All right, kids, I have an assignment. Orange County's best damn dining guide is up again, but kinks still sully it. Go to ocweekly.com, find the yellow box that says "Listings," and click on the "Where to Eat Now" link. Up pops the dining guide, searchable by name, cuisine, city and price. Whoever can find the most bugs gets a free Weekly T-shirt! Harass the hell out of me with your findings, por favor!
DINNER FOR TWO:
¢ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Less than $10!
$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10-$20
$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20-$40
$$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¡Eres muy rico!
A domino effect of ordering everything in sight possesses anyone who enters Ara's. Quadruple-layer columns of trays extend across the bakery, heavy with cookies, Bavarian cake slices, cream tarts and other European confections. And, of course, there's baklava, the Middle Eastern dessert standard baked here in eight distinct styles: shaped into diamonds, hexagons, flaky cylinders . . . nearly every shape in the Game of Perfection. 2227 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 776-5554. ¢BONJOUR CAFE & BISTRO
Despite the overhang that advertises otherwise, this cute, tree-shaded bistro doesn't do dinner anymore; it now offers only breakfast and lunch. The worthwhile offerings—quiche, crepes, omelets—are all served during the day anyway. Try the omelet de Provence with eggplant, black olives, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Or la crepe bonne maman, filled with strawberry preserves and dusted with powdered sugar. 24633 Del Prado, Dana Point, ?(949) 496-6368; www.bonjourcafe.com. $$CAT & CUSTARD CUP
La Habra's toniest (read: priciest) restaurant—nothing on the dinner menu is less than $16.50. We can't actually afford to eat here, but it's been around for years, and people are always raving about it, so it must be good. Fancy-prepared American food in an English-pub setting (though it's quite a bit larger than a real English pub). 800 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 694-3812 or (714) 992-6496. $$$
CATALINA FISH KITCHEN
Casual. Cheap. Terrific. This restaurant specializes in fresh fish, and you must try the gumbo: a spicy, cumin-scented stew of grilled fish topped with jasmine rice and fresh vegetables sautéed in olive oil. 670 W. 17th St., Ste. G8, Costa Mesa, (949) 645-8873. $
DIZZ'S AS IS
The dishes here are by far some of the best food you'll ever eat in OC. Rack of lamb perfumed with rosemary melts on the tongue. Filet mignon is plump and full of seared-in flavor. 2794 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-5250. $$
THE GREAT ZUCCHINI
The hearty bun kebab combo—a hamburger with a Pakistani patty, fries served with chutney, and a Pakistani cola: the melting pot gone carhop—is but one of the highlights of the Great Zucchini, whose name sounds more appropriate for a Little Italy diner than for one of the county's three Pakistani eateries. It's a small list, and you have to ask for a special menu to see it, but the Great Zucchini's preparation of Pakistani standbys attracts subcontinent expats from North County and beyond. 765 St. College Blvd., Ste. B, Fullerton, (714) 879-8522. $
When you want to throw caloric caution to the wind, there's no beating Mel's. The cooking is home-style, the portions huge and the waitresses friendly. Other than a hot cuppa joe (yep, that's here too), what more do you want? You'd be a knucklehead to leave without ordering the hubcap-sized, homemade cinnamon rolls topped with generous dollops of pure melted butter (served weekends only). 9430 Warner Ave., Ste. 1, Fountain Valley, (714) 963-2662. ¢
LA PIZZA GROTTO
Despite its name, the snacks of choice here are strictly Peruvian, from popular selections such as tender rotisserie chicken and chilled-Velveeta-drenched papas à la huancaina to more deliciously esoteric choices such as cau cau (diced potato sautéed with chewy, pale tripe) and salchipapas, hot dog slices buried under French fries, a meal destined for baseball stadiums. La Pizza Grotto does maintain a neighborhood pizzeria feel, but futbol banners stand in for football pennants and all the big screens flash highlights from Latin American soccer leagues. 13008 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 750-7343; www.lapizzagrotto.com. $
The place has an interior seemingly boxed up and mailed from fin-de-siècle Paris. The distinctly cosmopolitan appearance of the restaurant carries over into the song selections (we hear English-, Spanish- and Vietnamese-language tunes) and menu (escargot, flan and Vietnamese offerings). 15470 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 895-2120. $$
Everything is delicious and expensive at Svelte, but if you feel like taking your life into your hands, then spread your claws for the messy, breathtaking burger "de Luxe," a giant Kobe beef patty—them cows are massaged with sake! And forced to guzzle beer! The life!—topped with sweet caramelized onions. 440 Heliotrope, Corona Del Mar, (949) 723-9685. $$$
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SHOW ME HOW
It may scream chain fast-food restaurant, but in fact the eatery is owned by an exhibition designer who knows how to make it look professional. The best deal is the lunchtime pad Thai combo, with two items and rice. It's a greasy, flavorful bargain. 26921 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. J, Aliso Viejo, (949) 643-0627. $
ZOV'S BISTRO AND BAKERY
In his 1992 thriller Hideaway, Dean Koontz's main characters dine at Zov's on calamari and black-bean soup that was "such a perfect sensual experience that the monochromatic bistro seemed ablaze with color." 17440 E. 17th St., Tustin, (714) 838-8855. $$