Let all your preconceived notions about food courts go: they're not all filled with fast food, neon signs and lukewarm, unpleasantly chewy Chinese takeout. In fact, Orange County boasts a few food courts that put actual restaurants to shame with the quality, quantity and value. Below, we've compiled five OC food courts to work into your lunch rotation.
1. Tula Market
Tula Market's two Lake Forest locations are small Mexican neighborhood markets, selling little more than produce, meat and candy. Nevertheless, they've managed to fit a ridiculously good Mexican food bar into one corner of the store. Few things are as inviting as a huge tub full of fresh guacamole that beckons to you from behind the food counter. Order the torta milanesa de res, and watch them smear refried beans and guacamole on a toasted roll. Next, they assemble slabs of white cheese, jalapenos, and two generous portions of crispy milanesa de res, or breaded beef cutlets, to create a filling sandwich where each layer melds harmoniously. The carnitas burrito is packed with more juicy, tender pork than any other ingredient and comes with a spicy, tangy salsa verde. The best part? Each sizable dish costs less than $7.
2. Woori Market
Though Tustin's Woori Market is now defunct, the attached three-stall food court still churns out good eats. With neon signs serving as one of the few light sources in the otherwise drab interior, this food court proves the most mall-like, aesthetically. That's where the comparison ends, however, because the dishes at Yoko Express (Japanese), Corea BBQ (Korean), and Ching Chinese Express (self-explanatory) offer quality you'd pay considerably more for elsewhere. The bento boxes at Yoko Express are generous, filling and fresh for roughly $9, and their signature Hwae Dup Bap comes highly-recommended. Corea BBQ serves up a sizzling bibimbap, complete with the requisite banchan and an entire ketchup bottle of gochujang, again for $9. Let's hope the food court doesn't go the way of its previously adjoined market.
3. Mitsuwa Marketplace
How good are the food courts at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Irvine and Costa Mesa? Well, it ranked as our best Japanese restaurant in the latest Best Of issue, beating out actual, you know, Japanese restaurants. Santouka undoubtedly draws crowds with its rich, umami bowls of ramen, but there are four other food counters to choose from. Hamada-Ya hawks cheap, buttery pastries and breads, Daikichi offers grab-and-go sushi, Miyabi-Tei and Misasa serve classic Japanese fare, Gyutan Tsukasa covers all of your beef tongue needs, Matcha Love is one of the best things we ate this year, and Go Squared has a decent yakisoba, as well as a version of the much-hyped ramen burger. While a bit pricier than other food courts on this list, Mitsuwa still beats out most comparable restaurants in price and taste.
H-Mart Irvine is currently undergoing an expansion to their food court. Soon, it will include a cold and hot foods bar, but as it stands, it features a decent Korean food counter, a cake and pastry shop, and the real reason to visit: Love Letter Pizza and Chicken. The inexplicably named Korean pizza and chicken wing purveyor sells novel alternatives to the usual pepperoni and cheese. Toppings like corn, mayonnaise and sweet potato mousse mingle with beef bulgogi, the marinated slivers of steak that have also received the taco and burrito treatment. Not in the mood for Korean food? Come in the evening, and the food court sells sushi rolls buy-one-get-one half off.
5. Wholesome Choice
Wholesome Choice food courts, with locations in Irvine and Anaheim Hills, slay all competition. Their cuisine is just too diverse, too good, and too cheap to be beat. Are you in the mood for a Lebanese shawarma wrap, slathered in an uber-garlicky paste, hummus, and yogurt sauce? Check. How about a generous Thai BBQ chicken salad for $5? Check. An $11 dollar Indian feast for two and American comfort food favorites round out the food court's highlight reel, and there are still many more options to choose from. An abundant display case of cakes, cookies, bars and more ensures that you won't be skipping dessert. Finally, the food courts are ever-evolving: Wholesome Choice Irvine just added a seafood restaurant, Persian food bar and a gelato counter to the mix, making the already expansive food court take up nearly half the store.