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Laguna Hills
Monday, Dec 5, 2022

Fresh Eatery Arranges Its Plates in Agreeable Row

Ironwood in Laguna Hills opened only a month ago, and we have been busy introducing friends via word of mouth and by taking them there. It’s rare for me to keep wanting to return to the same restaurant—there are just too many places I need to try, and there’s only one of me. To say that Patrick and I are quite taken by Ironwood would certainly be an understatement, and we are enjoying our multiple visits a lot.

I mentioned in last month’s column about expectations for this restaurant that opened just as my column was published, and now, we’ve already worked our way through a lot of the menu. I have known owner Russ Bendel for many years. He has an admirable restaurant background, and he also happens to own Vine, the very popular Napa-style restaurant in San Clemente. Add Jared Cook, executive chef at Vine who now also oversees this kitchen, plus operating partner Kevin Franke, another industry veteran, and you have a dedicated trio.

They did a first-class job of training the staff, and Ironwood hasn’t needed time to “work out glitches,” a common excuse heard in new restaurants. This crew was ready for prime time when the restaurant opened. The eatery occupies part of the space that used to be Elephant Bar and was reconfigured into a charming, modern room and patio area. There’s a bar but not one that commands all of the attention. Here we have our cocktails, then wine and dinner at our table.

As we peruse the interesting dishes on the menu, there’s a desire to order so many things. Chef Jared and his chef de cuisine first entice with descriptions and then deliver with attractive, very generously portioned and substantially flavorful plates of food. Everyone seems to notice that the pricing is so affordable. There are many sighs around my table as dishes arrive. Curiosity makes everyone want to taste everything instead of each of us sticking to our own personal food order. Actually, I’m glad that our guests are getting a broader introduction to what’s fascinating me about all of this.

I have ordered the English Pea Dumplings on every occasion. Can’t resist the combination of peas, goat cheese, preserved kumquat butter, pistachio and Thai basil that combine into the interesting mix inside and outside of the little pillows. The Crispy Duck Wings resonating with the brightness of Meyer lemon and the sweetness of honey are also repeats. Ditto for one of the best salads around, the Organic Butter Lettuce that sounds so unassuming. But when it arrives, the plate is covered with an entrée-sized layer of butter lettuce leaves, all sprinkled with blue cheese, California almonds, tiny heirloom tomatoes and a drizzling of champagne vinaigrette.

These entrées are not ordinary, either: Jidori Chicken Schnitzel (beech mushrooms, herb spaetzle, pattypan squash, gold wax beans, preserved lemon and basil emulsion); a massive Grilled Bone-in Rib Eye Steak (smoked blue cheese, mashed red potatoes, roasted cauliflower, maitake mushrooms, English peas, young asparagus, béarnaise sauce for only $36); Lemon Verbena Faroe Island Salmon (sweet corn and spring vegetable succotash, farro and cherry tomatoes); One Pound Meatball (fresh pappardelle and spicy pomodoro sauce); Pan Roasted Greek Sea Bass (Russian banana potatoes, cherry tomatoes, fava beans, almonds, picholine olives, Cara orange and coriander vinaigrette); and Rosemary Grilled Pork Tenderloin (melted artichoke puree, spring vegetables, pomegranate glaze). Yes, I’ve eaten all of these entrees and more.

Terrific food, comfortable ambiance and pleasing staff. You should definitely give this one a try.

25250 La Paz (La Paz Village Center), Laguna Hills, (949) 446-8772

Hidden Karma

In between the fast pace of true foodies scurrying to try every recently opened upscale dining venue, good and truly casual food also finds its place. One such easygoing spot is Mick’s Karma Bar, a no-nonsense, rather whimsical spot in Irvine. The owners are a Dutch fellow and his Persian wife with happy personalities who began their restaurant careers in London. They decided, upon landing on this side of the pond, to keep things lighthearted and casual, but with a penchant for good quality leading the strictly limited menu.

The restaurant is in a good-looking courtyard behind the McCormick and Schmick’s Irvine restaurant, where a large parking structure leads into an open area dappled with bright umbrellas and lots of outdoor seating. Right now, you actually see a rather prominent Kitima restaurant sign smack-dab in the center of the courtyard, but there’s no Kitima—it’s a recently closed Thai restaurant whose sign has not yet come down. Enter, and you’re actually in Mick’s.

It unfolds as a few tables—almost everyone sits outside—a blackboard of menu items, and a classier-than-usual bar where you order. Sleek and clean, without pretense.

I would strongly suggest the Strawberry Basil Lemonade for ultimate refreshment. Perfect with our balmy days on the rise. Then, it’s a choice of a few burger versions, all made with sirloin chopped on the premises; a fish taco; and a few supplements. The hefty fries are a good side selection.

The straightforward Karma Burger is what we envision as the basic burger, but it comes in as a sure-fire taste treat. The hand-formed meat patty is stacked with the cheese, lettuce, tomato-style configuration, and their own Karma sauce, and placed inside a bun that delivers both a lightness and a welcoming ability to hold together—no disintegrating before the burger is finished.

Try the spicy Habañero Burger with garlic mayo and queso fresco if you enjoy the thrill of hot chiles. A Mediterranean Burger comes with roasted peppers, hummus and feta cheese. Gruyere cheese and caramelized onions join the party in yet another version that suits my fancy.

The Fish Taco features grilled, wild-caught mahi-mahi, shredded cabbage with Baja sauce, Mick’s fresh pico de gallo, onions and cilantro. It has its own loyal following. Two wraps, one of Greek persuasion and one with a Thai personality, are fun alternatives.

This is a straightforward, limited-item place that has garnered quite a lot of good publicity. Those working in the high-rise buildings that surround part of the courtyard are captive customers, but for the rest of us, it’s a good place to relax and enjoy whenever near that territory.

2010 Main St., Irvine, (949) 851-6316

Tasty With a Side of Friendly

It wasn’t that long ago that the intrepid diners of Orange County were hankering for more ethnic restaurants. We still have a very long way to go when compared to the wealth of food cultures available in the great bastions of dining like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. But we had the great breakout period when Little Saigon became a reality and offered us its interesting culture and foods.

Many Asian tastes that had previously eluded us locally began to pop up. Thai restaurants now dot the scene, and Middle Eastern restaurants representing many countries are exciting our palates. We have Philippine and Indonesian food. The Asian subcontinent presents deliciousness from India. Island nations, such as Cuba and Hawaii, give us other alternative dishes. Latin food has always been a part of our culture, and Orange County now has the opportunity to delve into the general tastes of not only every North American, Central and South American country, but of various regional foods within each country.

One of the latest ethnic restaurants on the scene is a nice-looking Vietnamese spot that’s spreading interest in South County. It’s Thanh Binh in Mission Viejo.

In one of the newer shopping centers in that community, Thanh Binh takes up a corner location that allows two full walls of windows for a friendly and airy vibe. It’s casual yet inviting. There are booths hugging the walls and relatively unadorned tables throughout. But what caught our attention immediately upon a first visit were the smiles and greetings of the staff. Their helpfulness and pleasant attitude, along with the good food, have made our forays very satisfying.

The first thing we’d heard about the restaurant was that the pho—the mainstay broth studded with various meats, vegetables and rice noodles or egg noodles and a handful of fresh herbs, chiles and bean sprouts to add at will—was outstanding. First visit found us immediately engaged in a conversation with our waiter about the pho and what we’d been told by friends.

We ordered the touted oxtail pho and fell right in step with the other admirers, enjoying the tender oxtail that had been simmered into a rich, meaty highlight. Another version with rare steak, brisket, gelatinous tendon and tripe was also very flavorful. The requisite broth varies in restaurants, and this one has a fine depth of flavor, making a solid foundation for the pho. There are a dozen variations, all with layers of taste depending on the boost from that broth.

Fried Tofu—crispy exterior giving way to meltingly soft interior—with a sweetened chile sauce and Garlic Chicken Wings with lime sauce are good starters. Spring Roll aficionados might want to order the ones stuffed with their choice of meat, shellfish or tofu. They carry just the right amount of oomph and texture.

I appreciated very much when I wanted a vegetable dish at one meal that the waiter said they could also make me something off the menu incorporating vegetables that I might like. I left it up to the chef to surprise me, and a plate arrived lined with a bed of soft egg noodles piled with a fine variety of stir-fried vegetables in a delicate but savory sauce.

I also like that the restaurant offers a good variety of stir-fried dishes served over rice or vermicelli rice noodles. Two to consider: Chicken Curry on rice and the well-known Shaken Beef on rice. It also has several vegan dishes.

The tastes of the food, along with the friendly service and the overall upscale casual feeling, make this a winner for South County. 27660 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo, (949) 347-8989

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