Orange, with that cool roundabout in Old Towne and the legendary Watson's, also boasts restaurants that Tom Hanks didn't feature when he filmed That Thing You Do here. So here's a list of this town's eateries that your humble scribe has deemed his essentials. What's yours? Share 'em in the comments, would you?
As usual, the list is alphabetical–this time with no numbers so that it doesn't confuse those of you who don't read so good.
There are two Anepalco's Cafe. Both are great. But this one has an easier parking situation and also, dinner is served. And it's then that Danny Godinez starts to really crack his knuckles and show you that Mexi-French cuisine isn't monopolized by Richard Sandoval's Raya at The Ritz. Baguettes are served with guajillo chile butter and dessert is from a roster of crepes that, of course, includes one with Nutella and banana. The single best dish has to be a pan-sautéed tilapia where Godinez turns a bargain fish into something as delicate as seabass. Everything you require from a French restaurant fish dish is present, from the coveted crispy sear of the flesh, to a silken potato puree, to a lick-the-plate good serrano beurre blanc an accomplished saucier would sell his soul to produce.
Bruxie makes a waffle similar, if not identical, to the one cooked on the cobblestone streets of Brussels. The airy tic-tac-toe-patterned honeycomb, delicate as spun sugar and cut into quarter wedges from a bigger circle, is just as crisp, just as ethereal as an authentic Belgian waffle, even if the thimble of maple syrup it's served with peddles to our American expectations on what must go with a waffle. But Bruxie has gone beyond waffles as street-side treats or breakfast fodder. Bruxie is everywhere now, poised to conquer America. But it all started here, at the outdoor-seating-only shack reclaimed from an old Dairy Treet across from Chapman University.
Felix Continental Cafe got a face-lift: They removed the light bulbs that bordered the old street marquee for something a little more tasteful. But other than that, it's business as usual. The decades-old Cuban restaurant looks like it always has-a little frayed around the edges, and it will probably remain that way even as cars start to fly. Insurmountable mountains of rice, black beans, plantains and yuca are standard starches on the lunch combos, stomach-stuffers in and of themselves. But the odds are stacked against you further at dinner, for which every meal includes either a soup or an unremarkable salad and a choice of dessert that, more often than not, will get boxed up along with the rest.
If you're new to Gabbi's you have to be persistent to try to locate it. From the first day it opened for business some seven years ago, this popular Mexican restaurant never got around to installing any outside signage, leaving a lot of first-timers circling the streets for some clue as to where it is. So don't look for one. Just look for the line of people waiting for a table. Then wait with them, because Gabbi's is great. Sit inside and eat some mole Oaxaqueña, then a dessert of homemade churros. Who needs a sign?
The Orange Circle-long the dominion of doilies, fragile antiques and that once-a-year excuse for public beer guzzling and drunkenness called the International Street Fair- has been yearning for a watering hole like Haven Gastropub, a place designed to tap (pun intended) into the annual gathering's core demographic of lovers of beer and merriment. Beer is the cure-all here, the preferred beverage of the house, with the burger our choice of food for soaking up the booze. Served with rosemary-blasted fries, this towering sandwich has a patty accounting for most of its height, a nicely stinky St. Agur cheese melted into it, peppery arugula, roasted red peppers and a surprisingly well-executed tuft of pickled onions that make for a grown-up burger rivaling that of the Counter or 25 Degrees. They also do a whole roasted pig!
At King Lobster Palace, the most elaborate presentation is reserved for the most expensive dish: the House Special Lobster. Quoted on the menu as "market price," each pound of it hovers from $12 to $14. You'll need at least a three-pounder if your party is larger than two. And when it arrives, it will look like an epic send-off worthy of a king. At the forward section of the plate, a carved cucumber sculpture and a maraschino cherry, and the head. The rest of the giant crustacean's carcass is chopped into tidy segments small enough for chopsticks; each piece deep-fried with flecks of batter, coated in a sauce studded with scallion, and topped with fluffy pork rousing. Not only will it be the best, most melt-in-your-mouth lobster you'll ever eat, but no mallets, claw crackers or bibs are required. The kitchen preps the shells with access points for effortless extraction of the meat. The rest of the seafood selection rivals an aquarium exhibit, with the abalone and sea cucumber commanding their own sections of dishes, as do the scallop, shrimp, clam, squid and fish. And in the mornings, dim sum worthy of SGV.
LinX in Orange sells wieners, and what wieners! Whatever sausage sandwich you end up with, expect your fingers to get greasy and your napkins thoroughly soiled, especially if it's embellished with a few of the 30 house-made sauces and adornments. You don't consume LinX's sandwiches so much as you mack with it. Point the business end of the hot dog toward your mouth, and the toppings reach to the tip of your nose. You'll spend a good minute seeking the best possible angle on how to maneuver your lips around it. A common practice is to take a fork and tamp down the toppings, spreading the homemade relishes, the near-liquefied grilled onions and the mustards evenly inside the bun and around the dog. Even still, if the sausage is particularly thick and the bun slit too deeply, there will be times when the whole thing falls apart. Knife and fork it if you have to because Scott Brandon's sandwiches are possibly the most thoughtfully crafted dogs you'll encounter in OC.
Consider yourself inordinately lucky if you are seated in front of Shige, who is perhaps the most affable sushi chef you'll ever meet, with a striking resemblance to a Japanese Ray Romano and a talent to rival that of the raw fish artisans at Shibucho, Sushi Wasabi and Ikko. His omakase ranks as one of the most reasonable in OC: Starting at around $25 for eight pieces, it's a bargain for the quality of the fish and the meticulous care Shige uses to cut and diamond score each morsel, molding it over perfectly portioned bullets of warm rice. To prep his lustrous sea bream, he sprinkles a few grains of sea salt and spritzes yuzu juice from a spray bottle. To finish his black cod, he caramelizes the edges under the whooshing jet of a blowtorch. He offers no soy sauce; it will never be required.
The Hobbit is from a dying breed, a group of the proud and the expensive that once included La Vie en Rose, The Arches, and The Riviera at The Fireside–places that had their heyday when eating out was still called dining, men were required to wear dinner jackets, and the cost per person was about the same as a ticket to Disneyland. But even among those, The Hobbit is distinguished. Instead of succumbing to changing attitudes about what it meant to be a restaurant in the new century, The Hobbit forged on. It even recently remodeled. Its longevity may have something to do with its business model. It has always offered a prix fixe even before pop-ups made them cool again. And it does so to full houses, one seating per night, five nights a week since 1972.
When he opened Xa Sweet & Savory Café, Shawn Xa served only chicken. And on these perfectly cooked, juice-bursting, tender, breast-meat fillets–a protein usually not apt to being all of the above–he'd shake a flurry of your chosen spice, be it the Japanese togarashi or herbes de Provence. Then he jettisoned the spices for sauces–intensely fruity, savory and complex ones that can be painted on your protein of choice, turning them into something greater than what the less-than-$9-with-two-sides-included price tag would require. But Xa's true calling is cookies; this is where he turns on his mad-scientist brain full bore. His greatest creation thus far has been an apple-pie cookie, with real apples where you'd expect chocolate chips and a coat of crunchy cinnamon sugar on top. There's also a cookie with bacon and chocolate chips, another that tastes exactly like tiramisu, and a sticky-chewy wonder with melted marshmallows that's reminiscent of rocky road. One time, he let loose and attempted a cookie that encapsulated his restaurant's "sweet and savory" ethos: a Spam-and-roasted-garlic cookie. What will this cookie Willy Wonka think of next? The best part is finding out.