Craft cocktails, tacos, coffee in the OC?
Over the holidays and family visits, I branched out to a few new spots, curious if massive, suburban Orange County finally is entering the gourmet realm long ago the standard in areas far less populated. Multiple visits a year (since the days I lived here) and an exceptional meal is still quite rare. Though I finally found one intriguing cocktail menu, a killer beer list, and a couple ambitious menus in these LA ‘burbs, execution still tastes miles behind LA or other great US food regions.
Santa Ana’s CHAPTER ONE sparked hope from its website menus and appearance as a “whole package” of food, cocktails and beer. The decor is an odd mix of sports bar and book-lined booths. In the bar, order rotating flights, like an Irish whiskey flight – I appreciate that they allow customers to choose four tastes out of a spirits list.
Cocktails sound overwrought with an odd mix of ingredients (though I still have to smile when I think of finding celery bitters used anywhere in Orange County), but after sampling four, balance is in play. I can’t say they are competitive with the great craft cocktails I’ve tasted around the world, but they are trying. Oddly enough, despite a laundry list of ingredients, Druid Divination worked best with its herbal, sweet, boozy blend of Knot Irish whiskey, Barsol pisco, muddled strawberry, thyme, basil, lemon juice, and sweet 15 year balsamic vinegar.
Impressive is Chapter One’s beers on draft list. They’ve got some interesting stuff like Uinta’s Dubhe Black Imperial IPA with chocolate bitters, or Craftsman’s meaty Acorn Saison, as well as unusual flights and a unique selection. With The Bruery open in Orange County in recent years (one of the county’s greatest spots), the area seems to be refining its beer palate.
On the food front, some dishes sounded better than they tasted, like smoked salmon jerked nachos, which were light on salmon and jerk seasoning; basically a few meager chips drizzled with citrus sour cream and tobiko (fish roe). Others worked: a tasty Moroccan chicken sandwich is piled high in pita bread with dots of cranberry aioli and a bowl of lentil salad. Then there’s an Asian-inflected, tempura-fried, panko-breaded fish & chips with wasabi Sriracha sour cream and a side of duck fat fries. The most intriguing entree is seared duck breast, rare and juicy over a (small) sweet potato waffle – a twist on chicken and waffles. Three sauces add layers to the dish: strawberry ginger kampot pepper sauce, bourbon maple syrup, and balsamic reduction.
An Elvis beer float ($9) made with Wells Banana Bread Beer, maple reduction, peanut butter ice cream and a Coke foam sounded like my dream dessert, but tasted odd, out of balance, and far too short on peanut butter or banana.
The food is promising if not fully realized, and the bar menu is better than most of what you’ll find in the entire county – hopefully a sign the OC may yet have a cocktail renaissance, if far behind much of the country. I appreciate the vision here, while service is warm and engaging. Call it one to watch.
Making the rounds in Costa Mesa, the shopping mecca of the OC (a county whose general hobby could be shopping with malls everywhere), I found a couple spots are worth mentioning. A funky outdoor “mall”, The Camp, reminiscent of nearby Lab anti-mall (a youthful hangout of mine), is a hipster haven of clothing and food. I’d deem it “trying too hard”.
In The Camp, TACO ASLYUM offers a fun beer selection and intriguing menu of funky tacos, but at $5-6 each, I left hungry and disappointed as tacos read better than they taste. I tried almost all: grilled octopus, pork belly, wild mushroom, lamb, ghost chili pork (dry and where are the listed cracklins?) Only three seemed worth it. Surprisingly, vegetarian curried paneer with raita and tomato chutney proved most flavorful, while duck with Camembert, Dijon creme fraiche and purple fingerling chips wins for “different”, and steak with chimichurri, buttermilk fried onions and potato hash is satisfying.
Also in The Camp, EAST/BOROUGH pleases with a Zen-like outdoor wood porch/patio, and easy take-out or eat-in Vietnamese menu of decent Vietnamese food, like Banh Mi, spring rolls, papaya salad, beef stew, vermicelli noodles, and Vietnamese coffee made with New Orleans’ Community Coffee. It’s not the quality of authentic Vietnamese you can find in nearby Westminster, but the outdoor setting and low prices make it a stop for the area.
A short drive away, OC finally has a third wave coffee haven, PORTOLA COFFEE LAB (inside yet another “mall”, of sorts). With siphons, V60s, and a Slayer espresso machine, they offer what West Coast cities from Seattle to San Francisco long ago set the standard in: robust, impeccably prepared coffee using the best equipment (that must be knowledgeably operated to extract the best coffee drinks), and roasting their own beans. You wait awhile for a cup, even more than I am used to for similar preparation. But us coffee snobs won’t find our fix elsewhere in the OC so just wait and enjoy the enclosed bar where you can watch drinks being made from all angles.