The 20 Most Important Orange County Restaurants of the Past 20 Years

We miss you, Memphis At the Santora :-(
We miss you, Memphis At the Santora :-(

In honor of OC Weekly's 20th anniversary this year, behold the launch of 20 for 20 a bunch of listicles celebrating the best, worst, craziest, most influential, most most that's happened in OC during our existence. Stay tuned every week or so as we dive into our archives and teach. Enjoy, and second-guess on!

When I started reviewing restaurants for this infernal rag in 2002, I wasn't very impressed with OC's dining scene. Most places were retreads of restaurant trends already passé in Los Angeles five years earlier, or were some riff on Italian/Mexican/steaks/Japanese food. Oh, there were some good restaurants doing interesting things, but I wanted to only focus on hole-in-the-wall spots, as that's where the real culinary action was at the time.

Thankfully, OC chefs were just about to enter the golden age of dining we live in today, in which many young chefs set trends instead of following them. And some of those holes-in-the-wall also proved crucial, introducing tastes to OC that had never registered on county palates. Behold, then, a list of our choice for the county's most important restaurants over the past 20 years. Remember: We're speaking importance -- places that either set trends or influenced others with dishes, chefs or actions outside of the kitchen. Enjoy!

20. Portola

Drink up!
Drink up!
From Michelle Woo's awesome cover story

Coffee in OC is nothing new, of course, nor is higher-end coffee -- hell, one day we gotta write about the beatnik coffeehouses during the 1950s and 1960s in Garden Grove, Fullerton and SanTana, where artists such as Sunny Hills boy Jackson Browne started their career. But Portola's commitment to coffee nerdistry pushed every local coffeehouse in OC to up their coffee know-how, even if Portola was just riding the third-or-fourth-or-is-it-fifth? wave of coffeehouses that swept America in previous years. Depending on whether you just want a cuppa joe or Bulletproof-style, you can thank or curse them.

19. Pascal Olhats

Ohats
Ohats
OC Weekly archives

More than any other local chef, Olhats has waved the flag for fine dining and French cuisine in Orange County, since he started Traditions in the late 1980s through his various, usually eponymous, concepts through the 1990s and to his present-day spot, simply named Pascal. A slew of local chefs have worked under him, and he claims to have offered macarons in OC long before anyone else -- we'll ignore that last, unproveable point and laud his true pioneering ways.

18. Javier's

The only reason to visit Javier's -- and not a bad reason AT ALL . . .
The only reason to visit Javier's -- and not a bad reason AT ALL . . .
OC Weekly archives

Oh, the food is middling at best. But one cannot argue with success, and Javier's unleashed a middle-class Mexican revolution not seen since El Torito's heyday in the 1970s. Avila's El Ranchito was the local pioneer in this genre, but Javier's upped it in prominence, glamor and overpriced food that made its owners insanely rich, leading to copycats from Brea to San Clemente and more. The brand is such that there are outposts in Las Vegas, Cabo and John Wayne Airport, all patronized by the same MILFs and sugar daddies happy to pay steep prices to be able to fiesta with one another.

17. Ramos House Cafe

Long before "locavore" and "organic" became overused buzzwords, Stan Q. Humphries incorporated the trends into his Southern-fied menu. Long before hipsters tried to convert old houses and buildings into new digs, Humphries set up shop in a century-plus-old house in the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in California. And back in the days when South County was a true wasteland, he was the brave pioneer who got foodies to head to Capistrano. Now impossible to eat at because of the crowds, Ramos House's place in history is secured with every fancy French toast and mimosa offered at brunch.

16. Bruxie

Making them sammies
Making them sammies
OC Weekly archives

"The Bold Fold" is this chain's slogan, but far bolder than its gimmick -- sandwiches with a waffle in place of a bread or bun, plus great custard -- is its luck. It arose at the perfect time, when OC eaters became the Yelping masses they are today, and they cashed in by opening multiple spots far earlier than anyone else, inspiring every hipster restauranteur since to shoot for franchising before they even finish their first spot.   15. Yogurtland

Yogurtland founder Phillip Chang
Yogurtland founder Phillip Chang
OC Weekly archives

OC has strangely been a froyo ideas factory going back to the days of Golden Spoon. But it was Yogurtland that popularized the idea of self-serve, that turned it into a multimillion-dollar operation, that outlasted Pinkberry (even after following in its footsteps), and that has unleashed a wave of followers. Not bad for a place that started in 2006 in FULLERTON.

14. Jason Quinn

Cover of Michelle Woo's award-winning profile
Cover of Michelle Woo's award-winning profile
Photo by John Gilhooley

It's amazing how meteoric Quinn's run has been -- just four years ago, he and partner Daniel Shemtob were contestants on The Great Food Truck Race 2 with their Lime Truck, already making waves in OC with their balls-to-the-wall food. We know the rest of the story: The Lime Truck won the contest, Quinn took his money to open Playground, Yelp melted down as a result, Michelle Woo's profile on him won us a bunch of awards, and Quinn parlayed all that success into willing into existence a food market that will either make or break downtown SanTana's reputation as a hipster haven. Quinn mainstreamed the idea of a mercurial chef, mostly because his talent has always matched his bravado. And unlike previous bad boys of OC cooking, Quinn has yet to burn out -- and he's now offering free bread!

13. David Wilhelm's Culinary Adventures

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern
Jimmy's Famous American Tavern
Photo by AMP

Wilhelm was OC's first true celebrity chef, with hip-for-then concepts such as French 75, Savannah, Chat Noir, Chimayo at the Beach, and more. His places were the first signal to LA that OC was evolving from steak dinners and the Ritz to higher-end, more adventurous stuff, and his success inspired chefs such as Tim Goodell and others to step up. He's still somewhat in the game with Jimmy's Famous American Tavern in Dana Point.

12. The Bruery

Fill it up!
Fill it up!
Photo by one of our drunkards

The Placentia giant became OC's first notice to the world that we were serious about our local beer, making us into one of the better beer gardens in America. Thank you.

11. Taco Mesa/Taco Rosa

Taco Mesa can also cook a mean slider for charity events!
Taco Mesa can also cook a mean slider for charity events!
Photo by AMP

The Calderón brothers started their chain in 1991, but they hit their stride during the mid-1990s, showing other Mexicans that targeting their food at a younger crowd could be profitable and still be muy mexicano. More important, Ivan Calderón's Taco Rosa simultaneously introduced Orange County to alta cocina (high-end, non-El Torito Mexican food) and the virtues of regional Mexican cuisine. They're still going strong with both concepts, and the next generation of Calderóns are helping out with the SOHO Taco juggernaut -- chingones!   10. Lee's Sandwiches

Lee's!
Lee's!
Photo by Clam

The San Jose-based chain was the first place where large swaths of Orange Countians tried Vietnamese food with its most assimilable soldier: the bánh mì, whose large size and ridiculously low price (about $1.25 when it set up its first store in Little Saigon in the early 2000s, topping $3 nowadays) continues to draw crowds. Lee's was also the first Vietnamese chain to expand outside of Little Saigon and make Vietnamese food as much a part of OC's culinary landscape as taquerí­as.

9. Gypsy Den

One of the Gypsy Dens
One of the Gypsy Dens
OC Weekly archives

The Stand in Laguna Beach was serving vegan food long before the Gypsy Den; Alta Coffee in Newport Beach and Koffee Klatch in Laguna Beach nailed down the hippie-hipster vibe before Gypsy. But during the 1990s to the present day, the Gypsy Den in Costa Mesa and SanTana became havens for county misfits of the artistic variety and made vegetarianism cool. It was the place where a previous generation of Weeklings had multiple meetings, so we'll gladly jury-rig this list just for them.

8. 320 Main

The Detroiter
The Detroiter
Photo by Das Ubergeek

The main reason Orange County is drinking so damn well nowadays is because of the Orange County Bartender's Cabinet, that plucky group of bartenders that meets monthly with the expressed purpose of saucing the county properly. And its spiritual home is 320 Main, under the helm of bartender extraordinaire Jason Schiffer. The food here is also great (two words: Bleu Tenders), but if it weren't for Schiffer's proselytizing, we'd still think the height of alcohol was Stoli and Midori sours.

7. Bruno Serato

Just don't make fun about his favorite soccer team . . .
Just don't make fun about his favorite soccer team . . .
Photo by Meranda Carter

Culinarily, no one has ever taken on Bruno Serato's White House for high-end, almost-gaudy Italian cuisine. But in terms of charity, perhaps the only person who has given more back to the community is La Casa Garcia's annual Thanksgiving dinner -- but Serato does that almost weekly by feeding hotel kids and so many more for free through his Caterina's Club charity, and the awards and attention given to him make local news all the time. His food is good, but Serato also reminds chefs that food is ultimately about feeding people, and a hungry community is not a healthy one.

6. Brodard

Brodard's Nem Nuong Cuon in all their glory
Brodard's Nem Nuong Cuon in all their glory
OC Weekly archives

The most famous restaurant in Little Saigon, the place where many OCers got taken by their Vietnamese friends and lovers to experience "authentic" Vietnamese food for the first time, and also one of the first places to try and offer high-end, non-Frenchy Vietnamese dining is Brodard. All of this based on their legendary nem nuong, those spring rolls of glory that virtually every Vietnamese restaurant has tried to replicate since.   5. In-N-Out Burgers

The Irvine location, I believe . . . or is that Fullerton? No, Fullerton's door faces north . . .
The Irvine location, I believe . . . or is that Fullerton? No, Fullerton's door faces north . . .
OC Weekly archives

Yes, In-N-Out was started in 1948, and it isn't even from here (although its headquarters has been in Irvine for some time). But modern-day foodie culture in OC and the U.S. owes a huge debt to the chain, from the secret menu to quality ingredients to fanatical followers. And every place that offers hamburgers in OC, from Ruby's to Slater's 50/50 to the Counter -- all of them -- are just pretenders to In-N-Out's crown as OC's favorite burger (even if TK Burgers is better . . . but we digress). The only way In-N-Out hasn't influenced its pretenders? In paying workers a great wage -- hmm . . .

4. Alebrije's

The one on Main and Cubbon . . .
The one on Main and Cubbon . . .
Photo by The Mexican

The pink taco truck is not only the most famous loncherain Orange County, appearing everywhere from NPR to Last Call With Carson Daly to Univisión, Swiss TV and more, but also the whole reason taco trucks exist in OC, thanks to founder Roberto Guzmán, who bravely sued the city of SanTana on behalf of himself and other loncheros when pendejo politicians tried to shut them down. Few other restaurants can boast of such an overarching political legacy, and current Alebrije's man Albert Hernández is ready to rally loncheros against the latest round of regulations. The pink truck's chilango menu also influenced other purveyors of regional Mexican cuisine that it was okay to sell to an audience away from their core clientele.

3. Boiling Crab

Sha-Bang!
Sha-Bang!
Photo by the Elmo Monster

It's almost impossible to imagine Little Saigon without crawfish houses, but the genre simply didn't exist in 2003, when Texas resident Sinh Nguyen and his wife, Dada Ngo, took the food of the bayou and brought it originally to Garden Grove, then seemingly everywhere, with everyone copying the concept. The definitive piece on Boiling Crab's history is in an Orange Coast 2009 profile that unfortunately isn't online right now -- so get thee to a library and find an old copy. You do remember libraries, right?

2. Wahoo's Fish Taco

Lam: the coolest Chinese Brazilian you'll ever meet
Lam: the coolest Chinese Brazilian you'll ever meet
Photo by Meranda Carter

Opened in 1988, exploding in the 1990s and expanding ever since, Wahoo's mastered synergy long before VICE by cross-promoting sports, music, the beach life and healthy eats to create the ultimate OC chain. Co-owner/founder Wing Lam has also taught every hip restauranteur what's up with his philanthropy, being the first cool OC foodie to mix it up with the blueblood set. Plus, Wahoo's taught Orange County the beauty of the fish taco and burrito, which every Bro-Mex restaurant has carried on its menu since.

And No. 1, unsurprisingly, is . . .

  Memphis

We miss you, Memphis At the Santora :-(
We miss you, Memphis At the Santora :-(

"The Costa Mesa 500: It's kind of like the Fortune 500, only with less fortune (except Paul Frank)," began Ellen Griley's 2005 cover story on the Memphis Group, the people behind Memphis Café, Memphis At the Santora, the late, great Detroit Bar, and so much more. "And though at times membership has been considered both a slur and a badge of honor by members of Costa Mesa high society -- depending on whom you are talking to or about -- tonight it's just reality. Gathered under a rental tent outside Memphis Café for the restaurant/bar's 10th anniversary party is nearly every DJ, bar owner, restaurateur, photographer, publicist, waitress, bartender, promoter, writer, lead singer, financier, graphic designer, alleged graphic designer, Paul Frank employee, record-store clerk, chef, parents'-utility-room dweller and barfly who ever set foot in Costa Mesa's evolving nightlife scene during the past decade."

That was a decade ago. In the decade since, Memphis evolved past just being a Costa Mesa hotspot into SanTana's gathering point for all of its tribes. Its bartender list is legendary; its workers went on to take chef Diego Velasco's philosophy of good times with great food and even better drinks to restaurants across Southern California and even the United States; if we did the restaurant version of a coaching tree, Memphis' version makes Bill Walsh's coaching tree seem as mighty as Lane Kiffih's. It was a restaurant's restaurant, and scaling back to the Costa Mesa mothership has only made it better. Frankly, without Memphis, we'd be as cool as Riverside -- refry that.

Email: garellano@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @gustavoarellano.

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