Say what you will about the culinary landscape in Orange County: It may be home to strip malls packed with chain restaurants, but it's also where the artisanal food hall scene is taking off like nowhere else in California.
Angelenos may not think twice about driving from East Pasadena to Venice Beach for a pastry. A trip down the 5 Freeway to Orange County for lunch? Not likely. But a new wave of food halls that have opened in the O.C. over the last five years should have people planning trips to the area, in search of many things from an excellent beef dip sandwich to Fanny Bay oysters to tacos.
Here's a look at the food halls making Orange County suburbia a dining destination.
The OC Mix in SoCo in Costa Mesa
Burnham Ward Properties bought what was the South Coast Home Furnishings Center in 2009 and turned it into a destination for all things food, fashion and design. In its current state, it's not impossible to spend an entire day roaming around, grazing on cheese, chocolate chip cookies and waffles. Maybe start with a coffee and a pastry, buy a couch before lunch, learn what all the fuss is about at a restaurant named one of the best in Southern California, restock your bar, try on a couple of vintage dresses, then stick around for dinner and dessert. "For tenants, we look for unique crafters and creators, artists who use food as a their canvas," said Anais Tangie, marketing coordinator for the shopping center.
Don't miss: Anything and everything on the menu at chef Carlos Salgado's Taco Maria. The restaurant has been lauded by many; Jonathan Gold had it as No. 2 on his 101 Best Restaurants list last year. There might be posole with abalone on the prix-fixe menu one night and a smoked sturgeon taco the next. There's also Sunday brunch.
Sip this: Coffee from Portola and anything you can make with tools from the Mixing Glass. Portola is Orange County's answer to the hipster coffee culture in Los Angeles. Each drink comes with a story behind the beans and is brewed to order. The Mixing Glass is where you'll find everything you need to make an excellent cocktail, including tools, glassware, spirits and bitters.
Must Instagram: The grilled cheese sandwich from Shuck Oyster Bar. It's listed on the menu as "cheese. butter. love." And yes, it's that simple. Gooey cheese and buttery, crisp bread make for a great photo — try to get someone to pull the sandwich apart for some major cheese stretch action. You should probably also order some oysters, and bring your own bottle of wine (no corkage!).
Info: 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, www.shoptheocmix.com
4th Street. Market in Santa Ana
This food hall, which opened in February 2015, is supposed to serve as a culinary incubator for up-and-coming restaurateurs and chefs, as well as a place to get a good meal. And in addition to the restaurant stalls, there's East End Incubator Kitchens, which has small kitchen spaces for rent. "Our goal is to have someone start in our East End Kitchens, at some point grow into a mini restaurant and then have a brick-and-mortar somewhere," said Ryan Chase, the developer behind the market. Chase also said it was important to keep the market "community-centric" by seeking out independent operators. "I want to say at least 90% are either born [or] raised in Santa Ana," said Chase. These vendors offer a mix of cuisines: a pizza place, a Vietnamese stall, an eclectic taco-maker and a stall devoted to all things pork.
Don't miss: The Pho French dip banh mi sandwich from Sit Low Pho. It's a big, comforting bowl of brisket pho you can eat with your hands, in sandwich form. Thick slices of Angus brisket are layered on a baguette with all the typical pho accouterments, including herbs and jalapeos; the sandwich is served alongside a bowl of pho broth for dipping.
Sip this: A nice glass of wine, one of six craft beers on tap or a house-made soda from Recess, the bar at the market, run by the folks behind Playground restaurant in Santa Ana.
Must Instagram: The spaghetti and meatball pizza from Jinny's. If there was ever a dish made specifically to be shared via social media, this is it. It's a cheese pizza topped with bits of meatball and full strands of spaghetti, cheese and tomato sauce. So carbs on top of carbs, plus cheese and a little bit of meat. Yes, it's as good as it sounds.
Info: 201 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, www.4thstreetmarket.com
Lot 579 at Pacific City in Huntington Beach
At sunset, even during the week, it's not uncommon to find couples sitting outside watching the coastline or families playing ping-pong or foosball in the middle of the shopping center, which opened in 2015. The $135-million project, developed by DJM Capital Partners, is quieter and a bit more upscale than Main Street just a few blocks away. There's also an impressive food hall called Lot 579 in one corner and a couple restaurants throughout. "We were looking for a special alchemy of food and beverage concepts that would reflect the adventurous, beach- and surf-inspired spirit of Huntington Beach," said Linda Berman, chief marketing officer at DJM Capital Partners. There's a restaurant that specializes in oysters, a fish market with a view of the ocean, an ice cream parlor whose original location opened in the O.C. in 1972 and a sandwich shop that puts spaghetti in its grilled cheese.
Don't miss: Bear Flag Fish Co. (the original location is in Newport Beach). It's a fresh fish market and restaurant with a view of the ocean. This is where you can have poke for lunch, then buy salmon steaks to take home to cook for dinner. There's usually a line, so expect to wait a bit.
Sip this: Champagne at Petals & Pop. It's a flower shop that happens to serve Champagne. You can buy a flower arrangement, check out some cookbooks and gifts in the back, then cap the afternoon shopping with some bubbly — served in a vintage coupe glass.
Must Instagram: The Southern fried chicken sandwich from Burnt Crumbs is everything you want from a fried chicken dinner, but on a sandwich. There's a house-made biscuit, Sriracha honey, country gravy, a garlic mashed potato spread and, of course, crispy fried chicken. (Make sure you get a shot of the honey dripping over the chicken and onto the biscuit.) There's also a spaghetti grilled cheese that involves spaghetti in red sauce and mozzarella on sourdough bread. #whoa.
Info: 21010 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, www.gopacificcity.com/lot-579
Anaheim Packing House
Here you'll find more than 20 food and drink vendors packed into a century-old former Sunkist packing plant. The 42,000-square-foot, sun-drenched space offers both indoor and outdoor communal seating, clerestory windows, barn-style sliding doors and greenery hanging from the ceiling. The food hall, which opened in 2014, was developed by Shaheen Sadeghi, president and founder of Costa Mesa-based LAB Holding, who also created the Costa Mesa "anti-malls" the Lab and the Camp. He says the goal in curating vendors, which includes a mix of Asian, Middle Eastern, Southern and Latin food, was to create a place that represented the diversity of cultures found in the city of Anaheim. "We love the fact that this is a completely international selection of culinary arts," said Sadeghi. "We are also strong believers of the fact that communities today want to do things within their own neighborhood."
Don't miss: The prime rib dip sandwich from Kroft. It's basically your classic French dip sandwich on flavor steroids. A French roll is slathered with hot horseradish mayo, a layer of jammy, sweet caramelized onions and ribbons of thinly sliced prime rib. You're given an option to add cheese (do it). And, yes, the sandwich comes with a cup of jus for dipping.
Sip this: A cocktail from the Blind Rabbit, a speakeasy inside the market. (Seriously, there's a secret entrance.) Once inside, you're in a small, dimly lighted room with the equivalent of a mad scientist behind the bar (maybe co-owner Robert Adamson or another member from his team). Ask for something flaming and you may be presented a cocktail made with a little rum, pineapple juice and vanilla — and a sprinkle of cinnamon that's lighted on fire so that it sparkles in the dark.
Must Instagram: The K2 from Pandor Bakery. It's named after Mt. Godwin-Austen in the northern part of Kashmir, the second-highest mountain in the world, for good reason. A doughnut-croissant hybrid is sliced into several pieces and piled high with layers of sweet custard, whipped cream, sliced bananas and strawberries, a hazelnut chocolate spread, Lucky Charms marshmallows and Fruity Pebbles cereal. It's topped with powdered sugar -- because why not?
Info: 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, www.anaheimpackingdistrict.com
Union Market at the District in Tustin
To get to Union Market, you must first find your way through the District, a giant shopping center that is more or less its own city, complete with a Whole Foods market, a Costco and a movie theater. Because of its retail surroundings, Union Market, which opened in 2014, may feel like just another food court until you take a closer look. The market is run by Andrea Young and her husband, Russell, the couple who helped open the original OC Mart Mix in Costa Mesa (now OC Mix). So that Italian restaurant isn't a Sbarro, it's a restaurant cooking pasta to order called Market 2 Plate. The sandwich shop isn't a Subway, it's an outlet of Kroft — and it makes its own porchetta. And that ice cream shop actually churns its ice cream on the spot, hence the name Churned.
Don't miss: Sliders from Hatch. This is the new sliders restaurant and tiki bar from chef Leonard Chan (he's the man behind the Iron Press restaurants in Orange County). You can customize your slider or choose from a rotating list of special sliders. Some of the options include duck, fried oysters, rum-braised pork and meatloaf. And to drink: tiki-style fruity cocktails.
Sip this: An espresso from Portola coffee or a milk-and-cookie shot from the Dirty Cookie. A cookie in the shape of a shot glass with a chocolate-coated center serves as a glass for ice-cold milk. Depending on the day, you can order matcha sesame, red velvet, chocolate chip and cookies and cream cookie shot glasses.
Must Instagram: A CroCream from Churned Creamery. It's an ice cream sandwich, only instead of a cookie, the ice cream is served on a croissant. So flaky, buttery croissants are split open and stuffed with an ice cream flavor of your choice and three toppings. It's as magical as it sounds.
Info: 2493 Park Ave., Tustin, www.unionmarkettustin.com
Union Market Mission Viejo
Mission Viejo, with its wide roads and tract houses, can feel like the epitome of suburbia. That's exactly why the Youngs, the same couple behind Union Market in Tustin, decided to develop a food hall in the area. "We chose both Tustin and Mission Viejo because we knew we could offer the surrounding communities a shopping experience that they didn't currently have," said Andrea. This Union Market location is designed as a place to just hang out. On a recent visit, most of a Little League team and the players' families sat at a table in the middle of the market, eating a couple of pizzas, while the rest of the team cheered on a ping-pong match nearby. If you're looking for somewhere to take the family, this is it. It's also where you'll find artisanal boba milk tea, great hummus, shabu shabu and a full bar.
Don't miss: A poke bowl from Diced Bowl. This is one of those build-your-own-poke-bowl restaurants. Maybe you want kale, maybe you want rice; if you want spicy tuna, shrimp and albacore, you can do that too. Then add everything from ponzu sauce to chopped mango as toppings.
Sip this: A boba milk tea from Milk Box. This is not your average boba teahouse. The milk teas (think Earl Grey lavender) are made with Organic Valley lactose-free milk or Califia Farms almond milk and sweetened with house-made simple syrup.
Must Instagram: The Hamshuka bowl from Hummus Bowl. It's a bowl of the restaurant's signature hummus (a bit grainier than most, with little bits of chickpea throughout) topped with spicy shakshuka sauce (often spicy, chunky tomato sauce) and an egg. It's both hearty and beautiful.
Info: 27741 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo, www.unionmarketmissionviejo.com
Coming soon: Trade in Irvine
A new food hall being developed by the Lincoln Property Co. is scheduled to open on Michelson Drive, just a block from John Wayne Airport, this fall. When it opens, the 9,000-square-foot food hall will include a full-service bar, indoor/outdoor communal dining and eight food concepts. "This is the first food hall that will be in a centralized residential and business district," said Parke Miller, senior vice president of the Lincoln Property Co. Andrew Gruel, the founder and executive chef of Slapfish, the food truck turned brick-and-mortar restaurants, is developing two concepts there, including Two Birds (specializing in grilled and fried chicken) and Butterleaf (a plant-based concept). You can also expect a sandwich shop called the Sandwich Company. 2222 Michelson Drive, Irvine, www.2222trade.com