Isn't bread great? Crispy yet soft, chock-full of wheaty goodness, and a multiuse instrument for eating (base, spoon, bowl, straw—trust me on the latter). But while most Americans content themselves with Weber's or even Roman Meal, the county's ethnic eateries treat diners to breads that span the palate, from sour to sweet to speckled.
Although Ali Baba's prepares decent versions of subcontinent standards such as chicken tikka and tandoori and an epic chicken biryani that's more rice than fowl, concentrate on the Pakistani specialties—three types of kebabs and a scorching chicken kahari. SPECIALBREAD:Do trot out with an order of Afghan naan—a little less than two feet in length, dimpled, soft and sweet, about the thickness of a Bic lighter. It easily feeds four. 14282BrookhurstSt.,Ste.1,GardenGrove,(714)531-2000.$
If you want to know what a thousand years of Chinese domination and a half-century of French colonization with dashes of Polynesian influence taste like, go for the bánh mì dac biet. Stuffed with pâté, pickled carrots and Chinese-style ham, this sandwich is the house specialty. SPECIALBREAD:The baguettes—better than anything baked on the Left Bank. 13840BrookhurstSt.,GardenGrove,(714)534-6987.¢
Champs is stuck in the 1980s: faded pictures of Los Angeles Rams fans hang inside, and hot dogs bear the names of Dodgers icon Fernando Valenzuela and members of the Showtime Lakers. Its snappy Chicago dogs, however, are timeless—slightly crispy Vienna beef sausage and relish so bright it makes you blink. SPECIALBREAD:The speckled poppy-seed bun. Has enough of those poppy seeds to warrant a BALCO investigation. 12161SealBeachBlvd.,SealBeach,(562)596-2555.$
In a culinary tradition that varies little whether you're chopsticking through Mongolian BBQ in Ulan Bator or Utica, Great Wall differentiates itself by offering grub more fiery, more nuanced and a bit more bountiful than other charcuteries. Their daily lunch special is one of the most rewarding in the county—$4.50 for a bowl of Mongolian BBQ, along with a better-than-average egg roll, a thimble of fried rice that tastes vaguely Mexican and a small tureen of unctuous egg flower soup. SPECIALBREAD:Shao-bing, a dry, intensely floury bread strewn with sesame seeds. 1261HarborBlvd.,LaHabra,(714)680-3569.¢
While offering all the dishes once balanced on the arms of roller-skating waitresses, Hotbellies also incorporates Asian cuisine, the better to serve the new multicultural, multitasteful American race. Get with the times, Potbellies announces via a menu ranging from cheesy Philadelphia beef to soy sauce-baptized bulgogi (Korean barbecue)—this is the 21st century. SPECIALBREAD:Grand Italian rolls upon which they construct optimal Philly cheesesteaks. 1860W.OrangethorpeAve.,Fullerton,(714)870-4340.$
They have about the most authentic Hungarian food to be found without a passport. Try eating as they do in Eastern Europe—smorgasbord-style meats, cheeses and breads—or order some kolbasz, one of six kinds of homemade sausages available. SPECIALBREADS:Various Soviet Bloc dinner rolls. 10382 Stanford Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 539-6334; www.intlmeatsanddeli.com. $
You can't accuse this joint, located quite obviously in a former KFC, of false advertising. Their trademark is the mega mega burger, a cake-sized burger, served in slices, that is the equivalent of eight hamburgers. Note: if you think a mega mega burger sounds like an eat-alone kind of meal, do yourself a favor—take a good look in the mirror and have your cholesterol checked first. SPECIALBREAD:The hamburger bun on said mega mega burger is bigger than a derby. 34122PacificCoastHwy.,DanaPoint,(949)488-0849.$
You're probably the second non-African to visit Merhaba after me, so the female owner will be extra attentive and repeatedly ask if you enjoy her East African recipes. You will. East African cuisine sticks mostly to stews: chewy cubes of tibisy beef; lamb ribs battling with furious peppers for control of your tongue; the famous Ethiopian doro wat, spicy chicken cooked in butter, hot like the pits of hell. The vegetarians in your party will content themselves with the shiro, an Eritrean chickpea mush similar to hummus. SPECIALBREAD:Injera. Sour and malleable, it also serves as the plate, spoon and napkin for all Ethiopian foods. 2801W.BallRd.,Ste.5,Anaheim,(714)826-8859.$
Juicy salsas, succulent shards of porcine goodness and steaming homemade tortillas make for delicious tacos. The beans, long on pork-lard flavor, have piquant roasted chiles de arbol woven throughout. And don't start us on the pickled carrots. SPECIALBREAD:Nicely toasted bolillos. 125N.RanchoSantiago,Orange,(714)771-5527;838E.FirstSt.,SantaAna,(714)542-3913.¢
The St. Regis Resort's casual restaurant advertises itself as a “small-plates cuisine” type of place, but executive chef Azmin Ghahreman doesn't bilk you at all. He does a masterful job of putting heft into each California-y selection's flavor—ferocious shrimp piqued with a buttery paprika sauce or pumpkin gnocchi brushed up with pecan and sage. Even better, most of the entrées are around $10, and all come with unlimited pickled olives and peppers and a great roll of sourdough. SPECIALBREAD:Various dinner loaves, all herbed and one encrusted with olives. 1MonarchBeachResort,DanaPoint,(949)234-3765.$$
The Indian selections are admirable—the sour minced-beef shish kebab in particular would make a desinostalgic for the Punjab—but first-time Noorani patrons should indulge instead in the specialty of one of the county's few Pakistani restaurants. The haleem in particular, a sticky concoction of lentils, shredded wheat, ginger, dried chiles, and beef so mashed it's not immediately discernable in the goop, is the tasty oatmeal Americans can only dream about. SPECIALBREAD:Paratha, a buttery take on naan. 14178BrookhurstSt.,GardenGrove,(714)636-1000.$
Persian food served in abundant portions on perfectly arranged plates complete with precise ovals of rice and small domes of vegetables. The basmati rice is as fluffy as cumulus clouds and as flavorful as fresh-popped popcorn. SPECIALBREAD:The pita-like lavash. 3033S.BristolSt.,Ste.D.,CostaMesa,(714)557-8070.$$
The South Indian food served here ain't your Green Party fund-raiser spread of bland samosas and lukewarm lentil broth. Rasthal is the type of dive where kaju karela—a peppered, unctuous mush combining cashews with coconut oil and bitter gourds—is among the more conservative dishes, where a chile-laced farina called upma is celebrated with the reverence with which a Punjabi restaurant serves up tandoori chicken. SPECIALBREAD:Roti, an unleavened bread that falls somewhere between tortilla and pita on the fluffy scale. 2751-2755W.LincolnAve.,Anaheim,(714)527-3800.¢
View our complete dining guide at www.ocweekly.com/food.