Tustin is dense with great restaurants, having perhaps OC's most eclectic collection of eateries that include not just the original location of the preeminent (and now increasingly ubiquitous) izakaya known as Honda Ya, but also Cream Pan, one of OC's best bakeries practically next door. There are so many worthy places to eat in this city that I had to begrudgingly exclude some of my personal favorites from this list to keep it at ten. So start with these 10 great restaurants (listed in the usual alphabetical order) but know that there's more where they came from.
1. Aloha Hawaiian BBQ
Yes, this popular Tustin lunch stop is part of a county-wide chain, but the sheer magnificence of their "plate lunch" cannot be denied. The word "plate" is a misnomer, by the way, especially here. What you get in their Hawaiian BBQ Mix is more like a trough in which kalbi, hunks of chicken and a formidable hill of sliced barbecue beef are piled high with rice and mac salad–food designed to make new Hawaiian Islands out of the people who can finish it. They offer smaller portions called "mini meals" but you might as well just act like a man and do the full-on plates…and then quietly pack the leftovers to eat at home for dinner. If you think you ought to eat more fish, get the mahi mahi, a massive portion of the best deep-fried fish filets that requires not even a drop of tartar sauce. Is it healthier? Not even in the slightest.
2. Cream Pan
Cream Pan makes many wondrous things. The potato croquette sandwich is kind of awesome for a meatless sandwich; the French bread crackles when you break into it; and heck, even their white bread is divine. But the best seller, the reason the bakery was put on this Earth, is the one thing you must order if you come here at all: the legendary strawberry croissant. This is a pastry perfect in conception, construction and execution. Nothing in its triangular, hand-holdable frame can be improved upon. The croissant flakes off in crisp, buttery sheets; the custard is as cool as silk; and the sliced strawberries are perkier than a giggly, doe-eyed anime schoolgirl. And of course, it's sprinkled with plenty of powdered sugar which will go up into your nostrils to choke you if you approach it with too much gusto as anyone who has tasted these beauties often do.
3. Gen Korean BBQ
After a typical two-hour wait, you'll be ecstatic when your name is called. And when you enter a room that glows as blue as if you were boarding the Starship Enterprise, the intoxicating aroma of cooking meats hits you so thick it can be drawn apart like a curtain. Surveying a single-sheet list of things to sizzle, you now know what you didn't a few minutes ago: Gen may be slightly more expensive than other Korean barbecue AYCEs, but it offers cuts of Kobe (or at least something that's so well-marbled it passes as the costly breed). The prospect of bankrupting the restaurant with unending orders of the stuff makes your $20 and two-hour investment immediately pay off. You discover quickly, however, that while more forgiving when overcooked, the difference between the Kobe version of the brisket and the Black Angus is nominal. With that explored, you encounter the beef belly, strips of what is essentially beef bacon, striped with the same white fat, but a sanguine, crimson flesh instead of pink. It ripples and sputters like the pork belly does, and when you eat one, you swear you can hear your LDL level clack one notch upward.
4. Habuya Okinawan Dining
Okinawa native Mayumi Vargas has singlehandedly taken on the mission of representing her home's distinct food culture, rescuing it from being a mere footnote on Japanese-restaurant menus in our county. And she's not shy in doing it. At Habuya, you'll find everything from pork feet to the beloved bittermelon, what the Okinawans call goya. Both are employed in more than a few dishes: goya embeds a tamago-like omelet with eel, and pork feet are served in a stew or dropped into a bowl of ramen. Then there are the tropical ingredients that make Okinawan food exotic even to those in Tokyo: Shredded green papaya stuffs a crispy egg roll and, Habuya's best dessert, a fresh pineapple sorbet that Vargas has commissioned a specialty ice cream maker to produce just for her restaurant. Other indigenous dishes include chanpuru, an egg-lashed stir-fry of bitter melon that features tiny bits of Spam thanks to an omnipresent U.S. military, and ra fu te, the Okinawan variant of Japanese kakuni, which simmers with awamori, the prefecture's own rice wine.
Although they didn't invent the Indian buffet, this Tustin restaurant has been getting raves from just about every corner of the foodie universe — and for good reason. For a pittance ($7.95 for lunch or $11.99 for dinner) Indian food noobs can skip the menu roulette and do what must be done when you don't know what to order: Try everything. Spices dominate the food and pepper the crisp garlic naan. Fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, every flavor that makes Indian cuisine complex and craveable each sing its own notes, but together, in each dish, they harmonize. Potatoes are cooked with onions, dry-seasoned with curry, and blasted with whole spice pods. Eggplant is reduced to mush, as is the spinach, concentrating the flavors that will invade every sensor on the tongue, leaving none unstimulated. The pakoras–fried vegetable fritters covered in chickpea batter–are fresh and crisp. Once you finish gorging, there's the gulab jamun, fried dough balls steeped in syrup that eat like bite-sized bread pudding.
Slip off your shoes and sit cross-legged in the tatami room for that authentic Richard Chamberlain-in-Shogun experience, even if your legs lose circulation before the food arrives. And then order like you've never seen a teriyaki bowl before. The list is long and illustrious. Just about everything Honda Ya grills, steams, stir-fries, deep-fries and stews is a buffer for the ample amount of Japanese ales and sakes you'll throw back with the abandon of a salaryman after a hard day. Yakitori is the specialty of the house (as well as its equally excellent sister restaurant Kappo Honda of Fountain Valley), a subset of the kushiyaki that threads onto wooden skewers every part of the chicken, from neck to tail. Gizzards squeak like edible plastic; dark meat is paired with scallions. All are flipped ever-so-carefully just slightly above white-hot coals called bincho tan, a premium fuel that that imprints on the morsels a smoky carbon sweetness.
7. Kolache Factory
Kolache Factory is so far the only outlet of this Texas chain anywhere in OC. What is a kolache? It's a Czech pastry made of yeast-leavened dough traditionally dimpled in the middle or folded like an envelope to cradle fruit or something equally sweet. If you saw one and were otherwise unaware, you might mistake it for a Danish. But that would be like thinking a bagel is the same as a doughnut. A kolache is a distinctive species of its own. At the Kolache Factory in Tustin, the pastry takes on many forms. Most resemble barely baked balls of dough, kind of pale and monochromatic, their bulk constituting of a pillowy texture akin to a soft, just-baked dinner roll. But kolaches are fluffier than that. They possess a comforting, toe-curling consistency somewhere between a steamed Chinese bao and a slice of Wonder Bread. There are nods to a Philly cheesesteak using chipped meat and a barbecue beef with actual chunks of steak in a sauce that relies on either vinegar or a hell-bent tomato for its tang. For vegetarians, there's a lovely spinach kolache. When heated, the lake of spinach and cheese melts into a sensation equal to eating saag paneer with a spoon. And of course, there are fruit-topped kolaches, with the apple being the best. There are non-kolache pastries, too, including flaky strudels and croissants, one pregnant of scrambled eggs, cheese and ham that will weigh as heavily as a breakfast burrito in your hand and in your gut.
8. Los Cotijas
At Los Cotijas, slender fillets of white-fleshed fish are dunked in batter, dropped into hot grease, and fried until it attains a golden brown crunch. Stop here and you'd have half of what the British serve in their pubs as fish and chips. But wrap it around warm corn tortillas, top with crunchy shredded cabbage, mound on a spoonful of spicy pico de gallo, squirt some tangy, milky-white mayo-sauce and you have the best invention since tequila.
9. Sutha Thai
The square footage is so scant you've been inside closets with more space. Do not take our description of its smallness as an exaggeration: Sutha can barely fit 10 people comfortably. In fact, the place feels even smaller as more people discover it. The entire restaurant, kitchen included, would fit inside Garden Grove's Thai Nakorn like a marble in a shoebox. But that's all the space it needs. Sutha has but one cook and one server, and they're related. Anywhere you sit, you hear the clangs of a wok being beaten up. Anywhere you stand, you smell what the next table is having. The salmon salad is one discovery everyone makes, but most newcomers initially ignore it, choosing instead the excellent pad see ew, silky yellow curry or pad thai, but to finally taste the salmon salad is to realize that when it comes to Thai restaurants, size doesn't matter
10. The Winery
Yvon Goetz used to be the chef at David Wilhelm's long-defunct but excellent Chat Noir. Goetz was the reason it was excellent. Now at his own place, Goetz gets even more creative and daring. His menu changes routinely, but a signature Alsatian pizza is always a staple. In it, gruyere, creme fraiche, onion and bacon fuse so well into a crisp flatbread rectangle it seems insufficient to just call it a pizza. Oysters are paired with a mignonette–as well as Tabasco, if you ask. The halibut with clam entrée manages to be simultaneously froufrou and down-home at the same time. A roster of steaks comes with the sides à la carte, served onto your plate by obsequious wait-staff wearing vests. They'll pour sauces from dainty gravy boats and grind pepper from a ridiculously oversized mill, too. Yes, it's that kind of place–all dark and romantic with high-backed, leather-clad chairs; cozy, soft booths; and a decently talented live band should your feet get restless. You also notice there's a high concentration of signed Angels memorabilia the closer you get to the restroom. And your fellow diners are a weird mix of the casual, T-shirted dudes and the wine-twirling types who rent bottle lockers. Which one are you?