Photo by Jeanne RiceIt's 3 a.m., you've got enough alcohol in your belly to re-float the Kursk, and there's nothing in sight but the harsh glow of Denny's and Del Taco signs. You could let your liver go to work alone, or you could call a particularly indulgent—and sober—friend and direct her to drive you deep into the heart of the night in search of sustenance.
Your first stop might be EL GALLO GIRO (1442 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, 714-549-2011). It's one big Mexicatessen with neither tables nor chairs—only a counter to lean upon. You order from long, wraparound, deli-style food cases and a modest table set with large jugs of aguas and jugos frescas (fresh-squeezed fruit juices and such drinks as the cinnamon rice-water horchata and the hibiscus-flower Jamaica). Amazing dishes bespeaking the tropical influence on Mexican cuisine abound, like pineapple-and-raisin tamales. Or consider the best tortas in OC, or the substantial green-chile burritos and tacos. There's a full meat market and freshly made tortillas for that goat-head-soup-at-5-a.m. hangover cure.
Several steps down the Aztec food pyramid would bring you to TAQUERIA DE ANDA (308 W. Valencia Dr., Fullerton, 714-871-4211). Where else can you get brain or tongue tacos at 3 a.m.? Skip the drive-through and hang out inside where the cast of characters becomes more surreal as the night wears on. Not recommended for seekers of haute cuisine, Taqueria de Anda is good for sheer quantity. The greasy carnitas burrito works on alcohol like feathers on an oil spill.
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Eccentrics are the blessing of late-night dining, and some of the best hunker down over chicken-fried steak at EARL'S HOME COOKIN' (807 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, 714-639-8590). It's conveniently located down the street from Captain Blood's, the last cool independent cinema in the county. "Open 25 hours," Earl's is a nonmanufactured throwback to the '50s and '60s—note, please, the wood paneling and genuine rock wall. The food is reasonably priced and pretty standard, although the clam chowder stands out, and the prime rib—despite being greasy even by the high unctuosity standards of prime rib—is a great value and tastes unusually good at around 4 a.m.
You have to admire the audacity of Little Saigon's UYEN THY QUAN (9600 Bolsa Ave., Ste. M, Westminster, 714-839-1166). Knowing that they run the only decent place for miles around after 2 a.m., the restaurateurs levy a 50-cent-per-item surcharge after 9 p.m. It's not all hubris: the food warrants the extra couple of bucks. The house specialty, com ga xiu xiu, is a seemingly simple steamed-chicken dish topped with julienne green onions, pickled cabbage and mustard greens. Marvel at the complex flavors in the delicious ginger sauce and the bowl of Chinese green cabbage that accompany it. The 120-item menu can be a bit daunting, but don't overindulge—there's also a large assortment of exotic fruit milkshakes (jackfruit, guanabana, durian) and desserts.
Down by the water, a pair of institutions serve as lighthouses in the darkest night for insomniac diners. HARBOR HOUSE CAFÉ (16341 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, 562-592-5404; also 34157 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, 949-496-9270) has served generous portions of American cuisine since 1939: omelets (31 kinds!), burgers, sandwiches, seafood, chicken and steak. The roadhouse diner is a phenomenon now locked in the amber of such retro diners as Ruby's. But this is the thing itself—a dying breed down to the kitschy décor, alive primarily because of the culinary labors of its workmanlike kitchen staff. And don't forget some of the best milkshakes, malts and desserts in OC.
When everything else sounds too heavy or when post-party sweet-tooth cravings become overwhelming, the only place to cap off a night of revelry is KRISPY KREME (at the Block at Orange, 330 The City Dr. S., Orange, 714-769-4330; also at the original SoCal location, 1801 W. Imperial Hwy., La Habra, 562-690-2650). There are other 24-hour doughnut shops in OC, but none can compare to these. We're finally privileged to have this staple of the South (from the same folks who brought you the Civil War and the Waffle House), a green-and-white monument to the art of doughnut-making. If it's not late-night dining at its best, call it breakfast.