The Feast Days of Summer
Every day is a holiday for someone somewhere in this world—did you know, for instance, that Aug. 12, the day this issue hits newsstands and the Internet, is simultaneously the Glorious Twelfth in the United Kingdom (meant to commemorate the start of grouse-hunting season), International Youth Day and the Catholic Feast Day of Saint Euplius, who was beheaded after reading the Bible in Sicily? Fun times today!
No matter the commemoration, mankind universally celebrates with food. And here in Orange County, our many tribes celebrate special days throughout the year. We can easily fill up a calendar with our culinary recommendations for each day, so we’ve decided to limit ourselves to 24 of the most important holidays—listed in chronological order—to county residents, along with the restaurant where you can best enjoy the day’s particular meaning. Don’t like our choices? Visit our Stick a Fork In It blog, where we’ll have five more choices for you to ponder, as well as give you the opportunity to bitch. Happy eating!
NEW YEAR’S DAY
It’s noon on New Year’s Day, and the house is a mess. Uncle Edward is comatose on the couch, lampshade still on his head; there’s a beer bottle upturned in a bowl of confiscated car keys; and the creaking of a floorboard causes knifing pain to run through hung-over heads. What to do? Every culture has its own ways of dealing with the effects of overindulgence, but El Cabrito may serve the tastiest. As its name (“The Kid Goat”) implies, it specializes in birria de chivo, a thick, chile- and cumin-rich stew made with goat meat. A plate of the stringy stuff—the perfect mix of lean and fat, with a stack of homemade tortillas, some griddled onions and a heap of El Cabrito’s amazing, sludgy, rich, smoky salsa de aceite—and even the most uninhibited imbiber will be well on the road to recovery. And don’t forget the steaming cup of goat drippings on the side for dunking or hair-of-the-dog purposes. 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8461.
The first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, usually late January or early February
Though smaller sizes are always available year-round, the Tet holiday brings in the behemoth versions of bánh tét, which is to the Vietnamese New Year what fruitcake is to Christmas. But unlike the dried-fruit-encrusted pastry, people willingly consume bánh tét and look forward to it as part of the annual Tet tradition. Each holiday log—a glutinous rice roll filled with a savory-sweet mung-bean paste mixed with pork fat, onions and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and bound with twine—is large enough to use as mooring for a ship or as a barbell during Pilates. They’re sliced into wheels and either eaten as is or pan-fried to a golden crisp after a good dousing of fish sauce. Van’s Bakery won’t be the only place to have them, but they also offer bánh tét chay, a vegetarian version. Either way, it’s better than fruitcake. 14346 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 839-1666.
CHINESE NEW YEAR
The second new moon after the winter solstice, usually between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20
Holidays are more fun when you’re surrounded by people celebrating them, right? Well, the busiest days at any dim-sum purveyor are on Chinese New Year weekend, and Irvine’s branch of the Capital Seafood chain packs them in like a Shanghai train. Families drive immense distances to reunite over plates of shu mai, nai wong bao and griddled turnip (actually daikon radish) cake. Don’t skip the excellent dou fu faa, fresh housemade tofu pudding with sweet ginger syrup, or lean pork and preserved egg congee with savory Chinese doughnuts. For an extra-festive touch, order a plate of seafood from the tanks as the centerpiece of the meal—house special crab or lobster, if you’re really trying to impress your guests. Whatever you order, go as early as you can because between the parking lot (which seems to have been designed while looking through the bottom of a tequila bottle) and the crowds, the wait can be considerable and frustrating—but the food will make it worth the hair-pulling. 2700 Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 252-8188; www.capital-seafood.com/irvine.
The third Monday of February
The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace—the only presidential library within our county’s borders—would be the ideal place to visit on President’s Day. Most years, admission is free, and in 2010, they gave out slices of cherry pie for the first 100 guests. But for something a bit more bipartisan, visit The Anaheim White House, a restaurant housed inside a vaguely Jeffersonian building that takes the idea of honoring our commander in chiefs a little more lightly. Presidential-looking plates of Italian-inspired cuisine are served in themed rooms named after select POTUSes from the past and present. Barack Obama has a room, much to the consternation of our county’s Know Nothings, but like his administration, it hasn’t proven to be more than a pleasant, indistinguishable room worth only a brief visit. Everything is decked out in white linen and gold sashes. Chandeliers and fine china never looked as regal as they do here, except maybe at the real White House. And for those who just came from Yorba Linda after paying their respects to our 37th president, there’s a room dedicated to Tricky Dick himself. 887 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 772-1381; anaheimwhitehouse.com.
Chinese New Year is commonly celebrated; Tet is found throughout the county. What’s a hipster in search of an obscure holiday to do? Wait for spring. OC’s two most well-known Persian restaurants (named identically but unrelated: Darya in Orange is related to a restaurant in Westwood; Darya at South Coast Plaza is a standalone) have nearly identical menus, and both make excellent sabzi polo mahi, the traditional meal of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The theme of Nowruz is purification and rebirth, symbolized by fire and new herbs, so the Daryas’ emphasis is on dishes that incorporate both. They cook basmati rice with seven herbs (chives, cilantro, dill, fenugreek leaves, green onions, parsley and spinach) and fire-grilled whitefish steaks; an egg may be served to symbolize the continuity of life. As a wish for long life, order a bowl of ash-e reshteh—thick, hearty noodle soup—and utter, “Nowruz mubarak” for an auspicious year. 1611 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 557-6600; daryasouthcoastplaza.com. 1998 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 921-2773; daryarestaurant.com.
The thing to do for the Thai New Year of Songkran is to soak one another with water pistols. In Thailand, merry street parties break out with revelers who sometimes employ real elephants with hair-trigger trunks as water hoses. Some traditionalists lament the whole thing as an anamorphosis of the ritualistic cleansing of Buddha statues, but it’s damp, harmless fun. Southern California’s few Thai temples do feature crowds that ring in the New Year with water fights and food, but if you aren’t keen on getting drenched, celebrate at Thai Nakorn. The food consumed by Thais during the holiday differs from region to region, but at Thai Nakorn, you can sample just about everything in the cuisine’s glossary. Try the pad Thai (a street food enjoyed during Songkran as much as it is the rest of the year), but make it a New Year’s resolution to try something new, like the wild boar curry from the much-lauded specials menu. 11951 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 799-2031; 12532 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 583-8938; thainakornrestaurant.com.
After the pain of writing a check to Uncle Sam, the parking nightmare and long lines at the post office, and the frustration of having to figure out where you put form 30426-B, Orange Countians both stressed and impecunious should repair to any location of Bánh Mì & Che Cali for its namesake Vietnamese sandwich. For a couple of bucks each, you can get a French roll or baguette filled with your choice of Southeast Asian charcuterie, garlicky mayonnaise, pickled carrots and daikon radish, chiles and cilantro. Try a dac biet, with pate, Vietnamese head cheese and white-pork shoulder, or go for a xiu mai, juicy pork meatballs with just a touch of caramel sauce. For dessert, try some of the coconut-laden dessert puddings: che ba mau is three sweet beans in coconut-milk syrup, and che chuoi uses the same syrup, but instead enveloping soft-cooked bananas. Bánh mì and che are a special bargain: Buy two and get the third free. Three sandwiches and three half-pints of che for $8 ought to make any IRS victim happy—at least until the next quarterly estimated taxes are due. 13838 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; (714) 534-6987; 15551 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 839-8185; 18122 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 593-6300; 8948 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 897-3927.
CINCO DE MAYO
It would be nice to review a Pueblan-style restaurant for this entry, given that this most-misunderstood of Mexican holidays recalls the 1862 Battle of Puebla. It would be great to send ustedes to a place that sells epic cemitas poblanas (the sandwiches that make tortas seem as small as sliders) or tacos árabes, even a good version of mole poblano. But Pueblan restaurants don’t exist in la naranja at the moment, so the next logical step for those who wish to celebrate the holiday properly instead of the grotesque tequila-and-sombrero spectacle that happens in el Norte is to eat at a Oaxacan restaurant. The state is renowned not only for its moles, but also for Benito Juarez—the Lincoln of Mexico, the president who led the country against the French and Hapsburg occupiers whom the Battle of Puebla staved off for just a year. El Fortín is the county’s best Oaxacan restaurant, where Cinco de Mayo doesn’t bring out the burros and mock mariachi, but rather platters of moles; table-big tortillas called tlayudas, smeared with black-bean paste; and baskets of stringy, milky Oaxacan cheese. If you’re lucky, it’ll also show clips of the festivities of Oaxaca’s own state holiday, the Guelaguetza. 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 773-4290; 10444 Dale St., Stanton, (714) 252-9120; restaurantelfortin.com.
The second Sunday in May
How is it that Mother’s Day came to be associated with breakfast in bed? A byproduct of TV-sitcom plots, perhaps? Of course, there’s taking her out for a fancy brunch at someplace that pours the hollandaise as if it were gold, then charges you a jacked-up fee. But there is an out: Break of Dawn, a breakfast joint situated halfway between a short-order diner and a four-star luxury-hotel restaurant. It’s no coincidence that chef/owner Dee Nguyen used to cook at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, home of OC’s most-celebrated luxury brunch. All his years there taught Nguyen the art of the egg: encased in tempura, poached, fried and served with linguiça, duck, even beef tongue, all trotted out quickly and usually by Nguyen himself. The crème brûlée French toast— made with Mexican chocolate, then draped with caramel-chocolate sauce—has made many a mom want to pinch the chef’s cheeks in gratitude. Because she loves you, she won’t ever tell you so, but she’ll take it over your pathetic attempts at toast and eggs any day. 24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418; breakofdawnrestaurant.com.
The last Monday in May
While you should pay a visit to your local VFW hall to thank those who served and to local cemeteries to honor those who gave their lives so this rag could exist, the most appetizing way to celebrate our wars and troops is by eating what they wished for while in the service: a massive helping of comfort food, surrounded by good folks. That is exactly the scene at Paul’s Coffee House, recently featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The décor is pure Marines, from real ones (pictures of Leathernecks) to pretend versions (John Wayne posters) and even a gorgeous wood carving of the Marines’ insignia. But a staid museum this is not: Paul’s reflects the worldly experiences of the Corps on its menu, with plates spanning the globe—from a mountainous loco moco to French toast, from breakfast burritos to chicken-fried chicken as big as the Texas plains, and even kimchi on the side from time to time. More than a few good men will be sitting at Paul’s counter or in the ample booths—salute them by treating them to a cuppa joe. 16947 Bushard St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-7879; semperfinerdiner.com.
This day motivates many an American to trot out the grill and commemorate our freedom from those tea-swilling Brits. But burgers and dogs, dear countrymen, can’t technically be called barbecue. Ask any pitmaster from here to Yonkers, and they’ll tell you that a true ’cue requires the slow smoking of your chosen proteins. And that, friends, is a job better left to experts such as the Hobels, the family who own and operate Blake’s Place out of a sparse cafeteria-like dining room in an industrial park in Anaheim. Tender ribs tear off bones as if they were Post-It Notes; smoked sausages sliced on the bevel glisten with redness and snap when your incisors pierce the casing. Don’t expect china or fancy glasses—everything is served on paper plates, and drinks are self-serve. If you had a blanket, you’d be at a picnic. Afterward, go up a few blocks to the Disneyland area for the obligatory dessert of fireworks. 2905 E. Miraloma Ave., Ste. 3, Anaheim, (714) 630-8574; blakesplacebbq.com.
Pascal Olhats is so French he makes Nicolas Sarkozy seem as Gallic as John Cleese. So who better to trust with Bastille Day than the dean of OC’s French chefs? To mark the occasion, the traditionalist always puts on a fete worthy of monarchy-toppling proportions. His original restaurant, aptly called Tradition, has done a Bastille Day spread for as long as we can remember. But now that he’s opened Brasserie Pascal, he’s got an even better venue. Wine (red, white and sparkling) is the beverage of choice, of course, followed by a prix-fixe dinner that is French fare personified. Everything from the peasant dishes (ratatouille) to the high cuisine of the aristocracy (steak tartare, mixed tableside) makes an appearance. And be sure to order the soufflé so you can savor the delicious irony of Marie Antoinette’s purported words about letting us eat some pastry or other. 327 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-2700; pascalnpb.com/brasserie.htm.
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, generally in August and September
Ask any Muslim in Orange County where to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, and the answer will be nearly unanimous: Olive Tree, located in Anaheim’s Little Arabia district and serving a buffet as soon as the appointed hour passes. The buffet is a thing of beauty—and enormous. The dishes rotate, but you may be treated to mansaf, a Jordanian dish of long-grain rice topped with lamb baked in jameed, the Arabic answer to Quark (the cheese, not the elementary particle that helps to make existence possible). You may see saya deia, whole roasted fish, or maglooba, rice cooked with dried fruit, almonds and 17 spices, then topped with a lamb shank that drips off the bone. Stewed okra, stuffed zucchini or green beans with tiny shreds of beef, as well as an outstanding, mint-strewn salad provide the vegetable portion of the meal, and there are plenty of dips, including an outstanding, cumin-laced yogurt. Prepare for massive lines; the secret is out among the local Muslim population, and the wait could be considerable. 512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste. 3, Anaheim, (714) 535-2878.
MEXICAN INDEPENDENCE DAY
The two great heroes of Mexico’s War of Independence were Miguel Hidalgo and Jose María Morelos; the country traditionally celebrates its liberation from Spain by having the president utter the same cry for freedom Hidalgo did 200 years ago from the balcony of the presidential palace in Mexico City. These phenomena culinarily unite at Alebrije’s, the celebrated pink taco truck of Santa Ana. It primarily hawks Mexico City-style food, which means alambres and pambazos are more popular here than tacos and burritos. But the owner is from Hidalgo’s home state of Guanajuato, and his prize dish comes from the capital of Morelos, the state named after the revolutionary hero. Celebrate the defeat of tyranny with the taco acorazado, a mammoth taco named after a battleship that finds a hand-patted corn tortilla topped with fluffy rice, grilled cactus paddles and strips of breaded beef cutlets fried to order. Alebrije’s is one of the few places in Southern California that stocks this epic dish, and just one bite will make even the most resolute anti-immigrant fool wish the Reconquista would begin mañana. On the corner of Main and Cubbon streets, Santa Ana. No phone number.
Hangul Day commemorates the day many centuries ago when the Korean alphabet was developed. Is that a good reason for celebration? As writers, we say, yes! It’s a shame its legal status as a holiday in Korea has been downgraded to appease employers who aren’t so keen on letting workers have an excuse to go out drinking. We say you observe it and play hooky. And the place to do it at is The Past Memories, a Korean drinking hall where celebrations are de rigueur throughout the year, even without Hangul Day. Why here? Well, the wallpaper is a cascade of Hangul script. And, um, that’s about it for that part of our reasoning. But when there are ever-frigid bottles of Hite and fruity pours of yogurt-flavored soju to pair with fried chicken wings, kimchi and a thing called “corn cheese”—canned corn niblets engulfed in a layer of melting mozzarella, broiled in an oven, then served on a sizzling-hot plate—who needs a reason? 9252 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste. 29, Garden Grove, (714) 638-7818.
DIA DE LA RAZA
Simón Bolivar’s dream of a pan-Latino superpower might’ve never realized itself, but the next best thing happens every Oct. 12—what gabachos celebrate as Columbus Day, but Latin America marks as Día de la Raza. It’s a celebration not of the raza that irks conservatives so, but of the momentous meeting between the Old and New Worlds that formed the Western Hemisphere. To best recall the liberator of the Americas, trek to Puerto Madero Market, run by Argentines but stocked with items from across Central and South America, including Salvadoran kolashampan and Colombian microwavable treats, fresh quinoa from Peru, and black beans to make the perfect Brazilian feijoada. The butcher and deli stocks Argentine favorites, with the latter slapping together some of the better chorizo sandwiches this side of the Pampas. And they also hawk the true Latino religion: soccer from across the globe on their three big flat-screen televisions. 1225 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-5900; puertomaderomarket.com.
In Germany, the 16 days up to and including the first Sunday in October; stateside, all October
While Orange County isn’t exactly groaning with German restaurants, we do know how to put on a real Oktoberfest. Head to the Phoenix Club, OC’s premier center of German culture, pay the $5 entry fee (cheap!), and order a beer bigger than your head and a huge plate of bratwurst. Wink at the biermädchen who deliver the beer, but not too much—they’re stronger than they look. Lederhosen are optional but highly encouraged. Stand up—while you still can—and dance a polka or a waltz to the sound of the accordion-heavy band. Not everyone knows the lyrics to the German drinking songs, but after a few more lagers, nobody will care anyway. Despite the massive quantities of Germany’s best export, the festival remains civil and good-natured, with few of the antics of the county’s other, skinhead-skewing Oktoberfests. If beer tents and dancing mädchen leave you cold, stop by for the excellent Sunday brunch at the Loreley Restaurant inside the club. 1340 S. Sanderson Ave., Anaheim, (714) 563-4161; thephoenixclub.com.
Alternates between August and October; this year, Oct. 22-23
Nearly 20,000 devotees of the games put out by Irvine’s Blizzard Entertainment show up every year at the Anaheim Convention Center for the annual BlizzCon. The trouble is that geeks travel in packs, they love spicy food, and they tend to be much more interested in exotic cultures (and their foods) than non-geeks. Any restaurant deemed worthy of the legions of WoW addicts would have to be able to hold 20, 30 or 40 people at a time, which cuts out many of the tiny holes-in-the-wall so beloved by the nerdy. Enter Wadiya, a Sri Lankan café located in an unassuming strip mall near the convention center. Egg hoppers—bowl-shaped crepes with sunny-side up eggs cooked into the bottom—will be brought to your table when you need them; add black curries, fish cooked in coconut milk and chiles, or lunu miris (intensely spicy chutney) to them. Other nights, the egg hoppers may be replaced with string hoppers, patties of tender rice noodles; these are perfect for scooping up coconut sambal, a condiment that will light up more eyes than 24 straight hours of slaying Orcs. 949 S. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 635-0005; www.wadiyausa.com.
It’s no accident that the TV at Powell’s Sweet Shoppe never stops broadcasting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder version, not the Johnny Depp nightmare). Augustus Gloop’s mind would short-circuit upon seeing the bounty of sweets lined from wall to floor to wall. Jelly Belly is served by spout. A soda fountain pours endless varieties of pop. An ice-cream counter features various flavors, its scoops topped with even more tooth-rotting goodness. Sugar junkies, adults and children alike, can traverse the calorically irresponsible aisles like, well, kids in a candy store. Halloween brings in the weird stuff—candy spiders and other gross-out oddities that would make the cut at Honeydukes. Bring in your kids in their costumes, but forget about going trick-or-treating later—by the time you get home with your Powell’s treasures, they’ll be sprawled on the carpet, tummies aching for mercy. 27000 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. E, Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-9652; 5282 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 434-6105; powellssweetshoppe.com.
The 10th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah of the lunar Islamic calendar; this year, Nov. 16
Muslims around the world traditionally commemorate this holiday (meant to memorialize the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command) by slaughtering an animal and distributing the meat to friends, families and the poor. And although health codes prohibit such an activity in your back yard, do the next best thing: Order one of the many sphihas at Forn al-Hara and split it with friends. Sphihas are the Middle Eastern flatbreads that unimaginative food critics liken to pizzas, and Forn al-Hara has carnivorous, omnivorous and vegetarian versions alike: baked with cheese and spicy soujouk sausage, smothered with the wondrous spice rub zaatar, enlivened with spinach or creamy labneh. Little Arabia has a couple of worthy joints, but Forn al-Hara is the best choice because its neighbor is a hookah lounge, and they also stock sweets for that post-dinner sugar craving. 512 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 758-3777.
The fourth Thursday in November
Avowed carnivores already know where to gorge on turkey for Thanksgiving, but vegans and other non-turkey-eaters have fewer alternatives. For you, we submit Zen, a vegetarian’s refuge in Little Saigon that doesn’t make a big deal of your dietary choices. They serve food that just tastes good. And on Turkey Day, as well as every day, they offer a feast that may allow you to forget about the gravy and dressing. You’ll marvel at the fakery of it all and revel in the flavors. The shrimp have tiger stripes. The shaken beef stir-fry smacks you with a peppery kick. And if you’re feeling like you still need to mack on a piece of poultry, try their soy-fried chicken, which looks and tastes like a hen, molded to look like it has wings and plump drumsticks. That Tofurky can wait until next year. 9329 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 895-3637; zenvegetarian.com.
Starts on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar; this year, Dec. 1-9
Hanukkah in a German restaurant? Well, when said German restaurant—Jägerhaus in Anaheim—serves the best potato pancakes in the county, it all starts to make sense. While the décor, full of beer steins, photos of German castles and cute curtains, won’t evoke the Maccabees any time soon, the latkes will put the surroundings right out of diners’ minds. Crispy on the outside and impossibly tender on the inside, the discs have a subtly onion-y bite. Top with sour cream and scarf. For a real treat, ask if there’s any housemade plum jam to be had. It’s untraditional but an excellent substitute for the applesauce. Once done, treat your fellow diners to a round of “Khad Gadyo” or “Dayeinu” while you wait for dessert. If the fantastic strudel or black-as-night chocolate cake won’t replace the traditional sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts that symbolize the lamps that burned for eight days on one day’s supply of oil), Sunkist Donuts is just a few doors down. 2525 E. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 520-9500; www.jagerhaus.net.
It’s a question that has plagued non-Christians for 2,000 years: Where can you eat on Christmas, when nearly everything is closed? The answer is to go to a place that specializes in kosher or halal food. Since the former is rarer than hen’s teeth in OC, a restaurant specializing in food deemed acceptable to the Muslim diet is the obvious choice, and Ma’s Islamic Chinese is perhaps the preeminent Chinese halal restaurant in the county. Order a plate of da bing—large round flatbreads stuffed with green onions and studded with salty sesame seeds. The bread comes in two varieties; while the thick variety is filling, the thin variety gives more sesame-salt topping per bite. Try dao xiao mian, the famous knife-cut noodles of western China, with vegetables, and for large groups, try a “warm pot,” featuring meat and vegetables to swish in a simmering, spicy broth. The adventurous should order lamb with suancai, preserved cabbage that is the Chinese answer to sauerkraut. The strongly lactic vegetable takes the gamy edge off the lamb. 601 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim, (714) 446-9553.
NEW YEAR’S EVE
Before you get hung-over enough to warrant a visit to El Cabrito, you have to get soused. And before you get soused, you should eat as much as possible to hope against hope that fifth Manhattan won’t push you into the land of pink elephants. Helping you at every step of the way is the Crosby, which will celebrate its first full year with a liquor license. This place is guaranteed to be packed for the midnight countdown, so arrive early, eat the gourmet creations of chef Aron Habinger, get smashed on any of its boozes, then stumble over to the rest of downtown Santa Ana. The coming year is your oyster, amigo; just don’t leave it on the streets. 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543; thisisthecrosby.com.
This article appeared in print "The Feast Days of Summer (And Winter and Fall and Spring): Where to eat, drink and be merry (and besotted) during Orange County’s most important holidays."
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13838 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843