Harbor Boulevard. If there were any justice for people who love good food, the stretch between Ball Road and Chapman Avenue in Anaheim and Garden Grove would be called Horror Boulevard. That it's a long stretch of national chain restaurant after national chain restaurant is bad enough; some of these places manage to be so bad that they actually shame the already questionable reputations of their parent chains (Bakers Square and your uncaring management, this is you). Service suffers, because despite all the training from the corporate motherships, the staff know that locals don't eat in those branches and the tourists will never be seen again.
I'm a proud resident of Anaheim, and I want visitors to my city to eat well; if I didn't, I wouldn't be blogging about food. Anaheim and Garden Grove have some of the richest pickings around for great food, even if your taste runs more to pork chops than pork dumplings, but it can be hard to winnow the wheat from the chaff.
Read on for five family-friendly suggestions for food only a few minutes' drive from Disneyland.
Jägerhaus: One of two German restaurants in Orange County, lunches and dinners at Jägerhaus involve all the classics that will stick to your ribs on a cold winter's night, including occasional specials of game dishes like elk or venison. What's special about the Jägerhaus, though, is the breakfast. European-style fruit pancakes (like puffy crêpes) and great omelettes, including the Schwaben omelette with spätzle (small wheat dumplings) and ham make a great alternative to IHOP or the drive-thru at McDonald's. If you get toast, make sure to ask for some of owner Sandra Schwaiger's unbelievable plum jam to go with it. Jägerhaus, 2525 E. Ball Rd., Anaheim; (714) 520-9500.
Park Avenue Dining: Sometimes, after a long day spent fighting the crowds, Mom and Dad need a dinner where the menu doesn't feature fried chicken parts and the décor doesn't involve cartoon characters. Park Avenue fits this need; that it has a cool old Googie-style bar with arguably the best martinis in the county doesn't hurt in the slightest. Chops and good old American-style food made with carefully-sourced ingredients are the order of the day. No Sysco here; if it's not too busy, ask for a tour of the garden, where they grow herbs and vegetables amongst lemon, avocado and olive trees. The staff generally dote on children and the little cherubs can choose either to have a smaller portion of an adult meal or something from the kids' menu. Don't miss pastry chef Alice Castro's dessert menu, either. Park Avenue Dining, 11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton; (714) 901-4400.[
Marri's: Probably the best non-steak restaurant in the Anaheim Resort, this is old-school Italian-American and it's been around since phone numbers started with letters. This is a place to get pasta, red sauce, chicken and pizza; don't look for Tuscan specialities here. Spinach bread, rolled with cheese and served with marinara sauce, is a great way to get the kids to eat some vegetables; adults may want to go for sausage and peppers or eggplant parmigiana. Portions are huge, especially at dinner where soup or salad comes with the meal. And the best part? They deliver to area hotels for free. Marri's Pizza, 1194 W. Katella, Anaheim; (714) 533-1631.
Thai Nakorn: Fortunately for tourists, the best Thai in Orange County is barely two minutes' drive from the officially-sanctioned InternationalWest district or whatever Garden Grove calls the spillover into their city from the Anaheim Resort. You can get the usual Thai dishes here, such as pad Thai and rad naa, and they'll be better than most places, but you'd be missing some truly spectacular food. Beef panang is a large chunk of soft-as-butter beef that's been stewed in a mild red sauce; counter its rich taste with the sharpness of green mango salad with crispy tiny catfish bits (you will need to insist gently that you don't actually want the fried fish fillet with mango sauce). Squid stuffed with sausage, boar with spicy chile sauce, sour Thai sausage with cabbage and peanuts and nam sod (minced pork salad) with crispy rice all haunt the specials page. Despite the lack of prices on the specials page, just about everything is under $10. Be warned, asking for things spicy results in things spicy according to Thai palates, not American palates. Thai Nakorn, 12532 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; (714) 583-8938.
Los Cotijas: Make no mistake about it, Los Cotijas defines “hole in the wall”. In a dilapidated old building just off the corner of Euclid and Chapman in Garden Grove, it's a mile and a half from the tourist strip and a hundred miles away in flavor. Los Cotijas makes some of the better fish tacos in the county, breaded and fried strips of fish stuffed into corn tortillas with crema mexicana (a sharp dairy product akin to a thinner sour cream) and cabbage. The salsa they serve with it needs help; go for the red salsa from the salsa bar instead, then squeeze a lime over it. If seafood is not your bag, they make a great, greasy, toasty quesadilla that practically soaks up salsa. When you go home, you can tell your friends about the little taco shack you found. Los Cotijas, 11951 Euclid St., Garden Grove; (714) 636-3944; no website.
Happily, this is not the canonical list; there are a lot of surprisingly good places within 5-10 minutes' drive of the Happiest Place on Earth. While it can be tempting to just go to the places near the hotel, a few extra minutes can make for a much happier vacation.