass. Zov's also serves the best rack of lamb in the county. Since the bakery appears in this issue's bakery category, you can bet the desserts are A-one, too. And if you don't feel like paying the dinner prices, try lunch and some of the best sandwiches you'll ever have. The signature sandwiches are the wraps —which Zov served before they were trendy. (TV) 17740 E. 17th St., Ste. A, Tustin, (714) 838-8855. MIDRANGE Tosh's encompasses all of what used to be the Ottoman Empire with appetizing Greek, Turkish and Arabic dishes. And maybe the Siege of Vienna. Your exotic feast starts with such Lebanese appetizers as eggplant dips and stuffed grape leaves and continues with a wacky array of meat dishes, highlighted by delicious kebab dishes. These kebabs come Greek- (gyros), Turkish- (adana —seasoned ground beef mixed with onions and parsley) or just all-purpose Mediterranean-style (a lamb-chop kebab marinated in yogurt sauce). These kebabs can be ordered as-is or Alexander-style with a homemade yogurt-and-tomato-herb sauce. Pay the extra two bucks and get the Alexander; it makes the kebabs come alive. Erdem and Esin Denktas, Mr. and Mrs. Tosh, also like their vegetarian dishes, featuring globe-trotting choices like the Arabic Connection (baba ghanoush, hummus and tabbouleh salad), the Turkish Connection (fried eggplant with garlic sauce, vegetable dolmas and rice pilaf) and the Greek Connection (a spanakopita—a pastry stuffed with spinach and feta cheese—served with a Greek salad). The restaurant is tough to spot off Huntington Beach's busy Beach Boulevard, but once inside, you'll never forget the draped ceilings and Oriental carpets, all reminding you of a sultan's tent. But you won't pay his ransom to eat there—most dishes are around $10. (TV) 16871 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-3315. CHEAP The best reason to take classes at Chapman University is Papa Hassan's Cafe, located just a sand wedge over a liquor store from campus. Built into one of the area's old homes, this quaint place makes for one of OC's better Lebanese restaurants, with delicious kebab dishes and a tasty selection of appetizers like kibbe, hummus and stuffed grape leaves. Papa Hassan's wins this category because of its monster pita lunches, none of which costs more than five bucks. The barbecued-lamb pita called a shawirma is an ungodly delicious bargain at $4.50; the warm pita is stuffed with this delectable meat, tomatoes, onions and a tangy yogurt sauce. I could eat one of these every day and never get tired of it. But if I need a break from the meat, I'd move over to the almost-as-good falafel pita. The falafel here is a bit spicier than you may be used to, and I like how they cook it just a bit longer to make it that much crisper. (TV) 421 Glassell St., Orange, (714) 633-3903. mexican EXPENSIVEOkay, so Caf Hidalgo isn't really a Mexican restaurant, but expensive Mexican food is somewhat of an oxymoron, anyhow. This excellent Fullerton restaurant leans toward Southwestern, but at the heart of this cuisine are the hearty flavors of Sonora. A chile-pepper crust coats the ahi tuna ($16.95), and border chiles are the base of many sauces. The guajillo pepper steak ($15.95) is covered with a bitter, spicy red chile sauce that makes this fine cut of meat come alive (this might be my favorite steak in OC, but that's another category). Overall, Caf Hidalgo is a gem of downtown Fullerton, the centerpiece of the old area's new vibrancy. The restaurant itself features a sexy mix of chile-powder-colored walls, terra-cotta tile floors and thick wooden furniture. At night, candlelight flickers in the darkened room, and when it's warm, the patio windows are opened, letting in the downtown night. For this and all the other reasons, Caf Hidalgo is OC's most alluring new restaurant. (TV) 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 447-3202. MIDRANGEThe enchiladas at Javier's Cantina & Grill, nestled conveniently in downtown Laguna Beach, are served dripping with cheese and steaming-hot fillings. Every dish here brims with flavor, like the chile relleno—you can taste the mild tang of the pepper as you bite into it; at other places I've been, the chile's flavor is often overwhelmed by the fillings stuffed inside. Even the cantina's tacos are delicious, overflowing with meat, cheese, fresh guacamole, cool sour cream and hot salsa. If there's a drawback to this place, it's the temptation to order too much. The portions aren't for dainty appetites. Like most good—if slightly yuppified—Mexican restaurants, the meals are best enjoyed on the outside patio while drinking a cool margarita in the warm Laguna air. (VDI) 480 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1239.CHEAPI went to Chicago before I wrote this, and I couldn't wait for the great food that was ahead. I kept hearing how great Chicago's steak is, and I figured there would be enough stuff to entertain my picky palate. I am not a vegetarian, but I just don't like plain steak. I couldn't decide which meal was my favorite: it was either the ham croissant sandwich I had on the way to Chicago or the raspberry yogurt on the way back. Did I mention I hate raspberries? The first thing I did when my plane touched down on God's paved Earth was ditch my family and head straight for El Camino Realin Fullerton. I had dreamed of the potato taquitos ($4.49) and begged for the carne-asada burrito ($2.95). There is something about a burrito so big that you can stand it up like a baby without worrying about it falling over. It might not have all the bells and whistles of a seven-layer burrito, but when the steak is combined with the rice that is in the sweet spot between mushy and dry and El Camino's creamy beans . . . well, vegetarians just don't know what they're missing. (JS) 303 N. Euclid St., Fullerton, (714) 447-3962. peruvianEditor's note: The cheapest menu items at the restaurants highlighted here are $1.50, and only a buck separates the most expensive dishes at all three. Still, a food-issue gimmick is a food-issue gimmick. . . .EXPENSIVE If you don't have a cold now, you will soon. Trust me. Well, get out of bed and march yourself to Inka Grill, mister. Order the parihuela, a bouillabaisse of fish, clams, shrimp and calamari in a spicy tomato sauce. The steam rising from the bowl will be enough to clear any knotted sinus. And once you've tidied up the snot stream and can actually smell that steam, you won't be able to resist biting into the tender sea-creature remnants that get a kick in the tail fins of the flavorful broth. The arroz con mariscos, a paella that mixes those same sea meats in cilantro rice, is also mighty yummy. (MC) 23600 Rockfield, Ste. 2-K, Lake Forest, (949) 587-9008; 260 S.E. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 444-4652. MIDRANGE Of our three amigos, Peruvian Grill seems the most upscale because of its intimate dcor and the magic that chef Renzo Macchiavello works in his strip-mall suite. I've raved before about the empanadas, but there's so much more that I don't know where to begin. Okay, how about lunch, where sandwiches from the grill —the Peruvian take on the Mexican torta—are packed with chicken, steak, fish or veggies for only $4.50 (for a buck more, you can add gourmet fries)? You'll find the usual Peruvian suspects for dinner, albeit flecked with Macchiavello's intriguing herbs and sauces. Do yourself a favor and have him whip up something special for you. Thankfully, beer and wine are now served, too. (MC) 9606 Hamilton St., Huntington Beach, (714) 593-3883. CHEAP If you've got a large group eager to party, go to El Pollo Inka. The walls are adorned with blacklight-type scenes of Peru's landscape that help get you in the festive mood, there's a dance floor and—on Saturday nights—live entertainment. The specialty of the casa is rotisserie chicken, and a good introductory dish is the combo Inka, which features one-quarter of the bird, white rice, brown beans, and a small salad with a dressing that's similar to Italian but more watery. It's only $6.95, and it comes with an Inka Soda to wash it all down. For $1.90 more, order your table the yucca, which is fried cassava strips (like thick-cut fries) you dip in an unbelievably tasty cilantro dressing. (MC) 400 S. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 772-2263. scandinavian EXPENSIVE As soon as Christmas lights begin appearing on buildings other than the TBN Worldwide Headquarters, visions of herring and gravad lax start dancing in my head. For this is when the posh restaurant Gustaf Anders hosts its annual button-popping, well-worth-$49-per-person smrgsbord, which features Swedish Christmastime specialties, plus many items that can be ordered in slightly different variations throughout the year. Typical for the land of rules, Swedish custom dictates that a smrgsbord be visited in an orderly fashion. The first trip starts with such cold fish dishes as caviar and pickled herring (last year's offbeat offerings included tangy curry herring); subsequent trips continue with warm fish (Jansson's Temptation, a traditional potato-anchovy casserole), cold cuts (Swedish ham), non-fish hot foods (meatballs) and cheese, and conclude with dessert (the marzipan-covered princess cake is a must). Of course, it's utterly impossible to try everything, so veering from tradition—and, say, focusing on herring—is to be expected. A person can only eat so much food—particularly when it's rich and salty. And you wash it all down with lots of schnapps and beer. Proprietors William Gustaf Magnuson and Ulf Anders Strandberg keep the love coming during the rest of the year with such eclectic cuisine as a wild-rice pancake with golden caviar and smoked Scottish salmon. Back Pocket—their more casual eatery attached to the main restaurant —offers kalops (a Swedish-style beef stew), a baked gravad lax sandwich, and a $10 herring buffet, which at least gives you a small taste of the Christmas extravagance. (AB) 3851 Bear St., Ste. B21, Santa Ana, (714) 668-1737; www.imenu.com/gustaf-anders.htm. MIDRANGECafeterias are commonplace in Swedish department stores and grocery chains, so it's no surprise that IKEA, the Swedish build-it-yourself furnishing store, has its own: The Lingonberry Caf. Their meatballs are no match for my mom's, but they're an okay substitute in their own right—for meatballs that were once frozen (the still-frozen meatballs are available for home use in the downstairs marketplace). The $5.95 manager's special offers more than enough food for two people to share: meatballs, gravy, red potatoes, lingonberry jam, your choice of soup or salad (unfortunately, no pea soup), roll or crisp bread, and a fountain drink (my choice: the lingonberry drink). If you're in the mood for seafood, try the gravad lax by itself or on a baguette. The best dessert items are the imported ones: cocoa balls, mazariner and vacuum cleaners (small marzipan-chocolate rolls that don't sound as strange when you say them in Swedish, I swear). Of course, Swedish dessert wouldn't be complete without Swedish coffee: Lfbergs Lila, "the coffee with a little extra!" I have a suspicion that someone—most certainly a non-Swede—complained about the strength of the coffee because you can kind of see the bottom of the cup. But being surrounded by a room full of IKEA furniture is almost enough to make me feel I'm back in the land of the Vikings. And technically, the prices here are more on the cheap end of the food spectrum, but you can't visit the caf without buying something called Giftig or Tunga. (AB) 2982 El Camino Real Blvd., Tustin, (714) 838-4000.CHEAPAround this time of year, semlor—cream-filled buns with a bit of almond paste in the center—crowd Swedish bakery windows. Introduced from Germany several centuries ago, these Lenten buns had a dramatic impact on Swedish history when in 1771 King Adolf Fredrik gorged himself to death on semlor and champagne. You, too, can gorge yourself at The Great Dane Baking Company. Owned by Dane Jodi Pedersen, the bakery specializes in Scandinavian pastries, breads and cakes. Besides items coated and filled with marzipan, they also have baked goods with cardamom, an Indian herb that has somehow found its way into Scandinavian baking. Their soft cardamom rolls are superb, although they've topped them with granulated sugar instead of the traditional (in Sweden, at least) pearl sugar. My heart leapt when I saw their Bavarian-creme filled hearts, which I have yet to see offered anywhere else outside Sweden. And I would tell you whether their almond-paste mazariner are as tasty as they are pretty, but someone swiped the treble-clef-topped one I bought from the office refrigerator. The Great Dane also has yummy—but not really Scandinavian per se—bistro-style sandwiches. I recommend their roasted chicken with sun-dried-tomato pesto, goat cheese and pine nuts ($5.35). If you're looking for Scandinavian-style, open-faced sandwiches, though, your best bet is to buy some of their Swedish limpa or Danish rye bread; travel to IKEA's marketplace and buy Kalles Kaviar, Swedish cheeses and the like; and make one at home. (AB) 6855 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-1130. seafood EXPENSIVE If you want quality, you've gotta pay for it. Los Alamitos Fish Co. has dishes that will set you back a helluva lotta pretty pennies (the price range is $14.95 to $40.95 per dish), but I'm going to guarantee right here that it'll be among the best seafood dinners you've ever had. While the Fish Co.'s landlocked locale can't afford stunning views of the waters many of the creatures on your plate once called home, the place more than makes up for it with the freshness, care in preparation, and presentation of your meal. I've had hubcap-sized hunks of swordfish here that are beyond words. Whether you prefer your fish fried, mesquite-broiled or blackened with Cajun spices, the Fish Co. chefs manage to cook your catch to absolute perfection—never overcooked until rubbery or undercooked until still flopping on the plate. My beef-eating friends tell me the New York steaks or filet mignons you can get alone or combined with certain seafoods are also excellent. The wine list is inspiring, the avocado-stuffed-with-bay-shrimp appetizer is an absolute must, and the bowl of clam chowder you get with your entre is "world-famous" whether it's the Manhattan or New England variety. And you'll become addicted to the sourdough rolls used to sop everything off your plate. Besides being OC's best seafood restaurant, this is an actual fish market boasting a large selection of just-plucked crustaceans and denizens of the deep. I took home an albacore steak on sale for $6.49 per pound the other day that—after a quick grilling on the 'cue and light spicing and lemoning —still has me clapping and orrr-orrring like a pot-bellied seal. (MC) 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, (714) 960-2229. MIDRANGE The Crab Cooker is one of those Orange County institutions that you take your out-of-town relatives to so they can sample moderately priced seafood cooked on skewers and served on paper plates next to plastic spoons and one napkin—only one napkin—and you get to sit in cramped booths next to goofy fishing-themed artwork, but first you have to stand outside and wait for your table because this place is first-come-first-served, and there's never a table ready when you get there, and because it's always bitterly cold by the beach (unless you're at the Tustin location), you'll want something warm while you're standing outside, so you'll have the Manhattan clam chowder, even though you prefer New England clam chowder, because all they serve is Manhattan clam chowder, and this will give you an opportunity to tell your relatives the story about how then-President (and then-living) Richard Nixon tried to cut to the front of the line—because, you know, he was the most powerful man in the whole free world and all—and the owner wouldn't let Nixon cut to the front because it's first-come-first-serve, so Nixon left without eating, but he wasn't mad because he was impressed that the rule applied to everyone equally, so he just cracked a joke and shook everyone's hand, and when he got back to Washington, he had J. Edgar Hoover wiretap the Crab Cooker until it was learned the visa of one of the dishwashers in the back had lapsed, so the Marines stormed the Newport beachhead and busted into the Crab Cooker with rifles drawn, and this time, the owner decided to let them cut to the front of the line. But just that one time. (MC) 2200 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-0100; 17260 17th St., Tustin, (714) 573-1077.CHEAP There are only a couple of tables outside Santa Monica Seafood, which is mostly a place to go to buy fresh or frozen fish, sauces and whatnot you'll prepare at home. But tucked inconspicuously in the corner is a takeout counter that offers very inexpensive appetizers, chowders, salads, fried seafood, sandwiches, tacos, stir-fry and grilled fish. The smoked-salmon chowder is simply amazing, so thick that it'll hold your plastic spoon up and so delicious you'll kick yourself after inhaling the $2.25 cup because you could have gotten a pint for only $1.70 more. For $5.95, you can get clam chowder in a bowl made of sourdough bread topped with melted jack cheese. But you can't visit without trying the bay shrimp cocktail ($3.95). Oh, and the wonderful crab-cake sandwich ($5.95). And the rock shrimp tacos ($6.95). And the . . . (MC) 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862; 1700 N. Main St., Orange, (714) 921-2632. southwestern EXPENSIVE There is more to Southwestern cuisine than blue and red tortilla chips. And no place in OC knows that better than Chimayo. Their creative menu—from black-bean and corn soups served side by side in a single bowl with a dash of green chile to a pumpkinseed-crusted three-cheese relleno with papaya salsa—satiates nearly every sense. The only problem with Chimayo is deciding which one to visit. And the powers that be—in this case, somebody by the name of David Wilhelm, according to classified documents obtained by the Weekly—compound the dilemma by offering different menus at their two locations. In the cozy, dark, intimate environment of the Fashion Island facility, you'll find a wide range of Southwestern selections from land and sea, costing about $12 for lunch, $15 for dinner. Over in Huntington Beach, where the warm and open atmosphere complements the beachfront setting, the menu has a slightly more diverse appeal, featuring pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven. If you can't decide which one to visit, just flip a coin. You can't lose. (AG) Chimayo Grill, Fashion Island, 327 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-2700; Chimayo at the Beach, 319 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-7273.MIDRANGE When trying out something new, it never hurts to do so in a safe, familiar setting. So if you aren't quite sure how Southwestern food differs from Mexican, you might want to go Left at Albuquerque. The menu offers a comfortable mixture of the two at $12 to $15 a pop. Just promise you'll order their "Hot off the Griddle" corn-cakes appetizer. Sure, it seems strange to eat what looks like pancakes any time after 10 a.m.—unless you're German—but go ahead. The three puffy, light cornmeal cakes are certainly large enough to tease two people. And its tequila-lime butter-and-sun-dried-tomato corn salsa is dead-on Southwestern. From there, it's up to you. Although the menu at its two OC locations is the same, their interiors couldn't be more different. And while the Block at Orange has an architectural aesthetic that makes Disneyland's Main Street look like the Getty, once you get inside, you'll discover a much more inviting atmosphere than the vaguely barn-like features in Irvine. (AG) At the Block at Orange, 20 City Blvd. W., (714) 769-4300; at Park Place, 3309 Michelson Dr., (949) 757-7600. CHEAP Although the patio's ocean view is obscured by seemingly the world's largest bougainvillea, Coyote Grill barely manages to capture the feel of a Southwestern/northern Mexican desert eatery. The food more than compensates (at $7 to $12), however: hulking burritos doused in salsa and stuffed to bursting with real steak strips, and deep-fried cove chicken surrounded by heaps of mashed potatoes. All this and Coke in a bottle! And if the beer-logo-endorsed umbrellas outside conjure less the desert towns lining the Mexican border than that cheesy Sharon Stone Western The Quick and the Dead, just remember that's cool ocean air you're feeling, not the desert's dusty sirocco. So at least you've got that going for you. Which is nice. (VDI) 31621 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-4033. spanish EXPENSIVEI've found out the hard way that there's only one place in OC for superlative paella. The Black Sheep Bistro serves three renditions of the saffron-stained stuff. My favorite is the elaborate mixed-grill version. They need a couple of days advance notice, and for good reason; you won't find a more complex, beautifully presented or better-tasting dish in OC. The presentation is dramatic: two enormous paella pans with linen-wrapped handles set at opposite ends of the table. Delicate lamb choplets, savory Spanish sausages, tender mussels and shrimp the size of your fist are all arranged concentrically, with rosemary sprigs standing up at attention and lavender flowers seemingly sprouting out from the rice. And it's not just any old rice. Instead of relying heavily on saffron, the rice has been long-simmered with juices and essences, taking on the flavor of the all of the ingredients. A little dish of aioli (a garlicky homemade mayonnaise to dab onto the meats) on the side makes it that much better. The takeout containers made for the 10 people in our party out of what was left over weighed at least a pound each. After all that, the 30 bucks a pop doesn't seem that expensive. (KvH) 303 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 544-6060. MIDRANGESpanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro slew the Incan Empire just so we could all feast on Spanish-style cuisine this side of the Atlantic. How nice that we can sit at a European-style caf in the midst of bustling downtown Long Beach, eating Spanish food blended with a little Italian gusto while wearing shades and watching the hipsters walk to and fro. And what a nice view of Hooters' patio. And if you're inside Alegria Cocina Latina, you get to look at the Salvador Dali-esque murals of headless women with their boobies showing. Boobies to your left, boobies to your right—boobies for everyone! And there's food! We started out with tapas, the alcachofas surenas, the best artichoke we've ever tasted—even without the artery-saturating butter oozing down our chin. This version is filled with a bread-based dip stuffed with bamboo palm hearts pured in a lemon-vinaigrette dressing and topped with shaved fennel and marinated tomatoes. We chowed down the lasagna de verduras, which reinvents the Italian version with layers of homemade flour tortillas filled with grilled vegetables and gooey cheeses smothered in a Tex-Mex mild cilantro-tomato sauce with a hint of roasted red pepper. And for the readers, we tried the brocheta vegetariana, which wasn't at all like the bruschetta we're used to. The Spaniards replace the bread with corn tortillas, of course, and top it with skewers of grilled vegetables in a light sesame sauce on a pile of Peruvian corn, fresh-chopped tomatoes and tofu. That's right—tofu! Pizarro would dig tofu. Eclectic, yes. Good, uh-huh. (AO) 1151 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 436-3388. steakhouse EXPENSIVE My first experience with a takeout steak from the Bungalow ended in tragedy. I had picked up my filet mignon, all $24.95 of it, and gingerly transported it to my home testing lab. I opened the box and left it on the table for a moment as I went into another room. When I returned, the steak was gone. The plastic container was in the same place, with the mashed potatoes and green beans still on either side of where the steak had been. I looked around. My dog looked innocent, but when I picked up the container to show him, he hung his head in shame. I really couldn't blame him; who, with dog years ticking, wouldn't try to supplement a diet of dry kibble with a little USDA prime? This time around, I was more careful. The filet was round and plump, like a muffin. Its ideal cut, deep flavor and tender texture made it possible to eat the entire thing without encountering a morsel of fat or gristle. In essence, it's a tremendous piece of meat. (KvH) 2441 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-6585.MIDRANGE Hey, cowboy, Trabuco Oaks Steakhouse is you. This tin shack on the outskirts of the Cleveland National Forest is probably best-known as the steakhouse where they'll cut your tie off at the knot (if you're a guy and dumb enough to wear a tie here, unless you think this stuff is cool—Richard Nixon did, and his very bland tie is on display along with hundreds of others), but the large chunks of charred beef they serve are among the best in the county. To quote their Web site: "Extra-thick top sirloins, porterhouses and hand-cut filets broiled over real mesquite charcoal. No gas, no electricity, no folderol. Just the best darn steaks you ever tasted." Uh, yeah. The chefs here undercook the meat a little, so if you like it medium, order medium-well, and you'll be fine. The menu features chicken, fish, ribs and lots of steaks, but the honker here is a 32-ounce sirloin called the Cowboy. You have to be on a mission from God to eat this sucker. Me, I'd go for the Cowgirl, a 16-ounce T-bone that's still a hell of a lot of meat. Oh, yeah—there's an old oak tree growing in the middle of the place. Go. You'll like it. (TV) 20782 Trabuco Oaks Rd., Trabuco Canyon, (949) 586-0722.CHEAPWhen my friend Elizabeth is pregnant, she develops a blood lust for all things red, dead and corn-fed. These insatiable carnivorous cravings could become very expensive were it not for the Steer Inn. "Get the 'small but mighty,'" she counseled. "It's the best." Advice well-taken. I ordered the top sirloin butterflied, and I'd describe it as more mighty than small. The grain of the meat had just enough texture to create in me a tooth-gnashing gusto, the likes of which is usually reserved for Discovery Channel feeding frenzies, yet no steak knife was needed to cut the beautifully seared surface. The irresistible aroma of browning bovine wafted up from my plate, hinting at the full flavor inside. It comes with a savory chili-bean soup rife with tender morsels of sirloin (or a generous salad), a mound of buttery mashed potatoes the size of an anthill, and a slab of crispy garlic bread. All of this cost less than $10. Of course, for that price, you get sawdust floors and cowpoke dcor, but Elizabeth doesn't mind—just stay out of the way when her "small but mighty" hits the table. (KvH) 801 S. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 639-2434; 444 N. Lakeview Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 974-5321. thai EXPENSIVE Who would have figured that hidden within the confines of Costa Mesa's Crystal Court lies this pearl of Southeast Asian cuisine? Though Thailand is known for its rich heritage of vibrant warm colors and traditional elaborate artistry, Bangkok Four's plain white walls and minimalist interior design are more reminiscent of Los Angeles chic. But what makes the cultural faux pas forgivable are the elegantly succulent meals ranging from $10.95 to $18.95. I recommend the Pep Op: a marinated, steamed and then lightly fried duck drenched in a sweet, tangy plum sauce served with an ample helping of white rice is one of the best poultry dishes in the county. And while enjoying the fruits of Thailand, why not go for the homemade mango and coconut ice cream over fried bananas? Huh? Why not? The subtly sweet dessert may help you ignore the view of the Nordstrom parking lot across the street. (VN) 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa, (714) 540-7661.MIDRANGESumptuous, exquisitely prepared Thai food and a warm, familial atmosphere combine to make Thai This one of the finest, most popular eateries in South County. Owner Jib ("just Jib, boss—no last name") scurries from table to table, plying customers with amusing banter and on-the-house shots of Mekhong rum. Best bets include the spicy coconut-milk soup ($5.95), Thai roasted duck ($11.95), the seafood salad brimming with heapin' helpings of savory mollusks and crustaceans ($12.95), and the inviting variety of curry dishes. After dinner, visit the lounge, where you'll meet a cast of regulars so engaging you'll feel as if you've stumbled onto the set of Cheers. (BS) 24501 Del Prado, Dana Point, (949) 240-7944.CHEAP Transforming the schlocky pink dcor into sleek teal with dark wood accents was a major improvement for this Thai cutie, but the food has always ruled, and nothing has changed about that. If the only curry you've ever tried has the word Schilling preceding it, purge your spice caddy and read on. The homemade curries at Silk Thaiare nectar from the Thai gods, and they have five varieties to choose from: yellow, Muslim, brown, red or green. Most curries are customized with your choice of beef, chicken, shrimp or vegetarian. The server recently suggested the brown curry with beef. She was right. The meat was supertender and delicious, but the velvety curry, concocted with clean-tasting lemongrass, sweet basil, hot chiles and creamy coconut milk, among other things, is so amazing you could eat it plain. And you can't beat the prices: $6.50 to $10.95. (KvH) 19690 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 964-1151. vietnamese EXPENSIVE Behind a Bank of America on Bolsa Avenue, Grand Garden has created beauty out of blacktop. Koi fish roam freely in a freshwater pool fed by a miniature waterfall, its trickling helping to cancel out the combustible engines that endlessly pass, as do the bamboo trees and greenery placed in the previously unkept and pothole-ridden parking lot. Grand Garden displays a refinement other restaurants in Little Saigon strive for but few ever accomplish. If the ambiance of the outside weren't enough for a visit, Grand Garden boasts a wide variety of traditional Chinese/Vietnamese/French cuisine. Patrons come in droves for the ga quay da don, a fried-chicken platter served with rice and a side of salt-white-pepper-and-lemon dipping sauce. But if you're looking for a savory alternative, try the ca kho to, a spicy, salted fish baked in a clay pot—a good introduction to the distinctive flavors of Vietnam. (VN) 8894 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 893-1200.MIDRANGE Before the Asian Garden Mall, Hi Tek Video and Tony Lam stepped into office, Little Saigon was nothing more than a strip mall on the corner of Bolsa and Bushard, aptly christened the Bolsa Mini Mall nearly two decades ago. In it was Thanh My, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the county. While most places specialize in a specific dish or region, Thanh My has a menu with more than 200 items ranging from Hanoi to the deepest reaches of the Mekong Delta. You want escargot vermicelli at midnight? Okay, you got it. Vegetarian? No problem; there are half a dozen tofu specials. A big meat eater? They have seven courses of beef with your name on it, bucko. Start off with the cha gio (Imperial egg rolls). Unlike their Chinese counterpart, Vietnamese egg rolls are stuffed with ground pork and shrimp or crab meat and then deep-fried. Thanh My uses fresh rice vermicelli paper, giving the egg rolls not only a nice crunch but also a delicate chewy texture. (VN) 9553 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 531-9540. CHEAP Vietnamese French-bread sandwiches are easy to find in Little Saigon, which probably explains why most places sell them so cheap. But with such competitive prices, some establishments tend to skimp on the little touches. Not only does Banh Mi Che Cali have an in-house bakery, but they also load each sandwich adequately and serve them with fresh vegetables. Plus, they are some of the cheapest in the county. If you want to know what a thousand years of Chinese domination and more than a half-century of French colonization with dashes of Polynesian influence taste like, go for the banh mi dac biet. Stuffed with pt, pickled carrots and Chinese-style ham, this is the house specialty. The full-service deli also focuses on traditional Vietnamese desserts and other fast food. Two of the more popular items on the menu are the banana and corn che. Topped with coconut milk, the lightly heated dessert is wonderfully sweet and gooey. Best of all, dinner for three will run less than $10, including drinks. (VN) 13838 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 534-6987. CJ Bahnsen, Anna Barr, Joel Beers, Matt Coker, Michelle Fernando, Art Gardner, Eric Greenwell, Victor D. Infante, Leigh Logan, Steve Loewry, Shelle Murach, Vu Nguyen, Arrissia Owen, Anthony Pignataro, Jeremy Scherer, Rebecca Schoenkopf, Buddy Seigal, Will Swaim, Dan Tsang, Tom Vasich, Kelly von Hemert and Dave Wielenga contributed to this issue edited by Patrice Wirth Marsters.
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