The OC dining wasteland that was one of the homes of my youth — a place I lived a total of 12 years of my life — is still not remotely in league with even the dining scenes of the US’ great mid-size cities. But better eats continue to pop up and increase around the massive county, which is an extension of endless LA suburbs, and a rich cross-section of ethnicities ensures that there are authentic finds in a few categories.
Some recent newcomers — and a couple slightly older spots — are among the better options to come along in North OC in the last 20 years, just as restaurants like Playground and the fantastic Taco Maria are drawing out LA critics and landing on LA best-of lists. Here are a few recent standouts from my latest visits:
MR KATSU, Fullerton
Open in a strip mall in early 2015, Mr Katsu is a humble hole-in-the-wall turning out Japanese katsu (traditionally breaded, fried pork cutlet) on sandwiches with a touch hipster flair on fluffy house bread that nearly melts around the meat. It’s easily one of my new take-out OC faves.
The Original ($7.50) is a fine place to start: pork cutlet, coleslaw and katsu sauce are all you need. But mix it up with Katsu Curry ($9), essentially a katsu pork cutlet with potatoes and doused in mild, savory Japanese curry. For a change of pace, the habanero pesto ($9) was the brightest, most Californian of the few I tried, a pork cutlet laden with pesto, coleslaw and habanero aioli. For massive appetites, there’s The Works aka Sandwich 5000 ($20), which they list as, “all of the most beautiful things in the world” in one sandwich.
POKE DISTRICT, Orange
Another new take-out standout is Poke District, open in February 2015. It is also a strip mall setting, best for take-out given the lack of atmosphere. Especially during the lunch rush, order-at-the-counter service is quite slow — they almost seem on Hawaii time, appropriate given poke’s origins but a bit frustrating nonetheless. But staff is friendly, the poke is bright, fresh and served (in environmentally atrocious styrofoam!?#! — a problem I run into all too often in OC) with a scoop of brown or white rice or cucumber salad. Refreshingly, options are minimal — ahi tuna or salmon in various sauces — but it’s all done well, making me wish for a poke take out spot like this in every city.
FUOCO PIZZERIA NAPOLETANA, Fullerton
Old school deep dish favorite, Tony’s Little Italy, is still the OC pizza destination in my book, but in a different style, I was delighted to find Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana in downtown Fullerton (open since the end of 2012), turning out well-made, Neapolitan-influenced pies from a wood-burning oven.
Blistered crusts and tangy-savory sauce mingle with lush mozzarella in classic Margherita or Diavola pizzas. The pies are utterly gratifying straight out of the oven, even if not exactly traditional Naples (but definitely Naples-influenced). Though this style is ubiquitous in cities like my own, it’s still a rarity in OC so therefore destination-worthy in North OC.
TAQUERIA EL ZAMORANO, Santa Ana
On the hot streets of Santa Ana with its dense Mexican population, it can be easy to feel transported to Mexico, especially when eating at a superb taqueria like Taqueria El Zamorano. This is the kind of treasure that one finds all over the great state of California with a population of millions of Mexicans (with over 50% Latino in LA county alone). Though excellent Mexican food is found everywhere in CA, the great taquerias stand above the rest.
Family-run El Zamorano is one of my tops in all of Orange County, pouring popular cucumber frescas (a little too sweet but refreshing) and grilling up tacos of every stripe — from authentic carnitas and fish tacos, to brain (sesos) and beef head (cabeza) tacos. This is one of the joys I can hardly stand to be without when I’ve lived away from California: Mexican food this authentic for merely a couple dollars.
SUSHI NOGUCHI, Yorba Linda
If you had told me a quality sushi spot existed in Yorba Linda, I might not have believed you. Otherwise a culinary wasteland (except for old school/dated but fun Southwestern at Blue Agave and good deli sandwiches at Stefano’s), this homogenized OC town of cookie cutter housing complexes and chains is one to pass through on the way to better eats elsewhere, where a more diverse demographic in other OC towns allows for at least a few good hole-in-the-walls.
But down the street from the home my husband grew up in and with some rave reviews from LA critics, I had to give Sushi Noguchi a try. After two visits, it’s clear this is a rare gem in the whole of OC. No, it’s not Japan or the US’ sushi bests but trying Jun’s Omakase ($45) or Hiro’s Omakase ($60-100 with sashimi and sushi), preparation and quality are far above the fried, over-sauced, Americanized rolls common at most OC sushi spots. Chef Hiro faithfully drives to LA each morning to select his fish, much of it from Japan.
Here, one can actually enjoy the purity of the fish itself — whether Japanese butterfish, needle fish, striped bonito or gizzard shad — in sashimi or nigiri form. There are some pleasing appetizers, like the dim sum-like steamed crab dumplings ($6.50) and A5 grade Myazaki Wagyu steak ($30), but most importantly, it’s as close to a more authentic sushi restaurant as one can find in the county.
THE NORTH LEFT, Santa Ana
The North Left in downtown Santa Ana is definitely a mixed bag. Service is accommodating and friendly and the offerings decidedly hipster, which is exhausted in major cities but is still a rarity in much of the county. The space, though marked with taxidermy and a couple other quirky, hipster touches, was a bit dark and uninviting, even in the bright light of day, and the food and cocktails were hit-and-miss, despite reading well on the menu.
Duck frisee salad ($12), graced with crouton, apple, bacon, egg and sherry, was a pleasant enough twist on a French classic, while the Rueben ($11), layered with Brussels sprouts sauerkraut, Dijon, Swiss cheese, and also a white cheddar and bacon-topped Bar Burger ($14), were both sadly mediocre, even bland (a word that should never be associated with a Rueben and burger).
Standouts came in the form of a starter and a side. Chicken nuggets ($11) in house BBQ and maple bourbon sauce stole the show, convincing me that North Left is best for drinks and a snack. A side of Brussels sprouts ($9), though typical, decadently hit the spot doused in lemon, butter, garlic, hazelnuts and Parmesan cheese.
Similarly, cocktails were not as artisanal as they sounded. Chester Copperpot ($11) mixing cinnamon-infused rum, ginger and citrus, bordered on too sweet. Gin Fuego ($11) — gin, citrus, harissa, cayenne — was not near as savory as one would hope with the barely-there harissa and cayenne. Northern Terroir ($12), despite the use of St. George’s Terroir Gin with sage, rosemary, lime, was not as herbaceous or balanced as similar cocktails I’ve had in countless other cities. Too bad, as some balance and experienced precision would have made for a simple-yet-gourmet cocktail menu. The better option was a daily special, the Peter Piper, mixing a seasonal house shrub with Aperol: a subtly bitter, vinegar-y refresher.