This list is not for the Disney tourist who's content to secure a seat at Bubba Gump's or Joe's Crab Shack. This list is for travelers (and us locals) who want to explore Anaheim beyond the resort green zone–a.k.a. the real Anaheim. Yes, thrown in the mix is one solitary eatery on Disney property (because we love Disneyland, too). Also know that this list is not complete by any means. Because it is limited to 10, the gut-filling German cuisine of Jägerhaus, the lamb feast at Olive Tree, and even the humble teriyaki bowls of Mos No 2 weren't included (all of them OC Weekly favorites). It just goes to show that Anaheim is a big, wonderful, diverse and exciting food city…which just happens to have two theme parks.
1. Bistro Bleu
For his own restaurant, David Kesler, the former executive chef of the Cellar, is most interested in decoupling the exorbitance from French cuisine. You can have a three course lunch with bœuf bourguignon as the main course and chocolate mousse for dessert for about $16. His escargots–served simmering in a mini-Dutch oven–is presented as a stew in a style indicative of Provence, with garlic, tomato, mushrooms, parsley, white wine and a splash of creme fraiche, and is about $8 right now. There's no need for those metal shell-gripping contraptions or even a tiny fork. In fact, there's no table setting. Silverware here is crammed in mason jars, napkins are paper, and when you order wine by the glass, they fill it to the brim. And for dessert, at $7 (as of this writing), the chocolate soufflé automatically distinguishes itself as the most reasonably priced in the county, as is this restaurant.
2. Blake's Place
Try the sausage sandwich, in which fat, subtly spiced homemade links are split in half lengthwise and layered four slices thick with more of those near-liquefied sweet peppers. It's the kind of messy, overstuffed sandwich that disintegrates if you hold it wrong. Order it anyway. Also try the Fireball. It has a wad of spicy cured capicolla harboring a low-frequency hotness, as well as a not-insignificant amount of whole peperoncinis. The hotness layered itself one on top of the other. Or heck, try any sandwich, then rejoice that the original and legendary location in Anaheim has now reopened after last year's devastating fire.
4. Myung Dong Kal Guk Su
Myung Dong Kal Guk Su in Anaheim is one of those food specialty restaurants with a laser-guided focus on making only a few things and making them well. Its experts focus on kalguksu, hand-cut noodles. The dish isn't just part of the name but is the first thing listed on a menu that has fewer than a dozen items, a majority of them noodles. The namesake noodles-as pale as Japanese udon and as wide as Italian linguine-have a smooth texture and ghostly translucence all their own, with a softly pliant bite and mouth-filling warmth. The few non-noodle dishes Myung Dong does, it does well. Mandu–steamed pork dumplings in thin-skinned wrappers–are golf-ball-sized, two-bite mouthfuls of ground pork and chives almost as juicy as its Chinese cousin, xiao long bao.
5. Papa Hassan's Grill
For years, Papa Hassan's used to be an Old Towne Orange institution. Then, after it suffered a devastating fire in 2010 and the building was sold to Chapman University, it moved to Anaheim, on Brookhurst Street. Now lost in a vast jungle of Middle Eastern stores and restaurants in the city's Little Arabia, you'll find it squeezed in tight between a halal Sizzler and a hookah store. Try the shawerma wrap as refreshing as it is filling. There's the shrill of tomato, the spicy-but-sweet hits of onion and, in the background, the steady hum of beef. Though you'll taste hints of mint and tahini instead of Thousand Island, you'll find yourself lapping up the leftover drippings from the wrapping as though you just finished an In-N-Out Double-Double. End with the dessert called “Heaven.” It's actually aish al saraya, a thrilling chilled Lebanese bread pudding layered with custard, dripping with the sweetness of honey and topped with whipped cream–one of the best things you'll taste in Anaheim, in Orange, on Earth.
6. Slater's 50/50
It doesn't take a business strategist to understand why Slater's 50/50 has taken off like it has (it has now expanded to a half dozen locations). The burger's own composition (half bacon, half beef) is great marketing. What you need to know about the place you learn the second you're told what 50/50 means. It sells itself. There is no ambiguity about what else to expect. You are not surprised to discover that bacon inhabits more than just that burger. Featured are maple bacon milkshakes, bacon brownies and a BBLT, which not only has bacon, but also Baconnaise. It doesn't matter if anyone actually orders them or if they're actually any good; to have them just there on the menu is a shrewd move. What it does is attracts widespread attention. This seminal restaurant, the one that started it all, has been featured in at least one national cable food show that lauds the excesses and audacity of places like…well, Slater's 50/50!
7. Tana Ethiopian Restaurant
Tana's Ethiopian cuisine is eaten with injera, the flatbread/pancake hybrid that functions as utensil, plate and food. Even more injera came in a basket, rolled up like dinner napkins, ready to be torn bit-by-bit to sop up the stews and pick up chunks of meat. Moist, pliant and riddled with thousands of tiny pits like a honeycomb, injera defies comparison to any other type of flatbread or pancake. For one thing, it's as tangy as sourdough, made from fermented teff flour. But don't fill up on it. Revert to just bare fingers if you have to. You don't want to waste a drop of the doro wot sauce, a concoction so rich with paprika it looks dangerously toxic, or the eight generous and colorful samplings of vegetable stews of their “Vegetarian Delight” that dot the serving tray like paint on a palette.
8. THE RANCH Restaurant and Saloon
The PR people at THE RANCH (their caps, not ours) hate it when we media types refer to the restaurant in write-ups as a steakhouse. If they've told us once, they've told us a thousand times, “It's not a steakhouse! It's a restaurant and saloon!” They're right, of course. And it is a great restaurant with none other than ex-Napa Rose MVPs chef Michael Rossi in the kitchen and master sommelier Michael Jordan in the wine cellar. But we media types have a love/hate relationship with PR people, so we're going to call it a steakhouse even if the non-steak menu items outnumber the cow-based ones. Extron's Andrew Edwards spared no expense in remodeling his electronics firm's lobby into THE RANCH, which sure looks like one, with darkly lit leather booths and steer-head motifs all over. And the slabs of cow served, ranging from a filet mignon to the 36-ounce, bone-in rib chop, can compete with and easily defeat the offerings at Mastro's and Morton's. That it doesn't require you to pay for the sides à la carte as would a typical steakhouse immediately makes it better than a steakhouse, which is the point those PR people are trying to make.
9. Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar
Tourists, if you intend to spend your food and drink dollars on Disney property, let it be this one: Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. It is a full-circle distillation of everything that came before it, descended from the kitschy Polynesian-themed tiki bars pioneered by a man named Donn Beach in the 1930s and Walt Disney's own Tiki Room. The bar has totems with roving animatronic eyes and walls covered with treasure troves of tropical trinkets. At random moments, the lights darken and the room rumbles as if a storm cloud has settled atop the structure. Then comes the rain, a downpour that's projected onto the walls while the thunder claps. This, you realize quickly, is not just a tiki bar, but rather a bona-fide Disney attraction. A volcano erupts, a pirate ship in a bottle sinks, and at least a few bar stools lower unexpectedly as if you sat in quicksand. Each effect is triggered when someone orders a specific drink. Which drink? Well, it's easy to figure out with fanciful names such as “Shipwreck On the Rocks.” There are appetizers to nibble, but like everywhere else in the Magic Kingdom, the food isn't the point here–being amused at Disney wizardry and wonder is. Plus, you can get drunk while doing it.
10. Zankou Chicken
At this lone OC outlet of the Zankou chain, you see the twirling birds constantly being basted by the dripping juices of those that rotate above it. And since turnover at Zankou is as continual as train depot, the chicken is always hot, always fresh. The skin, of course, is the best part — so well-rendered, it flakes off by itself in crispy sheets, as if it were trying to shed. The flavor of the skin is of chicken concentrated, but you taste the powdered spices that season the bird. It's like a salty poultry chip with slightly bitter, burnt herb finish. And the chicken itself? Well let's put it this way, pull on the leg bone and the thing slides off clean, leaving the meat behind, steaming and still fuming. Forget about the breast though, as it seems to be dry. The dark meat is the money meat here, moist, juicy, full of chicken-y flavor, ready to slathered in their house garlic paste and then tucked into pita bread.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.