For better or for worse, I do a lot of my eating in Irvine. I've probably eaten at almost all, if not 90%, of the restaurants in the city. And what I can tell you is this: contrary to what you may think, this master-planned Burg by Bren isn't overrun by chains…at least not any more. With the exception of a good taqueria, you can find almost everything in Scurvine. Did you know that Irvine has the highest concentration of Taiwanese restaurants in the county, or that its Korean restaurants outnumber its McDonald's?
What follows is my list of favorites–places that I frequent, sometimes as obsessively as on a weekly basis.
As always with top tens like these: It's not a comprehensive list; it's not a perfect list; but it's what I think best represents the town in which I spend most of my eating time…for better or for worse.
What's yours? Share 'em in the comments.
1. 85°C Bakery Cafe
There may be other 85°C's in the works in OC (and a store in Hacienda Heights now), but the crowds at the first U.S. location in Irvine hasn't changed since day one. The constant turnover guarantees that no item stays un-bought longer than a few minutes. Stocks are continually replenished and this fact makes every item crackle at its most optimal, which, in turn, brings in even more customers. It's a self-feeding cycle of freshness. Sometimes, what you eat is only seconds removed from the oven. I plucked coffee bread from the arms of an employee carrying out a tray from the kitchen. Its fluffy insides billowed java-perfumed steam when I tore it open. A few moments later, the rest sold out. Lesser bakeries would revert to boring, easy-to-churn-out standards to keep up with this kind of demand, but 85°C's popularity seems to only embolden its resolve and spur its creativity. Every hour yields something new.
2. Agora Churrascaria
After you've had your fill of steakhouses and their boring slabs of meat, Agora will show you how steak should be done: impaled on metal swords, served by sash-wearing gauchos and offered as an all-you-can-eat. Except maybe the Argentineans, no one can match the Brazilians' love of beef. And in Orange County, no restaurant demonstrates the expression of that love better than Agora. This meat-a-palooza is a parade of protein only a brazen carnivore hopped up on cholesterol meds could embrace. It is a meat feast to end all meat feasts. On those sabers comes a never-ending steak procession, hunks of cow roasted over flames with nothing more than salt and respect. You'll call over the gaucho who carries the sanguine pleasures of rare sirloin more than once, asking him to carve off yet another slice. You'll pop those nuggets of filet mignon wrapped in bacon like popcorn. The restaurant also boasts an immaculate buffet line of sides. They do a mashed potato so smooth it could pass for crème fraîche. But who are you kidding? You're here for the meat, and you're going to have it, one bloody piece at a time.
Before Capital opened, The Irvine Spectrum Center only coyly flirted with its choice of Asian restaurant tenants. Most of those that Bren's flagship mall has let in were whitewashed versions aimed at those who would rather have a sweet and sour chicken than a drunken one (or even know what that meant). Most, with the exception of P.F. Chang's, never took hold. Capital is the anti-P.F. Chang'€™s. It serves unfiltered Chinese dishes and real dim sum. The dishes here are cooked with unmitigated authenticity and the dim sum is pushed around in carts in decidedly un-whitewashed varieties. Think chicken feet and tripe. If you'€™ve had better Chinese and/or dim sum in Irvine up to this point, it was in the Chinese enclaves of the city not ruled by Bren, or at the Capital Seafood at Diamond Jamboree.
Houston's should be the model for how to run a modern American restaurant. The service borders on impeccable, with an exactness of purpose you'd expect from professionals. The dishes are served piping-hot without the rigamarole of who gets what. And the food is everything chains such as Chili's and Applebee's can aspire to but never achieve. A Thai-steak noodle salad is bright and lovely, singing notes from the right herbs and spices. The French dip is glorious in its simplicity, a compact and lusciously tender beef sandwich under a properly toasted butter-soaked roll. The Knife and Fork Ribs fall apart without so much as a nudge. But the most surprising of all are the sushi rolls, which aren't just reverential, but also brilliant, especially the Thai-inspired one that has bits of peanut in it.
If you were to judge a Korean restaurant by how many varieties of complimentary panchan dishes are offered, Kaya would automatically triumph. It puts out 10 in all, while most are content in providing half that. Each item tastes of motherly effort and care. Egg enriches the cooling potato salad, the chap chae wiggles, and the stewed potato cubes taste as though they were glazed in honey. We aren't even counting the complimentary crispy Korean pancake called panjeon, which could be considered the 11th panchan side dish if it weren't actually more like an appetizer you'd order freshly made and served hot. And then there are the main dishes: iron cauldrons of sputtering soft tofu soup, searing stone bowls of bibimbap, sizzling plates of luscious kalbi. Water is refilled without asking, and servers greet you warmly as you arrive and bid you farewell as you leave. In Irvine, where there are more Korean restaurants than McDonald's, these details make all the difference
6. Mick's Karma Bar
The story behind how the Mick's Karma Bar's burger came to be is legend. Their “Karma Burger” was introduced as an afterthought. Mick's Karma Bar was originally conceived as a juice bar, only supposed to have a menu of smoothies, juices and a few wraps to complement Kitima, the long-lived Thai restaurant next door that Michael Scheppers also owned. It was to be a typical office park cafe. And because they had extra meat from the sirloin trim that came off the Thai restaurant's beef panang, they decided to include a burger. But somehow word of the ground-from-sirloin burgers went viral and now the lines at lunch rival that of In-N-Out's and the demand for the sandwiches has completely eclipsed Kitima, which is now closed most of the time. The sheer popularity of the burgers has forced them to eliminate nearly everything else on the Karma Bar menu and add more burgers. And get this, the Karma Burger is now trademarked!
You'd be right in thinking that Sagami is another teriyaki and California roll lunch box factory; but you'd be only 10% right. The other 90% is what makes Sagami beloved among actual Japanese people. There are seasonal lunch special bentos that change, well, seasonally. Last fall, I had a mench katsu teisyoku there, the closest thing Japan has to a country fried steak, except lighter, crispier and eaten with plenty of rice. Then there's the Nagoya-style dishes that turn this small space next to Subway as serious a temple to tradition as the sandwich shop is to the opposite. Try the hitsumabushi, roasted eel on rice served in a wide-brimmed bowl that you eat in three stages: first with just the rice; second with a sprinkle of nori, scallions, and wasabi; then, finally, with dashi broth for the finish. It's an expensive dish at about $20. But when you consider that this is quite possibly the only place in Orange County that serves this dish, there's really only one other alternative: make it yourself.
8. The Chippy
If you think it's easy to find good, inexpensive fish and chips outside of seafood restaurants and pubs, go try it. Most often you'll end up at a take-out joint which uses the frozen, preformed stuff. It will rarely, if ever, come from whole fillets that's dipped by hand. In Orange County, The Chippy ends the drought. The glory of its fish starts with the crust. It's rippled, has ridges petrified into a gnarled crunch measuring only a few hairs thick and is just slightly heartier than tempura. Break into the golden crispy cocoon and a plume of steam billows out, revealing its virgin flesh — a white, moist, milky meat, unmolested by machines that melts into supple flakes when you bite into it. Always provided is tartar sauce, lemon, and malt vinegar. Here, once and for all: great fast-food fish N chips where you don't have to tip a waitress or a bartender.
9. Vishnu Restaurant
Come in the morning or late afternoon, and Vishnu looks like any of the other anonymous businesses in this monochromatic John Wayne-adjacent office park: unremarkable. But when the lunch hour strikes, it begins. First, you see a trickle of people, then, all of a sudden, a crowd as thick as what you'd find at a Mumbai train station at rush hour shows up. The space is probably not intended for this many people, but they swarm anyway for a lunch buffet that includes freshly made dosas, curries, two kinds of biryanis and vadas (fried morsels that crunch like falafel). Along with Harry's Deli down the road, Vishnu has secured its cult status without much advertising. Ask the people in line ahead of you, and they'll tell you they found out about the place the old-fashioned way, by word-of-mouth, through friends who took them here, saying “You need to come check out this Indian place with me.”
10. Yu's Garden
This is not Panda Express. There is no Orange Chicken, no Kung Pao anything. Sweet and Sour? Forget about it. Instead there is chicken mousse wrapped in deep fried tofu skin; bone-in basil chicken in sauce-lacquered pieces; soy-simmered minced pork, the kind that you top rice with; and a mapo tofu that harbors stinging hot peppers hiding between the custardy curds. Order a three-item combo plate from their take-out array and you'll be charged an unbelievable price (less than $8, tax included). If it's soupy they ladle the stuff into a quart-sized container until it's practically full. They are intent on giving you more than you expected and paid for. It is the most massive food pile you can buy for less than $8 in OC. And there's real vegetable dishes here, like hearty stalks of Chinese broccoli; invigorating bittermelon; stir fried spinach and mustard greens. In a town like Irvine where there's not a lack of cheap Chinese food, Yu's isn't just the cheapest, but probably the best of the cheapest.