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Orange County Restaurants: The food scene is better than you think

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LA Post: Orange County Restaurants: The food scene is better than you think
April 17, 2024
Nahal Garakani -

Orange County's culinary landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Once overlooked and dismissed, it is now known for its abundance of unique restaurants, offering diverse and innovative culinary experiences. The Splendid Table, the popular public radio program about food and cooking, recently visited Southern California for a live event and recording at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa to showcase this exciting revival in the culinary world. 

The sold-out event featured host Francis Lam in conversation with a quartet of local industry veterans: Kenneth Nguyen, co-founder of East Films and host of The Vietnamese podcast; Patricia Huang, former general manager of 626 Night Market; Daniel Castillo, Heritage Barbecue’s pitmaster; and Gustavo Arellano, lifelong O.C. resident and LA Times columnist. Together, they explored the diversity, innovation, and breadth of Orange County's contemporary food scene.

One clear sign of this transformation can be seen in the food halls that have taken off in recent years throughout O.C. Collage Culinary Experience in Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza features eclectic tenants like Paradise Dynasty (known for xiao long bao) from Singapore, homegrown waffle sandwich brand Bruxie, and cocktail bar Blossoms & Brass. These communal spaces allow diners to sample dishes from multiple kitchens and cuisines under one roof - a far cry from the chains and big box restaurants that previously dominated. 

Perhaps no Orange County city signifies this shift more than San Juan Capistrano. Once a quiet California mission town, it has become a bonafide dining destination with lauded eateries such as farm-to-table focused Bloom Restaurant and Bar, the seasonal California cuisine at Mayfield, and the naturally leavened bread of FKN Bread. Last year, Heritage Barbecue pitmaster Daniel Castillo even earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand award - official recognition of the town’s culinary ascendance on the global stage. Lines now snake around the block for Castillo’s Central Texas-style brisket, ribs and sausages.  

The 626 Night Market, held multiple times yearly at the OC Fairgrounds, has introduced locals to LA's dynamic and eclectic San Gabriel Valley food scene without braving the traffic. Showcasing scores of Asian and Asian American vendors, performers and merchants in an open-air bazaar setting, the Night Market has expanded Orange County’s palate with tastes ranging from stinky tofu to matcha-infused treats. 

Reliable taco trucks and launchers dishing regional Mexican flavors have long dotted Santa Ana and Anaheim. But the last few years have seen pop-ups penetrate suburbs like Irvine and Tustin. Chef Henry Pineda reminds diners that Filipino cuisine is on the verge of blowing up with his dual concept spot Lola’s (brunch) and Pacitas (dinner) in Anaheim. 

Even Disneyland Resort has embraced chef-driven dining. Coming soon are an outpost of LA powerhouse Porto’s Bakery, the soup dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung, and fine dining concept Paseo from Chicago’s Chef Carlos Gaytan. Disney California Adventure Park rotates festivals based on the seasons, with dishes like Filipino adobo featured during winter's Festival of Holidays and churro creations galore. Regularly updated menus are available on the Disneyland app.

Vietnamese restaurant group Kei Concepts has not only made their nation’s cuisine more visible in Orange County, but they have also successfully branched out beyond it with concepts that fuse countries and cultures. Think sushi tapas at Kin Izakaya, Chinese-Peruvian flavors at The Vox Kitchen, Italian-Japanese at Ini Ristorante, and progressive pan-Asian small plates at the newly opened Kei Supper Club. This hyphenated fare reflects the diversity of Orange County itself.  

If the sold-out Splendid Table event is any indication, Orange County’s dining scene will continue gaining attention and accolades. The discourse highlighted everything from Texas-style barbecue to Vietnamese coffee and Mexican lunches. In other words, there's something for every palate and preference - from neighborhood comfort fare to special occasion showstoppers. 

As LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano noted to an enraptured crowd, outsiders often still underestimate Orange County as a culinary contender. But to locals, the secret is out. Word of mouth spreads quickly about the latest foodie finds, whether a 12-hour smoked pastrami sandwich drawing lines in San Juan Capistrano or a progressive tasting menu melding seasonal California ingredients with Asian flavors and techniques. 

The restaurants may be smaller, the kitchens less flashy than those found across the Orange Curtain in Los Angeles. But the heart, skill, and diversity found in Orange County kitchens match cities 10 times their size. From old-school institutions that have anchored communities for decades to young chefs putting a new spin on their heritage through food, the table is set for both locals and visitors to dig in.

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