There was a time in the eighties when Downtown Fullerton was a dead zone, when about the only thing noteworthy was the pawn shop at the corner of Harbor and Commonwealth, and what constituted a nightlife involved chirping crickets. But Fullerton is also a big and diverse city, a college town, and the spot where two now-ubiquitous chains were born. Here are 10 restaurants that make Fullerton great and an essential part of OC's food scene.
1. Burger Parlor
Ex-Bastide chef Joseph Mahon transforms the ordinary burger into something that isn't. The man clearly knows what to do with ground beef and a bun. These are the kind whose effects stay with you for days. You can tell they're good and greasy even before you touch them. The sweet, griddle-toasted buns are lacquered by that which spatters from his sizzling patties. Despite a long list of toppings, Mahon constructs all his burgers to fit snugly inside your grip and serves them on paper-lined pie tins with a thick pickle cut crosswise. His aren't the type to reach dizzying altitudes like those offered at the Counter. Mahon's restraint is his burger's virtue.
2. Kentro Greek Kitchen
Kentro looks nothing like the typical Greek restaurant. There are no Hellenic-styled fonts or idyllic pictures of seaside Santorini. You'd swear you had stumbled into a newfangled yuppie gastropub or some sort of uppity wine bar. But then there's the small vestibule stocked with Greek goods and candy bars in this sit-yourself establishment, where the silverware is stored in tableside caddies and the tap water is offered in bottles. Orders are placed and paid for at the counter. There's an immense blackboard crammed with multisyllabic words you've no hope of pronouncing properly, such as melitzanosalata, a dip closely resembling baba ganoush that takes all that's good and sweet about an eggplant and concentrates it in a warm, garlic-intoned mush dribbled with extra virgin olive oil and a smattering of parsley. This is a restaurant that rewards those who go beyond the gyros, with a taramosalata that is one of the more advanced flavors offered. Made of carp roe, it's a fishy, overwhelming salt-lick of a paste you'll initially apply sparingly on bread, but then subsequently slather on everything as soon as you've warmed up to its charms. Full entrées include a char-flecked pork souvlaki with wild rice, a bigger plate featuring superlative lamb chops, a belly-stretching mousaka, a few vegetarian options, a steak, a roasted half-chicken, and two fish dishes. A simple pan-fried filet of sea bass is called psari tiganito and paired with an excellent roasted-corn side dish the Greeks dubbed kalamboki.
3. Kim Loan Restaurant
There are few establishments that can defy trends, fickle tastes, and the passage of time. Kim Loan is one of those places. This Fullerton Vietnamese restaurant is the grizzled old bear in a tired asphalt parking lot once anchored by Alpha-Beta and Thrifty's. In the twenty years or so years of its existence, it has outlived them both, survived at least two fires, and stands proudly as one of the few Vietnamese joints to have succeeded outside of Little Saigon. The tables are worn, rubbed off by thousands of elbows, and the ceiling tiles are yellowed with age, but the owner's smile remains genuine even as his eyelids reveal more than just a hint of fatigue. But even as he commands an unseen kitchen crew and a familiar group of waiters, he will still manage to chat up one of his many Mexican customers in flawless Spanish, bark back orders in Vietnamese. This easy charm and accessibility translates to his food, which he offers at a low price and in ample portions. His meals are simple, honest, and aimed to please the proletariat, not the gourmand (who will rightly scoff that his pho is too sweet). Come around lunchtime, and you'll see guys in greasy overalls, women in pastel nurse uniforms, and an occasional office drone shoveling spoonfuls of rice and meat into their gullets. Try the thing they call Fried Salted Shrimp. First a saucer of squeezed lemon juice is brought out, sloshing its way up the shallow brim: a signal that the shrimp and all of its delectable deep-fried glory is about to arrive.
4. Leadbelly's Southern-Style Barbecue
The lighted sign just reads "Barbecue" because, well, what else do you need to know? Here, in this strip mall in a decidedly unhip part of Fullerton, you're not going bar-hopping at some trendy club; you're going for a tan under the sign that says "Tanning," a rubdown at the one that says "Massage" or, best yet, for no-frills-no-nonsense barbecue, here at Leadbelly's. You marvel that the modest, refrigerator-sized smoker pictured on the Facebook page is responsible for tri tips so pink, briskets so deep in flavor and sausages that melt like ice cream in your mouth. It's almost as surprising as the price you'll pay for a massive plate with all three: $15.95 as of this writing. Included are slices of bread you'll never touch, as well as a choice of two sides from a list of that boasts collard greens, creamed corn that slurps like chowder, candy-sweet baked beans, and a jalapeño macaroni and cheese that comes with not just crumbled breadcrumbs, but also crumbled bacon. Leadbelly's also offers burnt ends, those charred brisket trimmings that are one of the most coveted delicacies in the world of barbecue. Here, they're served steeped in an almost-too-salty sauce insulated with a thin layer of fat.
5. Les Amis
There are three tables and only a handful of chairs to go around, and most customers who choose to dine in actually dine outside, claiming the sole patio table. It's also the only place where hookahs can be lit without stinking up the joint or breaking state laws. In the short time Les Amis has been open, it has become what its owners intended: a takeout spot for shawerma wraps–”quick, cheap, freshly made sustenance for Fullerton College students to scarf down between classes. The chicken shawerma alone might be responsible for an uptick in Tic Tac sales on campus. It reeks of the slathered garlic paste called toum, wrapped drum-tight inside warmed pita bread and torpedo-long.
By now you may have a Pieology near where you live; but this one started it all. Now pizza shops like this are everywhere. You already know that the pie is close to the Neapolitan idea of a pizza, except without the characteristically bulbous crust of Mozza or Ortica, and made in a Chipotle-style assembly line.
7. The Olde Ship British Pub & Restaurant
If you've seen a bigger piece of cod than in the fish and chips served at this Fullerton institution, you might yourself be the fisherman who hauled it out of the ocean. The Olde Ship's legendary fried fish meal is not the cheapest around, but it is to fish and chips what Big Ben is to clocks. And you couldn't ask for a better atmosphere to eat it. It feels like England in there; and a few of the regulars are actually Brits, or Irishmen, or Scots, all of whom trust The Olde Ship to pour a proper pint to chase down the fish and chips, the Scotch eggs, the bangers and mash, and an English breakfast served all day.
8. The Pint House
In the evolutionary time line of bars, the Pint House blazes its own path. It calls itself "an upscale American-style pub and restaurant without an upscale price," but let us translate: It's more Cheers than Moe's Tavern, more burger joint than gastropub. Regulars, or maybe those crazy college kids from nearby Fullerton College, order the Power Tower, an oversized beer dispenser the height and shape of a gigantic lava lamp. The house-baked soft pretzels are the defining mouthful of the night; the twisty, well-browned doughy loops are the natural symbiotic partner to anything hop-based you should drink. So oven-hot they burn the epidermis off your fingertips and crusted with perhaps too much salt, they will, as in that oft-quoted Seinfeld episode, make you thirsty.
9. Tranquil Tea Lounge
Tranquil Tea Lounge is a tea house to end all tea houses. Its proprietors treat the tea leaves with the care of meticulous curators, the inspiration of mad inventors, the zeal of passionate advocates. With an encyclopedic menu cataloging every conceivable and not-so-conceivable permutation of teas black, green, oolong, white, pu-erh, rooibo, maté, herbal and tisane, you could visit for a hundred consecutive days and never sip the same drink twice.
Pinkberry is old news, long since dethroned by Yogurtland, which is now recognized as the one who bested them all. All hail Yogurtland, the king of froyo and Phillip Chang (pictured), its Howard Schultz. The kingdom began here in Fullerton, starting out as humble addendum to what used to be just another boba joint called Boba Loca. But as everyone knows, Yogurtland's self-serve yogurt concept took off, and now, well, you've got one within a few clicks of wherever you are right now. If you relish playing Dr. Frankenstein with your frozen yogurt, creating yogurt flavor combos Pinkberry never dreamed, you have to pay your respects to this seminal location. Someday, when Yogurtland expands to Starbucks-like ubiquity, tourists will flock here to Fullerton like they do the original Starbucks at Seattle's Pike Place Market.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.