You don't have to guess what's the special dish at these places.
DINNER FOR TWO:
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$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20-$40
$$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¡Eres muy rico!
Sholeh zard—a rice pudding brilliantly yellow and so peppery you'll find yourself gasping after eating it—is but one of the side dishes at Assal Pastry, a chic bakery in Irvine's Little Tehran enclave. The primary attraction here is cookies: dozens of just-baked trays that rely on different types of flour and infinite pistachio presentations rather than sugar for their sweetness. Purchase a pound of any cookie (cheap at $6), and Assal packages your order inside an emerald-green box that gives Tiffany's jewelry container a run for its color. 14130 Culver Dr., Ste. H-1, Irvine, (949) 733-3262. $
BEACH CITIES PIZZA
There's sweet spaghetti, wonderful bread sticks and a terrifying garlic sauce with thin, crispy strands of garlic that will actually numb your lips. But order yourself one of the gourmet pizzas—try the Newporter, a sweet mix of meaty prawns, juicy sun-dried tomatoes and a tangy pesto sauce glued onto a thin crust by a milky cheese. 34473 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 496-0606. $$
CALIFORNIA FISH GRILL
California Fish Grill is one of those middle-class mini-chains common to Orange County—fancier than Knollwood's or Natraj but a step below Sage or the Daily Grill. The massive charbroiled fillets feature deep grill marks and shine thanks to a powerful garlic-butter coating. All should also order the grilled zucchini with its juicy, smoky innards. 10569 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 252-0001; 5675 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-5710; www.cafishgrill.com. $$
There are so many dosas at Dosa Place—crammed with goat, stuffed with cheese, oozing with curried potatoes—that you'll probably overlook the rest of the platters. Don't. Once in a while, scan over the South India portion of the menu and devote a lunch to the idli, two rice-flour dumplings touched with a molten chile powder, or an uttapam, a flour Frisbee the menu advertises as a pancake but is really more of a veggie-gorged omelet. 13812 Redhill Ave., Tustin, (714) 505-7777; www.dosaplace.com. $
EAST COAST HOT DOGS
No tables inside—just counters and stools. No air conditioning—that's why there are two tables outside. There's a great Italian roast beef sandwich, a multi-folded pastrami, fries, onion rings and tater tots. But people line up five deep for the 11 hot dog varieties, ranging from Chicago to chili cheese to something called the Wow! Dog—a blackened kielbasa, sautéed onions and a schmeer of thick, gritty mustard worthy of its exclamatory name. 19092 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 378-0364. ¢
Empanada Man prepares its steaming eponym upon order, so it'll be a while before you can start debating whether to order a fourth or fifth one for the journey home. Chicken and beef empanadas are mini-stews of joy, the meats moist and accompanied by corn kernels in the former, hard-boiled egg slices in the latter. The spinach and potato selections are the edible equivalent of Argentina's gold-medal-winning Olympic soccer squad: rough, earthy, at first unimpressive but ultimately a winner. And the tangy dance the ricotta cheese empanada stomps upon your palate is worthy of a Gardel croon. 20761 Lake Forest Dr., Lake Forest, (949) 855-9257; www.empanadaman.com. ¢
MRS. KNOTT'S CHICKEN DINNER RESTAURANT
Tucked alongside Knott's Berry Farm like a remora against a great white shark, this greasy little diner serves up even greasier fare, including the best fried chicken in town. Sip the Knott's punch carefully or cut it with vodka—straight, it'll kick your ass. Cordelia Knott don't mess around. 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 220-5080. $
NANCY'S PUPUSERÍA RESTAURANT
Customers at Nancy's wait with patience, and so should you—as Sunday school taught, patience is a virtue, and its reward is the pupusa. Owner Nancy Funes' namesake Salvadoran pupusas are grilled discs o' plenty, bubbling with slightly salty cheese and not too greasy, as they are in so many other county pupuserías. Her pupusas de calabasa, brimming with fresh zucchini bits within a cheesy morass that doesn't compromise the zucchini's natural, juicy snappiness, are a minor miracle—maybe not on the level of Fatima but at least Medjugorje. 8511 Knott Ave., Buena Park, (714) 995-2086. ¢
While the OC Ramen War rages fiercely in Costa Mesa, the actual victor resides far from Ground Zero. Walk into Shin-Sen-Gumi Ramen, and you're greeted loudly with a sing-songy shout of welcome (or victory?). SSG, as the regulars call it, serves only a macho, tonkotsu ramen the color of Mom's pork chops, as comforting as a blanket on a cold night. 18315 Brookhurst St., Ste. 1, Fountain Valley, (714) 962-8971. $
Take a clue from the lonchera's name and order a torta ahogada, a specialty of Guadalajara. Visualize a giant French—excuse me, freedom—roll crammed with meat, avocado and slices of onion so thick you could hit a baseball with them. Imagine said torta drowned (ahogada means "drowned") in salsa. Yep, that's what they specialize in here. On the corner of Fourth and Mortimer sts., Santa Ana, (714) 235-9125. ¢
WINGS 'N THINGS
With its dim lighting, cozy booths and just-shy-of-tacky wall-to-wall collection of Buffalo Bills football memorabilia interspersed with Little League team pictures, Wings 'N Things is like a portal to Eastern Standard Time. Authentic Buffalo-style wings (in hot sauces ranging from mild, medium and hot to "X-hot" and "Beyond Hot") are available in 10-piece ($5.75) or 16-piece ($7.95) servings. 18302 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 848-2767. $
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