You're waiting for your out-of-towner relatives at John Wayne. It's the first time they're visiting Orange County, and, in the midst of looking for familiar faces, you realize, "Oh shoot. Where do I take them to eat?" Because if one thing's certain it's that they will be hungry.
Figuring out where to eat is a daunting task — it forces you think deep and hard about Orange County's food culture. What's so special about it? What would entertain guests?
But save the stress. Here's a starter list to ease your planning so that you focus on what's important: catching up and eating.
1. A Vietnamese-Cajun Joint
I've taken two different New Yorkers to Vietnamese-Cajun joints (à la Boiling Crab and others), and both were floored. Each considered the sauce to be crack, and one said it had convinced him to move here. They were both amused by the whole concept: the dorky practicality of wearing a bib, ability to draw with ketchup, and usefulness of using paper tablecloths to clean the damage. One of them said that it was like being a kid again.
In-N-Out is one of the best places to take someone after picking them up from the airport. For one, there's one at least 10 minutes away from John Wayne, and two, it's a cheap way to give visitors their first taste of California.
Don't expect all of your guests to love it, though. In fact, hate poses a fine opportunity for state burger vs. other state burger banter. In-N-Out vs. Shake Shack, for instance, is a classic (Charles' spoiler:: In-N-Out wins, but Shake Shack's fries are magical). Now get your arguments ready!
3. A Real Mexican Taco Truck
California's legit Mexican food is the reason I kiss the ground every day. In fact, I make it a point to show non-Californians what a real taco is. One of the best ways to do this? Take them to a lonchera (and not those fancy luxe varietals).
Taco trucks make delicious tacos (and usually for fifty cents each – wowza!), but they also make you eat standing up or on the curb somewhere. It's beautiful. You order, stand in a comfortable breeze inhaling carnita-and-pastor-filled smoke, and wait for your name to be called. Then you eat (in a trance, I might add), talk with whomever you're with, and – maybe, just maybe – go back in line to order again.
Luckily for us, we have a lot of taco trucks to choose from – like El Chavito, Alebrije's and SOHO taco trucks, to start with.
4. Afters Ice Cream
One of my favorite questions to ask out-of-towners is, "Would you be interested in a glazed donut with ice cream inside?" The typical answer: "What?! That sounds amazing." And, oh it is.
A Milky Bun – that is, a donut with ice cream inside – sounds like diabetes (because it is), but it's a good way to show visitors the funky food inventions that happen here. Plus, this is the only place visitors can try cookie monster, jasmine milk tea, cookie butter, and Vietnamese coffee ice cream flavors all at once. The shop is definitely not located in a touristy area (they still don't have a sign), but the Milky Bun is enough to get them excited.
5. Little Saigon
Most non-Californians I've ever hosted have never tried Vietnamese food before. Nope – not even pho. They have a vague idea of what spring rolls are, and sometimes confuse them with egg rolls (it's understandable though; they have the same figure).
And while some counties have large Chinatowns, we have Little Saigon. So take them. Most streets hold a gazillion pho restaurants, hoards of bánh mì sandwiches, and the princess: Brodard's. Everything's mostly cheap, too, so directing a mini-food-tour is definitely not a bad option.
And hey, if you're not well versed in Vietnamese food yourself, you could always take a ride down Bolsa.