THE "EATING OUT CAN BE FUN" GUIDE TO
RESTAURANTS IN ORANGE COUNTY
University of California, Irvine
?A Wuffle is Permanent Assistant to Professor, School of Social Sciences, University of California,
Irvine. In a much earlier incarnation, as a student, he authored (under a pseudonym) the restaurant
reviews in the Chicago sections of Where the Fun Is: West of the Mississippi (Simon and Schuster) and Student Travel in America (Pyramid). His food-tasting skills were honed during the 1985-86 season as
restaurant-critic-in-residence at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford.
Among his many non-culinary works are "Mo Fiorina's Advice to Children and other Subordinates,"
Mathematics Magazine, Vol. 52, No. 5 (November 1979), 292-297, "Finagle's Law and the Finagle
Point" (coauthored with Guillermo Owen, Amihai Glazer, and Bernard Grofman), American Journal of
Political Science, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1989, "Uncle Wuffle's Advice to the Advanced Graduate Student," PS,
December 1989, "Uncle Wuffle's Advice to the Beginning Assistant Professor," PS, March, 1993, "A Corollary to the Third Axiom of General Semantics," Journal of Theoretical Politics, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1992, and "The Compleat Guide to Exercise without Leaving Bed" (available in brown paper wrapper).
Orange County is like the proverbial "elephant viewed by the three blind men": perceptions depend on what part of the county you happen to touch. If you drive along Harbor Boulevard south of Disneyland, you might think that Orange County consists entirely of used recreational vehicle dealers, tacky motels, and drive-in taco chains. If you drive through some parts of the county you would see acre upon seemingly endless acre of tract homes, each development a walled-in enclave--suggesting that the county is a homogeneous "fortress-suburbia." If you go to Newport Beach, on the coast, with its vast yacht marina, you might think of the county as a summer playground of the rich (as it was portrayed in Raymond Chandler mysteries of the 1940s). If you drive along the coast on Pacific Coast Highway to Huntington Beach, you might think you'd arrived at the legendary "Surf City," where everyone wore wet suits and all cars came factory-equipped with an overhead rack on which to store your surfboard if not in use.
Because there's so much wealth in the county (especially in the coastal areas), there are lots of trendy but excellent restaurants, serving fresh seafood, pasta and California cuisine, that cater to that wealth. (California cuisine draws its inspiration from nouvelle cuisine and is characterized by stir-fried fresh exotic vegetables and artistic display of food on the plate. Indeed, in some Orange County restaurants the preparation is so elegant that the food is better to look at than to eat.) But restaurant lovers visiting Orange County have an even better reason to rejoice than the ready availability of kiwi fruit tarts. The growing ethnic populations in the county support many authentic ethnic restaurants. Thus, for the venturesome, eating out in Orange County can be a lot of fun. Popular perceptions do not reflect the census figures relating
to the growing ethnic diversity in the county, especially the influx of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees and the continuing growth of the county's Hispanic population. Santa Ana, one of the largest cities in the county, is over 50 percent Hispanic; there is an area of Westminster known as "Little Saigon," and dozens of Vietnamese restaurants have opened up in the past decade; while Chinese acupuncturists and herbalists are almost as common as drugstores in the neighborhood shopping centers of some central Orange County cities.
I have identified restaurants first by city and then by type of restaurant. Unless otherwise stated, restaurant prices are inexpensive to moderate. I've focused on restaurants in Newport Beach and Irvine within easy driving range of UCI, in the charming city of Laguna Beach, as well as in the largest shopping mall area --South Coast Plaza, Crystal Court, and South Coast Village in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. I've also listed restaurants in Anaheim (Disneyland), Westminster and Garden Grove (just south of Disneyland) and in Orange (just east of Disneyland), and I've also listed other parts of the county where visitors might be likely to travel, e.g., San Juan Capistrano, home of the Mission to which the swallows fly.
Note: Many of the restaurants I recommend are tucked away in rather ugly shopping centers.
One other note: Restaurants that are starred (*) are ones I think worth a special trip, but I haven't listed any restaurant that I wouldn't recommend.
Table of Contents
Geographic Area Page
I. UCI Area (Irvine and Newport Beach) 4
II. Costa Mesa and Santa Ana (including South Coast Plaza, Crystal
Court and South Coast Village) 9
III. Laguna Beach 13
IV. Disneyland Area (Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Orange,
and Westminster) 16
V. San Juan Capistrano 23
(Irvine, and Newport Beach, with a focus on Fashion Island and
Corona Del Mar)
(Irvine and Newport Beach)
IRVINE Asiana, 2981 E. Michelson Dr. (at Jamboree), 949-852-1742. Open from
11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, and 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Chinese/Asian This is a mostly Chinese restaurant with Asian (Japanese and Thai) influence.
While names of most of the dishes make this look just like a shopping center
Chinese restaurant, it comes close to living up to its claim of "gourmet"
Chinese food. The lightly battered lemon chicken, for example, was superb.
But the main reason to know about it is that it's open for service between
2:30 and 5 p.m., when most other OC restaurants are closed.
IRVINE Bistango's, 19100 Von Karman, 949-752-5222. (reservations suggested)
Italian Bistango is an elegant Continental restaurant, with good food at not
IRVINE Clay Oven of India, 15435 Jeffrey Rd., 949-552-2851.
Indian A friendly neighborhood Indian restaurant, with an all-you-can-eat lunch
buffet that is, given its quality, a bargain.
IRVINE El Torito, 1910 Main, 714-975-1220; 18512 MacArthur, 949-833-8230
Mexican A chain but still probably the best Mexican food in the county.
IRVINE Gulliver's, 18482 MacArthur, (near Orange County Airport, 949-833-8411.
Prime Rib A chain: this remains the place to go for prime rib. The waiters and
waitresses are clad in the 20th century's idea of 18th Century garb, which
adds to the fun.
IRVINE *Il Fornaio, 18051 Von Karman (near Michelson), 949-261-1444
Italian This is probably the best Italian restaurant in Orange County, even though it,
too, is part of a chain. The breads are excellent and they have regional
Italian specialties, changing each month. Fish dishes are usually especially
IRVINE Prego Ristorante, 18420 Von Karman (Michelson at Von Karman), 949-
553-1333. (reservations suggested)
Italian Prego is one of the best Italian restaurants in Orange County. Its pastas are
superb (and usually al dente). For the jaded palate I recommend as
appetizers focaccio (the Italian version of quesadillas), carpaccio (thin sliced
raw beef with capers), or duck salad with goat cheese. As for the entrée, I
have a simple rule: I always order their pasta special. Their meat or fish
entrées are good, but not as good as the pastas. Prego has the nice feature of
being open all day long, so you can go there at 3:00, say, and avoid the lunch
hordes. The only real drawback of Prego is the noise level at lunch or dinner.
Tables are very close together, Italian pop music is played loud, and it's an
awful place to try to have a conversation.
IRVINE Sam Woo's BBQ, 15333 Culver Drive, Ste 720, 949-262-0688.
Chinese BBQ With dead ducks hanging in the window and noodle soup specialties, and
with most dishes very cheap, what more could one ask for in the way of
Chinese Bar-B-Que. Another reason to go here is that it's open from 11 a.m.-
IRVINE *Sam Woo's Seafood, 15333 Culver Drive, 949-262-0888
Chinese This is a Cantonese style restaurant that gets my vote for the best Chinese
restaurant in Orange County. I especially recommend the excellent dim sum,
served only at lunchtime, honeyed-walnut shrimp, whole fish with scallions,
and soups such as dried scallop soup. They have a large selection of live fish,
crab, shrimp, and lobster, and it's fun to take kids to gawk at the fish tanks.
Also, they'll bring your fish, alive and wriggling, in a clear plastic bag for
your table's inspection. As noted above, there is a deli serving BBQ pork,
duck, etc next to the restaurant that is run by the same chain.
NEWPORT Benihana's of Tokyo, 4250 Birch, (near Orange County Airport) 949-
Japanese Of course, in Tokyo, Benihana's is known as "Benihana's of New York," but
Rocky Aoki, the owner of the restaurant, still deserves credit for inventing
the "samurai" chef concept. Even if it has gotten a little old hat to watch the
chef slice your shrimp at supersonic speed prior to cooking them at your
table, the food at Benihana is good. Portions are large, so if you're not that
hungry, a twosome might wish to share a steak, ordering a second soup and
salad à la carte. There's a nice sushi bar here.
NEWPORT Chanteclair, 18912 MacArthur Blvd. (across from Orange County
BEACH Airport), 949-752-8001.
French This restaurant is a reproduction of a lushly furnished
French chateau. Each of the main dining rooms has slightly different décor.
(What is it doing across from John Wayne Airport?) The food is OK and
sometimes even much better than OK, but ambience is what makes it special.
Because it's relatively expensive, I suggest you only go there for lunch.
NEWPORT *Koto's, 4300 Von Karman Ave. (near Orange County Airport), 949- BEACH 752-7151. Reservations essential for lunch.
Japanese A large sushi bar, and an even larger main dining room make this one of the
county's most popular Japanese restaurants. Sushi is raw fish served on rice.
You may think you wouldn't like raw fish, but if you learn how to order for a
western palate you are apt to prove yourself wrong. Hamachi (yellowtail)
tastes like butter; maguro (tuna) tastes like raw steak; sake (salmon) not
surprisingly tastes like a very delicate lox. Of course, raw octopus and raw
squid can taste an awful lot like rubber. If you'd like to try a sushi bar
without eating any raw fish, that, too, can be done. Just order ebi (cooked
shrimp), ikura (salmon caviar), salmon skin roll (a baked salmon hand-held
roll available in most sushi bars), and, last but not least, a California roll
(cooked crabmeat and avocado), California's major contribution to pig-out
If you go to Koto's main dining room, you can ask for food to feed the
koi in the fishpond just outside. If you throw the food near the edge, (a) you
might create a "fish frenzy" and (b) you might actually be able to pet the fish
as they come to the edge of the pond to hunt for food.
BEACH Mayur, 2931 E. Coast Highway (in the Corona del Mar section of
(Corona del Newport Beach), 949-675-662
Indian A small and pleasant Indian restaurant.
NEWPORT *Pascal's Restaurant, 1000 N. Bristol, 949-752-0107
One of the two or three best restaurants in Orange County. "Continental"
Continental cuisine that is pricey, but worth it. The owners also run a marvelous deli
next door. Rumor has it that this is one of Willie Schonfeld's favorite
NEWPORT *Thai Touch, 2616 San Miguel Dr., 949-640-0123.
A small neighborhood Thai restaurant. Nice proprietors, very
Thai pleasant ambience, low prices, very good food, and a convenient location vis-
à-vis UCI make this a good bet even though there are one or two Thai
restaurants elsewhere in the county that are perhaps slightly better (but only
NEWPORT Tutto Mare, 545 Newport Center Drive, Fashion Island Shopping Center,
BEACH 949-640-6333. Open Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. til (Fashion Island) midnight, Sun 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Italian Owned by the same folks who own Prego, Tutto Mare is elegant and fast-
paced. Its specialty is seafood, as its name implies but, like Prego, it also
offers a variety of meats and of course, pastas. Appetizers are in the $6-7
range, pastas are in the $8-14 range, and main entrees are in the $14-25
NEWPORT Mama Gina, 251 E. Coast Highway (near Dover), 949-673-9500.
The waiters may not all be Italian but this is still a very Italian, Tuscan- Italian Florentine, restaurant with an extended selection of appetizers and very good
all-you-can-eat Sunday champagne brunch (around $20 per person) that
could easily fill you up for the rest of the week: including pasta and omlettes
cooked to order, a variety of hot dishes, and that long-time Italian favorite,
bagels and lox.
NEWPORT *El Torito's Southwest Grill, 951 Newport Center Drive, Fashion Island
BEACH Shopping Center, 949-640-2875.
Another member of the chain: A Californian's idea of what
Mexican/ Southwestern cooking is all about. The decor is a trip, and the food is
Southweest quite good.
NEWPORT *Rothchild's, 1407 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-673-
Mar) This is a charming restaurant, with excellent pastas and a large wine
selection. Casual elegance. One of the best restaurants in the county. Continental
Costa Mesa, and Santa Ana
(Including South Coast Plaza, Crystal Court
and South Coast Village)
COSTA MESA AND SANTA ANA
(Including South Coast Plaza Shopping Area)
If you want to shop in Orange County, the South Coast Shopping Area (South Coast
Plaza, Crystal Court and South Coast Village), along with Fashion Island (in Newport
Center, Newport Beach) are the places to go.
COSTA MESA *Piret's, 3333 Bristol #1876 (in South Coast Plaza Shopping Mall),
(South Coast 714- 556-6424.
Casual French food. Excellent quiche. One of my favorite restaurants,
French with a nice deli section as well.
COSTA MESA *Bangkok Four, 3333 Bear, (in South Coast Plaza Crystal Court), Sun- (Crystal Court) Thurs. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-11 p.m., 714-540-7661.
Thai Elegant and pricey. Perhaps the best dishes here are the appetizers; an
excellent meal can be had by ordering an assortment. I do not advise a
window seat, unless you prefer an excellent view of endless ranks of parked
SANTA ANA *Gustav Anders, 3851 Bear Street #B21 (in South Coast Village) (South Coast 714-668-1737.
This is, quite simply, the best restaurant in Orange County. Elegant yet
Swedish/ unpretentious, a dinner for two here (without wine) will run about $60.
Continental The two owners, William Gustaf Magnuson and Ulf Anders Strandberg (the
chef), visit with customers and the wait staff is very friendly.
SANTA ANA *Royal Khyber, 1621 W. Sunflower, 436-1010.
Village) A high end Indian restaurant that is perhaps the best in the county.
Moderately expensive. Indian
SANTA ANA El Carbonero, 803 S. Main, 714-542-6653.
Salvadorean This restaurant is a member of the same chain as the El Carbonero
Pupuseria in Anaheim. This is a Salvadorean pupuseria.