As I continue to call out OC food gems (more here) from a County I partly grew up in but one known more for its chain restaurant blandness and mall-mentality than its culinary gems here are a few more places worth seeking out in the endless, freeway-laced suburbs of LA.
PLAYGROUND, Santa Ana
Yes, I finally made it to Playground, one of the few OC restaurants (in addition to the delightful Taco Maria ) that draws LA critics way out to the ‘burbs. On one hand, it’s easily one of the best restaurants in Orange County. On the other, it’s equal to an average SF restaurant, to keep it all in perspective and the generic furniture and odd decor doesn’t help much either.
But as downtown Santa Ana continues to become one of OC’s most forward-thinking areas for food (across the street from Playground is 4th St. Market, which opened Feb. 2015, and is like the typical hipster food halls found in major cities even if not all the vendors’ food is strong but that inviting back patio is), Playground helped usher Santa Ana into the 21st century.
They offer a fantastic California craft beer list (with rarities on draft) and some of the better, more balanced cocktails in a county that still veers too sweet and imbalanced, even as it attempts “craft cocktail bars.” A cocktail standout at Playground is the balanced, layered Everlasting Gaze ($10), a low proof combination of Dolin Dry vermouth, Amaro Montenegro, Valdespino Fino Sherry and lemon, unfolding with a dry, bright nuttiness.
Jason Quinn and team turn out some memorable dishes like the dreamy (if heavily-dressed) Brussels sprouts Caesar ($12), tossed in a cornbread crumble, tortilla chips, radishes pickled jalapeno and cotija cheese and some less so, like the surprisingly bland signature dish, Uncle Lous fried chicken ($10/17), or yet another Kurobata pork belly on a steam bun ($5 each).
Other standouts included a self-described “French as fuck” Dungeness crab and pommes paillasson ($20), is essentially a twist on a classic salad Lyonnaise, here a mound of frisee laced with Granny Smith apples, brown butter brioche croutons, cornichons, fresh crab and pommes paillasson (crispy-soft potato cakes) with a centered egg yolk oozing over the dish. Dessert was another strength: a bright, sour Yuzu tart ($8) softened with coconut mousse, black sesame dusting and a lush coconut sorbet.
PIE DOG, Fullerton
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In my youthful days (age 18-22) living in Fullerton, there were cool vintage shops and some “wannabe cool” coffee houses and restaurants but these days it’s a stronger hub for local cheap eats in OC (more here).
Open since Feb. 2015, Pie Dog is another worthwhile stop for craft beer not the selection of Playground but strong beers on draft from around the US (and Belgium), with communal tables and order-at-counter ease (unfortunately, the wines are atrocious unless you like Kendall Jackson-type, grocery store wines strange there aren’t a couple thoughtful wines by bottle or on draft in keeping with the quality of the beer and food?)
Burgers and house dogs are the name of the game and there is plenty to love here. Ground steak burgers are a blend of sirloin and rib eye ($7-10), while sausages are made in-house. Their chicken wings are fun but onion rings are best ($2.50/$4), especially dipped in all those delightful house sauces, from a Mexican Coke BBQ sauce to Thomas Keller’s buttermilk Ranch dressing (yes, they get fancy like that).
I enjoyed the burgers, though with a Korean burger special, I could have used kimchi with an actual kick and some heat in that gochujang sauce. But sausages, like their namesake, Northern Italian-style pork sausage patty ($8) or the spicy-sweet Paq-Man ($8) Filipino pork sausage are what I would go back for.
PIZZA ORTICA, Costa Mesa
In the high rises and malls of Costa Mesa, Pizza Ortica may look like another chain restaurant and it is part of the Culinary Lab restaurant group behind LA biggies like Comme Ça and Hinoki & The Bird but it’s thankfully a welcome dining option near John Wayne airport (SNA), South Coast Repertory and other nearby theaters. Though Neapolitan pizza restaurants are ubiquitous across the country now, they aren’t so in OC and they do a fine job here of turning out blistered crust pies from the wood fired oven in Naples style, paired with, yes, another good craft beer menu and this time also a solid wine list.
While I enjoy the pizza ($13-20) and starters like Roman-style artichokes ($12), the surprising standouts lay with the house made pastas, like a hand-cut spinach tagliatelle ($17.50): earthy green noodles are heartwarming in a classic Bolognese sauce under a cloud of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.