Photo by Jeanne RiceWith its tapered body and unique texture and flavor, squid is high on my list of favorite things to eat. But somewhere along the path from bait to cuisine, squid fell victim to uninspired chefs everywhere. This creativity shortage resulted in one horrid incarnation: heavily battered, deep-fried calamari rings smothered in marinara sauce. It became hard to tell if you were eating seafood or onion rings. Thanks to the following three restaurants, the cylindrical cephalopod is back where it belongs.
I love everything about Taco Mesa, especially their calamari taco. There's a fine line between blackened (coated with spices and grilled) and seared beyond recognition (and tough as road kill). The Calderon brothers manage to blacken their calamari and keep it from toughening. Wrapped in a steaming flour tortilla, the thick, juicy slabs of chile-coated calamari steak strips are among the tenderest sea creatures that have ever touched my lips. They also serve calamari in a tostada or in a salad topped with the Calderon brothers' version of El Torito's Mexican caesar dressing, which they helped invent; roasted pumpkinseeds, goat cheese and cilantro make it one of the best salads around. There's always something new to order, but since I can't do without the calamari, I usually get one taco and the soup of the day, which was recently crema de cangrejo (cream of crab), the crabbiest, creamiest version I have had of late. Sure, the original Taco Mesa in Costa Mesa is a cool hang, but the Orange location is plastered with mural-sized canvases of color-saturated Rob Padilla paintings. His doormat-sized coloring book is for sale there, too. Taco Mesa, 3533 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 633-3922. Also in Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0629, and Mission Viejo, (949) 471-3144.
Dragon Phoenix Palace is a gargantuan dim sum hall in Little Saigon, replete with a row of gold-tassel-laden red lanterns framing a bird's-eye view of the pagoda-style Asian Garden Mall across the street. Weekends are packed, and for good reason: that's the only time they serve the elusive salt-and-pepper squid. It's coated in a wispy flour mixture and pan-fried by an expert hand with hot green and red chile peppers and lots of garlic cloves cut wafer thin. A hot salt/pepper/lemon sauce is served on the side. The light, crisp texture and pungent sauce make it squid-eriffic. Dragon Phoenix Palace, 9211 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 893-3682.
On my most recent trip to Zov's Bistro, Zov's husband, Gary, was overseeing the cleaning of the fountain outside the bakery. While a little algae is the last thing on the minds of most restaurateurs I know, Zov and Gary Karamardian aren't just your ordinary restaurateurs. From the menu to the interior design, the couple is always renovating, renewing and refreshing. But be warned, Zov: taking the calamari appetizer off the menu would result in sure mutiny. Squid ringlets are about as tender as industrial-sized rubber bands when overcooked, but Zov's version is sautéed to perfection in a delicate mixture of fresh tomatoes, white wine, cream, fresh basil and garlic. Best yet, it's served with crostini to dip into the velvety sauce with the seductive taste of the sea. Zov's Bistro, 17440 E. 17th St., Tustin, (714) 838-8855.