South County's Foodie Emergence, Steamed Hams and More!

It was another great year, food-wise, for Orange County, with the opening of new restaurants by talented youngsters putting us on the SoCal hipster map; an explosion of craft brewers, burger parlors and serious mixologists returning eaters to our Americana roots; and the Old Faithful that is our county's holes-in-the-wall never ceasing to amaze—and that's just what made it into print. Online, of course, our award-winning Stick a Fork In It blog informs, outrages and entertains as no other food blog in Orange County every pinche day. In that spirit, behold the thoughts of our four main Forkers as to what they learned in 2011.


If I learned anything this year on the restaurant beat, it's that the term “gastropub” is no longer as fashionable as it used to be (e.g., St. Roy's Chef's Pub). But if you happen to find yourself in an establishment that resembles one, you'll do well in ordering the burger (e.g., Tavern On 2).

In fact, 2011 was a good year for the burger. Starting with Charlie Palmer's DG Burger's, Joseph Mahon's Burger Parlor and the second Slater's 50/50, no other year in recent memory has been dominated by so many new burger joints. I ate a lot of burgers. I also ate more bone marrow this year than any other year. No new restaurant, especially if it's in Laguna Beach, seems complete without an offering of a roasted beef bone split open, served with a tiny spoon and a side of grilled bread.

This was also a year of firsts in OC. It was the first time Mario Batali ventured to our terrain, with his long-awaited Mozza; the first time Gordon Ramsay brought his histrionics to an OC restaurant, in this case Luigi's D'Italia in Anaheim, for his Kitchen Nightmares show; the first time the Filipino fast-food giant Jollibee opened an outlet here; and the first time this county has been home to more than one place serving Indonesian food—with Indo Ranch in Lake Forest, there are now two. (Edwin Goei)

Since I live in Anaheim, it's too easy to dismiss South Orange County as some beige hell of chain restaurants and gluey Mexican-American combo-glop plates; I resolved last year to find the good eats, no matter how much gas I had to burn to do it—and I did. Sol del Sur in San Juan Capistrano was the first step, swiftly followed by LaRocco's and the Riders Club in San Clemente. There were breweries such as Left Coast, Cismontane and Pizza Port. Bread and pretzels from the Bread Gallery and café au lait from Jean-Paul's Goodies have convinced me there's definitely culinary life south of the El Toro Y.

Orange County is full of oenophiles and craft-beer-lovers, but for too long, our cocktails have been of the sort made with sticky-sweet schnapps and overpriced, name-brand vodkas; during the past twelve months, I've been lucky enough to find people who are bringing craft cocktails into Orange County, with truly creative mixtures, homemade bitters and syrups, and no Apple Pucker whatsoever. The ever-expanding revolution stretches from Seal Beach (320 Main) to Laguna Beach (Broadway), from downtown Santa Ana (Memphis) to downtown Brea (Two 40 South). This list isn't all-inclusive; chances are your local vodka jockey has been branching out into Scotch cocktails, gin slings and absinthe. More to come from us about this in 2012! (Dave Lieberman)

I learned to not fear the Peanut Butter & Jealousy burger at Slater's 50/50 because sometimes, the foods we fear most taste the best. Burger Parlor has some of the best flavor combinations (I highly recommend any off-menu specials), but I'm not surprised. Joseph Mahon created his own bun recipe—that's a lot of thought invested into a burger! I started enjoying foods I don't usually care for, if they're fresh and cooked properly, such as foie gras nigiri at AnQi. Unfortunately, we are lacking more experimental/molecular cuisine.

If you think about it, gourmet-food trucks are to brick-and-mortars as actors are to Academy awards; one ultimately wants the other. Yet we still don't have a breakfast-only food truck. Eggs, pork products and chewy carbs—THAT'S where it's at!

After interviewing more than 30 chefs, I learned they are always “on,” 24/7, whether it's learning new recipes or trying out different restaurants. Those who are parents work extra-hard to spend time with their families. And more chefs despise Bobby Flay and fear balut than I thought.

We need more savory desserts, such as the house-made goat-cheese ice cream from Nirvana Grille. However, Tasti D-Lite is my new crack, especially its Bananas Foster flavor. (Anne Marie Panoringan)

I broke up with pho in 2011. I learned no matter how much I love a dish, I can't eat it every day or even every week without burning out on it. Think you can eat a favorite dish every day for a week or a month? Okay, then try following up each meal by writing enthusiastically about how today's version differed from yesterday's and the one the day before that.

Gustavo, Edwin, Dave and I each downed dozens of bowls in the span of a short few weeks during our Final Pho tournament this past spring. Much as I love the great pho served up in Little Saigon (the best in the nation, of course), I had to break up with pho because this intense fling of ours burned too hot without regard for the consequences. We needed a break from each other, and I went six months without even giving her a second thought, jerk that I am.

But pho took me back because she's forgiving, understanding and, above all, comforting. Pho and I have too much history together, and I start 2012 with a new appreciation for why I fell in love in the first place. (Shuji Sakai)

This article appeared in print as “South County's Foodie Emergence! What we learned about food in Orange County in 2011.”

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