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What to eat now: Sarah Bennett’s favorite Orange County dishes

Sometimes the most important food experiences are the simplest ones — a bowl of fried baby anchovies, an exquisitely smoked piece of meat, a succulent cactus sorbet.

After an upbringing that forced me to treat most food as mere sustenance, I find myself chasing moments like these, the ones that remind me that simplicity does not exclude nuance, that flavor does not forget culture, that fresher always feels better.

I’ve been fortunate enough to find experiences like these and more over the past year or so, ever since I started rediscovering the local food and drink scene for TimesOC.

I admit, it had been more than a decade since I lived in the Orange Circle, loading up at Watson’s for breakfast and Felix’s for dinner, enjoying steaming bowls of pho in Garden Grove and tacos from the silver trucks that line Santa Ana’s streets in between.

And in the time since, it’s been amazing to see that so much more is blossoming here, from food halls stocked with the latest original concepts to colorful, Instagram-ready late-night desserts to young, highly pedigreed chefs from all backgrounds opening sit-down restaurants that defy the county’s previous fine dining rules.

No longer is upscale South County the only place supplying destination eats as people are awakening to the fact that you don’t have to go to a hotel, golf course or country club to savor some of the most creative cooking in O.C.

As in neighboring L.A., the top restaurants right now aren’t bothering to perpetuate the fancy French food of yore, or bank on its local extension, California cuisine. Instead, it’s the culinary traditions of the region’s rich immigrant communities — Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Filipino and more — that are changing the face of O.C. food, both through second-generation chefs and, in many cases, the immigrants themselves.

These are the stories I love to tell each week, the ones about the visionary people and places that are making Orange County one of the most interesting regions in the country to be eating right now.

Over the past 15 months, I’ve been taking note of a few of the new dishes that solidified this truth for me, menu items that are not so much the best (though they are definitely great!) as they are simple and yet complex, reflective of the larger trends and histories that shaped them.

From crawfish macaroni and cheese to Mexican sushi, these are the most important dishes that landed in O.C. in the past year.

Alta Baja Market’s botana

Delilah Snell helped start Santa Ana’s first farmers’ market more than a decade ago and has since been one of the city’s biggest advocates for local, sustainable food. At her Alta Baja Market, a small menu of dine-in dishes shows off seasonal frittatas and loaded toasts. But it’s the most basic-sounding menu item that showcases what Alta Baja does best: a botana (snack) of cucumber, radishes and avocado, dosed with a pile of chile-lime nuts and covered in hot sauce. Read more about Alta Baja Market.

Alta Baja Market's bontana is the epitome of owner Delilah Snell's vision for locally sourced snacks.
Alta Baja Market's bontana is the epitome of owner Delilah Snell's vision for locally sourced snacks. (Meg Strouse)

Anepalco’s huitlacoche ice cream

When most of us dream of huitlacoche — that earthy purple corn fungus found seasonally in Mexican cooking — it’s smashed among ribbons of gooey Oaxacan cheese between the folds of a hand-patted, bruise-blue corn tortilla. When Danny Godinez dreams of those same huitlacoche quesadillas, he instead sees a dessert. More about his creations at Anepalco.

Chef Danny Godinez's modern take on Mexican includes a dessert dish of huitlacoche ice cream, inspired by the street food in Mexico City.
Chef Danny Godinez's modern take on Mexican includes a dessert dish of huitlacoche ice cream, inspired by the street food in Mexico City. (Niyaz Pirani)

Bagels & Brew’s rainbow bagel

From grilled cheese to muffins to Frappuccinos, 2016 was the year that food went full unicorn — that is, becoming a hyper-color psychedelic swirl of its former self. Read more about Bagels & Brew.

The brightly colored rainbow bagel is made daily by twirling together various dyed doughs at Bagels & Brew.   (Photo by Meg Strouse)
The brightly colored rainbow bagel is made daily by twirling together various dyed doughs at Bagels & Brew. (Photo by Meg Strouse) (Meg Strouse / Weekend)

Burritos La Palma’s burritos

The burritos at the original Burritos La Palma in El Monte are so legendary that food critics and fans have multiple times dubbed it L.A.’s best taco. Now the one-time food truck has opened its second location in Santa Ana, where you can get one of their famous burritos filled with the dense, signature, filling, birria de res, and buy a pack of their equally as famous flour tortillas. More about Burritos La Palma.

Burritos La Palma's Zacateca-style namesake is so legendary that it's been voted one of L.A.'s best tacos.
Burritos La Palma's Zacateca-style namesake is so legendary that it's been voted one of L.A.'s best tacos. (Meg Strouse)

Corner Jip’s Korean-style fried chicken

Korean fried chicken is not your average bucket of Popeye’s slop. And Buena Park is not your average Koreatown. Corner Jip opened last year away from the epicenter of new-wave KTown, but it’s still one of the best places in O.C. to experience chimaek, a portmanteau of a Seoul-started dining trend that combines the Korean words for chicken and beer. Here’s how.

Corner Jip makes Korean-style twice-fried chicken and serves pitchers of beer for a Seoul-started experience known as chimaek.
Corner Jip makes Korean-style twice-fried chicken and serves pitchers of beer for a Seoul-started experience known as chimaek. (Meg Strouse)

Irenia’s Filipino dilis

The instructions for making traditional Filipino dilis are simple: Take a bunch of tiny anchovies, dry them, then fry them. At Irenia, Orange County’s contribution to the modern Filipino food movement, this appetizer delivers on its purest luxuries. Dive into the experience.

Dried and fried anchovies are a beloved Filipino snack, served exquisitely at Irenia with a pungent infused vinegar for dipping.
Dried and fried anchovies are a beloved Filipino snack, served exquisitely at Irenia with a pungent infused vinegar for dipping. (Meg Strouse)

Palapas Marisqueria & Sushi’s Mexican sushi

At the new Palapas Marisqueria & Sushi on Tustin Street in Orange, Mexican sushi is technically an afterthought to the ceviches, aguachiles, hot waitresses and live banda music. Yet, its Palapas Roll embodies all that is holy about the style. Read about the beef, chicken, shrimp, crab, cream cheese and two kinds of chiles rolled in nori and rice then deep fried and covered with ponzo and chipotle aoli.

Mexican sushi is a mash-up of food traditions that rolls everything from shrimp to chicken to carne asada into sauce-slathered, deep-fried rolls.
Mexican sushi is a mash-up of food traditions that rolls everything from shrimp to chicken to carne asada into sauce-slathered, deep-fried rolls. (Meg Strouse)

Puesto’s nopal sorbet

On your first trip to O.C.’s new Puesto, which is the only restaurant in Irvine that will change the way you think about Mexican street food, it’s okay to start with dessert first. That’s because dessert here is actually a palate-cleansing bowl of nopal sorbet and a shot of Oaxacan mezcal. More about that sorbet and Puesto’s house specialties.

Puesto's nopal sorbet, made from the meat of desert cactus, is best when savored with a shot of mezcal.
Puesto's nopal sorbet, made from the meat of desert cactus, is best when savored with a shot of mezcal. (Meg Strouse)

SeaSalt Woodfire Grill’s tri-tip

The year-old SeaSalt Woodfire Grill is the only restaurant in O.C. brave enough to tackle Santa Maria-style barbecue — a tradition that goes back to the days when the central coast was still Spanish cowboy territory — and they’ve executed it so perfectly, even Santa Maria natives are stunned. Here’s more about this authentic Santa Maria meal.

SeaSalt Woodfire Grill is the only restaurant in O.C. brave enough to tackle Santa Maria-style barbecue, which cooks tri-tip over temperamental oak logs.
SeaSalt Woodfire Grill is the only restaurant in O.C. brave enough to tackle Santa Maria-style barbecue, which cooks tri-tip over temperamental oak logs. (Meg Strouse)

Vegan Corner: Four O.C. spots that think differently about vegan dining

Eating animal-free doesn’t have to mean only noshing on salads, juices and other vegetable-loaded clichés — though vegetables are, of course, delicious. From raw fried rice to avocado tacos, here are four native O.C. spots that think differently about vegan dining.

Vegan cocktails at Cafe Gratitude in Newport Beach.
Vegan cocktails at Cafe Gratitude in Newport Beach. (Meg Strouse)

The Wharf’s crawfish macaroni and cheese

Crayfish, crawfish or crawdaddies — no matter what you call the juice-filled freshwater lobsters — they’re a popular by-the-pound order at the dozens of Vietnamese-owned seafood boil spots across Orange County. The Wharf — a new-wave Asian Cajun in downtown Garden Grove — will throw a hearty helping of it into a skillet with gooey gruyere and pasta shells like you’ve always been deserving of such luxury. Read more about this and other delicacies.

The Wharf's crawfish macaroni and cheese is a luxurious blend of gruyere, pasta shells and buttery crawfish tail meat.
The Wharf's crawfish macaroni and cheese is a luxurious blend of gruyere, pasta shells and buttery crawfish tail meat. (Meg Strouse)

Wok N Tandoor’s Szechuan fries

At Orange’s Wok N Tandoor, an express version of the Artesia sit-down sister restaurant of the same name, you can eat your way through some of the best snacky chaat in the region. And there’s the shareable, forkable Szechuan fries, a heap of ordinary crinkle-cut fries tossed in a Silk Road’s worth of sweet and spicy sauce. Read more about this adventure in Indo-Chinese cuisine.

The forkable Szechuan fries at Wok N Tandoor are a delicious example of what happens when Indo-Chinese cuisine lands in O.C.
The forkable Szechuan fries at Wok N Tandoor are a delicious example of what happens when Indo-Chinese cuisine lands in O.C. (Meg Strouse)

SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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