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Worldly Dining

Fifi Chao

No matter how often we eat at restaurants—and no matter how many high-end ones there might be in the mix—sometimes it’s the little places or the very unique ones that tug at our hearts in a special way.

There always are those little family gems we keep interspersing in our dining rounds, those places that transport us to another country and another culture.

Orange County is getting more ethnic restaurants. Not nearly the wide array found in truly big cities, but progress is being made.

When I began to research ethnic possibilities beyond the ones I already knew about and frequented, my enthusiasm grew and grew. My palate was having a jolly good time with so many new, intriguing tastes.

This issue covers many of those unpretentious ethnic finds.

Broaden your dining horizons with some casual and fun dining and save money, too, since prices are on the affordable side. Several of these restaurants have entertainment on certain nights.

Space constraints prevent me from giving details on everything in each restaurant, so you might want to inquire on nights that live entertainment can add even more to your cultural journey. Enjoy!


Asian Cajun, Creole

The Kickin’ Crab

3611 S. Bristol St.

Santa Ana

(714) 531-3500

Who knows how food trends begin? I only follow them around once an item or idea appears on a myriad of menus.

One that came along a few years ago, and is still fascinating those of us who have a craving for Creole and Cajun flavors and unpretentious dining, centers on restaurants that features piles of crawfish and crab boils,

most of which we gobble down with ears of corn on the side as wafts of Cajun spices and garlic replace aromas of cologne and perfume.

Kickin’ Crab took no time in building a following. While another restaurant of this genre has lines waiting for tables, this restaurant gets us seated more quickly, at least for now.

We like the centralized location. Love the dipping sauces for their shellfish and the fact that the crawfish are fresh.

If you begin with a whole crab, it sure sets the theme for good things to come.

Good service extends to disrobing our crab meat from its shell, if requested. Perhaps you won’t be able to decide between Louisiana-perfumed shrimp and crawfish or some clams mingling with basil in their bag (usually my problem) so be magnanimous, tie on your bib and order both.

Choose a spicy/heat preference; for us, mid-spicy comes on point-full scale can be a palate burner if that’s not your everyday bent.

Red Claw

9475 Heil Ave.

Fountain Valley

(714) 531-3500

We were introduced to this restaurant about three years ago and it began our love affair with messy, peel-your-own shellfish that have flavor to spare and bring back the best memories of Louisiana dining that we’ve done in the past.

Rather simple decor, amended by lots of windows, suffices because the food would be entirely out of place in fancy surroundings anyway.

We came, we saw, we conquered the wildly lovable tastes of the shellfish that bounced around, first with aroma and then in our mouths.

Paper towels announce that you will need to wipe and swipe your hands and face a lot during the peeling and eating process. Begin with a bowl of the snappy rice soup.

Steamed mussels with spicy cream sauce are piled high in a bowl. Cajun-spiced corn on the cob seems to always go with our shellfish.

From blue crab to Dungeness to shrimp, crawfish and clams, whatever comes cooked in a bag is primetime. The essence of Louisiana is beckoning me to demolish the contents.

They do have a few pasta dishes of interest as well, and a couple of steak choices. But I can get that just about anywhere else.

So I’m happy to stay in my shellfish-in-a-bag rut.


Belgian

Brussels Bistro

222 Forest Ave.

Laguna Beach

(949) 376-7955

There’s so much to love about this truly Belgian bistro that’s even a few steps underground.

Very likeable, urban Euro pub food meets gracious live jazz (except Sundays and Mondays) with cultural dishes that are built from the best ingredients, resulting in an authentic experience. It also is the definitive place to taste Belgian beers and gain some knowledge of why that country is famed for its brews.

The Belgian chef offers seven variations of mussels.

Piled in a bowl and wickedly redolent with a choice of flavorings—curry, garlic crème, Provençal, white wine, etc.—all come with a heap of non-greasy, crispy Belgian fries (they were invented by the Belgians, you know).

North Sea shrimp with tomato, stuffed crepes, duck breast with potatoes dauphinoise, carbonnades of beef, waterzooie and that sort of fare shouts that it’s a special style of restaurant.

Even the 10-ounce hamburger goes European. On a serious bun, the burger comes sided with caramelized endives, a Belgian dressing and a pile of those aforementioned Belgian fries.

Bruxie

292 N. Glassell St.

Orange

(888) 927-8943

Belgian and those specialty Liege-style waffles have arrived!

In Old Towne Orange, the thicker and tastier waffle genre is keeping customers quite happy. Everyone’s buzzing.

I grew up occasionally being treated to the heftier Liege waffles made with a yeast dough and have pearl sugar dabs in them that are slightly melted and make for a cookie-like taste.

My father was born in Belgium, so we knew them as a breakfast treat or perfect snack food.

Going beyond what we perceive though—the sweet waffle syndrome—this little place also gives us interesting savory sandwiches with entree ideals.

In lieu of bread, light, crispy waffles hold fillings of several varieties. One of my favorites is the prosciutto and gruyere cheese melt.

I’m also quite happy with the smoked salmon and dilled cream cheese combo. A tasty burger also finds ingredients held in place by the waffles.

Casual and clever, raves are piling up for this new way of eating. Do try the Liege for a sweeter aside—perhaps topped with any of their dessert-like toppings or in solitary simplicity.

Afghan

Chili Chutney

25262 Jeronimo Road

Lake Forest

(949) 859-1778

When my trusted foodie friends said I’d better investigate this place, they knew I’d thoroughly enjoy the colorful food that would enhance my education about Afghanistan.

In a tiny space, owner Shalah Wadood oversees a menu of home-style foods that cuddle with authenticity and roaring flavor. Blue ribbon honors for her cheap prices too.

There’s a reason that the word “chutney” is in the name: many kinds will fight to be strewn over your food.

The meat is halal (animals that are permitted to eat under Islamic law and are slaughtered in the most humane, painless way).

Emanating from the meat and vegetables are some swell dumplings: little beef-and-onion bundles (mantu) are smothered in sour cream and a meaty sauce, while others are vegetarian. Kabobs in a chunk style or as seasoned ground meat on skewers, beef patties called chapli and indigenous flatbreads stuffed with various enticements are all done with panache.

A national dish (kabuli pulao) is based on aromatic rice and finds chunks of lamb, sweet carrots and raisins entrenched among the grains. It’s simply awesome. Kabuli pulao is served only on weekends.


Argentine

Empanada Man

20761 Lake Forest Drive

Lake Forest

(949) 855-9257

This is where we go to get home-style Argentinean comfort food. There’s no varied menu of specialties, but there are some nice crumbly empanadas. These are everyday joys in a typical Argentine home, so we enjoy learning as we eat.

Empanadas are mini turnovers that supposedly began with the Moors but found a comfortable fit in many Latin cuisines. When we speak of appetizers or small plates, empanadas are the perfect finger food. It’s nice that we can nibble enough of them to make a meal.

The outer cover for the flavorful fillings is the important first sensation on the palate. This pastry delivers on the rich and flaky side. Hiding within are fillings of shrimp and crab flakes, chile verde, beef and onion, chicken with sweet corn and some with vegetable combinations. One that’s an absolute must to order is called salteñas. It’s stuffed with beef, chicken, peas, potatoes, carrots, raisins, celery, onion, hard-boiled eggs, olives and spices. That’s a well-balanced meal in a

small package.

Argentina has its share of Italians, and this menu also features a selection of pizzas (custom made) and a few a la carte items such as pasta and gnocchi. You might want to mingle two cuisines just for fun.


Caribbean

Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen

31732 Coast Highway

Laguna Beach

(949) 499-6311

Eva Madray, originally from British Guyana, has been flavoring South Laguna with a bit of the Caribbean for several

years. Colorful and happy, unpretentious and unhurried, this is the easy place for a meal when life is calling for something that

meanders down an imaginary lane away from the high-end, expensively decorated

restaurants.

The restaurant, which is only open for dinner, has a full evening bar. Nostalgic tropical drinks carry equal weight with wine.

Orders are cooked to preferred spiciness, a nice touch. Flavors of Trinidad mingle in

the smooth callaloo soup (clam and lobster base with okra and spinach, and coconut

perfuming it all). Dungeness crab and

sweet corn marry in the corn cakes. Conch fritters are nostalgic appetizers, prawns come with bold palate-awakening taste, coconut-crusted shrimp are island exemplary, and those are only some of the interesting appetizers.

As for entrees, several kinds of fresh fish are done up with curry, Creole, Cajun or tropical notes. Mango, coconut, pineapple and jerk spices enliven their seafood partners. Pork marinated in rum and pineapple atop creamy, garlicky potatoes is more than swell. Do not miss a side order of plantains.

Guava cheesecake, banana passion flambé and/or sultry tasting ice creams do well for dessert.\


Chinese

Asia Noodle Cafe

4187 Campus Drive

Irvine

(949) 854-8826

From soup noodles to stir-fried strands mixed with various meats, seafood and vegetables, there are some easygoing dishes here that take us through China, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and Vietnam. Should you enjoy rice rather than noodles (here they

range from egg and flour pasta to trans-

parent and rice noodles), almost all of the menu items can come atop a bowl of grains as well.

The peanut noodle salad, sesame chicken salad or lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) get me started. I just had the pad Thai with shrimp. Borrowing from the Japanese are pork cutlet (tonkatsu) and marinated chicken or beef dishes (teriyaki). Singapore noodles are one of my go-to dishes (curry flavor). Consider chow fun and cafe-style wokked dishes, eclectics like salt and pepper fish filets and some eternally universal Chinese favorites and you’ve got a lot to think about.

You will appreciate the modern wall of artifacts that dresses up the space as if it could compete on a higher level, but it doesn’t need to. It is what it is and it’s quite satisfying enough.

Mas’

601 E. Orangethorpe Ave.

Anaheim

(714) 446-9553

We used to go to Jamillah Ma’s restaurant in Tustin when she owned it. Then she moved to Anaheim. No matter—as we

drive into the almost industrial area and come upon the building with the domed roof, we’re ready to jump out of the car and start eating.

After being seated in the big and attractive dining room, we almost always order their justly famous sesame bread (da bing) that has a unique sort of crispness hiding a cloudlike interior. Ditto for the scallion pancakes that are big disks of a rolled, rather hefty, dough well permeated with chopped scallions. Since this is an Islamic halal restaurant, lamb figures into many of the dishes. There’s no pork, of course. And animals used are killed as humanely as possible.

Other ingredients keep up the high quality. I’m in love with the thick hand-cut noodles and have them in a stir-fry with beef or chicken, but mostly with sliced lamb. This last time out, we also had sides of the tender sautéed eggplant and some braised green beans. Basically, your taste buds engage in the happiest kind of dance when eating here.

This is authenticity incarnate when it comes to serious dining. If you happen to be stuck on the more common Chinese dishes, they deliver very well on a big menu of those too.

Chef Chen

5408 Walnut Ave.

Irvine

(949) 786-8898

This is one of our foremost choices when Shanghainese dishes are on our mind. It’s nice that it’s just good looking enough to give a mid-level aura of finesse. The service is great and the tastes of the food are famous among the Chinese. We happily tag along with our acquired taste for some Shanghai dishes.

There are 227 items on the menu delving into many nuances of flavor. Among the Shanghainese stars are WuXi spareribs that give ribs a silk purse reputation and hot pots of mixed veggies and meats or fish (and accommodated further with different kinds of veggies, delicious shiitake mushrooms and sometimes tofu cubes). I often order the stir-fried lamb and wide, handmade noodles. The latter also can be ordered in soups and stir-fry combos. Crispy salt and pepper squid also marches along as a real patriot of taste and refinement.

This menu is so big and the owner/chef is getting so famous that I have to leave the rest of the discovery to you.

Tan Cang Newport Seafood

4411 W. First St.

Santa Ana

(714) 531-5146

We first went to this restaurant several years ago when it merely was called Newport Seafood. We’ve been going back since then despite a stripped down decor of tables situated close together—usually filled with Asians—some fish tanks, from which they fetch customers’ choices, and a couple of whole walls of glass. It’s not about the view for sure—it’s all about the food and affordable prices. Big menu, family dinners and the best fresh seafood.

The restaurant’s fame largely is because of the live lobsters and crabs, the many ways they serve them and very competitive prices. They chop seafood into manageable size pieces for serving, and delivered it with the seasoning requested: batter-dipped and quickly fried and doused in the house lobster sauce, served merely with butter, flavored with ginger and scallions, in black bean sauce, etc. Request a side of noodles.

Other exceptional tastes permeate things like frog legs in an aggressive sauce, various vegetables and tofu dishes, meats done many ways, stir-fried beef with watercress (shaking beef) in a Vietnamese essence and comfort dishes galore. Serious Chinese tastes abound.

A final note: While they prefer that you pay in cash, your credit card can still rescue you.

Yu’s Garden

5408 Walnut Ave.

Irvine

(949) 654-2366

Big menu, little place, sparse atmosphere. Great place to get a three-item meal under $7 (you can choose from more than 30 items

on a steam table) or order from the 211-item menu. We eat in, we get take out—never fails us.

Their curry items—high on my favorites list—are the best: not too spicy, with a gentle background of carrots, onions and potatoes and beef, chicken or lamb. Spicy beef noodle soup is famous as is their preserved bean curd (dry and sliced like pasta threads) with shredded pork. There are so many dishes for which they are admired that it’s ridiculous. This is the sort of little restaurant that locals in a Chinese village would frequent because its menu is so representative of their flavors, satisfying both the craving for very special dishes and everyday fare.

For those of us who still like the old classics we’ve known for so long—sweet and sour dishes, traditional stir fry, familiar appetizers and such—you will find versions of them as well. I’m about ready to run down and get some chicken with basil and assorted chow mein with fried noodles right now.


Cuban

Felix Continental Cafe

36 Plaza Square

Orange

(714) 633-5842

This is one of the county’s great restaurant success stories. It has an ideal location on the circle in Orange, still is owned by original employees and has been around since the late 1970s. Cuban food was so unusual back then. Look how far we’ve come.

It’s not glamorous but is comfy and inviting enough, and efficient, even in price. I like sitting outside on the sidewalk patio if there’s a table available and the weather cooperates.

They serve lunch and dinner and even breakfast on weekends (36 unique items to start your day). We all know about the Cuban sandwich (ham and pulled pork, cheese and pickles on crusty roll). Terrific. Cuban beef stew, roasted pork perfumed with bitter oranges, shellfish and fish cooked in a casserole (arroz con mariscos), tender beef cooked with chorizo sausage (boliche mochado) and Cuban fajitas are but a few of the winners on the menu. They’ve acquired a nickname of la Casa de la Paella due to their nod to Spain with their fine paella Valenciana.

Most entrees come with soup or salad, rice, creamy spinach and sauteed sweet plantains (maduros). Good service, friendly owners and great pricing (every dinner entree is less than $17).

Habana

2930 Bristol St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 556-0176

There’s a soft spot in my heart for The Lab shopping center. Love its tongue-in-cheek attitude. At the back is this Cuban restaurant that fits in perfectly. It’s a lounge-like scene direct from Cuba, as our imagination would have it—rather dark and definitely intimate feeling with heavy use of wood and truly unique candle lighting. If you sit outside in the evening, strings of romantic lights drift above and the cool life of OC again prevails. On certain evenings you will catch entertainment.

They do a nice flatbread with caramelized onion topping and the tuna tartare is a genteel appetizer. The fried avocado also is interesting.

Shredded flank steak in tomato sauce (ropa vieja) is a common Cuban entree. This one’s a fine preparation and comes with rice, black beans and plantains. Grilled skirt steak, smoked halibut, spicy shrimp, pork osso buco and roasted pork glazed with mango barbecue sauce are other Cuban dishes that are popular. I like the often occurring plantains and things like crispy leeks that sometimes appear in unexpected places on the plate. For dessert, the passion fruit cheesecake is good but the flan is extra special in its richness and texture.


Hawaiian

Hapa J’s

2016 S. El Camino Real

San Clemente

(949) 276-6657

We’re always in a Hawaii state of mind but have to schedule our getaways. In between our island vacations we can keep up the spirit through this restaurant. We always seek out indigenous places when we travel and here, in this sweetly beguiling setting, we can be in that casual, laid back mood again as we savor the food.

Rich and delicious Kalua pig figures in many of my favorites: tucked inside Napa cabbage leaves and scrambling across my plate of nachos for appetizers. Sneaking inside of sliders too and as a standalone entree. Poke (cubes of raw tuna) is offered in three versions to transport more memories and the coconut shrimp with mango sauce are the best.

Sizzling steak atop a mound of rice and sauteed mushrooms, coconut strewn curry married to tender chunks of chicken and mahi mahi crusted in macadamia nuts with sweet potato are fine Hawaiian reps. Popular plate lunches include two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and the protein of your choice. Big meal, inexpensive and Hawaiian to the core. Friday evenings feature a full luau plate at $18 with Kalua pig, shoyu chicken, beef, lomi-lomi salmon and all accompaniments. Do not miss it.


Indonesian

Warung Pojok

13113 Harbor Blvd.

Garden Grove

(714) 638-8716

Warung Pojok originally began merely to bring homemade-style Indonesian food to the area. The idea shifted to something bigger when they began offering many different items every day to bring alternating new flavors to their customers. Go to their website warungpojokindo.com and prepare to be educated and amazed by the wide variety of foods with full explanations.

Our dear Indonesian friends used to lament the lack of any decent restaurants like this and were always driving to L.A. for their homeland restaurant meals.

Many dishes are meant to be eaten as mezze (small portions like appetizers). Over decades, I’ve taught my cooking students to make a silky eggplant and olive oil dip (baba ghanoush) because I adore it. Here, they do it beautifully. Spicy manadonese-style chicken is high on my list too, especially with coconut rice (nasi uduk). Meals balanced with protein, vegetable, fruit and starches, all with definite but adorable tastes, renew my feasting desires again.


Indian

Bismillah Halal

8901 Knott Ave.

Buena Park

(714) 827-7201

The conversation about the differences in Indian and Pakistani cuisine is tricky, especially for those of us not raised in those cultures. For me, it comes down to the different way some of the same spices and flavorings are treated. When the same dishes were tried side by side, it appeared to me that the Pakistani versions had a drier finish (not as much sauce as in the Indian versions). While the same spices might be used, the lighter or heavier use of certain spices within the blend tends to give dishes their own personality. Also, I’m told that Pakistani cuisine often has more meat in it, while Indian cuisine includes more vegetable dishes (subji). Meats here meet halal requirements.

In lieu of a more definitive voice, I’m merely telling you that this restaurant advertises both types of cuisine—Indian and Pakistani—and I like their food. It gets points for nice decor, easy parking and good service. Naan breads are great, tandoori (baked in a clay oven) dishes are very flavorful, chicken in a spicy tomato sauce (tikka masala) is fine. These are commonly known dishes, but they have a long list of specialties to ferret out as well. Final note: I’m completely under the spell of their chunky mango chutney.

Dosa Place

17245 17th St.

Tustin

(714) 505-7777

Owned by a dedicated couple, their food represents south India. It’s a clean, neat, upscale scene in a good, central location. When we get into the subject of dosas, it’s yet another educational journey. They are essentially crepe-like wrappers that usually are made from rice flour and lentil batter. The crisply cooked crepes are filled with two dozen melanges of vegetables and meats (heavy on the vegetable choices). They are a staple of southern India and especially beloved by Sri Lankans.

Take me again to these faves: Vegetarian filling of potato masala curry (moong masala dosa), stuffed with chile and minced goat (kheema dosa) and another version with minced lamb in a flour crepe that’s deep fried (kheema samosa).

Additional Indian dishes—from appetizers, dips and classic southern Indian side dishes to lots of entrees—also catch my fancy. Chicken korma is the best mix of chicken and cashew nut cream sauce. Lamb tikka features cubes of lamb marinated in a yogurt-based sauce, skewered and cooked in the clay oven. I like the lentil flour doughnuts too. It’s a good place to take your palate on a food adventure.

Haveli

13882 Newport Ave.

Tustin

(714) 669-1011

It may be located in a simple mall, but inside the decor—comprising pretty colors and soft fabrics, nice linens and contemporary stylishness—is worthy of a higher-scale location. Many loyalists come for the extensive all-you-can-eat buffet that features a lot of dishes that span the most popular items in the restaurant’s repertoire. They do it with pride and good presentation. Price is right too. In addition, there’s a full a la carte menu.

The server said this is Punjabi style food. I’m not sure what the nuances are representative of, but I am content to enjoy the layered flavors that wend through my choices. Among those is the lamb (or chicken) in a rather spicy mix that hails from Goa (vindaloo), a melange of vinegar, turmeric, coriander, cumin and cinnamon that swims through the tomato sauce base. On the side, a couple of my go-to dishes are eggplant done in a stewed manner and the outstanding spicy sauteed okra (bhindi masala). Superb.

Vegetable choices are adequate and authentically Indian, and I’m so happy with ones that contain homemade Indian cheese in the mix, such as palak paneer that combines cheese cubes with spinach. There’s tandoori and other traditional dishes as well. For dessert, it’s the creamy rice pudding (kheer).


Japanese

Fuji Yama

4511 W. Coast Highway

Newport Beach

(949) 548-7200

When a high-end restaurateur and another foodie told me within days of each other that this was a favorite hangout because of the food and friendliness, I took note. That was a while ago and it belongs on this list now that I have my own focus.

While the edamame and tofu tempura are fine for munching as we decide what we want, the bright snap of the little tempuraed shishito peppers steals the show. If you’re doing the a la carte menu, the two-item bento boxes are a good value and allow lots of leeway in selections.

Sake and miso marinated black cod (misozuke) and spicy chicken are favorite picks from a la carte entrees. Here we find a broad range of seafood and shellfish served either atop seasoned rice or on their own. The hand roll of eel and avocado is tasty and rich, smooth texture playing against the crackle of the seaweed wrapper. If you enjoy scallops, the roll of rice that encompasses them parlays a duet of fine flavors highlighted with just the right amount of spice. Truthfully, it’s a big menu with just about every specialty roll you ever met and a plethora of exciting side dishes available. I think I’ll go make a reservation for tonight.

Gatten Sushi

4517 Campus Drive

Irvine

(949) 679-8322

This new restaurant is the second of this genre to take up residence in the city. It actually calls itself a revolving sushi factory. Is this the au courant perception of industrialization? It is, in fact, another of those currently trendy revolving conveyor belt restaurants that deliver a great variety of sushi, sashimi, desserts and other Japanese chopstick snacks past your table.

As in traditional sushi places of the community genus, the chefs shout out their greetings to customers as they enter. Decor is pretty straightforward and clean-lined, conducive to concentrating on the food experience.

The color of the plate denotes the price of the item. I’ve found that this type of restaurant is less expensive than classic places but that the food tends to be in smaller portions. No matter, we can enjoy many things for a filling meal that doesn’t break our budget. Grab a plate of egg cake atop sushi rice (tamago), any number of sushi rolls, perhaps two dozen or more tasty stuff going around and around on that conveyor.

Honda Ya

556 El Camino Real

Tustin

(714) 832-0081

There’s a joke that nobody should tell anyone else about this restaurant because there usually is a wait for seating. It’s been popular for a long time, partly because many customers are Japanese ex-pats, but also because the food is authentic. So, here I am blabbing it.

Izakaya is the Japanese version of a pub, so it means they never put tons of money into decor, but it’s still upscale casual, comfortable and romantic enough. Food reigns supreme.

The master menu sports about 235 items, with 150 or so available at any one time. Let’s just waltz through categories without me holding your hand. Four different yakitori categories (grilled items), tempura, udon and noodles, rice bowls, porridge and egg dishes (zosui), assorted rice balls (onigiri), cut rolls, hand rolls and sashimi, not to mention starters, salads and condiments galore. We’ve extrapolated food adventures from beef tongue, pork belly, spicy tuna rolls, shrimp udon noodles, quail eggs, several grilled items and sushi over only a few lunches and dinners. Decadent, I know, but delicious for sure.


Korean

Koba Tofu Grill

4501 Campus Drive

Irvine

(949) 725-0516

14370 Culver Drive

Irvine

(949)262-0261

1993 W. Malvern Ave.

Fullerton

(714) 879-5500

Korean cuisine presented in 2011 terms. Who ever dreamed that tofu could be so interesting and tasty? A pot of soup strewn with soft tofu (soon tofu) dances with excitement as it simmers at your table. You quickly crack the raw egg, provided on the side, into it. Vegetables with crunchy and soft textures are meant to be tossed in, cooked briefly and then fetched to be dipped into gochujang (an aromatic chile sauce) before disappearing into your mouth. Proteins also may be added. The redolent broth is the finale.

You will discover very good bibimbap, which is a collection of veggies, protein (fish, meat or poultry) atop fresh white rice. You give it a stir before delving in for all the mingling tastes. Barbecued ribs (kalbi) and marinated beef slices are other dishes to envy. Even before an entree arrives, panchan (the variety of condiments and appetizers) that includes a fresh, crisply fried fish is delivered. Delicious.

It all began at the Culver location, with Diamond Bar and Fullerton siblings following and the newest one being in an old Blockbuster location on Campus Drive. These are sleek, clean-lined venues where decor says it all: not pretentious, fine for the casually dressed, ready for a big audience with shiny tables waiting and educational information for the novice. The latter is by way of dishes and their intent being flashed on a TV screen and from observing the protocol going on at other tables.

Shik Do Rak

14775 Jeffrey Road

Irvine

(949) 653-7668

Carnivores rejoice. This place can feed you lots of meat. And foodies are buzzing about the quality of the meat here, to which I will attest. I have to thank our Korean friend for guiding us to this location as it has added a lot to our never-ending culinary journeys.

In order to experience this arguably best of Korean barbecue places in OC, you’ll have to endure a bit of a noise level. If the food tastes good and quality products are there, I’m fine with that. Atmosphere is casual and clean in a happy cafe sort of way.

All of the meals of which I speak come with panchan. That’s a fairly large array of side dishes: lettuce, kimchi, bean sprouts, cucumbers, salads and such. They will refill those side dishes, if needed, from carts that are rolled throughout the room. Next, decide to be a carnivore supreme and make meat choices: pork belly and brisket are my favorites, but chicken also is a possibility. Meats are thinly sliced for easy grilling at the table. Grill some meat, dip it into the sesame oil/salt and pepper dip (chile sauce for spicy heat, if desired), wrap it and some of the panchan veggies in a radish sheet or rice paper and munch away. Terrific way to eat.

Wang Tcheng

1199 N. Euclid St.

Anaheim

(714) 778-9988

The nice thing here is that you can have Chinese food that’s really good with some pretty swell nods to Korean cuisine as well, and the possibility of an array of panchan dishes to accompany your meal. Panchan are the little plates of condiments and sometimes crispy fried fish that go with entrees.

Before getting further into the food, I want to tell you that the decor in this freestanding building is very modern, lovely and comfortable. It spreads out as a well-envisioned bar and lounge on the side of a dining room rimmed with large booths, where refined table service adds to the enjoyment. Someone did a fine job with the interior decor, including the separate private dining spaces decked out with the latest in technology for business and personal gatherings.

Fans of hot and sour soup should enjoy this well-balanced version. Pork meatballs with pearl sauce (one of the chef’s own sauces), spicy seafood chow mein, eggplant with garlic, braised whole fish and the spicy and crispy calamari are among my favorites. The menu is large—you will have fun.

This place is owner operated, so feel free to ask co-owner Penny (your hostess) about the Korean dishes and/or some of their more specialized Chinese dishes. She’s adorable and more than happy to help.


Malaysian

Belacan Grill and Bistro

17460 17th St.

Tustin

(714) 505-9908

Malaysian foods that are derived from multi-ethnic persuasions and regional cuisines with their own nuances give the same dish a vastly different taste from area to area. I am always happy with rice flavored with coconut milk (nasi lemak) and a wide swath of Malaysian food sits comfortably on my plate or alongside an enticing white mound of grains.

This restaurant is quite attractive, making it an upscale possibility for personal or business meals. Seafood options: mixed seafood simmered in a clay pot, lobster sauteed with shrimp and chiles or deep fried with indigenous spices. Flat rice noodles with your choice of protein and bean sprouts (char kway teow) is a specialty. Tofu in chile sauce is a zinger; chicken with mango sauce is romantically mellow in a sweet and sour way. Daging kecap manis brings together a surfeit of nice flavors in a tender beef sauteed with onions, chiles and a dash of thick soy.

Lots of meats, vegetables, seafoods and noodle specialties will keep you busy experimenting during several visits. Service is friendly and most helpful.

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Mexican

Gabbi’s

141 S. Glassell St.

Orange

(714) 633-3038

Take one gal who, at 17, was managing two of her parent’s restaurants, then attended the University of California, Los Angeles. While there, she decided to pursue her passion for cooking the Mexican food of her culture. Thus, she attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. End result: Since 2006, we have Gabbi’s intriguing venue. It’s her interpretation of Old World recipes in a forward-thinking era—essentially cooking that shows her vision and supports local growers as much as possible.

This plated food is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. You know the dish you’re ordering but it comes with a new enticement in presentation and there’s an almost mystical way the components play off each other. This is certainly food with an eco-gastronomic approach.

Just reading the menu is convincing. Consider Dungeness crab with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on corn), shrimp in lime mojo, plantains with crema, puerco with adobo marinade (Mayan pork), duck confit with mole sauce, carnitas Nortenas. It’s a waltz through a culinary garden that I like a lot.


Middle Eastern

Marrakesh

1976 Newport Blvd.

Costa Mesa

(949) 645-8384

I once was asked to write an article on what my last meal would be if I could choose. I didn’t even have to think; it would be Moroccan food, probably a b’stilla entree (layered phyllo, chicken, egg and almond pie). For years I have taught my cooking students to make this and Moroccan tagines (stews of meats and savories). The romantic and exotic ambiance at Marrakesh has been our beacon for more than 30 years. When I breathe in the aromas, settle in with a cup of aromatic tea poured from a couple of feet above my cup and order my meal, it’s an alluring mental experience par excellence.

Marinated eggplant salad, spiced carrot appetizer and soup studded with garbanzo beans and lentils set my stage on any occasion. Entrees of choice include lamb and couscous, roasted duck, baked rabbit, lemon chicken and that ever present b’stilla. I am ready at this minute for my next Moroccan meal.

End with the flakiest layers of phyllo, honey and nuts (baklava) and more of that calming tea.


Caspian

14100 Culver Drive

Irvine

(949) 651-8454

There are several Persian restaurants in OC but this is one of our go-to places because it’s just become a part of who we are in the great food search realm, it has cultural entertainment, the food is intriguing and it’s a big and very good looking place.

The appetizer that sends me over the moon is tadig (pieces of crispy rice topped with saffron and from one to three stews): chicken with walnuts and pomegranate (fesenjan), meat and green herb stew (ghormeh sabzi) and braised lamb meat (gheymeh). Taste three of the entree stews in small portions.

Get into the centerpieces of a meal—it could be the marinated fresh Lake Superior white fish served atop a bed of rice and vegetables. Or perhaps the Caspian Special that combines shrimp, lamb and chicken on one combo plate. The grilled lamb chops also speak to me. I am enamored of the grilled tomatoes that are requisite on entree plates and the sumac powder to sprinkle at will on my rice. There’s a fairly big menu with dishes and interesting sandwiches that translate well for lunch too.

Naan & Kabob

416 E. First St.

Tustin

(714) 665-2262

Not a place to go for ambiance as it’s small, very mom-and-pop style in a strip mall. It’s all about the food. They have the food pictured, which makes it easier for us non-Persians but it’s a good feeling to see so many Persians ordering away too.

Kabobs are hot items and getting a trio of them as one of the specials lets you taste chicken, lamb and beef. The chunks of meat are good-sized and tender. The rice is fluffy, of the basmati variety, and mostly piled up with a layer of saffron-colored rice blanketing the white rice beneath. A dab of yogurt and cucumber dip enlivens most things I order even further. Some entrees come with kasha bademjan on the plate, which is an utterly delicious eggplant spread. It also can be ordered a la carte. A mini undertone of cinnamon studs the meat, green beans and rice casserole (lubia polo), another engaging taste melange.

Fried falafel (balls of spiced ground garbanzo beans) makes a good meal—accompaniments for this and many entrees include a salad, rice, and a fragrant roasted tomato.

Zena’s

2094 N. Tustin St.

Orange

(714) 279-9511

This good looking Lebanese restaurant is full of happy customers and good energy flows throughout. That’s partly due to the warm and charming family that owns it, so put this high on your friendly restaurants list. The very interesting and quality food ups the ante.

Fans of kabobs will appreciate the tenderness of the meats. I suggest a three-skewer combo to savor different entree tastes at one sitting. For veggies to go with that, the mixed plate of fried eggplant, cauliflower, zucchini, potatoes, tomato and hot salad (ma’ ali) is superb. Another come hither for me is shaikh el mahshi consisting of eggplant stuffed with ground beef, onions and pine nuts, baked with tomato sauce and served with rice. Considering that I haven’t even touched on several lamb dishes I like, it borders on absurd to do any justice to the big menu in this small space. Discover it all for yourself.

When it comes to dessert, it’s out of this world and on to heaven when I bite into the crunchiness, the honey-fragranced, the nutty explosions in the baklava with its phyllo dough layers piled high.


Peruvian

Inka Mama

26676 Portola Parkway

Lake Forest

(949) 951-6262

26741 Aliso Creek Road

Aliso Viejo

(949) 360-6263

I first learned about Peruvian food from our friend, a native of Lima, who is an amazing cook. That was many years ago, before purple potatoes (believed to have originated in Peru) became a common item in trendy restaurants. He introduced me to the wonders of skewered, deliciously marinated meats of many varieties (aniticuchos) and other Peruvian specialties that I still enjoy tremendously.

These restaurants are family run and have upped the decor element for us, as well as presenting an impressive menu. For those in South County, another will be opening soon in San Clemente.

Shrimp, calamari and fish combine in a fine and uniquely spiced Ceviche. Love the potato cakes filled with shellfish and topped with cream sauce (causas). Fish and chips go uptown when the cod filets also cuddle with calamari and shrimp (jalea). Lean and tender beef is cooked with cabbage and spices (col saltado), an assuringly homespun and filling dish as it sits atop its mound of rice.

Dessert must be the Sweet Francesca—named after someone, I presume. Fried bananas are wrapped in delicate crepes, robed in caramel sauce and further adorned with a scoop of ice cream.

Renzo’s Taste of Peru

222 Michelson Drive

Irvine

(949) 955-9053

This place is as raved about for the friendliness and smiling service from Renzo Macchiavello himself as the food. Few things on the Internet get more raves than Renzo’s signature green sauce, a spicy condiment that customers all seem addicted to, and with good reason since it is out of this world good and we douse it on almost everything. I can say outright that people love the dense flavors harbored within this Peruvian food and repeat customers are the norm.

The room is a rather smallish, cafe/deli kind of space, very near the airport. With easy parking and that proximity, 100% customer-oriented service and pretty memorable food, it’s a complete package.

Things to get you started include the chicken salad decked out with lime-cilantro dressing and house specialty of chicken with medium spicy walnut sauce (aji de gallina). Add to the list the distinctly Peruvian version of chicken and rice (arroz con pollo) and the Papa a la Huancaina item of spiced creamy cheese sauce over potatoes, boiled eggs and black olive tapenade. Shrimp, ahi tuna and mango ceviche (raw fish doused with lime at the last moment) is also very South American inclined.


Thai

Thai Kitchen

4250 Barranca Parkway

Irvine

(949) 857-1788

Thai Cafe

14715 Jeffrey Road

Irvine

(949) 559-5382

A joyous and pretty place where the decor matches the passion of the food and the service is on the A list. Lan Lan is the owner and hostess, and the way she and her staff treat customers is pretty remarkable. Let’s begin with the interior design. Since Lan Lan’s co-owner is an architect, he gave the space beautiful lines, attractive seating areas, blond wood galore and a sense of modernism that goes well with the artistic presentations of the food. The dance between all elements is finely choreographed.

One of my all-time soup favorites is their chicken and coconut milk potage (tom kha gai) with a current of lemongrass and galangal (a variety of ginger) rippling through. Red, green and yellow curries offer various levels of herbaciousness and spicy intent, and several dishes incorporate those curries. Wait ‘til you meet their rice noodle and meat dishes too, not to mention fried sea perch with hot chile sauce and the beef and rice noodles (phad see iw).

They’ve recently turned a former Mexican restaurant at Walnut and Jeffrey in Irvine into a second fashionable little eatery called the Thai Cafe. The aforementioned corner is resplendent with two centers jam packed with tremendously busy Asian restaurants of many persuasions.

Vietnamese

Pho Bo Vang

23764 Mercury Road

Lake Forest

(949) 707-5768

Not every place has to hit it out of the ballpark with decor or location. Occasionally we find a little place where one visit turns into a habit, even though it’s in a laid back corner mall. OC is loaded with pho joints but most of them are in Little Saigon and its surrounding territory, a far trek for those in South County. This restaurant serves the South County clientele well, even with dishes beyond pho, but impresses us most with its vital pho flavors and the quality of its ingredients.

The bowl of broth at first seems colorless and our mind skips to insipid. Not true. There’s deep and delicious flavor lurking in the liquid depths. And, I haven’t even added all the herb, vegetable and lime components that merge into the pho. Pop them into the bowl, mix it up a little, patiently wait about a minute and then delve in for your little education into what makes a cultural dish a classic.

They also give us some nice tastes in stir-fry dishes, among them some quite good crispy noodles with meat and veggies, egg rolls with pork and shrimp filling and shrimp on sugar cane skewers.

Xanh Bistro

16161 Brookhurst St.

Fountain Valley

(714) 531-2030

Chef Haley Nguyen’s name is getting around as customers dote on her full-fledged repertoire of Vietnamese specialties. Because this intimate but good looking place is tucked way in the corner of a shopping center, it’s easily dismissed as just one more nondescript eatery. Trust me, the food is terrific.

Green papaya, mango and shrimp salad (goi xoài ?u ?u xanh) and the salad with banana blossoms, shrimp, grilled pork, mint, sesame seeds and peanuts (goi hoa chuoi) will reset your register of what a great salad is all about.

Make way for some delicious entrees: Seared ahi tuna with coconut rice cake and green apple and ginger chutney (cá ahi & xôi chiên), seared filet mignon cubes bathed in a honey-soy reduction (bò lúc lac) or, for fish lovers, the white fish in a clay pot. If entrees don’t come with them, yam fries with plum sauce (khoai lang chiên) are a hip side dish and the simplicity of bok choy sauteed with garlic is a winner.

If Hayley has the coconut creme brulee on the dessert menu, take her up on it.

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