If you've not noticed, the reason Fountain Valley's been buzzed about lately is because of donuts. There's Afters, which blew everyone's mind with their ice cream-stuffed donuts. And then there's The Donut Bar, which will do the same crazy permutations of Homer's favorite food like the original Donut Bar does in San Diego.
But Fountain Valley has long been a mecca of great restaurants, especially if what you want is non-sushi Japanese. I'm talking, of course, about FV's izakaya-style pubs. Fountain Valley's section of Brookhurst has the highest concentration of Japanese pubs in OC.
Sure, the city has Paul's Coffee Shop which we discovered and loved way before Guy Fieri ever stepped foot in it; but in my opinion, Fountain Valley's restaurant scene is all about these Japanese restaurants and a few Vietnamese ones that are technically just outside the fringes of Little Saigon.
And after all that, you can still get those donuts.
Disagree with my assessment? Say so in the comments and suggest your own list of essentials. Go ahead. The more the better!
Some advice for visiting Alerto's: Get a half-order of carne asada nachos, not the full order. The only difference between the two is the price. Both have the same amount of freshly fried chips smothered in cheese, beans, tender cubes of steak, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. Only fools order the full order. And you know what they say about fools and their money.
Au Lac is located in a leafy Fountain Valley strip mall, one of the leafiest, in fact, with lots of old, full grown trees shading it. This is appropriate because this restaurant has overshadowed all other Vietnamese vegan restaurants in its nearly two decades in business. Reach a Zen-like peace of mind when you graze the menu of wellness-oriented cuisine and a second list dedicated to raw foods. They serve everything from seasonal spring rolls to fuming hot bowls of "chicken" pho, all of it made with love for the food and the animals that were spared.
Casa Inka's ode to Machu Picchu is on a big canvas, hung on a dominant wall in a room that also features more thatched roofing than a tiki bar. The space has a brightly lit, sunny disposition that all but disarms you into trying things you've never tried before. Before you know it, you're dabbing skewers of grilled cow's heart called anticuchos into aji amarillo–a smoldering chili sauce that burns longer than plutonium, then quelching it with cans of canary-yellow Inka Cola.
Champion Food Co. in Fountain Valley is ostensibly a Chinese restaurant, but it's most famous for its Chinese breakfasts. Sure, their boba and snacks during the day are fine, but it's in the morning when you have to go and discover what most of Asian OC already knows. Pancakes, schmancakes. If you want to eat breakfast the way 1.3 billion people on our planet do, go to Champion Food Co. From 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., the otherwise-humble boba shop transforms into a Chinese breakfast factory. The most popular item is a sandwich-taco hybrid of shredded beef and scallions stuffed inside a wrapper half as thin as a tortilla. But there are also salty crullers longer than a policeman's nightstick, deep-fried to airy, golden puffs. Dunk 'em in steaming Styrofoam bowls of soy milk like donuts in coffee. And for those who simply must have breakfast on the go, grab a ci fan tuan–Saran-wrapped glutinous rice burritos filled with pork rousing. It's the anti-Egg McMuffin.
Broken rice, com tam, used to be the castoffs that the poor would be forced to eat, since it's technically rejects from the threshing process. These days, broken rice fetches a premium. Com Tram Tran Quy Cap's dishes start and end with com tam, cooked to a toothsome chew somewhere between too hard and too soft–just right. And on top, there will be toppings, but mostly, pork. Tender, sweet, char-glazed BBQ called thit nuong. Other toppings include crispy, light, egg rolls made with rice paper and shrimp mousse encased in a deep-fried tofu skin wrap. Both are impeccably done. All are to be doused with plenty of nước chấm and enjoyed to the very last speck of that now-coveted shattered grain.
Izakaya Ku may be the youngest izakaya on Brookhurst street, but on weekend nights, the two center tables will be monopolized by boisterous Japanese parties hoisting sake cups in never-ending toasts, cheering at the top of their lungs, and becoming more raucous with each successive round of shots. In between, they'll slurp motsunabe, a hearty camp-stove-heated stew topped with a bundle of chives and simmering with spicy miso, cabbage and rubbery, fat-rimmed beef intestines that you need to be a little tipsy to eat. Large quantities of kushiyaki will also be ordered, sticks of meat roasted by a smoky robata grill tended to by a squinting man standing behind a glass booth.
Which came first? Fountain Valley's Kappo Honda or Tustin's venerable Honda-Ya? They're part of the same family, but are always spoken of like they were adopted siblings. Honda-Ya is big, boisterous and serves everything under the gigantic umbrella that is Japanese cuisine. Kappo Honda has a laser-guided focus on the yakitori. The men who grill the sticks over white hot coals are front and center. And for drink, you order from the trinity of Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin. As we said before, the beer is the amniotic fluid to the excellent food.
If it contained recipes, Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon"s menu could serve as the Vietnamese version of the Larousse Gastronomique. Flipping through its pages, the thing reads like an epic tome, leaving no protein, starch, vegetable or prep method unturned. The website says the kitchen produces 300 different dishes, but it seems like more than that. To order just rice plates and stir-fried noodles seems too easy. How about vinegar fondue called nhung dam or table grilled meats called nuong vi? And there are 32 kinds of pho. But it is not difficult to know what to order. Nhu Y is known for three items: the oven-baked catfish, the seven courses of beef, and the eight courses of fish. Pick one, and be prepared to be fed until you pound the table for mercy.
Shin-sen-gumi is technically two different restaurants serving two very distinct branches of Japanese cuisine. Sit in the ramen side to slurp on, you guessed it, ramen–the tonkotsu kind with a broth the color and texture of chocolate milk where you can choose the richness level as well as the texture of the noodles. Walk into the izakaya, and you're greeted loudly with a sing-songy shout of welcome. Then feast on sticks of meat and veg roasted over smoke-billowing coal.
Meat, meat, meat, meat. Did we mention meat? Kobe, outside skirt, marbled, fatty and decadent while it's raw; sizzling, sputtering, hot and lovely when you cook it on your yakiniku grill. This is the granddaddy of them all. You come in hungry and your shirt smelling clean; you leave happy, your gut full and your clothes saturated with the fumes of all that table-cooked meat, meat, meat.