How an O.C. food critic navigates takeout and drive-throughs during the pandemic
Before the pandemic, I regarded drive-throughs and takeout as afterthoughts, last resorts, the parts of eating out that, as a restaurant critic, I couldn’t really write about. But during the COVID-19 crisis, they were all there was. And though it’s a sad but necessary substitute for the full restaurant experience during scary times, there was, at least, the act of driving to get the takeout — a welcome distraction from the monotony of staying home.
Of course, there was the food itself.
But as it turned out, drive-throughs and takeout didn’t just provide these tastes of normalcy. They were valuable lifelines for me to patronize the eateries in need of my support, restaurants where I was a regular customer before the lockdown.
I still, however, did manage to explore and try a few new places, especially when I found they offered deals and discounts.
And I ate well. Some meals I took in front of the TV while binging Netflix, but most I ate in the car while the food was still hot. My glove compartment now rivals my silverware drawer in its collection of forks, spoons and chopsticks.
Starting a new restaurant is challenging under normal circumstances, especially with Orange County’s steep rent and depth of competition. But the addition of a pandemic has narrowed the odds of success even further.
Even now, as some restaurants have shifted outdoors with tents and started socially distanced indoor dining, I still find myself choosing to do takeout. Mostly it’s to save myself from asking that uncomfortable question of “Is this a good idea?” when sitting amongst groups of people. But partly it’s because doing takeout is cheaper, which, in turn, allows me to eat out more often and patronize more places.
Here are the best takeout meals I had and will continue to have until we find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic.
Banh Mi Che Cali for drive-through Vietnamese food
For years I was aware that Banh Mi Che Cali Restaurant — located next door to the smaller Banh Mi Che Cali housed in an old Taco Bell on Brookhurst — has a drive-through window. What I didn’t know until the lockdown is that it had everything I could ever expect from a full Vietnamese restaurant menu.
Yes, you can order pho from this drive-through.
Coupled with this is that the prices are one of the cheapest in Little Saigon. Almost nothing is over $8. The combination rice plate — with a grilled pork chop, Vietnamese egg cake, shredded pork skin, a side salad, pickles and an ambrosial fish sauce to dribble on everything — is enough to feed two.
There’s also fried rice, shaken beef, noodle salads, as well as the crusty baguette sandwiches of which this chain is renowned. But most impressive of all is the house special pho, which has more features than a fully loaded Tesla.
15553 Brookhurst St., Westminster, CA 92683
Big Parm for $1 pizza slices
For the remarkable price of $1, you can get a satisfying triangle of molten cheese, sauce and pepperoni that beats the Costco food court pizza not only on taste but on cost, which is really saying something.
Andrew Gruel of Slapfish, who’s behind this food court stall inside Mess Hall at Flight in Tustin, seems to have instituted this price drop to cater to the lunchtime crowd of cube-dwellers from this sparsely populated office park. The low prices are also fodder for guests of Flight’s popular drive-in movie nights.
Since I started eating them, the $1 slices have since shrunk to a twelfth of a large pizza rather than an eighth, but it’s still a good deal for a pie of this quality.
1705 Flight Way #2, Tustin, CA 92782
Cafe Hiro for the menchi katsu weekday lunch special
Weekdays at lunchtime is the ideal time to go for takeout at Café Hiro. This popular Japanese/Italian hybrid specializes in washoku, Western food as seen through a Japanese lens. But weekdays are the only time you can order the menchi katsu lunch special.
It’s a ball of seasoned ground beef that’s been breaded and deep-fried. Imagine a juicy hamburger patty crossbred with an onion ring, eaten with a zippy tonkatsu sauce and a bracing hot mustard.
Along with proving that a meatloaf is better when it’s crunchy on the outside, the dish also shows that you can’t have too much starch on one plate. It comes with not one but three kinds: a warm scalloped potato, some sort of pasta and steamed rice. Also included: a salad, shredded cabbage and a free dessert that you don’t get if you dine in.
10509 Valley View St., Cypress, CA 90630
Grill City for Filipino breakfasts
Grill City’s silog is a meal I’ve enjoyed before the pandemic, during the shutdown and will continue to enjoy for as long as there is a Grill City. It’s the Filipino answer to the American bacon and egg breakfast, a portmanteau of two words: sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (fried egg), served with a protein of your choice. The best protein is tocino, a cured pork product cut from the fattiest parts of the pig with a ruddy color of Chinese char siu and a taste somewhere between beef jerky and barbecued baby back rib.
And if you take advantage of their buy three silogs for $12.99 special, you’ve effectively secured six meals, because each Styrofoam box contains enough food to feed you twice over.
2180 Barranca Pkwy., Irvine, CA 92606
Misoya Rockin’ Sushi for hoedoebap
If poke, chirashi and bibimbap entered a teleportation machine and got merged molecularly, you’d get Misoya’s hoedoebap.
Think of a poke bowl but spicier, sweeter and more garlicky. Picture chirashi but with crunchy vegetables. Imagine the Korean sesame-oil scented aroma of a bibimbap but with chilled pieces of raw fish instead of beef. Hoedoepbap is all these things together, and at this Korean-owned sushi joint, it seems to be on permanent special for $7.99, which, I don’t have to tell you, is cheaper than most chirashis, pokes and bibimbaps.
8893 W Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, CA 92844
Sabrosada for carne asada nachos
The first bite from Sabrosada’s carne asada half nachos is always the best. You feel the sturdy corn crunch of the freshly fried tortilla chips reverberate through your skull. Your tongue is warmed by the refried beans. Then you taste the beefiness of the pencil-eraser morsels of seasoned carne asada.
Next there’s the color bursts: the bright green goo of the guacamole, the yellow shredded cheese, the snowy sour cream, the tricolored pico de gallo. Even if you were blindfolded, the kaleidoscope of flavors unfurls in your mouth. It’s synesthesia at its most delicious.
When so many things right now don’t make sense, this drive-through Styrofoam box of nachos does. Lining up is an easy-going experience. The queue moves at a steady clip. The employees are courteous and professional, working hard to ensure the food is prepared fast and tastes as good as you had it last time. But you do want just the “half order” of nachos. The only difference I can tell between the half and full seems to be the price.
17225 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Tokyo Central for discounted bento boxes after 7 p.m.
Seven p.m. is the golden hour at Tokyo Central. It’s when this Japanese supermarket marks down all remaining inventory of their bentos and sushi boxes with a 20% discount. Consider yourself lucky if you see a few boxes of delicately cooked salmon steaks atop fried rice with an immaculately curated array of side dishes.
But if you’re here for discounted karaage, or actual nigiri and sashimi, forget it. They never make it past the lunch rush. It speaks to the quality of the food that customers snap them up even before the clearance sale starts.
2975 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Zankou Chicken for kabob combos
I’d eat Zankou’s kabob combo plate every day if I could. In its Styrofoam box is everything you need in a Middle Eastern meal. There’s karmic balance in its components. Every texture, taste and temperature complement each other so that not one thing dominates. And on the shish taouk, the marinade doesn’t overwhelm the essence of the chicken — it elevates it.
Eat it as you smoosh the roasted tomato into the fluffy rice, releasing a torrent of juice that almost turns it into an entirely new dish.
Together with the cucumber salad that plays against the silken hummus and condiments that include Zankou’s famous toum, radish pickles and sliced onions, everything on this plate exists in perfect harmony — even as the world remains in chaos.
2424 W Ball Road, Anaheim, CA 92804
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