As a writer who competes with other news outlets' food bloggers, I probably shouldn't share my restaurant-scouting strategies with the interwebs. I'm going to because it's important that you, dear reader, go out and discover great places to eat that need you to find them and give them your support.
We present five strategies to find golden nuggets among a gravel bed of bad restaurants.
1. Get Off the Freeway
You're not going to find a restaurant on the highway anyway unless you're on the Jersey Turnpike, but if you keep commuting to work on the same roads like a horse that only knows one way to get back to the barn, you'll never find anywhere new to try.
I'm going to pick on Stanton because it's OC's equivalent of flyover country. If you didn't make the conscious choice to get off the freeway and drive down Beach Boulevard, you might never know about Thai Nakorn or Park Avenue, two of our favorite places to eat. Nor would you know about the Korean live seafood places between those two points. Nor the Stanton Mexicatessen, nor....
Give yourself the luxury of taking surface streets and drive through neighborhoods you wouldn't have otherwise.
2. Know the Neighborhoods
Like the rest of the L.A. basin, Orange County is a patchwork of neighborhoods with distinct ethnic leanings. It's true even in whitewashed South OC, with a large Persian population in Mission Viejo, and Latino enclaves (and the markets that support them) in Rancho Santa Margarita, Lake Forest, Dana Point and San Clemente.
If you didn't know better, driving through Irvine's uniformly beige housing developments would lead you to believe that it's a homogenous, whitebread suburb, but it's not. You'd discover a goldmine of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Indian and Persian food businesses adjacent to the 5 Freeway. And that's only on the one-mile stretch of Walnut Avenue between Culver Drive and Jeffrey Road.
If you drive East-West along Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim, you might fall into the trap of thinking Anaheim is just a Mexican community and miss all the great Middle Eastern restaurants along Brookhurst Street and surrounding areas that make up Little Arabia. Drive further south on Brookhurst and you'll see the Hangul signage through Koreatown and the Chinese and Vietnamese signs through Little Saigon.
Drive around with your head on a swivel and pay attention when foreign-language signs beckon to you, even if you can't read them. Which brings us to:
3. Mine the Strip Malls
The way commercial real estate is laid out in Southern California post-1970, you're more likely to find restaurants in strip malls than in standalone buildings. Each mall is a galaxy of little businesses, and chances are there's a star restaurant among them. Pick a random strip mall you've never entered before and drive through the parking lot to see what deliciousness lurks within. Restaurants come and go all the time, so it's always worth a look to see what's going on in a strip mall you've been to a hundred times before. Keep all your car windows rolled down so you can smell the air (no, really). Better yet, walk into the restaurants and ask to see a menu.
4. Trust your Gut
Once you're looking at a storefront, suss out if it's worth trying. Everyone has their own way of decoding a book's cover and judging if a restaurant's worth a try. My criteria will be different than yours, but nonetheless, know what signals good or bad food juju and trust your instincts.
My criteria for skipping a restaurant: any restaurant that has photos of everything prominently on the walls ain't worth trying. Neither is a place that has a cheesy banner advertising their "World's Best Whatever." If you have to tell people how cool you are, you're not. That said, there's always exceptions to those rules, but the point is know which way the balance tilts for you personally.
5. Be Willing to Eat Badly to Eat Well
That segues into the last and most important point. For every great dish on a menu, there's pages of mediocre dishes that you shouldn't have ordered. If you're in a new place such as Irvine's 101 Noodle Express and you notice every table has an order of the famous beef roll, that's an unsubtle hint that you should get that too.
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For every great restaurant, there's a ton more average and poor ones. If you're willing to sift through mediocre meals, you'll eventually get better at sussing out the great restaurants more quickly. A crowded restaurant is an unreliable indicator of delicious food, as the line at Cheesecake Factory on any given Friday night should tell you. Neither is an ethnic restaurant filled with people of that ethnicity, who might be there for reasons other than food quality, like it happens to be the Mexican equivalent of Cheesecake Factory.
Lastly, people, as my kohai in this food-blogging dojo, it's your duty to heed my direction, discover new places your Stick A Fork bloggers haven't found yet, and report back to your sempai to earn your black belt.
You hear that? It's the sound of one hand washing the other.