If you’re a regular Food GPS reader, it might seem like I’m always celebrating my birthday, but that distinction is actually just limited to one day per year: November 2. That’s an exciting time to head off the grid, out of WiFi range and in search of new restaurants. This year, since November 2 fell on a Monday, November 1 was my chance to wander. This year, the appointed area was Orange County. November 1 is known in Mexico as Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead), but my six stops once again confirmed that the Orange County restaurant scene has plenty of life.
STOP #1: King Lobster Palace
My first stop was supposed to provide a sumptuous dim sum feast. Unfortunately, a condescending cart pusher drove me from the “palace” after just two dishes – serviceable but unspectacular versions of har gow and steamed shrimp & scallop dumplings. A simple request to a server to lift the lid resulted in a repeated chorus of “You won’t like.” This is a woman who has no idea how many dim sum experiences I (or anybody else) has had, so it would have been smarter to take two seconds to just lift the silver lids on the dim sum trays. Instead, she couldn’t possibly fathom that we’d enjoy the hidden dishes. Since she was so insistent that we wouldn’t like the food, we left. There are hundreds of eating options in Orange County, and it wasn’t worth giving any more business to rude dim summers.
STOP #2: Trieu Chau
4401 West 1st Street, Santa Ana, 714 775 1536
At Rio Brasil Cafe, Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA invited Dave, a longtime Chowhounder who goes by “Das Ubergeek” and who, after our meal, started a blog called Mange l’Orange. We discussed the Orange County dining scene, since that’s where he lives, and he made memorable arguments in favor of a number of O.C. restaurants, including Trieu Chau, a noodle house on Little Saigon’s eastern fringes that many people believe is either Cambodian, Chinese or Vietnamese. According to the restaurant’s doorman, Trieu Chau (aka Chaozhou) is actually a Chinese ethnic group that emanates from Guangdong Province, not far from Hong Kong. Regardless, owner Meng Tang’s 30-year-old restaurant was absolutely mobbed when we arrived for lunch. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the doorman to call your number, but once your number is called, Trieu Chau is so popular that you might be asked to share a table with another party; do it or continue to wait.
On an interesting side note, as a testament to Trieu Chau’s popularity, a pastry stand has sprouted up outside the restaurant, selling moon cakes and sesame pastries to people who stand in line. This is kind of like the pilot fish-shark relationship, where the pilot fish gobble up scraps from ravenous shark feeds.
The house special noodle soup was very good, featuring thin pho-like rice noodles loaded with pork liver, sliced pork, ground pork, pork meatballs, on-the-bone chicken, shrimp and nearly half of a roast duck. The menagerie of meats, garlic and scallions jointly infused the broth with powerful flavors that rise high above pho’s subtlety.
Seafood chow fun was another emphatic Trieu Chau recommendation, a noodle dish similar to Thai pad see iew, blanketed in smoky soy gravy and loaded with tender sheets of ghost-white squid, shrimp, Chinese broccoli, scrambled egg, carrots and supple crisp-edged fish cakes.
Trieu Chau’s noodles aren’t made in-house, but the varied high-value menu was still more than rewarding enough to warrant return visits from L.A.
STOP #3: Tastea
20 City Blvd West, Orange, 714 634 2622
We made two drink stops, beginning with Tastea at The Block at Orange. The original Tastea in Westminster is overflowing with boba-crazed Vietnamese teenagers who flood the tiny shop for freezes, smoothies and teas, all made with fresh fruit. Unfortunately, the location at Orange’s open-air mall doesn’t have the same energy. Mango All The Way freeze was just as good as the original, with a layer of sweet-tart raspberry puree, but the Watermelon Heaven freeze was a water one-note letdown. From now on, the Westminster original will be my only Orange County smoothie stop.
STOP #4: Kean Coffee
13681 Newport Avenue, Tustin, 714 838 5326
We took a brief respite at the Kean Coffee spinoff in a Tustin strip mall. Martin Diedrich and wife Karen have built Kean into Orange County’s best coffeehouse, and this visit was consistent with our previous experiences. The invigorating cardamom-dusted Turkish latte gave us the energy to continue our culinary adventure.
For our final two stops, we visited Little Gaza, a mile-long stretch of Brookhurst in Anaheim not far from Disneyland, named for Israel’s disputed territory. They have some very good food there, primarily run by Palestinian- and Lebanese-Americans.
STOP #5: Sahara Falafel
590 South Brookhurst Street, Anaheim, 714 491 0400
Mahmoud Salem opened Sahara Falafel in Little Gaza in 1995, with a Sahara Desert mural featuring camels and Bedouin nomads. Up until this visit, my gold standard for the fried garbanzo cakes was Elena’s Greek Armenian Cuisine in Glendale. Shockingly, Sahara Falafel’s version was at least as good, with terrific donut shaped falafel flecked w/parsley and cilantro. The crisp-outside, supple-inside cakes were absolutely dynamic when dunked in creamy, sesame-enriched tahini, elegant hummus and fiery hot sauce.
STOP #5: Victory Bakery
630 South Brookhurst Street, Anaheim, 714 817 6907
Victory Bakery was our final stop for end of bender desserts. The original Victory started as Lebanese ice cream parlor in 1955. The owners expanded to baking in 1962 and opened stateside in 1988, in Montebello. Victory Bakery and Restaurant has been open in Little Gaza since 2007. The Orange County outpost is sprawling, featuring a bakery, juice bar, gelato case and full-service restaurant with counters lined with savory pastries.
We tried some pretty good versions of traditional Middle Eastern pastries, including mamouls filled with date paste and walnuts, buttery donut-shaped date pastries studded with pistachios, ground pistachio baklava layered with shredded wheat and a grainy farina square topped with shaved almonds.
Still, the best surprise came from visiting baker Ray Safi, who was in town from Aleppo, Syria. He comes to Anaheim once a year to make a special Syrian sesame molasses bread ($5). His irregularly shaped discs were kind of like challah, only lightly brushed with molasses and lined with sesame seeds. This was a powerful combination. Safi said he was thinking of extending his stay. If so, SoCal residents will surely benefit.
Aside from King Lobster Palace, my birthday bender was a major (and majorly gluttonous) success. I’m already looking forward to another birthday day-trip in 2010.