Grub Guide

Visit the rest of Orange County's best damn dining guide at ocweekly.com/food, where it says "Where to Eat Now" on the right side of the screen. If there are any bugs with it, e-mail Gustavo at garellano@ocweekly.com with your complaints!

DINNER FOR TWO:

¢ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Less than $10!

$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10-$20

$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20-$40

$$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¡Eres muy rico!

ANAHEIM

CEDAR BAKERY
Cedar Bakery differentiates itself from the other Middle Eastern restaurants in Anaheim's crowded Little Gaza district by specializing in such small meals as sambouseks, cinnamon-dusted ground beef turnovers. Mornings begin with a bowl of kishek, a sort of Lebanese oatmeal of yogurt, bulgur wheat and salt that doesn't do much for the sweet tooth but bulks you up for the day like a one-hour free-weights session. Pair the kishek with a croissant, although these are salty and as svelte as the crescent on Turkey's flag, not the chubby Gallic version Americans will expect. 930 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 991-5888. $

 

MERHABA RESTAURANT
You're probably the second non-African to visit Merhaba after me, so the owner will be extra attentive and repeatedly ask if you enjoy her East African recipes. You will. East African cuisine sticks mostly to stews: chewy cubes of tibisy beef; lamb ribs battling with furious peppers for control of your tongue; the famous Ethiopian doro wat, spicy chicken cooked in butter, hot like the pits of hell. The vegetarians in your party will content themselves with the shiro, an Eritrean chickpea mush similar to hummus. 2801 W. Ball Rd., Ste. 5, Anaheim, (714) 826-8859. $

ROSINE'S MEDITERRANEAN ROTISSERIE & GRILL
Offering a wide swath of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, Rosine's serves food that tastes like a mother made it for you. That's because Rosine is a dynamo of a mom who either prepares or oversees everything that winds up on a plate. 721 S. Weir Canyon Rd., Anaheim, (714) 283-5141.$$

 

SINBAD RANCH MARKET
What makes Sinbad Ranch Market so great? Could it be its large selection of halal meats? Or its insanely cheap prices (three huge packs of created-that-day pita bread for less than a buck)? Maybe it's their large selection of Arabic newspapers and magazines? Actually, the best part about Sinbad Ranch is that it's in the middle of Anaheim's Little Gaza, which allows you to enjoy the rest of it by walking around. 521 S. Brookhurst, Anaheim, (714) 533-3671.$

 

THAI AND LAOS MARKET
Every ingredient you need for a Thai life is here, from fish sauce in foot-tall bottles to seasonings for at least eight curries. At the front of the store are Thai pastries and desserts—and videos. Look for the fresh fish, meats and veggies in the back freezer. But bachelors will rejoice at the more than 40 varieties of Thai instant noodles, four for a buck. 1721 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 535-2656. $

BREA

GAUCHO GRILL
Here's what you need to know about Argentine food as it relates to Gaucho Grill: meat. Lots of it, most of it beef, served many ways. The ultimate meat-eater's special is the plato mixto, a beast of a dinner including a half-chicken, a skirt steak, chorizo, morcilla (a black sausage) and mollejas (grilled beef sweetbreads—and a sweetbread is a hypothalamus gland, kiddies). 210 W. Birch St., Ste. 102, Brea, (714) 990-9140. $$

BUENA PARK

POFOLKS
PoFolks is a rustically eccentric restaurant—tin and wooden agricultural-company signs on the walls, a working train that chugs the perimeter—specializing in Norms-style home cooking with a Southern bent, the kind of place where fried chicken livers with red beans and rice is a daily special and peach cobbler isn't some ironic/iconic treat but what's for dessert. 7701 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 521-8955. $$

 

CANYON CITIES

TRABUCO OAKS STEAK HOUSE
Cruise this ramshackle roadhouse with a creek purling behind it, where inside you'll find the best dry-aged, corn-fed, hand-trimmed, mesquite-grilled beef in OC. It's all served with fried or baked potatoes, beans, garlic bread and a house salad. 20782 Trabuco Oaks Rd., Trabuco Canyon, (949) 586-0722; www.trabucooaksteakhouse.com. $$

 

CORONA DEL MAR

BUNGALOW
The filet mignon at this steakhouse is round and plump—like a muffin. Its ideal cut, deep flavor and tender texture make it possible to eat the entire thing without encountering a morsel of fat or gristle. In essence, it's a tremendous piece of meat. 2441 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-6585. $$$

COSTA MESA

AVO'S BISTRO
Order at the counter—their succulent braised-beef-and-lamb gyro is a good choice—and the food is brought to your table. Their secret-recipe tsatsiki provides a creamy condiment in many of the already flavorful foods. 580 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-6555. $

 

HI-TIME WINE CELLAR
Not sure if there's a restaurant in OC that sells it, but the best wine since the days of Dionysus is Commandaria St. John, an elixir from Cyprus that's reputed to be the oldest vintage in the world. Hi-Time Wine Cellar also stocks nearly every other hooch on the planet. 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, (800) 331-3005; www.hitimewine.com. $$

SUPER COROKKE
Super Corokke offers nine different versions of the corokke, a Japanese take on the resolutely down-home croquette: a shot put-sized cream corokke oozing with a puree of corn, squid and fish that tastes like marine-tinged mashed potatoes; the evocatively named Popeye, filled with spinach strands and bacon bits, simultaneously bitter and crispy. Better is the curry corokke, a mash-up that fuses the light, almost imperceptible burn of Japanese curry with some good-ol'-boy crunchiness. 675 Paularino Ave., Ste. C, Costa Mesa, (714) 444-3418. $

 

TAQUERÍA EL GRANJENAL
Named after a Michoacán rancho that has sent thousands of its residents to Orange County, the colorful restaurant makes the best tacos in the county. They deviate from taco protocol by using full-sized corn tortillas and pile on chunks of your choice of grilled meat. The salsa is extraordinary, a dark-red lava extract whose burn factor is unknown outside Paricutín. 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. (949) 645-4964. $

TURNER NEW ZEALAND
With offices in Germany, New Zealand and Newport Beach, Turner is world-renowned for providing hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and seafood to chefs at posh venues. Their Costa Mesa nosherie cooks the meat to their gore-ific standards. The double cuts are thick and tender, not at all gamy—more like lightly peppered beef. The king salmon, meanwhile, features crispy skin and is served with sautéed leeks, saffron potatoes and a citrus shallot confit. 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 668-0880; www.turnernewzealand.com. $$$

CYPRESS

UZUSHIO
Make a beeline to the sushi bar, where the fish is most inventively prepared. Anything on the menu involving eel or avocado is a must. And the fried, heads-still-on-as-beady-little-eyes-stare-at-you shrimp are a greasy delight. 10545 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 236-0678. $$

DANA POINT

BEACH CITIES PIZZA
There's sweet spaghetti, wonderful breadsticks 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 with a milky cheese. 34473 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 496-2670. $$

FOUNTAIN VALLEY

KASEN
DO NOT under any circumstances journey to Kasen and attempt to order teriyaki chicken or shrimp tempura or—dear God—California rolls, which are about as authentically Japanese as the Viennese waltz. Kasen is not that type of Japanese restaurant. 9039 Garfield Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-8769. $$

 

FULLERTON

HOTBELLIES
While offering all the dishes once balanced on the arms of roller-skating waitresses, Hotbellies also incorporates Asian cuisine, the better to serve the new multicultural, multitasteful American race. Get with the times, Potbellies announces via a menu ranging from cheesy Philadelphia beef to soy sauce baptized bulgogi (Korean barbecue)—this is the 21st century. 1860 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 870-4340. $

ROADSIDE BURGERS
Though it bills itself as a tribute to Route 66, Roadside is just too good. Its burgers—well-wrapped and slightly bigger and tastier (and more expensive) than your typical burger dive's—are a tad too gourmet for true shack consideration. Still, the nostalgia at Roadside is all about the location: across the street is the historic Fox Theater. When that majestic building opens its doors anew, patrons will likely cross the street to share a malt with their beloveds, and the curtain will rise on another scene in our American play. Onion rings are extra. 513 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 871-0040. $

RUBEN'S BAKERY
There are about a dozen coolers of pan dulces at Ruben's, each containing multiple trays holding a specific pan dulce genus, each genus boasting mucho diversity, and so forth. Stock up on empanadas, turnovers gorged with fillings and adorned with unique crusts. The camote empanada houses its sweet yam innards within a firm, buttery crust; the same crust also gives refuge to fillings of the lemon and cream variety. 438 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 992-0414. ¢

 

GARDEN GROVE

BÁNH MÌ CHE CALI
If you want to know what a thousand years of Chinese domination and a half-century of French colonization with dashes of Polynesian influence taste like, go for the bánh mì dac biet. Stuffed with pâté, pickled carrots and Chinese-style ham, this sandwich is the house specialty. 13838 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 534-6987.¢

 

HANDAAN
A traditional turo-turo (buffet), Handaan rotates out various Filipino goodies—adobo, satays and about five different offals. But the sides—vinegar-spiked rice and pansit bihon, tiny tasty noodles cooked with cabbage, celery, carrots and baby shrimp—remain constant. 9777 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 636-8431. $

 

HWANG HAE DO BBQ
Hwang Hae Do is the Orange County outpost of an Artesia restaurant famed for its mandoo—delicate dumplings native to North Korea that are a bit bigger than the five knuckles of your hand bunched together and bloated with herbed ground beef and snappy zucchini bits. But Hwang Hae Do also prepares other Korean favorites: chicken, pork or beef shavings (bulgogi) doused in soy sauce and brought out on a skillet with almost-caramelized onions; eggy seafood pancakes engorged with grilled octopus, buttery clams and some viciously pickled house kimchi; and noodles of various temperatures, consistencies and strewn vegetables. 9448 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 590-1588. $

LA VERANDA
Most of the Vietnamese dishes listed on La Veranda's colossal 14-page menu are unsullied by French influences—here, the colonization runs backward. Traditional French delicacies such as escargot, frog legs and coq au vin are accompanied by such Vietnamese side dishes as pickled daikon, nuoc mam (sweet fish sauce) and rice paper. The ensuing DIY combos result in plates that should earn La Veranda at least a four-star rating from the Michelin guide. 10131 Westminster Ave., Ste. 114, Garden Grove, (714) 539-3368. $$

HUNTINGTON BEACH

BODHI TREE VEGETARIAN CAFÉ
Deciding what to eat at Bodhi Tree—there are more than 100 mock-meat choices—involves the same deliberation needed for a koan. The tofu-drop soup, bobbing with meaty chunks of bean curd, bamboo shoots and cilantro, is free. Not free but worth the somewhat-pricey $3.50 is the chicken-satay baguette sandwich full of faux fowl, tomatoes and so many julienned carrots that it could be classified under the salad portion of the menu and mislead no one. 501 Main St., Ste. E, Huntington Beach, (714) 969-9500. $

 

PERUVIAN KITCHEN
The folks at Peruvian Kitchen don't dumb it down for the city's bros at all. In addition to their black-but-moist hen, they offer fried rice adorned with raisins, carrots and corn; sturdy French fries with snappy hot dog slices; and a fabulous mesquite-smoked yam. But go for the anticuchos: two skewers of dark-brown beef heart glazed with garlic. The anticuchos are chewy, intensely meaty and easily the best offal in the county. 17552 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 847-7555. $

DUKE'S
Everyone from surfers in damp trunks to families celebrating special occasions feels welcome at this restaurant inspired by the Islands and the Pacific Rim. 317 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-6446.$$

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 multifolded 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 schmear of thick, gritty mustard worthy of its exclamatory name. 19092 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 378-0364. ¢

IRVINE

CHANTECLAIR
Both coffin dodger and whelp alike enjoy a sterling menu prepared by executive chef Yves Fournier, one in a long line of dazzling Chanteclair chefs that includes Pascal Olhats. Fournier maintains Chanteclair's multiyear tradition of Zagat listings with such items as his filet mignon, a dish that drips with enough blood to qualify as a Red Cross donation. Also lustrous is the steak Diane, a perfect compromise for no-frills meat fans and nuance-demanding foodies. 18912 MacArthur Blvd., Irvine, (949) 752-8001. $$$

CHAKRA
You can imagine Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai filming some steamy-but-chaste dance scenes in the confines of Chakra's opulent set. But, thankfully, Chakra owners Ravi and Sunita Koneru invested money not only in the décor but also in chefs capable of embarking on a trek through India's major foodie provinces not found in any other Orange County restaurant—Gujarat, Kerala and even Hyderabad. 4143 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-0009; www.chakracuisine.com. $$

 

DIHO BAKERY
The Japanese are the creators of nikuman, the world's cutest sandwich, which consists of a candied, spongy flour wrapped around gingered meats and vegetables. At Diho Bakery, nikuman-type sandwiches are elevated to an art form on par with calligraphy. The taro, in particular, is a pleasant surprise—not your tiki party's dull, watery poi paste, but instead a jam waiting to be copyrighted by See's. 14130 Culver Dr., Ste. J, Irvine, (949) 857-6415. $

 

JIMMY Z GRILL
Don't be scared by the fact that the menu cover reads, "Jimmy Z Grill.com." Jimmy Z Grill is the hottest non-chain restaurant in Irvine, and Jimmy Z is a really nice guy. But that's not all—his menu is chock-full of delicious eats. 4517 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 737-6700. $$

LA HABRA

CHICKEN BOX
A tiny room that always seems packed, Chicken Box fries up all the bird parts you'd expect with just enough grease to keep things tasty, as well as ribs, batter-fried fish and reasonably healthy stuff like salads. And you gotta love a place that sells boysenberry punch—a supertart, purple elixir probably mixed nowadays only at one other concern, Knott's Berry Farm, and then probably only as a tourist curio. 330 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 691-1701. $

LA PALMA

JOHNIE'S JR. BURGERS
It's ham, cheese, onions and green peppers—hold the nonsense—stuffed into a three-egg pillowcase, presented alongside a nest of crispy, lush, hashed-brown potatoes and two slices of sourdough toast, gobbled down between a couple of cups of coffee. It's nothing fancy, which means it fits right in at this converted Taco Bell with decals of the Fat Boy—a too-close-for-comfort cousin of the late Big Boy—plastered across the table at every booth. 7811 Valley View St., La Palma, (714) 228-0464. $

LAGUNA, LAGUNA, LAGUNA!

CAFÉ ZOOLU
If you're into seafood, go for the jumbo-sized swordfish. Expect to empty your wallet or purse—but Café Zoolu is one of the few places in OC worth every penny. 860 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-6825. $$

THE COTTAGE
What's the secret of this Laguna Beach restaurant's decades of success? Good food and lots of it; comfy chairs and friendly service; charming framed photographs of Laguna's original greeter; and a full, sated belly every time you leave. 308 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3023. $

 

MOZAMBIQUE
It advertises itself as a South African restaurant, but Mozambique excels in its preparation of meat—pork chops, steaks, seafood and the great Durban curry, a dusky lamb dish that will warm you up wherever you may be. 1740 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-7100; www.mozambiqueoc.com. $$

 

ONAMI SUSHI & SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Here, you can partake of as much sushi as you want. You can gobble down transparent globules of ikura (salmon roe) like popcorn or tiny particles of masago (smelt egg) as if they're—well, tiny particles of masago. 24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1300, Laguna Hills, (949) 768-0500.$$

 

PALACE BAKERY
Palace Bakery is the county's second shop to specialize in Persian desserts, a sweet-tooth tradition similar to Arabic pastries in their sumptuousness but exhibiting bolder flavors. You shouldn't let the yen for the new prevent you from ordering the Middle Eastern pastries. Palace's baklava is sweeter than what they hawk in Anaheim's Little Arabia—splashed with more rosewater and honey, the phyllo dough tougher and rolled around a dense almond filling so it resembles a miniature cigar. And every boxed purchase comes with a cool golden sticker! 24751 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. D, Laguna Hills, (949) 768-6252. ¢

THAI BROS.
Nestled in a small building next to the library, the "bros" are open till 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Their tom kha soup has a rich broth exploding with lemongrass and coconut milk. It's warm, medicinal and just the way Mother would have made it if she had belonged to some kind of weird midnight fraternity from Siam. 238 Laguna Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9979. $

ZINC CAFÉ
The lasagna is a great example of why meat, or the absence of it, is a non-issue at Zinc Café. A mixture of ricotta, ginger, shallots, garlic and spinach is lavished between the noodles, making it rich and filling. Served on a soft bun with all the trimmings, the vegetarian Zinc burger imparts that certain meat-lust satisfaction that few meatless burgers do. 350 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-6302. $

LAKE FOREST

EMPANADA MAN
Empanada Man prepares its steaming specialties 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. ¢

 

LONG BEACH

LA CRÊPERIE CAFÉ
Someone once said, "Simplicity is the spice of life." Snicker all you want, but he must have been referring to the Bolero crepe at La Crêperie Café. This sorta-Provençal café offers perfection drenched in butter and sugar with a twist of lemon. C'est bon! 4911 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8499. $$

 

COCO RENO'S
Coco Reno's, adjacent to its tattooed hipster sister bar, the Reno Room, serves what can only be described as delight on a platter. Better known as carnitas, they can even be made to order for those who are carb-challenged. Cancel the rice and beans, smother the succulent pork in cheddar cheese, slop on the sour cream and guac, and cheat just a little with a toasty tortilla. 3400 E. Broadway St., Long Beach, (562) 438-9381. $

 

M & M SOUL FOOD
Ask the folks at M & M to comment on the peach-hued walls, lowered ceilings and general bunker-like atmosphere (livened up only by an animatronic James Brown doll and a display case full of dolphin-shaped oil burners for sale), and they'll decline. Wisely so. But the food—perfectly grilled short ribs, snappy okra with nary a touch of sliminess, and nummy peach cobbler, among other dishes—they'll praise with the intensity of a Sunday-morning gospel choir. 5400 Cherry Ave., Long Beach, (562) 422-8395. $

LOS ALAMITOS

ISLAND GRILL
Island Grill sells Hawaiian food with a Japanese bent, so that means you can get your sushi and bento box fill along with sumptuous teriyaki bowls. But regardless of main course, your dessert should be the shaved ice: a frosty, chilled monolith flavored with fruit and so delicate you could whittle it down with dental floss. 4390 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 431-6496. $

MISSION VIEJO

ROYAL DONUTS NO. 6
Do not be put off by the terrifying nominal collision of fats. The doughnuts are good, but it's the sloppy double-cheese burgers that really shame the chains. 24501 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. 5, Mission Viejo, (949) 837-3909. $

NEWPORT BEACH

BLUE BEET CAFÉ
This restaurant is a steak oasis, where the meat is aged for about one week to break down the sinew—that's what makes it tender—while being marinated in head chef Jorge Guttierez's secret marinade before it's charbroiled to delectability! 107 21st Place, Newport Beach, (949) 675-2338. $

MASTRO'S OCEAN CLUB FISH HOUSE
Mastro's prides itself on an à la carte menu with gargantuan portions—think Claim Jumper, but three times the style and cost. So it's not a problem that an appetizer like vanilla-battered shrimp includes just three of the crustaceans: the shrimp are among the largest you'll ever see, about the size of a cop's blackjack. And any qualms over paying almost $30 for a fish fillet will disappear under the dense, buttery consistency of one. 8112 E. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 376-6990. $$$

RED ROCK CHILI
You wouldn't expect a chili station to be a tenant in Fashion Island's hoity indoor Atrium Court. Yet there it is, in big, neon letters: Red Rock Chili, a spicy meat-and-bean man's Xanadu, where six varieties of the goop are always bubbling in cauldrons. For those of us who prefer our chili molten, the Hot Rock chili, stewed with the infamously hellish habanero pepper, vanilla-by-comparison jalapeños and chipotles, burns the spot. 401 Newport Center Dr., Ste. A104, Newport Beach, (949) 760-0752; www.redrockchili.com. $

SPAGHETTI BENDER
A many-roomed space, the Spaghetti Bender is like a home with its dark carpets, tiny candles and flowery wallpaper. Their gnocchi, Italian potato dumplings, are the industry standard for good. 6204 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 645-0651. $$

YI DYNASTY KOREAN BBQ
With a barbecue promising such exotica as honey-corn tripe, black pork bellies, barbecued bone marrow, wild boar and stingray, Yi Dynasty is sure to placate even the most demanding gourmand. Korean cooking protocol—panchan, DIY meat cooking, feuding tastes in your mouth—is in effect at all times. 1701 Corinthian Way, #6, Newport Beach, (949) 797-9292; www.yi-dynasty.com. $$$

ORANGE

BYBLOS CAFÉ
It's a drop-kick from the historic traffic circle in the city of Orange, one of the county's best places for a leisurely summer lunch. "Fine Mediterranean Cuisine" (here, it means a mix of Lebanese and Greek cuisine) is the advertised fare. You are committing a crime if you do not have a cup of the lentil soup. 129 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 538-7180. $$

 

THE FILLING STATION
The menu is hi-fi breakfast/lunch food. The grilled-chicken caesar salad is distinctly clean and refreshing, letting you taste each ingredient in the mix, and the Old Towne scramble proves this is a very good place to wake up. 201 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 289-9714; www.fillingstationcafe.com.$

PLACENTIA

Q'S TORTAS
Q's is unique because it's one of the few restaurants in la naranja exclusively devoted to the torta-making trade. And the local landmark, having been there for nearly a quarter-century, does not disappoint, turning out juicy monstrosities only slightly smaller than the King James Bible. 220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 993-3270. ¢

 

SAN CLEMENTE

SURFIN' CHICKEN
José "El Cuatro" Martínez's method of preparing chicken is as miraculous as Mass. He soaks his hens in lemon butter before slapping them onto the open-fire grill. He then shakes tremendous amounts of chile powder onto the meat and grills them until crisp, the lemon and powder fusing onto the chicken and seeping through the tender meat to the bone. The result is mysterious: soft, slightly smoky and exuding a sour/spicy crackle that's nearly radioactive. 71 Via Pico Plaza, San Clemente, (949) 498-6603. $

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

SEÑOR PEDRO'S TACOS
Located across from the San Juan Capistrano Mission, the restaurant leaves one question in your mind: Did Pedro build a taco stand by the mission, or did the mission settle down next to Pedro's? Your food will arrive in a time period best measured in geologic terms, but the tamales are damn good. You'll swear each one was schlepped over the border by burro. 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 489-7752. $

SANTA ANA

NANCY PUEBLA RESTAURANT
Lurking within this seemingly mundane Mexican restaurant are delicious, complex rarities from the central state of Puebla, platters more familiar to an ethnography than an Orange County menu—dense mole poblano, pale goat menudo and guilotas, a chewy type of quail so region-specific that it's not even listed in most Spanish dictionaries. 1221 E. First St., Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 834-9004. $

 

NEW PANDA CHINESE FOOD
Combo C: fried rice, chow mein and any three items. God love 'em, they'll most likely give you four just for the hell of it. And all for, like, $5—if you can beat that, you must be in China. 3814 S. Bristol St., Ste. B, Santa Ana, (714) 540-2238. ¢

NEWPORT SEAFOOD CHINESE RESTAURANT
Lobster lovers come from all over for these crustaceans, heavily dosed with pepper that could make you reach spice heaven. They come with dessert, including green beans and ice-cold oranges, that balances the meal out nicely. 4411 W. 1st St., Santa Ana, (714) 531-5146. $$$

ROYAL KHYBER
The self-proclaimed "restaurant of the year" unabashedly serves upscale Indian cuisine in a setting more suited for coats and ties than T-shirts and jeans. The spicy chicken Madras features big chicken chunks and sliced tomatoes buried in a potent curry highlighted by freshly ground black pepper. It torches. 1621 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 436-1010; www.royalkhyber.com. $$

TIKAL TIENDA Y RESTAURANTE
All the mainstays of the Guatemalan diet are available at the county's only Guatemalan produce store—pork, chicken or chipilín (mint) tamales wrapped in banana leaves, the equivalent of corn Jell-O; and chile rellenos stuffed with carrots, onions, potatoes and ground beef. Tikal truly excels in the soup business, though. Foremost among the broths is hilacha, a brick-red boiling stew sharp with tomato, shredded beef strands and about three different squashes bobbing in slow circles. 1002 E. 17th St., Santa Ana. (714) 973-8547.¢

SEAL BEACH

SHORE HOUSE CAFÉ
Encyclopedic menu on which just about everything is good and served in Flintstone-like portions. 941 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Seal Beach, (562) 430-0116. $$

SUNSET BEACH

CAPTAIN JACK'S
Opened June 25, 1965, this steak and seafood restaurant supposedly serves 53,000 pounds of Alaskan king crab per year—more than any other restaurant in the U.S. It prides itself on consistent quality and hearty portions. The bar is one of the few that still use the "Super Well," meaning that if you order gin, you get Bombay, and if you order vodka, you get Absolut. 16812 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-2514. $$

STANTON

THE GOLDEN STEER
The Golden Steer is what a family restaurant used to be—not just inexpensive enough to feed a family, but tasty and wholesome enough to feed it well. It also harks back to the time when a family meal meant meat, meat, meat. The place is crowded, but good acoustics keep it from sounding like a mess hall and incredible service keeps that growl in your stomach from turning into a bad mood. 11052 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 894-1208; www.goldensteer.com. $$

TUSTIN

NOODLE AVENUE
Noodles. Lots of 'em. Thin. Thick. Stir-fried. In soup. Yellow. White. Thai. Vietnamese. Japanese. Welcome to Noodle Avenue, a hectic fast-food Tustin eatery that fuses various Asian noodle traditions into heaps and heaps of long, luscious strands. 13816 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 505-9070. $$

PHILLY'S FAMOUS CHEESE STEAK
Though smaller than the monsters hawked at Jon's Philly Grille in Anaheim or Costa Mesa's Frank's Philadelphia, Philly's Famous' cheesesteak surpasses the two in the most crucial cheesesteak factor: the cheese. It overwhelms your senses like a good cheese should, like the best quesadillas: sharp, comforting, gooey. The cheesy cheese choice marries Cheez Whiz, American white and provolone into a tasty, wonderful triad, each fromage strong and distinct. And despite the dairy onslaught, the beef's savor doesn't wilt, remaining juicy like the finest shawermas. 648 E. First St., Tustin, (714) 505-6067. $

 

VILLA PARK

FIRST CLASS PIZZA
Go for the employee sampler, which features four different pizzas: the barbecue chicken, the zesty Italian, the Villa Park special with fresh basil and garlic, and the combo with pepperoni and sausage. 17853 Santiago Blvd., Ste. 101, Villa Park, (714) 998-2961. $

WESTMINSTER

PEKING RESTAURANT
The jellyfish salad is quite tasty, and if you think of it as Chinese pasta, you won't squirm. The family dinners are fabulous with interesting choices, including an entire steamed fish. 8566 Westminster Ave., Westminster, (714) 893-3020. $$

 

PHO HOA
When fate or a bad date takes you to Little Saigon in the early morning, stop by this 24-hour dive to feast on steaming, massive bowls of pho. The touted pho hoa is great, not the best you'll ever taste, but with the largest, softest steak slices, massive cuts almost as big as poker cards and chopped just as thin. 9211 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 101, Westminster, (714) 899-4886; www.phohoa.com. $

 

SAIGON BISTRO
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. $$

THANH MY
Westminster's Thanh My offers not just a palate-expanding, belt-popping introduction to Vietnamese cuisine, but a veritable graduate course in it. With nearly 200 menu items, you could eat here for months without repeating a meal.9553 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 531-9540. $$

YORBA LINDA

THE WILD ARTICHOKE
While the restaurant's motto, "Food prepared from the heart, with the soul in mind," is cumbersome (it's like a New Age math problem), all of chef/owner James D'Aquila's culinary creations are fabulous, simply fabulous. Stick to the artichokes—either the simple Wild Artichoke salad tossed with various vegetables and sprinkled with bitter balsamic vinaigrette, or the Artichoke Napoleon, a puff pastry in which sautéed artichokes assume the luxuriousness of truffles. 4973-A Yorba Ranch Rd., Yorba Linda, (714) 777-9646; www.thewildartichoke.com. $$$

MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

ATHENS WEST
Many Greek restaurants offer French fries on their menus, but few treat them with the care you find at both Athens West locations. They fry long, skinny potato strips until golden and firm, and then dust them heroically with—is it parsley I taste? Or oregano? The feta cheese on top is melted slightly, just enough to lend creaminess without producing a gooey disaster. Put some of Athens West's kebabs on top, and you have impromptu Greek chili billies. 7101 Yorktown Ave., Ste. 106, Huntington Beach, (714) 536-6112; 303 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-6500. $

BÁNH CUÔN HÔNG MAI
This chain of two near-closets in Garden Grove and Santa Ana offers most of their dishes—fragrant com tam, slippery bún and satisfying drinks—in 27 different fashions. But Hông Mai's ultimate specialty isn't numerology, but rather the studious preparation of the rice roll delicacy known as bánh cuôn: silky, light, furtively filling, a good sponge for the accompanying fish sauce. The rice paper itself is a bit bland, but that neutral flavor somehow amplifies a bánh cuôn's innards tenfold. 10912 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 534-4526; 5425 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 554-9190. ¢

 

CLARO'S ITALIAN MARKET
Claro's is a fourth-generation family business with a passion for food as big as the 600-pound loaves of provolone it's known to display during winter. Besides a huge selection of imported groceries, Claro's houses a stellar deli and bakery. 1095 E. Main St., Tustin, (714) 832-3081; 101 W. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 690-2844. $

THE DAILY GRILL
This is where you can learn to love the Cobb salad, an orchestrated event of chicken, tomatoes, avocado, bacon, blue cheese, scallions, egg, and romaine and iceberg lettuce mixed in a creamy Italian dressing. Also American comfort food—don't miss the meatloaf—prepared at its highest level. 957 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-2223; 2636 Dupont Dr., Irvine, (949) 474-2223.$$

 

THE GREAT DANE BAKING COMPANY
Owned by Dane Jodi Pedersen, the bakery specializes in Scandinavian pastries, bread and cakes. Besides items coated with marzipan, try their superb soft cardamom rolls. 6855 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-1130; 11196 Los Alamitos Blvd, Los Alamitos, (562) 493-6899. $

JOHNNY REBS' SOUTHERN ROADHOUSE
With plastic flamingos and a stuffed-catfish wall trophy the size of a walrus, a meal at Johnny Rebs' is like a trip down South. Delight in the Yankee cheese grits and fried green tomatoes, but don't forget to try the catfish.4663 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 423-7327; 2940 E. Chapman, Orange, (714) 633-3369; www.johnnyrebs.com. $

 

 

LEE'S SANDWICHES
Based out of San Jose, the shop specializes in bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich that is an appetizing post-colonial amalgamation. Though the always-endless lines seem imposing, Lee's service is so outstanding that you'll quickly be savoring one of the most outlandish deals ($1.50 for a huge, nine-inch, delicious sandwich) in the world. 9261 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 901-5788; 13991 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 636-2288; 1028 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-2989; 4127 Campus Dr., Irvine, 949-509-9299; www.leessandwiches.com. friggin' ¢

ROMA D'ITALIA
If you want spaghetti and meat sauce accompanied by Chianti in a straw-bound bottle, you're in the right place; the Dominic Corea family has been operating this colorful red-sauce joint in Tustin since 1961. 611 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 544-0273; 25254 La Paz Rd., Laguna Hills, (949) 581-2780. $$

ROMEO CUCINA
This ain't an intimate trattoria. Romeo's is a celebration space all about comfort food, and you'll be comforted by their specialty: pork chops, which come decked out in a reduction of shallots and peppercorns. It's a taste sensation. 249 Broadway, Laguna Beach, (949) 497-6627; 28241 Crown Valley Pkwy., Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-4131. $

 

SUNDRIED TOMATO CAFÉ
Rack of lamb is as ubiquitous to fancy American bistros as falafels are to Middle Eastern bazaars, but the Sundried Tomato Café prepares a version fit for hoity-toity cavemen—meaty bones doused with a tart cranberry sauce, the lamb cooked to pink perfection. A great, zesty sun-dried tomato cream soup as well. 31781 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661-1167;361 Forest Ave., Ste. 103, Laguna Beach; (949) 494-3312; www.sundriedtomatocafe.com. $$

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