Now that Christmas is just a few days away, crowds at South Coast Plaza are growing bigger and trips to John Wayne Airport to pick up friends and family more frequent. As local hosts, we’re responsible for entertaining our guests, which can be a daunting task if they’re adamant about getting a real Orange County experience. If you want to take care of them right, you’ll have to start with feeding them the right food—that is, dishes special and exclusive to the county.
10. Fourth Street Market (SanTana)
Fourth Street Market is one of the newest features of downtown SanTana. A food haul offering everything from Jason Quin’s food stands (Noodle Tramp, PFC, Wagyu Chuck) to Dos Chinos, it’s a good base point for exploring the rest of the city on foot. Park in one of the structures, grab a burger from Wagyu Chuck, and explore the nearby art galleries and concert venues. E 4th St, Santa Ana, (714) 486-0700; 4thstreetmarket.com
9. Pokinometry (Anaheim)
The poke in Southern California probably isn’t the same as the poke in Hawaii, but that doesn’t change the fact that new poke restaurants were opening almost every month this past year and continue to do so. For guests who are curious about the trend, take them to Pokinometry—one of the most consistent poke joints in the county. It’s also convenient that the restaurant is located near downtown Disney and Disneyland, which out-of-towners might be interested in visiting. 184 South Harbor Boulevard, Anaheim, (657) 208-3488; pokinometry.com
8. The Playground (SanTana)
The Playground isn’t just one of the best restaurants in Orange County; it’s also one of the most unique. Here’s Edwin to elaborate:
Complacent and apathetic aren't traits you want in a chef, and the words certainly don't describe Jason Quinn, who made waves last week for telling a Yelper to "burn in hell" after the customer leveled a personal attack on his burger, his 3 percent kitchen surcharge and his family. But here's all you need to know: You want to come, you want his burger, and you want Quinn to remain as defensive, as passionate and as bullheaded as he's always been. He's only 25 and still has the reckless bravado and screw-it-all attitude endemic to youth. At the Playground, Quinn exhibits the ballsy confidence that's gotten him this far. He scribbles on his chalkboard wall, "If you want your meat well done, bring it with you" because he not-so-coyly refuses to do his burgers warmer than medium rare.
220 E 4th St #102, Santa Ana, (714) 560-4444; playgrounddtsa.com; Twitter: @playgrounddtsa
7. In-N-Out (Multiple Locations)
If you’re picking up a hungry person from John Wayne Airport, here’s a tip: there are multiple In-N-Out locations ten minutes away from it. Truly, there’s nothing like welcoming a non-Californian than with one of the state’s signature fast food burgers. Any order here—from cheeseburgers and (purposefully) soggy fries to animal-style everything—is an acceptable way to welcome someone. 3361 S Bristol St, Santa Ana; 4115; Campus Dr, Irvine; (800) 786-1000; in-n-out.com; Instagram: @innout
6. Portola Coffee Lab (Multiple Locations) In Orange County’s coffee scene, Portola Coffee Lab is the crème of the crop—and a perfect attraction for coffee lovers in your circle. Those who care about the most meticulous details of coffee preparation will appreciate Portola’s efforts to select, roast, and brew the best beans they can find. A catch-up session over coffee starts with a “performance,” if you will, by the baristas who’ll pour cream and stir coffee with patience and precision. 3313 Hyland Ave, Costa Mesa; 2493 Park Ave, Tustin; 201 E. 4th Street, Space 103, Santa Ana; 143 N. Glassell St., Orange; 21010 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach; 27741 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo; (949) 284-0596; portolacoffeelab.com; Instagram: @portolacoffeelab
5. Joe’s Italian Ice (Anaheim)
There are Italian ice shops all across the country, but few have produced custard as creamy as Joe’s. Here’s what I wrote about it a few months back:
2201 S Harbor Blvd, Anaheim, (714) 703-2100; www.joesice.com
My go-to order is a Joe Latti in mango—in other words, the perfect marriage between creamy custard and tangy ice. Custard-ice-custard sums up the architecture of this dessert, and it always ignites conversations between me and who I'm with. I've found that some like to mix their ice with the custard and others go at each individually. I have my own method: because I'm crazy about making sure I
have enough custard for the ice, I eat the left side first so that the right resembles a cliff. This allows me to scoop from the bottom layer of custard through the ice and to the top layer of custard, ensuring I get double custard and the right amount of ice.
4. Din Tai Fung (Costa Mesa)
Sure, Orange County doesn’t have the soup dumpling landscape of San Gabriel Valley, but it comes close. Thankfully, the Din Tai Fung at South Coast Plaza is just as good as the ones in Arcadia. Here’s more from Edwin on that:
Because Din Tai Fung is known for its consistency as much as its lines, the oil-blanched green beans are still crisp-tender and the pickled cucumbers garlicky and brisk. The pork chop fried rice is especially perfect, a treatise on the clean, simple flavors that are hallmarks of Taiwanese cooking. But there are a few notable differences between this restaurant and the Arcadia branches. Tea is not free, but a full bar is available. And as at the Glendale store, the ultra-costly black truffle xiaolongbaos are offered; one of the managers told us they should be eaten with no vinegar and a cleansed palate.
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, (714) 549-3388; facebook.com/dintaifungsouthcoast
3. Mick’s Karma Bar (Irvine)
Mick’s Karma Bar is one of the few restaurants in Orange County worth finding albeit its confusing location. Gustavo wrote a great description of it:
No restaurant in Orange County deserves an upgrade in location more than Mick's Karma Bar. From this former juice stand come some of the best burgers in Orange County, squat wonders with the bun crispy, the sirloin patty ground to order (and thus gushing juices), with the tomato cooling and lettuce crispy—and any other ingredients complementing those essentials. He [owner Mick Scheper] always constructs a Burger of the Week, on which he'll experiment with the fearlessness of someone BASE jumping off Half Dome. Many of his greatest hits hve become staples on his cramped, rambling chalkboard, including a Habanero burger that includes slivers of honest-to-goodness chili peppers and is smeared with salty queso fresco and a garlic mayo that Mick will gladly trot out separately for dunking his sturdy fries. The results are what happen if Tapatío ever bought In-N-Out. Whether you have your burger Baja style (guac and sour cream), or Mediterranean, or whatever, wash it down with his strawberry basil lemonade. It is tartness personified. 2010 Main St, Irvine; mickskarmabar.com; Instagram: @mickskarmabar
2. Little Saigon
For non-natives, a drive down Bolsa Avenue could make you forget you’re not on a crowded street in Vietnam. But those of us who’ve grown up in or around Little Saigon have grown accustomed to the lack of English on storefront signs and the smell of fish sauce at restaurants. Needless to say, guests won’t have another opportunity to try nearly every Vietnamese dish again until they come back or schedule a trip to Vietnam. From the grilled pork rolls at Brodard Restaurant to the pho restaurants on every block, there are endless opportunities to introduce guests to authentic Vietnamese food. 9240 Garden Grove Blvd #19, Garden Grove, (714) 537-9000; brodard.net
1. Every Mexican Joint, from Loncheras to Taco Maria
Take your visitors taco-eating on a curb by Alebrijes Grill’s truck or give them the unique experience of Taco Maria. If they’re curious about fry-stuffed California burritos, have them try one of the best at La Sirena Grill. For the most succulent shrimp and carne asada tacos, a drive to Baha Fish Tacos by South Coast Plaza (post-Christmas shopping idea, anyone?) is in order. If they’re taco-crazy, show them our epic list of the best tacos in the county. 1609, 1627 S Sycamore St, Santa Ana, (714) 235-2683, facebook.com/alebrijesgrill.tacotruck; 3313 Hyland Ave, Costa Mesa, tacomaria.com, Instagram: @tacomaria; 347 Mermaid St. Laguna Beach, (949) 497-822; lasirenagrill.com; 3664 S Bristol St, Santa Ana, (714) 641-4836; bahafishtacos.com