TACO MARIA, Costa Mesa
Taco Maria is the kind of humble-yet-modern, “food first” kind of restaurant that made me fall in love with San Francisco when I moved there nearly 14 years ago and I couldn’t find much of real quality in my old Orange County stomping grounds over the years. But times are finally changing in at least very small ways in the OC, as proven by Taco Maria, which has even garnered national press (Food & Wine raved about it in October, to name a few). I’m delighted to say the food keeps up with similar restaurants nationally and is reasonably priced for a prix fixe, which is wise given its low key setting ($59 four courses with $26 wine pairings). The menu ever changes with new Mexican food that feels just right for SoCal with its rich Mexican population and roots.
Dishes: You might get a course like a dreamy, little green tamal de calabaza, a mixture of corn masa and kabocha squash in a pipian verde salsa, a mixture of poblano peppers, tomatillos and pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Accents of lime honey and crumbled queso fresco tie it together. Another winning course was taco de calamares, a squid ink tortilla (pictured above) topped with grilled Monterey squid, spicy with peanut salsa.
Drink This: House sangria is made with with seasonal fruit, like hibiscus this winter, brightened by citrus and cinnamon. The wine list is thoughtful and international (and wine pairings a steal at $26), as with the case of a well-rounded 2013 Juan Gil Garnacha “Honoro Vera” from Jumilla, Spain ($7 glass/28 bottle).
Though the address says Anaheim, Rosine’s is on the sleepy Yorba Linda side of Anaheim, wealthy Anaheim Hills. An old favorite with my family for tender rotisserie chicken with that divine garlic sauce, I’m delighted to say a recent return shows a bustling, remodeled restaurant that now boasts a center bar and a solid small-production spirits collection (next time, I’ll have to try the cocktails) and a packed house there for Rosine’s standout Mediterranean food.
THEOREM, Costa Mesa
This walk-up, 6-seat bar is an offshoot of uber-hipster Portola Coffee Lab, which I visited back in late 2011, not long after it opened inside hipster-chic mall, The OC Mix. There is plenty of seating with tables just outside the tiny coffee bar. Ever-changing, creative coffee drinks designed by Steven Contreas are just $5 and capitalize on trends, like carbonated coffee drinks. I’d like to see more bars like this around the country.
Try: Coffee Mimosa (espresso, carbonated orange, shaken with ice) or a Coffee Mule (Kyoto iced coffee, lime, tonic water).
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Another priority on my next return to OC also in The OC Mix near Theorum (mentioned above) ARC Restaurant Food & Libations is a striking dining room, marked by a sweeping counter bar surrounding the kitchen, romantic by kitchen hearthfire (capitalizing on the big city trend towards hearth cooking a couple years ago). Most importantly, they craft quality cocktails ($12 each) with classic ethos and their bartenders are friendly and welcoming (although I recommend arriving when they first open if you want a drink actually sitting at the bar before diners take over).
Drink This: Italian Snow Cone is bright, bitter and refreshing over crushed ice (pictured top), mixing Cynar (Italian herbal artichoke liqueur) and Aperol with seasonal citrus and herbs.
TONY’S LITTLE ITALY, Placentia
No, it is not the great Tony’s of San Francisco fame. But Tony’s Little Italy is the best deep dish pizza in SoCal in the unremarkable suburban town of Placentia, turning out excellent deep dish pies since 1978. Alongside my childhood fave, Gondola Pizza in La Mirada (the best thin slice pizza in OC), this is excellent pizza, a rarity in this massive county of millions.
Try: Any deep dish will do you right. I prefer a simple garlic deep dish so the cheese, tomato sauce and crust can shine.
Belgian frites, small production wines and craft beers… Linx has all of the above in a small, brick-walled space just off the Orange Circle. But it’s the sausages and hot dogs, made from locally sourced meats that steal the show in this casual hangout. The deal is sealed with toasted, brioche buns akin to proper Maine lobster roll buns.
Try: T.J. Street Dog, a spicy Polish dog loaded with applewood smoked bacon, chorizo mayo, giardiniera relish, avocado and cilantro on a potato roll.
à la minute, Orange
Farm-fresh ice cream made to order via liquid nitrogen? Though à la minute may be late to the nitrogen ice cream trend, the farm-sourced ingredients and vibrant flavors of this rustic-chic ice cream shop in the Orange Circle is what I wish was in OC when I lived there.
Try: Garden-fresh mint chip or bracing espresso.
This the kind of gourmet market long-proliferating in SF and beyond: I wish a shop like Provisions was in every OC town. An extensive selection of craft beer, quality wines, the aforementioned Portola Coffee and an artisanal selection of meats, cheeses and smoked fish.