Some of the most fascinating new food spots have been popping up in a surprising corner of the West Coast. It’s not San Francisco or Los Angeles, and it's not Portland or Seattle. It's Orange County, the sprawling metropolis that's home to super-talented chefs and fantastic local ingredients, not to mention the avid restaurant-going Real Housewives. The sheer size of OC can intimidate those on the hunt for great food, but these buzzing spots are shining out like beacons.
Photo credit: Hana re
Housed in a corrugated tin structure in Costa Mesa's shopping center, The Lab, the nine-month-old Hana re is overseen by skilled sushi chef Atsushi Yokoyama. Any given night, his omakase (chef’s choice) menu might include luxurious bites of Japanese uni (sea urchin), pen shell clam, seared barracuda, as well as other dishes you typically have to travel to Japan to try. The Orange County Register calls Yokoyama an artist and "the embodiment of Zen," as he serves his beautifully composed dishes to regulars and new fans of his tiny 10-seat spot.
Photo credit: Corinne Mosqueda.
One of Orange County’s brightest pop-up-to-permanent success stories is Irenia, which started as a roaming event but has put down roots in downtown Santa Ana. Here you can indulge in refined Filipino staples like pancit noodles with shrimp, made using local and seasonal ingredients: in this case, Ridgeback prawns with prawn head sauce and blue lake beans are tossed with canton noodles and dried shrimp.
Photo credit: Tackle Box
Last year, Top Chef Season 11 cheftestant Brian Huskey realized his dream of opening up what he calls a “grub shack” on the edge of Corona Del Mar State Beach. Hit it up for bacon breakfast burritos in the morning, and come back for Maine lobster rolls on squid-ink-colored bread (pictured above) or pork belly banh mi in the afternoon or early evening before hitting the water.
Broadway by Amar Santana
Photo credit: Sarah King Photography
Top Chef Season 13 competitor Amar Santana recently opened his second restaurant, Broadway by Amar Santana, in Laguna Beach, a companion to his Vaca restaurant in Costa Mesa. Despite the very American name, his latest venture flirts with a worldly menu that includes Spanish octopus cooked on the plancha, Louisiana crab meat salad with a summer corn waffle, marinated pork cooked in an Indian tandoori style and truffle-crusted Scottish salmon. Feeling indecisive? Sit back and indulge in one of his terrific tasting menus.
Photo credit: Blackmarket Bakery
With Orange County branches in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, and an outpost in San Diego to the south, Blackmarket Bakery draws regulars for its rich savories, like the gooey Eggywiches on brioche, and its sweets, from the sundaes to the Kahlua-soaked tiramisu.
Photo credit: Naugles
Naugles was the predecessor to Southern California fast-food favorite Del Taco (which had the same co-founder, Dick Naugles) until each location in the state became a Del Taco in the early '90s. The old-school brand has just returned to Huntington Beach, where it draws lines for its soft tacos and burgers. Don’t miss the chance to try a Bun Taco, an open-faced hamburger with a grilled bun that’s also known as the Taco Burger.
Break of Dawn
Photo credit: Dee Nguyen.
Dee Nguyen's Laguna Hills restaurant Break of Dawn serves breakfast and brunch daily, but the chef's inventiveness really comes alive at night, when he hosts periodic pop-up dinners at a time when the restaurant is typically closed. The events, which he announces on his Facebook page, include themed dinners like a Filipino feast featuring exotic produce from his own garden. As for the daily Break of Dawn menu, it offers creative daystarters like crème brûlée French toast and tempura-poached eggs with pork belly.
Photo credit: Healthy Junk
Healthy Junk, a vegan fast food joint in Anaheim, specializes in burgers, Tex-Mex dishes and pizza. The restaurant also hosts events like the third annual Vegan Faire at the city's Center Street Promenade, which should offer a great way to connect with the area's new indie artisans of vegan cuisine.
Alice’s Gourmet Wonderland
Photo credit: Jana Ervin
Okay, maybe they're not people, but dogs definitely enjoy street food as much as their humans do. Alice's Gourmet Wonderland is the OC's first roaming food truck for pooches, selling frozen yogurt, toys, all-natural meat jerkies and doggie treats. Owners Jana Ervin and Alice, her husky, told OC Weekly that they plan to start catering dog birthday parties and tea parties too.
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