Dishing Up Some of OC’s Best-Kept Secret Menu Items

Illustration by Federico Medina

Shhhhhhhhhhh!!!!! Ixnay on the ecret-say enu-may ishes-day! Some intrepid Weekly writers-turned-eaters have scoured Orange County for food items one does not find listed on local restaurant menus. We’re talking apps, burgers, salads, pastas, raw fishes and something known as “Love Cream” (awwww, yeaaaaah). Our undercover mission took us from ‘Ai Pono Cafe to the American Dream and Taqueria de Anda to Nick’s Pizza Ristorante Italiano, with jolts to keep us going at 7 Leaves and a deluxe Nordstrom’s shopping spree. Because you’re special. You deserve only the best. And you deserve what’s not listed for the peons. Rattle your bracelets at the waitstaff and whisper these delights into their ears because you will soon be in the know.

Oh, and the red fox trots quietly at midnight . . . REPEAT . . . The red fox trots quietly at midnight. 

Photo by Edwin Goei

Living on Maui for a dozen years taught me the wondrous variety of Hawai‘i street food. There, you can find some of the best poke at the supermarket, which is (as it should be) just a mix of inch-thick cubes of fresh ahi, shoyu and sweet Maui onions (you can scoop it onto rice and add avocado if you want to get fancy). Then there’s the salty fried deliciousness known as Spam musubi, best bought from a Minit Stop gas station. 

Obviously none of that exists in OC, but we do have ‘Ai Pono Cafe. Originally housed in the Hood Kitchen Space near John Wayne Airport, ‘Ai Pono now has its own brick-and-mortar location on 17th Street in Costa Mesa (the soft opening happens on Friday, with the official opening a week later). The plate lunches—lomi tomato, mac salad, divine kalua turkey and, of course, huge cubes of ahi poke—remind me of the island more than anything else out here. Similar to how many restaurants and stores in Hawai‘i offer “kama‘aina” discounts for residents (prices are notoriously high throughout the state), ‘Ai Pono now offers special “Pono Cards” for repeat guests. But rather than offer discounted food, the cards unlock not only a secret item, but also an entire secret menu. 

“The only way to get it is to eat at the café,” owner Gene Villiatora says. “You have to get a certain amount of punches on the card to access the new menu.” 

That menu will also change every week, according to Villiatora. “One of the items might be our shoestring fries, which are full of flavor,” he says. “We won’t do burgers on the menu, but one week, we might have a pork belly burger. Maybe we’ll have soups—who knows? Or a breakfast item. It’s not going to be the same item each week. And even though we’re going to be labeled as ‘fast casual,’ we want to keep things seasonal.” (Anthony Pignataro) 283 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 402-6877. 

Photo courtesy Wahoo’s Fish Taco

Maybe it’s not so much a secret anymore given how awesome it is, but it is off-menu. Mr. Lee’s Secret Sauce was created by Wahoo’s patriarch Cheong Kwon Lee, who wanted an extra kick to spice up his plate. It’s a Chinese chile paste that packs flavor (think Indonesian sambal)—spicy, smoky and umami. Add it to any Wahoo’s dish for an extra layer of savor. (Cynthia Rebolledo) Multiple locations;

Photo courtesy Nordstrom

The Marketplace Café is nestled in a comfy corner on the third floor of Nordstrom at Brea Mall, inviting shoppers and diners alike. Just don’t expect to spend quality time ruminating over menu items after getting a table. The café asks patrons to order upfront at the counter before being seated and served. An easy way to move the process along but an even faster way of getting to the grub is to toss the menu aside altogether. 

Do so by asking for the blackened salmon Caesar salad. 

A staple of past menus, the dish has gone underground as the Marketplace Café’s best-kept and tastiest secret. It doesn’t appear anywhere but does come out of the kitchen when ordered by those in the know who can’t let a good thing go. When the plate arrives, the blackened-salmon fillet stands out in all its caramelized Cajun-spice-rub charm atop a bed of romaine lettuce. It’s complemented by crunchy croutons and a lemon wedge awaiting a squeeze. 

Crack the Parmesan-cheese crisp with the blunt edge of a fork before mixing the leafy greens together with the salmon, which flakes off with ease. The convergence of citrus and spice with creamy Caesar dressing makes for a refreshing, satiating department-store dining experience. The fish gives the dish its ampleness, one that can be walked off at the mall just fine. 

And to settle any remaining curiosities, this off-menu must is also available at Ruscello at South Coast Plaza. Just don’t tell anyone, okay?  (Gabriel San Román) 300 Brea Mall, Brea, (714) 529-0123.  

Photo by Hanh Truong

Beyond the rich and nutty House Coffee that 7 Leaves is known for, the Orange County-native coffee and milk tea shop has so much more to offer. Don’t let the minimalistic menu of 16 drinks fool you; overlooking the Thai tea and mung bean milk tea, there’s the Love Cream. The aromatic jasmine milk tea is topped with a drizzle of caramel. A 7 Leaves barista will blend the drink with a bit of half and half to ensure the floral notes of the tea and the sweetness of the caramel intertwine, making each sip reminiscent of vanilla ice cream. But there’s no need to go into detail when ordering this drink; just mention “Love Cream,” and it’s coming right up. (Hanh Truong) Multiple locations;

Photo courtesy Alta Baja

For those in the know, asking for the secret Nachos Maximus at Alta Baja will score you a mound of Have’a Corn Chips done up with two layers of beans and cheese, pickled peppers, tender carne adovada (slow-cooked pork in adobo chile sauce), crèma, salsa, avocado, and cotija cheese. And if you really want to pop off, you can add fried eggs for extra ooze. 

Alta Baja’s Pinche Jack Dave isn’t on the menu, but it’s one of the market’s most popular dishes, thanks to regular Dave Leon (owner of Lockout Music Studios). It’s essentially the Desayuno Bowl with extra goodness—quinoa, roasted purple cabbage, grilled onions and veggies—topped with two poached eggs and creamy avocado slices. It’s finished with spicy harissa, housemade jalapeño dressing and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Did we mention it’s paleo and gluten-free? (Pro tip: You can only order these off-menu dishes if they’re not busy). (CR) 200-201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 783-2252;

Photo by Brianna Carman


Tucked inside the food hall at Pacific City shopping center sits the American Dream. The friendly staff, modern yet rustic interior and views of the cascading waves create a dreamy, cozy atmosphere. Whether you sit indoors or outdoors, the surf is always in view. Once seated and scanning the menu, it can be overwhelming choosing among the various juicy burgers as well as the long list of beers on tap. But the only item you need to order off the menu isn’t even on the menu! The American Dream offers a spicy kick with its Chorizo Chili Mac N’ Cheese burger. Similar to the Chorizo Chili burger, it comes with a juicy signature chuck-brisket patty, hearty chorizo chili, Cheddar cheese, red onions and creamy, spicy aioli sauce. Although it doesn’t have some of its original toppings—such as mashed avocado and tortilla strips—the burger does come with truffle oil and a smoky yet savory red-wine reduction as well as the cheesiest mac-and-cheese shells. The cheese oozes over the burger in a beautiful way (not like the unicorn spew that is the Magical Burger from Ground House). For a couple of more bucks, you can ask for additional toppings, but beware, a knife and fork are needed to devour this scrumptious secret. (Brianna Carman) 21058 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. 130, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1330;

Photo by Matt Coker

Food fads, a major remodel of the shopping center surrounding it and irascible founder Nick Fodero’s retirement have failed to stop the family-owned Nick’s Pizza Ristorante Italiano from going strong after more than half a century. Over that time, menu items have come and gone (and, in the case of Nick’s Futura pizza, come back again). Della casa is a pasta dish that disappeared from the menu at least a decade ago and has yet to come back. However, you can still order it if you corner longtime members of the wait or cooking staff. A perfectly prepared rigatoni tube pasta is tossed with peas, garlic, mushrooms, virgin olive oil, chopped tomatoes and the star of the dish: the sweet and tangy marinara sauce that accompanies several Nick’s items. The first runner-up ingredient, artichoke hearts, was missing during a recent lunchtime visit, so we’ll assume the longtime members of the wait and cooking staff we usually corner were working the dinner shift. (Our young server did not know what della casa was, but she got the cook’s okay.) The bowl of pasta arrived at the table piping-hot and, despite the missing ’choke, was delicious, especially when fortified with freshly shaved Parmesan. At $14.95, it might sound like a pricy lunchtime dish, but it comes with a basket of addictive house-made garlic bread and your choice of soup or a garden or Caesar salad. You can split the order with another or take half the della casa home for a second swell meal. Warning: You’ll be tempted to empty the basket while sopping up the delicious salad dressing. Dear God, resist! You need some bread to dip into that amazing marinara. (Matt Coker) 2300 Harbor Blvd., Ste. K1, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7566.

Photo by Nikki Nelsen

If your usual taco order just isn’t cutting it, try the off-menu nachos at Taqueria de Anda instead. With all the necessary components already on hand, a member of the kitchen staff will build you a plate of nachos with all of your favorite fixings. Housemade tortilla chips are topped with shredded cheese, refried beans, onions, cilantro, red or green sauce, and your choice of eight different meats, which include carne asada, al pastor and carnitas. The nachos have the perfect chip-to-topping ratio and will surely leave you stuffed. (Nikki Nelsen) Multiple locations;  

Photo courtesy Chapter One: the modern local


In addition to tacos, Chapter One’s Taco Tuesday menu features succulent banana leaf-wrapped tamales—but did you know they’re available every day by request? The fillings and sauces change each week, and the tamales range from traditional to modern, such as barbacoa beef with citrus sour cream, salsa roja and cilantro. Other tamal options include carnitas with salsa verde and a chicken mole. (CR) 227 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 352-2225;

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