SanTana is home to OC's densest and greatest mix of Mexican cuisine and some of the most cutting-edge of OC's restaurants. It's also here that you'll find one of the most authentic bowls of mi nam vang in the county. Here is a list of this food writer's essential Santa Ana restaurants, some of which aren't actual restaurants. Don't see your favorite on there? Share them in the comments.
1. Alebrije's Grill
Long before food trucking got all tied up with Twitter and Facebook, before it became fashionable, old-school food trucks such as Alebrije's Grill scratched out a living, going from to industrial park to industrial park, filling a simple but noble demand: to feed those who only have a precious 30 minutes for lunch. But even as it serviced these day toilers, it was called every name in the book, the tamest of them being “roach coach.” You must wonder what it thinks of Kogi and the rest of its new-school kin. Alebrije's must regard the whole thing as silly. For one, Alebrije's doesn't even drive around, trying to find customers. Parked from morning to night at a secured spot in front of a Mexican grocery store, it might as well be a permanent part of the landscape. Discerning connoisseurs of chilango cuisine (that's Mexico City food) will find the tacos acorazados revelatory. This drop-everything amalgamation of Spanish rice, a hand-pressed rustic tortilla, grilled cactus, carrots, pickles and crumbled cheese all herald sliced rectangles of the greatest chicken-fried steak this continent has ever seen. It's called the milanesa, and it needs no Twitter.
2. Chapter One: The Modern Local
Former Haven Gastropub partner Jeff Hall throws down the gauntlet with Chapter One, a challenge to not only his former colleagues, but also his neighbors at Santa Ana's burgeoning restaurant scene. The bar pours old-man drinks with equal jiggers of expertise and knowledge of the mixological arts. It's also up-to-date on the local beers. The original chef, a culinary raconteur in a city full of them, brought humor and lightness to dishes that were as fun to eat as they were to order. Now a new chef nicknamed “Chicken Wang” continues what he started. He's put a Filipino accent to things, too, like the sisig fries–pork jowl, pig ears and pulled pork on crisp fried potatoes, with pickled red onions and a fried egg.
3. The Crosby
The Crosby's jerk carnitas torta, is an homage to The Crosby's Santa Ana neighborhood, where the torta trumps the hamburger as the preferred lunchtime sandwich. Resembling pulled-pork, mounds of the shredded meat is piled on proper torta bread soaked and grilled with so much butter it can double for garlic toast. Wisps of sour, house-pickled onion heighten a two-fisted beast that gushes and dribbles, thrills and fills. There are too many other dishes to note in this bar-cum-late-night-hangout where the food is as interesting as the boom boxes that are a functional decoration, and the restroom that embraces tagger graffiti as art. There is no outside signage that advertises its presence — only the number”400″, which is its street number on Broadway. That's just how these Crosby folks roll.
4. Memphis at the Santora
Ah, Memphis' buttermilk fried chicken! This, ladies and gents, is the way fried chicken should be. There is no bucket, no mascot, and the bird comes practically deboned. But if you think that it's some frou-frou deconstruction of a classic, you'd be wrong. Memphis' fried chicken plate might just make a displaced Southerner weep from his meemaw. What you get is a meal as traditional as it is gigantic. A study of balance and excess, it starts with a flattened, boneless breast covered with a shimmering, crispy, flaky, golden chainmail of breading — what I consider the “original” original recipe. About the only bone you'll encounter is in the wing drumlet, which is attached as an extra treat to nibble on for dessert. Though there is no dark meat here, every well-cooked molecule of it is moist and juicy. The flavor is slightly tangy from an overnight soak in buttermilk. Then, beneath the swooping shadow of the golden fried breast, there are the sides that complete the dish: a scoop of rustic mashed potato as starch, a heap of pot-stewed mustard greens as a bitter counterbalance, and a lighter, more refined version of country gravy to slather over everything. And when I say more refined, I mean it. Do not expect the standard caramel-colored glop that tastes like it came from a bouillon cube–this is the purest form of poultry-flavored ambrosia.
5. Mil Jugos
Mil Jugos' arepas are corn cakes with a crisp-as-paper outer crust and a dense corn pudding inner core–born from batter and formed into French macaron-like shapes in an iron press. They're split down the middle, stuffed with meat and cheese and beans, and eaten like South American sliders. The carne asado may be the simplest filling–a slab of slow-cooked beef touched by wine and brown sugar, a rival to pot roasts in its mouth-melting tenderness. The arepa stuffed with the chilled coolness of an avocado-studded chicken potato salad called the reina pepeada might just be the thing to soothe your tongue from the punishing ajis–two kinds of a thick green hot sauce applied via squirt bottles that you should've used to douse everything in sight. The mild one is already spicy, colored muted jade; but the one that looks like pureed grass clippings is so sharp it cuts like a razor. Wash it all down with at least one licuado, a fruit smoothie made with just the fruit of your choice, some ice and sugar. The meal is easily the best pairing of juice and sandwich than the hot dog and papaya drink at Gray's Papaya.
When the menu stops changing daily, when the controversial chalkboard proclamations of “If you want your meat well-done, bring it with you” is erased, that's when you'll know Jason Quinn has lost his edge, his ballsy confidence, his passion–everything that has made the winner of the second season of The Great Food Truck Race the toast of foodies and the subject of gushing such as this. Playground, the restaurant he opened with his share of the Food Network winnings, is already infamous for the incident in which Quinn told a Yelp critic to “burn in hell.” Young, brash and in control, the chef isn't about to let anyone tell him how to run his restaurant, how to cook his burgers, or how he can't levy a mandatory 3 percent “kitchen surcharge” to reward his fellow cooks with some well-deserved pocket change. Get the burger that Yelp reviewer railed over, the one Quinn refuses to sear warmer than medium-rare: it's the bloodiest in all of OC, more akin to steak tartare and Ethiopian kitfo than an In-N-Out Double Double. Since it's as light as sushi and doesn't feel greasy despite all the dribbling juices, you end up not chewing, but inhaling the thing as though it were beefy air. It's pointless to talk about the other dishes because what's there now won't be there tomorrow. Not even Nostradamus can predict what Quinn has planned for tonight's dinner.
7. Ritter's Steam Kettle Kitchen
Sit at the counter, and you'll see Chef Ritter of his namesake restaurant, tend to a row of 12 stainless-steel, steam-powered kettles that look like a series of exposed plumbing. As though a priest blessing his congregants with holy water, he flicks minced garlic into each kettle with tongs, then squirts in some oil; he deposits a pre-measured amount of raw seafood into one, chicken in another, sauteing them. Next, he ladles in prepared simmering sauces from a big container. Seconds later, the stews begin to bubble, the whole thing roiling, sputtering like an evil witch's brew. The smells are intoxicating. After a few minutes, a clean bowl is set underneath, and with a quick pull on a lever, the whole thing pivots, pouring out the orders of jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo and seafood pasta. Eat them hot and fresh, and then tell your friends you've just discovered the best Cajun restaurant in OC.
8. Siam Taste of Asia
If every tofu tasted like those from Siam Taste of Asia, we'd see an immediate surge in soy bean futures. These are tofu made into candy. It may look like the same deep fried tofu cubes common to Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurants–the kind you dip into a sauce. And for sure it does come with its own dunking medium. But you won't need it. Not here. It doesn't need extra flavor. It's already tricked out with a coating of a sticky, spicy, sugary-sweet glaze that might as well be a Willy Wonka confection. You will be well advised to wait a few minute before biting into one, unless you want your tongue boiled by a scalding torrent of soy-curd napalm. The custardy, milky lava hides beneath the craggly surface of its crust–a crunchy shell with the same DNA as a tater tot–which is solid enough to make a hollow sound when you rap on it with a spoon. If you ask anyone who's been to the restaurant, all will be agreed on more than just the tofu, and that is that Siam Taste of Asia is an underdog, underappreciated and woefully lacking in customers.
9. Shabu Shabu Bar
You either buy into the idea of shabu shabu, or you don't. The naysayers might paraphrase Bill Murray in Lost In Translation when he said “What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?” If you're keen to it, you'll find Shabu Shabu Bar rises to the top like the meats you'll boil. Nippy nights are the busiest, often with waits as long as an hour. Tissue-thin meats–mostly of the bovine variety, from rib-eye to the excessively exorbitant Kobe, but also chicken and shrimp–are fanned out like petals to be plucked and swished around in roiling pots of water. The particularly carnivorous should attempt the Yokozuna, a $50 mountain of meat that looks much like those giant papier-mâché volcanos kids make for grade-school science projects. Another thing that endears the place to its fans: For a DIY joint, you get more service at Shabu Shabu Bar than you would at a normal sit-down. Servers skim the scum from your pot, mix your sauces, serve rice, make conversation, and even prepare your noodle soup with the now-flavorful water once you've finished cooking your meat. If anything, this might even silence any remaining shabu shabu naysayers for good, perhaps even Bill Murray.
10. Trieu Chau
Are you squeamish? A germophobe? If your answer to either question is yes, then forget about even setting foot in Trieu Chau in Santa Ana. When we use the word “dive” here, we mean it. The floor will likely have pieces of food on it. Also, the place is so cramped that you're probably–no, scratch that–you will most certainly get bumped by the busboys' cleaning cart. And when you come alone, you will be seated at a communal table to eat with strangers. One of those people may or may not start clipping his nails once he's done eating (this has actually occurred). It's the Wild West in there. Anything can happen. The only thing that's for sure is that the mi nam vang, the noodle soup it serves, is peerless in its perfection. No one, not even the place across town called “New Trieu Chau,” has ever come close to matching its lip-smacking goodness. The broth, wrung like a flavorful nectar from chicken and pig, also has generous cuts of the animals' meat. Plus, there's liver and pieces of duck hacked by cleaver. Spit out the stray fragments of bones as you slurp. But please, for God's sake, try not to add to what's already on the floor!
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.