You're on the 241, heading as far east as you can go before hitting the Cleveland National Forest. The LA radio station you're tuned to begins to crackle with static. You look at your navigation system and realize you're now geographically closer to Lake Elsinore than you are to Disneyland—yet you're still in Orange County. A sign you pass says you're now entering Rancho Santa Margarita, a town most of us have no reason to venture to unless you live there or have business to conduct in one of those blocky buildings that undoubtedly came from the same set of architectural plans. You exit, turn a corner, and then find yourself on El Paseo, a street that quickly narrows and meanders through a sprawling, master-planned shopping center in which you encounter a Bed Bath & Beyond, that outpost of Brüxie you've read about, and another outlet of the ubiquitous Mi Casa Mexican restaurant. But somehow you still feel very far from home.
You arrive at your destination, a place that was raved about by a friend who lives in Foothill Ranch. A few weeks ago, he sent you photos of the food he ate via text message, and it looked good enough to make the journey. Besides, you haven't been out this way since the last time you took a picture of yourself with thumbs up at the intersection of Antonio Parkway and Avenida de Las Banderas. You captioned it "The Sexiest Street Corner on Earth" and thought it was hilarious.
The 1-year-old restaurant, called Embarcadero, is San Francisco-inspired. You can only think of two other Bay Area-themed eateries around these parts: Boudin, which is actually San Francisco-based, and Orange's Alcatraz Brewing Co., which tries very hard to make you think it is. Embarcadero is more like the latter. It's a not-too-heavy-handed Southern California interpretation of NorCal culture and food. There are Golden Gate motifs and a shimmering nighttime mural of the skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid smack-dab in the middle. You are pleased to find there's cioppino and clam chowder. But you look closer at the menu and realize Embarcadero is not unlike every restaurant that serves modern American cuisine from here to Peoria. It offers a reliable list that includes sliders as part of the appetizers, a caesar as one of the salads, and pizzas on dense finger-thick crusts. The rest consists of burgers, sandwiches, steak-heavy mains, and something rich made of chocolate and ice cream as one of the desserts.
Embarcadero, 22332 El Paseo, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 709-2266; embarcadero-oc.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$75, food only. Full bar.
You discover the excellent clam chowder is thin rather than thick, beige rather than white; as at Fisherman's Wharf, there's the option of it coming with a bread bowl you nibble on but never finish. The cioppino, though, is gargantuan. You've seen actual sinks smaller than the vessel into which is poured the brick-red stew, and the soup is so hearty and viscous it could conceivably transform three plates of pasta into seafood linguine if you had a ladle. But this is a standalone dish, to be eaten just as the Italian fishermen who invented it intended—with nothing more than bread for dipping. If the tomato broth is a little flat, you excuse it because the kitchen didn't skimp on the seafood. Every morsel has been cooked well—the shrimp still wiggles, the clams still squeak, and the fish melts in moistness. Though it's not at all like the cioppino you once had in Ghirardelli Square, it's a lot better than Embarcadero's signature salmon dish. The slab may have been properly roasted and bundled in the middle with threads of crispy potato, but it sits on bland spinach, on top of blander julienned butternut squash, the whole thing too much for the small puddle of citrus beurre blanc to do anything about.
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Embarcadero's other popular dish, the soy-ginger-braised, osso-bucco-style short rib, is the polar opposite, almost too salty unless you eat every forkful with twice as much mashed potato. When you run out of spuds, you resort to using a few of the tater tots you ordered for an appetizer. They are made unnecessarily stinky with truffle salt, which you figure justifies the upcharge, but then discover the conical container is filled only halfway with tots—the rest is stuffed with salad greens.
The best dish turns out to be a so-called tuna "handroll," something that was never intended to be handheld because it's actually just some seared tuna squares laid atop a cylindrical stack of edamame beans, chunks of avocado, mango-papaya chutney and a hit of Sriracha. You aren't bothered that it doesn't seem to have anything to do with San Francisco, but you leave somehow relieved that nowhere did you find a trace of Rice-A-Roni.
This review appeared in print as "The San Francisco Treat: Embarcadero brings a little bit of the Bay Area to the boonies we call RSM."