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Recently, a reader wrote to complain about my choice of Aloha BBQ as the best restaurant in Mission Viejo for my book, Orange County: A Personal History. Her choice of Capriccio's wasn't better--really, Aloha's main competition is Hatam. But the email got me thinking about those few, those proud, those restaurants that have existed for decades that, while not exactly the best in quality anymore, nevertheless are icons in their respective city, places one must visit at least once to have the full county experience, that say something about the 'burb they serve. The overall list is very short--it's not like Laguna Niguel has an iconic anything--and the Arches on Balboa no longer makes it since its renovation. But feel free to add to these five:
La Palma Chicken Pie Shop: Still baking pot pies all these years later; its neon chicken sign still doesn't work properly. With old white women as servers, massive booths, and its current place in a strip mall now dominated by Koreans and Mexicans, muy emblematic of Anaheim's current demographics. WARNING: The German guy who owns this place is old, so no telling how much longer this place will last. 928 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 533-2021.
Watson Drug and Soda Fountain: Did it come out in that execrable Tom Hanks film, That Thing You Do!? If not, it should have. Counter, more big booths, a perfect nostalgia trip for the time warp that is Old Town Orange. Food? Eh. 116 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 532-6315; www.watsondrug.com.
Chicken Box: A working-class town like La Habra deserves working-class food: broasted chicken, corn-on-the-cob, all in a little restaurant that decades ago was a roadside stop. La Habra is still isolated enough from the rest of the county to give you that sense of traveling up rural roads for an amazing place, and Chicken Box's excellent hens fill the gustatory part of that trip, también. 330 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 691-1701.
Sarinana's Tamale Factory: One of the county's oldest restaurant (since 1936!), occupying a former house, the type of dive you find in San Antonio, not California. Love the picnic benches that serve as indoor seating, and the painting of the founder outside on the stucco wall. Tamales ain't bad, either. Connection to SanTana? The Mexiso, of course! 2218 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8650.
The Surfin' Chicken: You can't do San Clemente without surfers, and the Surfin' Chicken has all the fish tacos (and shark, on occasion) they need. But there's a reason all members of San Clemente's community visits, why so many Mexicans use this small shop as the rest point before they get home from a day in Tijuana: the charbroiled chicken. Enough writing for now: carpal tunnel acting up. Read my paean to them here. 71 Via Pico Plaza, (949) 498-6603.