Nice Dish!

Photo by Joy BastYou eat food, not restaurants. Yet a couple of times every year, we run restaurant guides. What the hell is wrong with us? When someone tells you about a restaurant, what's the first thing you ask? Probably, "Really? What's good there?" Oh, sure, maybe you add, "I am the lord of the underworld," but that's the prescription medicine talking. When it comes down to it, restaurants would be nothing without food (and neither would supermarkets). So here, now, is a list of 100 great dishes in Orange County and a few in Long Beach. Main dishes, side dishes, desserts, condiments, cocktails, vegetarian nachos and cuisine à la Au Lac. It's all good . . . so eat it!


L&L Hawaiian Barbeque
A bastard sushi mutant from Hawaii that's gotta be the most artfully addictive incarnation of chopped pork shoulder and ham yet. Trust us, haole: hot Spam, seaweed wrap, rice and a dash of sauce might sound like a meal fit only for a shipwreck survivor, but this is really the appetizer of the gods. Bet you can't eat just one—or admit to it. 19692 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-1898. SWEET POTATO PIE
Burrell's Barbecue
Take the best pumpkin pie you've ever eaten and triple the flavor. It's sweet and spicy and creamy, and you'll be amazed at the voracity with which the people at your table will scarf it down. Order two slices. 305 N. Hesperian St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-7441. SPICY TUNA CUT ROLL
Sushi Wave
The basic design of a spicy tuna roll is so sound that you can get a good one at almost any sushi restaurant, save the ones that also sell doughnuts. Like other places, Sushi Wave's spicy tuna cut roll gives you an initial blast of breathless spice that cleans out every hole and hose in head and chest. What follows is taste: delicious and creamy taste; cool (cucumbers) and spicy; light and crunchy. What's great about Sushi Wave's version is that the flavor—and roll for that matter—hold together so well and that the roll itself is so large. In a world in which four wee pieces are deemed appropriate, Sushi Wave's version boasts eight! Outrageous! Sushi Wave's version is so big—and so good—that if one were wee, or wan for that matter, one roll might suffice. But then you couldn't make yourself sick with flavor, and what's the point of that? 2075 Newport Blvd., Ste. 108, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8736.  MARISCOS CHIMICHANGA
So what is it about tortillas wrapped around grilled shrimp and crab, fried, and topped with dollops of sour cream and guacamole that doesn't help you understand the historical imperative of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo? Crispy as a won ton (and probably cooked in one ton of oil) but still moist inside, this chimichanga comes with rice and beans. Friends, do I need to remind you what to tell the waiter? Follow the bouncing corn chip: "Conice-cold cerveza and tortillas de maiz, por favor." 480 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1239. ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH
The chefs at Bandera take a butternut squash and roast it so the natural sweetness of the squash comes out. Then they top it with a brown sugar/balsamic vinegar reduction and finish it with a sprinkle of pistachios. It's worth the trip for this seasonal side dish alone. 3201 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-3524. SWEET TAMALES
Las Golondrinas
Shy simplicity. Traditional presentation. Hearty flavor. If these sweet tamales with raisins and cinnamon (or coconut and pina) were a movie star, they would be Edward James Olmos. You know: a modest, thoughtful, reliable crowd pleaser. Try eating two or three of these with a cup of coffee or cocoa while driving to work. I can see it now: the loser in front of you choking on his 69-cent Taco Bell taco, and you savoring a tamale and singing "Cielito Lindo" to yourself. Stand and deliver! 27124 Paseo Espada, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 240-3440. PO TAK SOUP
Royal Thai
Feeling a cold coming on, I consult my Physicians' Desk Reference. Course of treatment? Phone Royal Thai and place a to-go order. The waitresses and waiters on call tonight are professionals. "Po tak," I say. "Doctor's orders." They administer a yummy clear chicken/seafood broth with New Zealand green mussels, scallops, calamari, shrimp and fresh green chiles. As my condition might be serious, I've ordered it "hot," making my eyes tear up and clearing my head better than any over-the-counter sinus meds. And so far, all I've done is smell the stuff. 1750 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8424. FLAN
Taco Mesa
Postre purists may wrinkle up their noses at this rich, thick confection, but for my money (or what's left of it after the angioplasty), it's the only way to finish a meal at Taco Mesa, where everything else is good, too. The crew of gregarious and driven hombres behind the counter mix eggs with cream cheese and roasted cajeta goat cheese, so it's really cheesecake, I guess, and not flan. Whatever. They pour a buttery caramel/vanilla sauce on top, add fresh strawberries, and then holler your name really loud. 647 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0629. GRILLED AHI SANDWICH
Cedar Creek Inn
Sure, you could sit with the rich folks by the cozy fire, but you don't have reservations. So try the bar food instead, with a dark beer. The tuna filet itself is two inches thick, arriving on a gigantic bun with a mini Caesar salad, fries or both. They bring it PDQ because you have tickets somebody gave you to see the odious tableau vivant at Pageant of the Masters. 384 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8696. BREAD PUDDING DESSERT
Cedar Creek Inn
For dessert, split the bread pudding soaked in bourbon, which helps you to finally appreciate the phenomenon of people pretending to be art. 384 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8696. TOM KHA SOUP
Thai Bros.
Sleepy Laguna offers little in the way of late-night dining. For years, barhoppers were forced to choose between Taco Bell and microwave burritos at Circle K. Thai Bros. offers a welcome reprieve. Nestled in a small building next to the library, the "bros" are open till 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The 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.
In the kitchen at Peppino's
Photo by Jack Gould

The original Peppino's Italian family restaurant
Jumbo shrimp and baby clams are diced and sautéed in a red or white cream sauce (Get the white! Get the white!) and then ladled over swirls of linguini. This simple but astonishing entrée almost gets lost in Peppino's tabloid-sized, seven-page, laminated menu, but once you find it, you won't forget it. Or Peppino's, which is the restaurant chain that the Olive Garden would be if the Olive Garden really were family-owned and served Italian food. 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest, (949) 951-2611.
Sizing up a burger at Gordo Mellony's
Photo by Jack Gould

Gordo Mellony's New York burger
Gordo Mellony's has beef—burgers, cheeseburgers, chili cheeseburgers, bacon cheeseburgers, the works. Then there are the "special" burgers, stacks of meat so gravity-defying and stain-producing that eating one would make for a good Fear Factorstunt. The King Kong Suicide is a grotesque, gloppy, gooey but oh-so-good concoction that comes with three kinds of cheese, wads of onions and lettuce, and two one-inch-thick patties—and tops out at a height of some 12 inches. So gargantuan is the Kong that it has to be held in place with a skewer, lest it topple over onto the ground or your freshly laundered shirt. Naturally, you can't eat this like your average Big Mac, so the only option is to pick the thing apart with your fingers. But hey, just ask for extra napkins. 430 W. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 694-4456. MUD PIE
Fisherman's Restaurant
Mud Pie is the single greatest thing in the universe, and we're not just talking food. DVD players? Bah. Heart-lung machine? Does a heart-lung machine come with a delicious crumbly crust, luscious coffee ice cream and thick hot fudge? Well, does it, Oppenheimer? It's hard to make a bad mud pie, but Fisherman's makes one of the best, no doubt benefiting from its wonderful view of the ocean. 611 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 498-6390. ROASTED CHILEAN SEA BASS
Maybe you don't expect an impeccable fine-dining experience in a strip mall, but this being Orange County, all bets are off. The sea bass is roasted with lemon zest, garlic and parsley and served on a bed of arugula, roasted new potatoes, green beans and balsamic-grilled red onions. The whole dish is topped with a roasted-tomato vinaigrette. It's rich with flavor, light in texture, and good enough to make you forget you're dining next door to a shoe-repair shop and a fabrics store. Try the creme fraiche at the shoe place. 2531 Eastbluff, Newport Beach, (949) 718-9650. CHICKEN BOWL WITH GREEN RICE
Super Mex
The shredded chicken is good enough, but the half-plate serving of emerald-green rice turns Super Mex from just another restaurant serving white Mexican food into a place that couldn't be more real if Vicente Fox were pounding out the tortillas. Soft and simmered in just enough green salsa to make your nose sweaty. 250 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 992-2624. FRUIT SALAD
Anastasia Cafe
The healthiest breakfast entrée on the menu is also the most beautiful. The fruit bowl comes in a pineapple half with a great mixture of different seasonal fruits. On the day Iwent, it included papayas, kiwis, melons, grapes, boysenberries, blueberries and strawberries. 460 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8903.  TONGUE BURRITO
Taquería de Anda
Taquería de Anda makes fine tacos, but its real specialty lies in its burritos. Made with a huge flour tortilla that can barely fold over the mound of rice, beans, salsa (green or red) and your choice of meat, these burritos dwarf their puny (though still delicious) taco cousin. Choose among five varieties of meat, but Anda prepares its beef tongue so exquisitely you'll want to confess to your priest that you thought for a fleeting moment you were Frenching a cow and liking it. 308 W. Valencia Dr., Fullerton, (714) 871-4211. SALMON TACOS
Taco Mesa
Nothing more than pink grilled salmon, papaya butter and papaya relish wrapped in a flour tortilla. What more do you need? 647 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0629. SUPER BOTANA DE MARISCOS PLATTER
Plaza Garibaldi
An Aztec-calendar-sized plate spills over with a refreshing medley of raw and smoked seafood—some you recognize; some you don't—that's tossed with a chopped mixture of crisp lettuce, cool cucumbers, tangy onions and juicy tomatoes. To accompany it, ask for a cup of diabla sauce. (Warning: follow each forkful with a long drink of water!) This dish makes for great munching during the restaurant's theme-park-style floor show of mariachis, rope tricks and tango dancers. 1490 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-9014.  CHICKEN PARMIGIANA
Lucci's Deli and Bakery
There's quantity and quality in Lucci's version of this popular Italian dish, and the cooks whip it up fast enough that you can get it all down the hatch during a weekday lunch. The chicken breast is big and tender and smothered in a richly spiced red sauce and a thick layer of mozzarella. It's accompanied by a swirling side of spaghetti and two pieces of garlic bread. Perfect with a glass of beer, wine or soda. In case you can ever imagine eating again, Lucci's also features a fully stocked deli and market—so you can bring something home for dinner! 8911 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-4466.  WESTERN OMELET
Johnie's Jr.
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; and 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 Ave., La Palma, (714) 228-0464. CURLY FRIES
Heroes Bar & Grill
Crispy, slightly spicy, hot curly fries with a side of ranch or barbecue sauce and a cold beer make Heroes the quintessential neighborhood bar and grill. These are fries with the perfect amount of crunch. 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Ste. 128, Fullerton, (714) 738-4356.  NEW YORK STEAK
The Golden Steer
This cut of beef may have a big-city, supper-club name, but in Stanton, it comes across like wide-prairie bunkhouse grub. And that's a good thing—the portions are generous, the meat is tender, and the flavor is rich. The service is friendly and fast, too. Embellish your steak with a baked potato with the works and a crisp green salad, and finish it off with coffee and an ice-cream sundae. That's eatin'. 11052 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 894-1208. SALSA
San Clemente Cafe
Homemade and flavorful, this salsa is placed every morning on each table of this small café and is the perfect accompaniment for their huevos rancheros, chili-avocado omelet, or just about anything else they make. Cilantro is the best part of waking up. 1810 S. El Camino Real, Ste. A, San Clemente, (949) 366-0626. CAPPUCCINO MOUSSE PIE
Au Lac vegetarian restaurant
I've searched everywhere for this soft, delicious dish—all the usual pie suspects—and have never found an equal for this creamy delight that's a little bit chocolate and little bit coffee and every bit wonderful. Light but not so airy as to wash out the flavor, with a compressed, cookie-like crust, it's the kind of dessert you order for your wedding and then hoard for yourself. The hell with the rest of 'em! 16563 Brookhurst, Fountain Valley, (714) 418-0658. SHRIMP TACOS
Memphis Soul Café
Anyone who has ever been hungry in New Orleans knows that nothing fills the stomach like a shrimp po'boy sandwich, which is a French roll overstuffed with shrimp and mayonnaise. You'd think it was impossible to improve on that classic design, but the folks at Memphis Soul Café have finally given it a flour tortilla and some class. Like the po'boy, the shrimp taco à la Memphis is chock-full of cornmeal-dusted crustaceans, but instead of mayo, it's smothered with lettuce, corn and Ortega chiles. As if that weren't enough, the tacos come with corn bread and potato salad. Our only complaint: it's only available for lunch. 2920 S. Bristol Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685. CAMARONES AL MOJO DE AJO
Mario's Restaurant
Big, fat shrimp marinated in garlic and butter served with tortillas, beans and rice. Need we say more? 18603 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-5811; 15964 Springdale Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 894-2896. CHICKEN KOOBIDEH
Orchid Restaurant
Sure, a footlong stick of ground chicken isn't everyone's idea of an exotic meal, but that's Persian food. We have no idea what spices are mixed into the chicken, but it's yellowish-orange and fresh off the grill. Garnished with a stewed tomato and embedded in a bowl of rice, the koobideh comes with Middle Eastern flatbread, which you can decorate with sliced onions and butter—it sounds weird but tastes great. And if you get the lunch special, the whole package only costs you about $6. 3033 Bristol Blvd., Ste. D, Costa Mesa, (714) 557-8070. CARNITAS
Coco Reno's
Belmont Heights is the oddly appealing terrain of artist types who loathe anything south of them (Belmont Shore, Orange County)—or anything north of them, for that matter. Here in the sometimes ramshackle but always vintage land of coolville grows a pittance of a Mexican restaurant so small that it's almost a taco stand. 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, the cooks will even make 'em 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. CHIPS
Chuck's Coffee Shop
Chuck owns a diner by the beach in Belmont Shore. He's there every day. He knows your name. He also knows how to serve up potato chips. No, not chips as in salty, crunchy crud in a bag, but chips as in medallions of potato, golden potato coins, puffy potato platelets heaped in a treasure pile right next to your BLT, Weasel, or steak and eggs. 4120 E. Ocean Ave., Long Beach, (562) 433-9317. CHOCOLATE-DRIZZLED CROISSANT
French's Bakery
You want a true breakfast of champions? Dump that dusty, old, stale box of Wheaties sitting way up high in the kitchen cabinet next to the Minute Rice and the potato buds and go grab one of French's chocolate-drizzled croissants. It's a light, flaky croissant, drizzled all over with lots of yummy chocolatey goodness and liberally dusted with powdered sugar. Don't even try to keep the sugar from falling all over your hands, face and clothes. 1170 W. Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 546-6386. CHILI
Charlie's Chili
They named the restaurant after it for a reason. 102 McFadden Place, Newport Beach, (949) 675-7991.  HAM-AND-CHEESE CROISSANT
Seaside Bakery
It's 2 in the morning, and you're stumbling out of some bar at the Newport Pier. The alcohol you've been pouring into your stomach for the past five hours is rapidly leaking into your bloodstream. Nothing soaks up the booze like a nice warm croissant stuffed with ham and Cheddar cheese. A few bites of this, and you can kiss your fears of alcohol poisoning goodbye. 2108 W. Oceanfront, Newport Beach, (949) 675-2533. PULLED PORK SANDWICH
Memphis Soul Café
It's meaty, tangy and stringy. Mmmmmm . . . stringy. 2920 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685. EGGPLANT
Niki's Indian Food
Tender, delicious and not too spicy, Niki's eggplant is satisfying whether you pour it over rice or just eat it straight out of the cup. Sorry, it's only available on Mondays. 3705 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 850-0595.
Ecstasy? Chicken and waffles
Photo by Joy Bast

Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles
Ask me about Roscoe's chicken and waffles, and I'll tell you about love. About joy. About inner peace. About the sun. About youth. About a universe finally set right. About a life finally worth living. Oh, God, take me now, Roscoe! Take me now! 730 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 437-8355 or (562) 437-6285.  CHIPS & SALSA
Ricardo's El Ranchito
Though we highly recommend the scrumptious camerones rancheros at Ricardo's—La Habra's best Mexican restaurant, by the way—their big hit is actually the tortilla chips and salsa, something you technically don't even have to pay for. That's because Ricardo's not only gives you corn chips like every other Mexican place, but also flour chips—light, flaky, crunchy, terribly addictive flour chips. Though the first basket you'll get will be a corn-flour mix, it's not unusual for diners to request whole baskets of nothing but the flour. The salsa—just spicy enough to make your eyes water—is pretty grand, too. 1351 S. Beach Blvd., La Habra, (714) 871-4692. CHICKEN LETTUCE WRAPS
Elephant Bar
The chicken lettuce wraps at the Elephant Bar just may be the perfect appetizer, so savory they make you want to cancel your entrée outright and order another go-round. What you get are a couple of scoops of diced chicken that are stir-fried with a blend of chopped nuts, coconut flakes, onions and sauce and served on a plate with paper-thin cucumber slices and mango salsa. You don't need the salsa to enhance the flavor, though—just grab one of the artfully cut lettuce or cabbage leaf cups, fill it up with chicken, fold it over like a taco, stuff it between your choppers, and grin with a zen-like contentment. 14346 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 651-6087; 25250 E. La Paz Rd., Laguna Hills, (949) 470-0711. PANCAKES
Park Pantry
The record-album-size pancakes they serve up at the Park Pantry make those dinky, bite-size things at IHOP seem like lukewarm Frisbees. And unlike the ones McDonald's gives you, these cakes actually stay hot, fluffy and moist throughout the length of your meal. They're pretty thick and not too spongy, meaning they won't be swimming in syrup halfway through breakfast. The Pantry also generously gives you enough butter for both pancakes. Even better, they heat up the syrup. 2104 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 434-0451. CHILE VERDE
Mr. Juan's Gringo Grill
Made from what I've been told is a family recipe, the chile verde—a classic Mexican dish featuring cubed pork swimming in green tomatillo sauce—is tantalizingly delicious, with a clean, pure taste unencumbered by the fatty residue of the pork. The sauce is slightly sweet with a rich flavor that blends perfectly with the large, tender pieces of lean pork. Spoon this on a warm corn tortilla, and you've got a little bit of heaven. 2263 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-7500. FOIS GRAS
This charming boutique French restaurant has a terrific appetizer—a sautéed fois gras served on a bed of spinach with a sherry vinegar sauce. Forget your misgivings about eating goose liver; this is a culinary le petit mort. The rich, earthy essence of the liver is tempered by the slight sweetness of the spinach, and a touch of vinegar rounds out the flavor cavalcade. Your server will suggest a glass of sweet sauvignon blanc to accompany the fois gras, and even though this will bring your tab to more than $20 (and you still haven't ordered an entrée), you'll do it gladly. 610 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-5051. CLAM CHOWDER
Catalina Fish Kitchen
Clam-tastic! Chowder-iffic! Whaddaya want—it's soup. Or is it? This chowder is so good you can have it as your main course. Go ahead, do it. We dare you. 670 W. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-8873. BO 7 MON
Thanh My
One need not troll local steakhouses for a beef blast anymore, as carnivores can now turn to one of Little Saigon's better Vietnamese restaurants for the Bo 7 Mon, a seven-course meal that will test your meat-eating capacity. Here's the lineup: start with shabu-shabu, salad with rare beef slices, a plate of ground-beef balls of different preparations surrounding a lump of meatloaf held together with rice noodles (comprising Nos. 3-6) and finish with a spicy ground-beef soup called cháo bò. And did I say that all of this is exceptionally good? The Bo 7 Mon is prepared for a minimum of two, so bring a beef-chomping buddy. 9553 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 531-9540. MONSTER SAUCE
Sonny's Pizza and Pasta
A monster sauce is that beast of Italian food: a thick, tomatoey, acidic, garlic- and oregano-rich lava that ruins your clothes, deflowers your taste buds and leaves you curled up with the mother of all heartburns. But a good monster sauce is also nearly orgasmic in the pleasures it brings and worth driving vast expanses to experience. In Orange County, Sonny's Pizza and Pasta makes the capo de tutti capo of monster sauces. The marinara here is fluorescent in color, chewy with bits of tomato in texture, and so bombastic in flavor that a good forkful will clear your sinuses. It's a thing of beauty. 429 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 498-2540. ENCHILADAS DE MOLE VERDE
Javier's Cantina & Grill
Good mole sauce is hard to find in these parts, and Javier's, which specializes in creative twists on traditional Mexican cooking, spices its up with a boost of poblano peppers to create a rich, thick and immensely flavorful rendition. And the tender chicken enchiladas beneath the sauce aren't bad either. This same mole verde can come with a chicken breast, but it's much more impressive on the enchiladas, with a couple of Javier's potent house margaritas to wash them down. 480 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1239. SAUSAGE
Look, anyone could make some crude sausage joke here. You know, "Grab one today!" or "Sink your teeth into Sabatino's meat stick!" But that would be wrong. It would take away from the sausagey goodness that is a Sabatino's meat log. So go out and wrap your lips around one. Yeah, that's it. [Cue bass line.] Aw, yeeeaah. 251 Shipyard Way, Cabin D, Newport Beach, (949)-723 0645. BLACKENED MUSHROOM AND TOFU NACHOS
Taco Loco
Is there anything worse than ordering nachos and finding a significant number of chips unslathered? No, there is not. Taco Loco's creation of sautéed mushrooms with cheese and tofu—yes, tofu!—topped by a chunky guacamole salsa is heavenly not just because of how it tastes. But it's also heavenly because you'll be hard-pressed to find a chip without goop on it. What comfort there is in knowing that each bite has been attended to. 640 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1635. TRI-TIP SANDWICH
Lou's Oak oven barbecue
Tri-tip is California's contribution to the barbecue world, and no one slices it up better than the folks at Lou's. This chewy, tasty meat is carved up hot and served traditionally on a toasted French roll slathered with garlic butter with salsa on the side, but I like it the other way—cold with lettuce, tomato, red onion and a Dijon/mayonnaise blend topped with liberal doses of garlic-pepper seasoning. 21501 Brookhurst St., Ste. D, Huntington Beach, (714) 965-5200. PRIME RIB
The primest of prime. El Primo de Ribbie Ribozo! Un Primen de Ribentrop! What else is there to say? It's succulent, it's pink, it's thick, and it's delicious.You'll be saying Voulez-vous le Ribby de Prim! I surrender. 18482 MacArthur Blvd., Irvine, (949) 833-8411. CRAWFISH CRAB CAKES
Z'tejas Southwestern Grill
There are only two things that stuck in my memory after lunching here: the roomy interior that left me feeling as if I'd died and gone to Georgia O'Keefeland and this appetizer, in which fresh lumps of crab meat and Louisiana crawfish were pan-fried and served on a roasted-tomato sauce with sweet pepper mayonnaise and jalapeño tartar sauce. South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., No. 1876, Costa Mesa, (714) 979-7469. FISH TACO
The best. Period. Just drive around until you see one. RIGATONI
Nick's Ristorante Italiano
The best way to experience this is to order the linguini della casa, but have them dump the thin-pasta strings in favor of tube-pasta rigatoni, which is a better carrier for that ripping tomato sauce and green peas, sliced mushrooms and artichoke-heart chunks. Harbor Shopping Center, 2300 Harbor Blvd., Ste. K-1, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7566. BAKLAVA
Flaky and buttery, with a sweet honey taste. It's rich but it melts in your mouth. Goes great with coffee and/or belly-dancing. Sweeeeet! 580 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-6555. SALMON SKIN SALAD
After carving out hunks of fresh salmon for sushi and sashimi, the chefs at this little hole-in-the-strip-mall have managed to find other uses for what's left of the fish, most notably this simple-but-refreshing little starter salad that tosses strips of salmon skin and meat in with your typical lettuce greens and a light, sweet dressing. Waste not, want more. 735 Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-7822.
The ultimate breakfast at Nick's
Photo by Joy Bast

Nick's Deli
It's at Nick's that this ubiquitous food stuff has reached archetypal proportions—ordered by 65 percent of the clientele on weekends, when the staff goes through 700 tortillas per day. The reason people come to Nick's to get what they could get at McDonald's is that Nick learned to make them from his parents, who, he claims, invented the breakfast burrito when they owned a restaurant called Mi Rancho in Anaheim in the '40s. Back then, it was just chorizo and eggs—Nick has since added cheese, bacon and potato—but the principle of success remains freshness. Nick's makes its own chorizo, and the kitchen staff is constantly chopping fresh potato and cooking bacon, which means your breakfast burrito is always crunchy. This is a good thing. 223 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 598-5072. TEPPAN-STYLE SCALLOPS
Somehow, between their knife-tossing floor shows, chefs at the teppan-yaki tables here manage to prepare meats and seafood to moist-but-cooked perfection. Osaka's hot and tender scallops melt in your mouth, which is a godsend to anyone who has tried to chew the skateboard wheels served at that place that rhymes with "minihana." Teppan plates come with shrimp, mixed veggies, fried or white rice, and ginger sauce for dipping. 27981 Greenfield Dr., Laguna Niguel, (949) 362-2897. MARGARITAS
Senor Campos
It's just a regular margarita with sweet-and-sour mix, triple sec, and tequila, but it's blended just right and comes across like an adult Slurpee. 1220 W. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 694-3614. TOASTED RAVIOLI
The Clubhouse
Since you can't afford to eat here anyway, skip the entrées and head straight for this main-dish-worthy appetizer. Lightly toasted ravioli filled with ricotta and dusted with Parmesan and Romano cheeses ring a bowl of tasty marinara sauce. Order it alone with a glass of wine and a side salad, and you're dining in style and on the cheap. South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Ste. 2802, Costa Mesa, (714) 708-2582. GRILLED CAESAR SALAD
Chimayo at the Beach
Just about everyone does a caesar salad. Even Wendy's does a caesar salad . . . with bacon. So it's nice when someone takes the dish in a unique, delicious, non-pork-based direction. Chimayo lightly grills its romaine hearts, charring but not wilting them—they're still cold on the inside. Their warm caesar dressing is infused with pumpkin seeds that give the dish a nutty (coo coo) flavor. It's great. On the downside, Chimayo does not have a drive-through window. 315 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-7373. SUKIYAKI
The best-known of nabemono (one-pot) cooking, sukiyaki is the undisputed king of Japanese soups, a hearty, filling meal perfect for cold nights. Mitsuyoshi, a humble, rock-solid Stanton restaurant patronized by the North County Japanese community, makes a particularly alluring version, with a heavy, sweet broth packed with thin slices of beef, green onions, cellophane noodles, mushrooms, tofu cubes and bamboo shoots. And in traditional fashion, there's a bowl of raw egg in which to dip the beef strips. This is pure indulgence food, one not found at most Orange County Japanese joints. 12033 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 898-2156. POTATO CHEESE SOUP
On cold, rainy nights when I lived in Fullerton, I used to sneak over to Rutabegorz for a bowl of their potato cheese soup. It came out of the kitchen steaming with fresh chunks of bread. A bowl of soup, a cup of tea and a great book helped me wait out many a storm. 158 W. Main St., Tustin, (714) 731-9807; 264 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 633-3256; 211 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-9339. RAW OYSTERS
McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant
Good, fresh oysters are a connoisseur's delight, and when I'm in the mood for them, I head to McCormick & Schmick's, which features six varieties, such as salty, cucumber-like Fanny Bays and firm and mildly rich Hammersleys. A combination dozen of these varieties costs nearly $20, which seems a bit steep, but it's hard to find oysters like these, gleaming and silver in their half-shells, each with rich, distinctive flavors. 2000 Main St., Irvine, (949) 756-0505. LARGE SCALLOPS
Royal Capital
There are scallops, and then there is what Royal Capital serves. If they're offered on the fresh-fish menu at this funky, authentic Chinese spot, by all means order them. Served on a half-shell, these large, meaty scallops—three to four times the size of regular scallops—are cooked in a wonderful Thai-style mint and chile sauce laced with minced garlic. Tasty sauce aside, the scallops are perfectly firm with a rich, intense flavor. If you're turned off by the scallops served at mainstream Chinese restaurants, indulge in these, and your opinion will be forever changed. 10911 Westminster Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-8331. CAMPFIRE TROUT
Plums Café
If you can't catch it and cook it along some gurgling Idaho stream, the trout here is the next best thing. The Plums gang cooks this fish in the traditional manner, rolled in cornmeal and pan-fried. It's thick and tender, and no cornmeal can cover that distinctive fresh trout flavor. This breakfast is served with eggs, fried potatoes and two thick, crisp strips of the world's greatest pepper bacon, which is imported from Oregon. Plums has a reputation as one of the best breakfast places in the Costa Mesa/Newport Beach nexus, and with the campfire trout anchoring the impressive menu, it's an honor well earned. 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586. FRUIT BOWL AND TOAST
Pacific Whey Café, Bakery and Coffee Co.
I like breakfast as much as anyone else, but when I tire of the gloppy omelets, I like to cleanse the palate at this Newport Beach bakery/café. Their fruit bowl is merely without flaw, a mélange of fresh berries, grapes, bananas, melons, papaya, kiwi, mango and watermelon. Toss in a few slices of the freshly baked whole-grain toast and a cup of gourmet coffee with real cream. The one drawback? I can't wear my jammies while I eat. 2622 San Miguel Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-0303. MEATLOAF
Cedar Creek Inn
Meatloaf is one of those rock-solid American foods you can make well at home, so it's usually not worth ordering in a restaurant. But Cedar Creek's version features a jazzy mix of spinach, mushrooms, red peppers and spices, which all add a flavorful punch to the ground chuck. (The salty beef gravy doesn't hurt.) On the side, the creamy mashed potatoes carry a hint of garlic, and the carrots and green beans come with a dollop of sweet potato puree. A great American meal. 20 Pointe Dr., Brea, (714) 255-5600. ITALIAN BEEF SANDWICH
Luke's Chicago Pizza
The Italian beef sandwich is to Chicago what the cheesesteak is to Philly—it defines the place, and as any true native will tell you, the real thing ain't available here. Luke's Italian beef comes closest—seasoned, moist Vienna roast beef combined with hot pepper giardiniera jammed into a chewy French roll. A sinus-clearing, sloppy, meaty mother, a stormy, husky, brawling Sandwich of the Big Shoulders. 23411 Laguna Hills Dr., Ste. M, Aliso Viejo, (949) 362-4060. PORK CHOP AND GARLIC FRIES
Gordon Biersch
Known principally for its fresh-brewed beers, Gordon Biersch is even better as a restaurant. Its signature dish is the garlic fries, which have gained fame as a favorite nosh at San Francisco Giants games. These fries are awesome, pungent with minced garlic that begs for more of Gordon's excellent blonde bock. And that's just the appetizer. The ridiculously thick, roasted pork chop approaches main-dish perfection. This fatty chop is juicy and topped with a sharp, creamy Gorgonzola gravy. Just the thing for another blonde bock. 24032 El Toro Rd., Laguna Hills, (949) 770-0123. GUAJILLO PEPPER STEAK
Café Hidalgo
A grilled rib-eye steak comes covered by a delectably bitter, spicy guajillo sauce. This pepper is pretty potent, and only a good flavorful cut like a rib-eye can stand up to it. And does it ever. The two go together as well as tequila and triple sec. 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 447-3202. TANGY LEMON SQUARES
Gypsy Den
Something about this lemon bar makes me smile, the perfect combination of sweet and tart. That first bite is what gets me, the lemon flavor, the sweetness and the crunchiness, the crumb crust, and the little bits of real lemon zest. The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-7012; Grand Central Café and Bakery, 125 N. Broadway Ave., Ste. D, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840. BAKED HALIBUT
They take a two-inch slab of halibut, roll it in a breading filled with ground macadamia nuts, and cook it until it's crisp and brown. The fish maintains its fine, full taste with a hint of the smoky nut flavor. Exquisite. 470 Ocean Blvd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8903. ACKEE AND SALT FISH
Irie Jamaican Restaurant
Most folks identify Jamaican cuisine with jerk seasoning, a gooey, tangy red sauce barbecued onto meats. But to get closer to the heart of the cuisine, you've got to go to ackee and salt fish. Ackee is a small fruit that is cooked like scrambled eggs (and looks suspiciously like them, but it tastes more like squash) with pieces of salty rock cod (think anchovy). At Irie, a Bob Marley-festooned hole in the wall, chopped onions and tomatoes are added to the scramble. At first, the strong flavors are jolting, but mix a bit with the side of black beans and white rice, and you will find a perfect balance. 9062 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 484-0661. VEGGIE BURGER
On paper, this combination of bread, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, veggie patty, optional onions and creamy condiment sounds easy to duplicate, but trust me, it ain't going to happen. Crunchy and soft, sublime and flavorful . . . Treat yourself to something nice. 150 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton. (714) 879-7552. MILKSHAKE
Papa Joe's Pizza
They start with real ice cream and then tip in any and all of the fruits, candies, vegetables and legumes your palpitating heart desires. Squares dig the vanilla; soccer moms swill the peanut butter and banana. Hedonists go for the hey-man-I-think-you've-had-enough boysenberry/Oreo/cherry/chocolate combo and thrill as they push dessert beyond the event horizon, realizing every twisted dairy-related fantasy they've ever had—except the one about the Swiss Miss girl, the sick bastards. 508 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 969-2553. KARAHI LAMB
Bismillah Halal Tandoori
This was the first karahi lamb to pass my trembling virgin lips, and it has yet to be matched: spicy enough to sear but tender enough to take home to Mama. Forever more the karahi lamb by which all other karahi lambs will be unfairly judged. How they make the magic I'll never know, but I've got a taste for it, and it's tearing my life apart. 8901 Knott Ave., Ste. D, Buena Park, (714) 827-7201. ORANGE CHICKEN COMBO NO. 1
Hong Kong Bowl
For, like, $3 and car-ashtray change, you get seam-splitting dollops of chow mein, rice, and crisp-and-gooey orange chicken, done leagues better than the price or the modestly anonymous ambiance would suggest. This is the kind of place everyone pretends to know about but never does, a best-kept secret that delivers the goods at they-gotta-know-better prices. Hong Kong Bowl, you renew our faith in strip malls. 19077 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 596-3908. GUACAMOLE
Las Brisas
Las Brisas serves guacamole the way God intended it to be served: rich and creamy, made from the best pulverized avocados, and laden with rich, juicy tomatoes. In addition, this tasty appetizer is served with piping-hot tortilla chips that are just salty enough, making it a meal unto itself. Best of all, you can order it out on their patio overlooking the ocean at Heisler Park, dispensing with the need for reservations. Had with a margarita or two as the sun sets, it makes for the absolute cheapest gourmet dinner around. 361 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-5434.   CRÈME BRULEE
Gypsy Den
Long assumed to be the dessert of the hoity-toity, this bourgeoisie custard has now been brought to the proletariat—and in generous portions. Gypsy Den serves its rich, vanilla custard with blowtorch-glazed top in large, satisfying bowls, enough for a working man's appetite. The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-7012; Grand Central Café and Bakery, 125 N. Broadway Ave., Ste. D, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840. MINT JULEPS
They are cool and magnificently, well, minty. You'll find yourself refreshed and ready for long lines or a stroll through New Orleans Square, which is charming, though oddly devoid of any "SHOW US YOUR TITS" posters. 1313 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 781-7290. CALAMARI
Wolfgang Puck
They are hot and tasty and dissolve nicely in your mouth, and the waiters only look at you a littlefunny when you hold them up and make them battle one another. Irvine Spectrum, 55 Fortune, Irvine, (949) 453-9393. OMELETS
Harbor House
Harbor House makes omelets the size of national monuments, and there's seemingly no end to the varieties they come in. Served 24/7. 34157 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 496-9270; 16341 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5404.   KILLER DANA COFFEE
J.C. Bean's Coffee House
A strong, dark blend rich with flavor and enough caffeine to jump-start Vegas. However, if you're one of those people who take their coffee with cream and sugar, there's an interesting phenomenon you should be aware of: the coffee tastes better if you get it at the drive-through than it does if you buy it at the counter. 34114 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 496-4700.   NACHOS WITH BEEF
The Blue Café
You get a giant serving of chips, which you can barely get to. The chips are lathered with guacamole and sour cream, jalapeños and black olives. Oh—and the beef? They dump a cow on your chips! Moo-frickin'-oo! 210 the Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. VEGETABLE TEMPURA
Thai Rama
Making tempura is a delicate process, but when it's cooked right, it's better than Jesus. This quaint little restaurant, practically hidden in the corner of a strip mall, offers a vegetable tempura that walks on water. It's lacy, golden, spot-on perfect with fresh vegetables, cooked to a slight snap, and coated in a batter so light it floats. Thai proverb: never order tempura takeout. Eat it as soon out of the pan as possible. At Thai Rama, everybody smiles extra big and the service is exceptional. So stay. 2500 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-0777. PEEL-N-EAT CAJUN SHRIMP
Blue Beet Café
If the object of your affections is willing to peel shrimp barehanded and let the spicy sauce run down his or her chin, it could be love (especially if it's eaten on the Blue Beet's intimate rooftop). 107 21st St., Newport Beach, (949) 675-2338. FISH AND CHIPS
Santa Monica Seafood
Tired of the crap they serve at Long Dong's Fish Barn? Visit Santa Monica Seafood. It ain't no English pub. It's a West Side pomo utilitarian-chic fish market. But even so, the totally crisp takeout fish and chips served with cole slaw that matches its friable texture is a great plebian dinner or lunch on the run. 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862. EGGS BENEDICT
The Cottage
If you already live in Laguna, consider yourself blessed. Otherwise, this incredible open-faced English muffin topped with poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and a slice of avocado awaits. There is no better way to clear your head and strengthen your resolve than the Cottage's enchanted atmosphere and food, sandwiched between a leisurely cruise down Laguna Canyon Road and a return trip up PCH. 308 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3023. TURKEY BURGERS
Where else can you get fine ground turkey and fresh purple onions on a bouncy egg bun, breathe in salt air, and listen to the waves for less than $4? The burger is so fine you'd never guess it's good for you. The locals aren't quite sure what's in it, but they agree it's the secret sauce that makes the bun and turkey combo shred. 110 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-3238. KIBI
Zena's Cuisine
For the past 31 years, Zena's has been dishing up the finest Kibi south of the Middle East. Their 1,000-year-old family recipe has been passed down to Zena's charming owner, Shouki, who bakes the lean ground beef, cracker wheat, onions and mild spices just like his father's father's father's father's father did. Shouki recommends a toke of shisa before dinner—a water pipe puff of aromatic tobacco soaked with your choice of fruit syrup. Phone ahead the day before if you want your Kibi served Middle Eastern style—rare. 2094 N. Tustin, Orange, (714) 279-9511. OSSO BUCO
Allegro Ristorante
God wouldn't have made veal taste this good if he didn't want you to eat it. Allegro's has a mind-blowing osso buco: veal shank simmered for four hours in fresh garden vegetables and a rich assortment of herbs. The meat is so righteously tender you don't need a knife. Perhaps best of all, there is plenty of tasty, soft marrow in the bones waiting to be scooped out. 1160 N. Tustin, Orange, (714) 639-7921. TURKEY NOODLE SOUP
Gypsy Den
Back in the day, anti-establishment hippies with little pocket change could have lived, like, forever on the turkey noodle soup at the Gypsy Den. So chunky it's almost a stew; so soothing it's comfort food in a bowl. Chock-full of steamy turkey, carrots, zucchini, peas, celery, corn and onions and seasoned oh-so-sweetly with thyme, this liquid homage to Mother Earth is served with the fresh-baked bread of the day. The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-7012; Grand Central Café and Bakery, 125 N. Broadway Ave., Ste. D, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840. SPRING ROLLS
Pho Saigon Bowl
Don't insult a spring roll by calling it an egg roll. A well-thrown deep-fried egg roll can knock you silly. Spring rolls, on the other hand, are lightly wrapped delights, filled with Thai basil, bean sprouts, mint leaves, coriander, grated carrots and lettuce. Pho Saigon Bowl's deliciously nutritious version of this Vietnamese dish is heaven on the half-shell. And while you're there, be sure to say "hi" to the Brazen Buddha. The big-bellied statue, a drink in his hand, drags on an unlit ciggie—a greeting to all who enter. 2024 N. Tustin, Orange, (714) 974-2997. SECRET-RECIPE PIZZA
Ray's Pizza
There are at least four reasons to come to Irvine: to watch the impossible rise of UC Irvine's Anteaters basketball team; to hike illegally on Irvine Co. property—which we don't recommend but have heard is breathtaking; to visit the Edward's Theater arthouse across from UCI; to eat Ray's Pizza right next to that same theater. We have spent less money on pizza—but unhappily; we have spent more and felt less satisfied. Ray says it's the crust he bakes from a secret family recipe, but we're sure it's also the sharp, remarkable spices—about which he will also say, "It's a secret." 4199 Campus Dr. No. 3, Irvine, (949) 854-5044. Contributors: Gustavo Arellano, Andrew Asch, Nathan Callahan, Matt Coker, Stacy Davies, Victor D. Infante, Rich Kane, Steve Lowery, Shelle Murach, Anthony Pignataro, Jeremy Scherer, Nick Schou, Will Swaim, Andrew Tonkovich, Tom Vasich, Dave Wielenga and Chris Ziegler.

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