Wandering Traveler

Adirondack chairs outside at Costa Mesa's The Camp

Craft cocktails, tacos, coffee in the OC?

Promising cocktails

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.

Impressive beer flights

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.

Moroccan Chicken "Sandwich"

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.

Asian-inflected fish & chips

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.

Duck breast over sweet potato waffle

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.

Elvis beer float

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”.

Tacos at Taco Asylum

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.

East/Borough at The Camp

Also inĀ 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.

Portola Coffee Lab

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.

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Wandering Traveler


Glowing red lamps set the tone at A Restaurant

A RESTAURANT, Newport Beach - PCH-situated A Restaurant in Newport Beach oozes 1970’s, from its shingled roof, red and white exterior, and neon lighting, to its wood-paneled, red-boothed interior. But what shocks is its gourmet inclinations, and heartwarming, retro spirit sans kitsch.

Salads like Fig+Burratta ($13) showcase those two beauties over arugula with Marcona almond duck prosciutto and balsamic drizzle. Steaks, fish, chicken pot pie, strogonoff, the comfort is here, while ingredient quality is high.

I would never have seen a restaurant like this in Orange County in my growing up years or in my early 20’s. The fact that I am now is promising. Here, via photos, are a few highlights from my meal – I will certainly return. They have A Market next door selling gourmet goods, coffee, pastries and boxed lunches.

A Restaurant's fabulously modern/retro interior

Summer-redolent White Corn Soup ($12) w/ crisp bacon & roasted chili powder

Buttery Short Rib Grilled Cheese Sandwich w/ caramelized onions, served w/ house potato chips

$12-14 cocktails are better than much of what is in OC but still need work: cherries are of the nasty, fake kind in New Fashion (Old Fashioned w/ Maker's & St. Germain), while Cucumber Cilantro Margarita is thankfully not sweet but is imbalanced

Classic Steak Tartare ($16): hand-cut filet, truffle, tabasco, olive tapenade

Dreamy Butterscotch Pudding (and I'm not a pudding fan) w/ caramel & salted peanuts

STEFANO’S, Yorba Linda – My brother-in-law used to work at Stefano’s Golden Baked Hams long before it was the sandwich destination it has become. It’s shocking to eat anything this gourmet in Yorba Linda (and believe me, I’ve eaten all over that rich, white folks ‘burb). Yes, the quality of meat and ingredients is high, hams are superb, but sandwiches are hearty, huge, satisfying. Stefano’s makes a mean Cubano, loaded with their smoked ham, which tastes like Christmas, and tender, carnitas-style shredded pork, accented by pickles and plenty of mustard. After trying a few of these over the past few years, I’d vouch for most sandwiches here… and even a special seasonal salad loaded with Black Mission figs, peaches and plums.

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