A Love-Ate Relationship With Orange County

On a flight back from the Pacific Northwest recently, I realized that I travel to Seattle more often than I do to Los Angeles.

Maybe that's because I don't get complimentary nuts when I drive to L.A., or because, as big cities go, I prefer one where the aim of its drive-by shooters is thrown off by the coffee jitters. Plus, it makes me laugh to wake up in a town with a Space Needle. I wish we had one.

Back in my late high school and college days (I wonder, do the bongs and bell-bottoms of the early '70s seem as quaint to kids now as ukuleles and raccoon coats did to us?), I used to think nothing of driving up to L.A. two or three times a week. The music clubs and concert halls, the movie houses showing Fellini flicks, the bookstores, the exotic restaurants, the Sunset Strip Tower Records jammed with weird imports--these were irresistible lures given the relative dearth of such things around here.

Now, I scarcely get up there two or three times a year. Some of that must be due to time and age. Twenty years ago the 7 p.m. traffic to L.A. was about as light as it is at 3 a.m. now. And I certainly was less sedentary then, more willing to get enthused. I'd take the Fury III wagon to Hollywood and camp out all night on the sidewalk in front of the Roxy to get tickets for a band I liked. Now I hardly could be bothered driving up there if they were going to give me my own star on Hollywood Boulevard.

I love to knock Orange County. It's one of the reasons I live here. But I won't stand for O.C. to be put down by outsiders in that sprawling, smoggy, smug, heartless, too-hip, hey-jerk-I'm-waving-my-cellular-phone-at-you-so-get-outta-my-lane town north of us across the county line. And, that said of La Mirada, I've got to say it goes double for L.A.

I like a city with a personality and a sense of community, with foot traffic and food smells and buskers and street artists and surprises and pulsing life, and Los Angeles is nothing but a bunch of anxious people driving around with their windows rolled up.

I can't actually say much better of Orange County on the whole, except that at least we don't have to drive to get here. This place seems immune from developing a sense of community, no matter how much city planners seem to think that slapping up more dull Spanish-style shopping centers will do the trick.

Fortunately, living here, we don't have to regard this place "on the whole" but have the leisure to ferret out the delightful exceptions that do spring up here, like wildflowers on a scorched hillside.

So, for a change, I'd like to sing the praises of a few of my favorite county hangouts, the places I like to frequent and to which I send visiting friends when they ask how I can possibly stand to live here.

I like food, and for my money, all $72.43 of it, the best restaurant in the county is Issay in Newport Beach. It's on Old Newport Boulevard in a funky old transplanted beach house with a rare atmosphere of warmth and lightness to it, which offsets the wonderfully rich sauces of Chef Paulo Pestarino. Looking a bit like a Northern Italian Dave Edmunds, Pestarino is a sauce monster , even finding ways to make me like asparagus, which, typically, I wouldn't feed to a vole. He does something with seafood, both baking and sauteing it, that turns bites of fish into little clouds of heaven.

Regrettably, Issay has been discovered by the rich, and one often has to vie for parking with all the BMWs and Mercedeses out front, but that hasn't changed the warm mood or reasonable prices of the place, so dine there and thank me with every bite.

No less wonderful, but farther from my home, is the Black Sheep Bistro in Tustin. The original owners, Tom and Maribeth Harrison, are two of my favorite people on Earth, the type of hosts who would keep you in their place after-hours to kick back with a bottle of wine and discuss old black-and-white movies.

I worried when they sold the restaurant several years ago, but fortunately it went to their similarly minded friends Rick and Diana Bouffard, and the Black Sheep remains one of the most original and hospitable eateries around. They recently held a 10-year anniversary at the place, and it was everything one might hope from a party. It had wine-driven conversations running both hilarious and deep, and exquisite food--including a paella with prawns that could star in their own Japanese monster movie--offset by huge cardboard chili dogs taped to the walls, a prank calling card left earlier in a guerrilla raid by fellow restaurateur Pascal Olhats.

I live in Costa Mesa and feel luckily situated when it comes to restaurants in walking distance. One of my favorite places, Taco Mesa on 19th Street, is no great secret considering the lines the place gets. It's probably the widest customer mix you'll find in the county, with day laborers, business suits, surfers, teen bohemians and others lining up for the great Mexican seafood specials, tacos al pastor and a killer banana and goat-milk cheesecake.

Situated in a former Taco Bell building, the place is the antithesis of the McDonald's next door, and it pleases me to no end that it appears to do far more business. And, unlike their corporate neighbors, the counter people remember the names of their regulars and, no matter how big the line, they are never so pressured they can't bother being cordial and funny.

I'm also very partial to Super Pollo, adjacent to the Costa Mesa Tower Records, where they do broiled chicken so wonderfully garlicky that your breath will erase vampire movie videos. I think they also do the best fish tacos in the county. The hard-working chef is also the owner, and I like that too.

The place I've been dining the most lately is La Con, a new Thai place in the Costa Mesa Courtyards. Its food-court location would lead you to expect a fast-food/takeout operation, but it's a fairly plush affair, with nice people, a solid spicy menu and some great specials, such as a dessert made of taro root with a taste that reminds me of pecan pie. Unlike these other restaurants, La Con is still largely undiscovered, so give it a try so it can prosper and I can keep eating there.

I swear I do more than eat, though I guess the rest of what I like about O.C.--the music, culture, swap meets, etc.--will have to wait for a future column.

I suspect there's even a good deal more going on than I know about. Maybe it's a result of getting older. Maybe it's that we all seem to be working harder to stay afloat, but there's a lot that's passing me by. The nice thing about restaurants is that they tend to stay put, while all these other events are whizzing past.

Those 15 movies I've been meaning to get to the theater to see--are they showing on cable yet? Is that the Cirque du Soleil in town or is South Coast Plaza just tenting for vermin? Don't ask me. I just live here.

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