Boneheads in Lake Forest May Be a Chain, But It's a Good One

Great Food, Weird Name
Boneheads in Lake Forest may be a chain, but it's a good one

For those who complain that the Orange County dining scene is fraught with chains, I submit Boneheads—a restaurant that validates the argument, but also neutralizes it. Yes, it's one out of many in a portfolio managed by suits at an Atlanta-based company called Raving Brands. But the Lake Forest branch is the only one to venture west of the Mississippi. And what it specializes in—an African-influenced dish called piri-piri chicken—is reason enough to not dismiss Boneheads.

Initially, all evidence points to the contrary. It's huddled near a Carino's and a Daphne's, and strategically placed in a high-traffic corridor inside a new shopping complex. Its walls are plastered with vaguely worded marketing platitudes, cheery corporate-designed cartoon mascots, and poster-sized glossies of food.

Hung throughout the room, plasma screens are tuned to CNN (though no one's watching—would you want to look at Nancy Grace while you're eating?). And at the counter, local teens act as cashiers while sweaty Latinos tend to a smoky grill behind a big plate-glass window. You pour your own drinks from the usual self-serve soda fountain. Everything in the store is well-organized, spotless, and as innocuous as a Panda Express.

But oh, that chicken! It deserves to join Zankou's rotisserie and Anchor Bar's Buffalo wings in the pantheon of poultry legends. Boneheads' bird coincidentally tastes like a combination of the two. For every half-order, a fat, meaty hen is bisected lengthwise, fire-roasted, and soaked with a lip-numbing puree of lemon juice, vinegar, spices and African piri-piri chili peppers.

The meat is moist to the bone, even the breast; and every inch of its rendered skin glistens with a thin veneer of that red piri-piri glaze—a liquid which can also double as Mace.

Four levels of heat are available, from a sissy “lemon N herb” to a masochistic “extra hot.” Whatever your pain threshold might be, each table is equipped with bottles of all the piri-piri sauces, ready to intensify the burn should your first choice be too tame.

They also cook the breast in its boneless, skinless state, maybe to appease those who walk in recently manicured. But to avoid the hot-sauce-gunked fingers, the dripping chicken juices, and the tearing of meat from cartilage is to miss the point entirely.

Those who'd rather not get their pretty little hands dirty should order the fish instead. This is Boneheads' other specialty. Among the species that meet the searing grill are salmon, tilapia, mahi-mahi, shrimp and grouper. All are branded with black char marks and topped with pineapple salsa, cucumber lime and yogurt, or sautéed piri-piri mushrooms.

Chilean sea bass is the best catch of the lot, with flesh so butter-soft it disintegrates at the slightest pressure of the tongue. A chunky mango salsa lavishes the top, making an already premium fish taste even better.

For their fish and chips, strips of white fish fillet are deep-fried underneath a gossamer-thin covering of batter. It's just the right amount of crispiness in a flaky, greaseless rendition that Austin Powers would approve of. And yes, the fries are decent too. It's one of many side dishes that range from a perfunctory rice pilaf to the addictive sweet potato fries and the perfectly charred asparagus spears. (These last two cost an additional buck, but are worth twice that.)

Their boring, coleslaw-stuffed tacos, on the other hand, aren't worth the $2.59 price tag—maybe they'd pass muster in Georgia, but not here. Your extra cash is better spent on the appetizers, which include spicy, chilled peel-and-eat shrimp and crisp calamari rings dunked in Thai chili sauce. But they're just chum when compared to the “Boneheads Shrimp,” a popcorn shrimp look-alike that actually has more in common with Chinese honey-glazed walnut prawns, since it's eaten with chopsticks and drizzled with aioli.

And if that doesn't convince you that Boneheads isn't your typical chain eatery, there are the fruit sorbets for dessert. Mango, coconut, or lime sorbetto are frozen inside the hollowed-out shells of the fruit from whence they came. When was the last time you saw a chain around here do that?

Boneheads, 23704 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 581-3474; Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only.

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