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TO ORDER

HIDDEN GEM EATERIES IN O.C.

By Anne Marie Panoringan | Contributor

SUMMER 2024 ISSUE

Most journalists who specialize in food writing appreciate dining in general. From holes-in-the-wall to strip mall favorites or more upscale, the range of cuisines writers prefer to dine at often leans toward casual or less expensive menus. Putting this theory to the test, we asked local restaurant journalists to share their favorite (but lesser known) destination to have a meal. Here’s what they crave.

OUR CULINARY EXPERTS

​Matt Szabo

Daily Pilot reporter

 

Sharon Stello

Editor of Laguna Beach Magazine and Newport Beach Magazine

 

Christopher Trela

Executive dining columnist for the OC Business Journal and Newport Beach Independent Off the Menu columnist


Sarah Mosqueda

Staff writer at LA Times Food

Lily S.

OC Feed Writer

Benjamin Epstein

Freelance writer and former editor of WhereOC

 

Gretchen Kurz

Orange Coast magazine restaurant writer and critic

 

Allison Mitchell

Editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury/Riviera Orange County

 

Anne Marie PanoringanCulture OC food columnist and three-time James Beard Awards judge

FOOD & TREAT

OLD BREA CHOP HOUSE 

“Nok’s Kitchen is located in an unassuming strip mall in Westminster but they serve the most comforting and delicious Laotian food,” Sarah says. “This used to be more of a hidden gem but they have (rightfully) received recognition from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and OC Register in recent years. I am always overwhelmed by the menu because I have never had a bad dish here. Everything is beautifully presented on natural baskets with plenty of fresh herbs and lip-numbing vinegars for dipping. They are best known for Lao sausage, which I always include in my order, but the salmon larb and crispy rice salad are also favorites of mine.”

 

NOKSKITCHEN.COM | IG: @NOKS_KITCHEN

Q-TORTAS

“Thirty years older than Yelp, this threadbare haunt near the vintage fire station in Placentia serves carnitas tacos so fat and juicy and cheap, they’ll haunt your dreams forever after your first bite,” Gretchen says. Fresh bolillos bulging with carne asada are the best-selling torta, though she’s a fan of the loaded sopes. Family-run and not always speedy, it’s a local legend unknown to most outside its zip code.

CLASSICS FLOWERS AND CONFECTIONS

Nearly hidden in plain sight, this unassuming flower and gift shop in Cypress specializes in a surprisingly customizable afternoon tea offered daily. Classics empowers patrons to select both their sandwich and tea flavors from a bountiful selection that fills a binder and satisfies a range of tastes, something I find most tea services don’t offer. Dining tables are surrounded by displays of jewelry, home accessories and yes, flowers.

 

CLASSICSFLOWERS.COM | IG: @CLASSICSFLOWERSANDCONFECTIONS

GOODIES IN THE PANTRY

“No one really knows about Goodies in the Pantry [in Orange],” Lily says. “Not only does it include a cute little market with Romanian imported goods, proprietor Claudiu Giorgioni will make the best grilled sandwich you've ever eaten or a tomahawk steak dinner on the weekends, take your pick. They're always making something new there.” 

 

GOODIESINTHEPANTRY.COM | IG: @GOODIESINTHEPANTRYOC

NOK’S KITCHEN

“Nok’s Kitchen is located in an unassuming strip mall in Westminster but they serve the most comforting and delicious Laotian food,” Sarah says. “This used to be more of a hidden gem but they have (rightfully) received recognition from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and OC Register in recent years. I am always overwhelmed by the menu because I have never had a bad dish here. Everything is beautifully presented on natural baskets with plenty of fresh herbs and lip-numbing vinegars for dipping. They are best known for Lao sausage, which I always include in my order, but the salmon larb and crispy rice salad are also favorites of mine.” 

 

NOKSKITCHEN.COM | IG: @NOKS_KITCHEN

Nok'sKitchen.jpg

HA LONG BAY PHO & GRILL

“Ha Long Bay [in Tustin] has long been a favorite for a good, quick meal. If you are friends with me, I have probably asked you to meet me here before,” Sarah says. “The price is right, the portions are generous, and I never leave unsatisfied. The pho is served in large bowls, piping hot. I tend to favor meatball pho anywhere I go, but the house special with rare steak, flank, brisket, fatty brisket and tendon is the best deal. (I usually just ask for a side of meatballs.) While it’s the pho that drew me in initially, specialty dishes like the stir-fried egg noodles with shrimp, beef chicken and mixed veggies (E4 on the menu) and the banh mi sandwiches have become favorites, too. When dining in, I rarely ever skip an order of the chicken wings, which are impossibly crispy and served with sweet chili sauce.”  

HALONGBAYPHOGRILLRESTAURANT.COM

MONA LISA CUCINA

An Adams Avenue strip mall in Huntington Beach is home to a family-owned Italian restaurant with crave-worthy food and an intimate setting. “My favorite dish is the risotto Fiorentine, a delectable mix of Arborio rice, chicken, spinach, mushrooms and onions and just a touch of marinara sauce,” Sharon says. “The spaghetti Bolognese is divine, too, with a savory meat sauce that will leave you wanting more. My boyfriend's go-to is the chicken Marsala, with mushrooms and onions in a creamy sauce served with pasta aglio olio.” 

MONALISACUCINA.COM | IG: @MONALISA_CUCINA

GREAT BITES

As an industry veteran and professor at Chapman University, Chris dines out often. When posed with selecting an establishment, he was straight to the point about the fast-casual Great Bites in Huntington Beach: “They are a fast casual restaurant in downtown Huntington Beach. Small, but with amazingly good food.” Find California coastal comfort food on the menu, like burgers, sandwiches, tacos, burritos and bowls. 

GREATBITESHB.COM | IG: @GREATBITESHB

HAUS OF PIZZA

A Costa Mesa institution, this family owned spot is great for casual gatherings and game days. The menu features classic pizzas with thick, chewy crust (including gluten-free options), as well as daily Italian specials like manicotti and stuffed shells. “I stumbled onto Haus of Pizza when I first came to Orange County nearly 20 years ago,” Matt says. “The Haus Special pizza is my go-to, heavy on the toppings, including some of the best sausage around.” 

IG: @HAUSEOFPIZZA

RYE GOODS

“A rye sourdough culture is the base of almost all the baked items at Rye Goods, which means everything from the fresh-baked country loaves to the bagels and pastries have the same rustic, nutty and complex flavor,” Sarah says. “The Tustin location is hidden behind an office complex, where an A-frame sign is the only clue that the bakery’s commercial production kitchen for all locations and a small storefront is just beyond the door. Living so close to this location has proven dangerous since I often stop by for a bagel, smeared with their house-made veggie cream cheese and a loaf of bread. If they have a Kringle in the pastry case though, it’s hard to resist ordering one. Basically Rye Goods’ version of a Danish, the Kringle is filled with cream cheese and whatever fruit is in season, topped with a cinnamon crumble and a drizzle of icing.” 

RYEGOODS.COM | IG: @RYEGOODS

RyeGoods.jpg

EL TORO BRAVO TORTILLERIA

Huge, traditional tacos here are generously filled with beyond–the-usual cuts like buche (pork belly), chicharron and costillas (beef ribs). Plus, find burritos and tamales “and the single best chips in the universe,” Benjamin says. It’s all but hidden near El Toro Bravo Meat Market in Costa Mesa; stand up or takeout only. 

ELTOROBRAVO.NET

PIE SOCIETY

“This enter-through-the-back-door speakeasy is a dark, teensy gem serving shockingly elevated cocktails—plus darn good eats from the Pitfire Pizza kitchen behind the wall,” Gretchen says. “Funky thrifted furniture and a colossal Muhammad Ali mural belie the boisterous family scene beyond Pitfire’s front door [in Costa Mesa]. Look for the makeshift patio at the building’s rear to access the speakeasy door.” 

IG: @PIESOCIETYBAR

CASABLANCA THE RESTAURANT & BISTRO

This Newport Beach hidden gem moved from Costa Mesa about a year ago to the west end of town. “Without any windows, you would have no idea what lies within when driving by on Pacific Coast Highway,” Sharon says. “Step inside and the vibrant dining room is filled with colorful tapestries hanging from the ceiling, intricate wood tables, jewel-toned pillows, ornate light fixtures and more. The food hails from Morocco, Algeria and Spain — think flame-grilled meat skewers with couscous, and tangine, which is meat that's slow-braised in an earthenware pot. Everything is flavorful and the meat — like the honey lamb tangine simmered with spices, apricots and prunes — is so tender, it falls off the bone. And, on Friday and Saturday nights, there's often belly or flamenco dancing for dinner and a show.” 

RESTAURANT-CASABLANCA.COM | IG: @THECASABLANCARESTAURANT

THE BLESSED BRAID

A carb lover’s fantasy tucked into one corner of an Irvine business park’s modest food court, I salivate while peering into the aquarium window bakery from within The Blessed Braid. Despite my personal preference for savory eats, it is at Blessed where kosher-certified, non-dairy treats attempt to woo me. I cannot give up pastry just yet, requesting a warm Belgian waffle every time. Bonus: It’s a woman-owned, small business that crafts all products on-site. 

THEBLESSEDBRAID.COM | IG: @THEBLESSEDBRAID

WIGZ

“In Laguna Beach, one of my favorite new spots is Wigz, a deli that opened last summer in a former wig shop on South Coast Highway,” Sharon says. “Everything I've had there is great, but my go-to is the pesto grilled cheese, which is packed with veggies from tomatoes to artichokes, with melted provolone, pesto and balsamic drizzle. Another favorite is their meatball sandwich, made with meatballs from Rumari, the Italian restaurant next door. Also, Wigz has a great hidden patio if you walk all the way through the shop to the back.” 

WIGZLAGUNA.COM | IG: @WIGZLB

SURFIN’ CHICKEN GRILL

“As a San Clemente native, my favorite hole-in-the-wall eatery in Orange County is the Surfin’ Chicken Grill in Pico Plaza,” Allison says. “It’s family-owned, and while its name might suggest trying the chicken, my go-to order is the grilled salmon plate with beans, Spanish rice, salsa and tortillas. The salmon is incredibly flavorful and for $13, you can’t beat it.”

SCSURFINCHICKEN.COM | IG: @SURFINCHICKENGRILL

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