10 Must-Visit Restaurants in Orange County
Posted By Julia Mason On June 13, 2014 @ 1:16 pm In Dining,Orange County | No Comments
Putting the “Oh” in OC
by Rich Manning
After decades of languishing in the shadows of Los Angeles, the Orange County food scene has as of late been able to craft a strong identity all its own. These days, one is never too far from finding a restaurant that is driven by innovative technique, a desire to build the perfect flavor profile and an ambience that coaxes guests into staying a little while longer.
The proliferation of this kind of culinary mindset is so strong, it’s safe to say that the philosophy is less trend, and more a way of life in current-day Orange County. A slew of new restaurants have begun to display this progression in their own unique way, thus leading to a bevy of thrilling dining experiences that can – for once – only be had here.
The establishments below are presented in alphabetical order.
Anepalco’s Café – Orange
A concept like Mexican-French fusion might be nothing more than a head-scratching novelty in the hands of a lesser talent. However, the supreme skill of executive chef/owner Daniel Godinez has made Anepalco’s Café a place you must try. Godinez seamlessly blends the Mexican flavors of his childhood with the French technique that he perfected in the early part of his culinary career. His vision results in dishes like steak tomatillo crêpes and Serrano beurre blanc tilapia—wildly inventive creations whose novelty instantly gives way to sumptuous flavors. If you get up early enough, be sure to swing by here for breakfast to enjoy Godinez’s transcendent chilaquiles.
ARC Food & Libations – Costa Mesa
Another reason why OC Mix is the most unique retail complex in Orange County is because it’s the home of ARC Food & Libations. The design is built to draw focus to the kitchen and its massive open flame, which executive chef Noah Blom and his crew utilize to create winning contemporary dishes that are noted for their straightforward nature and their adherence to artisanal ingredients. Simple fare like pig and duck isn’t buried under sauces; they’re each subtly accentuated with fresh herbs, vegetables and the like. The venue’s bar program is also home to the coolest cocktail in OC – the smoke and coffee bean-infused whiskey drink “Cigarettes and Coffee.”
HopScotch – Fullerton
HopScotch first turned heads because of its large whiskey collection – shelves are stocked with over 125 labels of the brown stuff – but has been able to retain focus because of the voodoo that executive chef Cody Storts whips up in the kitchen. The downtown Fullerton venue’s rustic and completely unpretentious setting makes for a fine backdrop for Storts to display his love for Southern cuisine as well as his willingness to push the envelope. Guests here can indulge in game items like venison osso buco along with more eclectic bites like the sinfully secretive lamb fries.
Lark Creek Newport Beach – Newport Beach
A lot of transplanted restaurant concepts have made their way down to OC in the last year. This one, which landed in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island by way of San Francisco, is the best of the bunch. It excels because executive chef John Ledbetter and his culinary staff approach food in a simple manner, where regional ingredients and sensible flavor composition trump flash. Entrées are anchored by steaks and chops, but they do leave plenty of room on the menu for some culinary mischief, as demonstrated by items like their barbecue chicken tamale pancake.
Little Sparrow – Santa Ana
You may not find a place that feels cooler than Little Sparrow, which has instantly become a prime example of the kind of the sleek urban vibe that is being planted in downtown Santa Ana. Behind its municipal charm and slightly mid-century ambience is uncompromisingly good contemporary cuisine put forth by executive chef Eric Samaniego, a skillful gastronome who was a protégé of the late Charlie Trotter. His forward-thinking dishes like crispy sweetbreads with English pea purée, salmon with chorizo and homemade tagliatelle with braised lamb neck are killer enough to further subdue the increasingly unfounded stereotype of OC being a culinary wasteland. Not cool enough for you? After dinner, head down a narrow hallway and grab a cocktail at Little Sparrow’s dark, lounge-like bar, whose sleek, slick vibe lets you feel like you are immersing yourself into a whole different world.
The establishments below are presented in alphabetical order.
The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon – Anaheim
You won’t find a more unorthodox dining venue in Orange County than The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon. It’s located on the first floor of a six-story office building in industrial Anaheim, right next door to an authentic country-western dance hall. You may not find a more satisfying meal in OC, either. executive chef Michael Rossi has put together an interpretation of contemporary cuisine that features exceptional culinary craftsmanship, expertly layered flavor profiles, and high-quality ingredients – many of which are grown on the restaurant’s own farm. Rossi’s smartly composed steak, game and fish dishes are equally matched by the venue’s stunningly gigantic wine list of over 14,000 domestic and foreign labels. Be sure to save room for dessert, where Michael’s brother David takes the stage to concoct whimsical treats like his otherworldly buttered popcorn ice cream.
SeaLegs Wine Bar – Huntington Beach
As the name suggests, this Huntington Beach venue is a popular spot for those looking to split a bottle of wine amongst friends or chill with a glass of good stuff on their own. But it’s also so much more than that. executive chef Alexander Dale exhibits some serious chops in putting together seasonally shifting contemporary cuisine that is ready to be paired with the venue’s sizable wine selections, ranging from high-end bar food like fresh house-cut fries draped in a trio of cheeses to more serious dishes like charred filet medallions with pickled onions. Plus, its location is a few blocks away from the city’s infamous downtown area, so you can enjoy the essence of Surf City here without having to deal with any frat boy-fueled shenanigans.
Selanne Steak Tavern – Laguna Beach
Teemu Selanne is arguably the most beloved athlete in the history of Orange County. The Anaheim Ducks legend and future hockey hall-of-famer appears to be using this excellent venue as a means to express his appreciation for the community. The restaurant’s team of culinary talent is led by executive chef Joshua Severson, who made his bones under acclaimed chef Tom Colicchio, and he breathes fantastic life into the classic steakhouse concept by creating letter-perfect versions of familiar genre favorites. His skill in preparing steaks like the bone marrow butter-topped New York Strip is transcendent, and sides like the seasonal mixed mushroom with truffle butter are tremendous meal enhancements. The venue’s impressive selection of global wines also includes a special “Black List” that showcases special rare and high-end selections.
Solita Tacos & Margaritas – Huntington Beach
This restaurant is a sister venue of Newport Beach’s popular SOL Cocina. But what makes this anchor of Huntington Beach’s Bella Terra outdoor shopping mall so fresh is that it is not a carbon copy of the original venue. executive chef Deborah Schneider has created a completely different menu of culinary delights partially based on her own excursions to Mexico. It’s a little more casual in setting and cuisine – you can indulge in familiar fare like burritos and tacos if you wish – but this increased approachability does not come at the expense of the quality of the presentation or flavor possibilities that can be experienced here. Start your meal with a house margarita and an order of the grilled elote (corn on the cob), which is prepared and presented tableside.
Taco Maria – Costa Mesa
This restaurant was already hugely popular before it opened – it enjoyed a rabid cult-like following as a food truck before it went the brick and mortar route. Anyone who drops by this resident of Costa Mesa’s white hot and unapologetically cool OC Mix will see exactly why the fan base existed. executive chef Carlos Salgado’s take on what he calls “Chicano cuisine” produces flavors that push the boundaries of Mexican food without ever betraying that distinction. His craftsmanship and uncanny knack for building complex flavor profiles through dishes like the aguachile scallop crudo or the chicken and cashew mole proves that this often cheese-drenched culinary genre can be taken to lofty heights.
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