Best of Orange County 2021: Food & Drink

A rotating taco trio, a natural wine bar, local hard kombucha, and more!
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Rotating Taco Trio
Every Taco Thursday, the team at El Mercado Modern Cuisine offers a special menu of three tacos featuring house-made blue and yellow corn tortillas. Highlights have included a creative take on ratatouille, one featuring bunashimeji mushrooms, and a shredded chicken taco with mole sauce, pepitas, and cilantro (3 for $10).
Santa Ana, 714-338-2446

Natural Wine Bar
If you prefer natural wine to its counterpart, head to Semi Tropic Wines, a bar dedicated to natural wine. Opt to sit inside or out to try the rotating wines on tap for $11 a glass and pair with a cheese board ($30) featuring produce that’s sourced from The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Head into the bottle shop to take your favorite wine home with you. Costa Mesa, 949-520-2118

Brunch Splurge
Indulge your sweet tooth with the crispy-edge sourdough pancakes at Fable & Spirit’s recently launched brunch ($14). Topped with lemon mascarpone and blueberry compote, the pancakes only need maple syrup to be truly decadent. The surprising sourdough is a delightful contrast to the sweet fruit flavors. Newport Beach, 949-409-9913

Savory Pate
While we were waiting for a vaccine, Chef de Cuisine Arturo Castillo at Marché Modèrne was perfecting Pâté en Croûte, an intricate creation starring house pâté and morels or chanterelles all encased in a buttery, golden, and dare we say perfect crust. $38 per slice. Newport Coast, 714-434-7900

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Drinks To-Go by the Liter
Takeaway cocktails (previous page) are a pandemic innovation we hope endures, especially at Olea. The team there crushes the loosened alcohol rules with liter bottles of their dreamy craft cocktails for $56, and single drinks for $14. Just add ice. Newport Beach, 949-287-6807

Mango Desserts
The tropical stone fruit is king at Hui Lau Shan, a dessert shop originally founded in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Carabao mangoes sourced from the Philippines are showcased in sweet treats such as mango mochi, mango pudding, mango ice cream, and pomelo mango sago, to name a few. Irvine, 949-418-7989; Westminster, 657-210-4274

Vegan Mobile Cafe
Miffie’s Coffee is a coffeehouse on wheels that offers all-vegan drinks and treats, from oat milk-based lattes to signature dessert-like drinks. With sustainability in mind, owners Ross and Didi Lower source local, organic ingredients, use biodegradable serveware, and are crowdfunding to be an exclusively battery- and solar-powered truck. Throughout O.C., @miffiescoffee

Grilled Stingray Fin
For a unique appetizer, opt for Hashigo Sushi’s grilled stingray fin with spicy mayo and a wedge of lemon ($12). The thin slices are similar to a soft beef jerky and the lemon and spicy mayo offset the sweetness of the meat. Huntington Beach, 714-848-1111

Unique Acai Bowl Bases
The all-vegan Berry Brand at Union Market serves up beautifully arranged superfood bowls with unlimited combinations of rich, creamy bases and delectable toppings ($7 to $13).  Choose from traditional bases such as acai and pitaya along with signature blends like ube dream, mango, and the pastel-colored Coconut Dream. Tustin,

Mapo Tofu Tots
A spin on the traditional dish, Toast Kitchen & Bakery’s tater tot version features tofu, ground chuck, nacho cheese, fontina, roasted sesame seeds, and cilantro. The explosion of flavors will have you finishing the $8 bowl and already wanting more. Costa Mesa, 949-873-5057

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Local Hard Kombucha
Rich Elixirs offers an alcoholic version of the probiotic-rich, bubbly beverage. The hard booch is on tap at both locations, and you can grab a bottle to go. Try the refreshing pineapple hibiscus flavor; two more flavors are set to premiere this month. Costa Mesa, 949-445-0102; Tustin, 949-445-0102

Tofu Butter Masala
The delivery-only Indian Vegan Cafe sprouted up at the perfect time mid-pandemic, when diners were eager for good eats brought to their doors. Though Indian food often leans vegetarian, the many unique plant-based options here, such as the protein-centric tofu butter masala, blew us away. Irvine, 516-754-4150

Loaded Fruit Tray
If you’re heading to a birthday party, having a beach day, or just want to indulge in some delicious fruit, grab a tray from Natural that includes coconut, strawberries, cucumber, mango, kiwi, and more and comes with a side of chile and lime. Sizes vary from small to large ($17 to $54). Anaheim, 714-563-1343

Filipino Coffee Shop
Teofilo Coffee Company sources beans from the Philippines and roasts them fresh in-house. Enjoy drinks such as the Mount Milo, a Filipino-inspired mocha with cold brew and Milo chocolate powder. Fried chicken adobo with ube waffles tops a robust menu of ube eats. Grab a bag of coffee beans to brew at home. Los Alamitos, 714-715-7183

Gourmet Beach Meal
Lost Pier Café at Aliso Creek Beach isn’t your average snack shack. Of course you can get a burger, fish tacos, or chips. But why go for everyday fare when the tuna poke bowl is so delicious and fresh ($14)? The bowl is perfect for eating at a table shoreside as you watch kids frolic on the playground or in the waves. Or take it with you to have a great to-go meal away from the crowds this summer. Laguna Beach, 949-715-4210

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Loaded Dole Whips
While Hawaiian shave ice is the main specialty at Hula Girls’ Shave Ice, Dole Whip enthusiasts drove here during Disneyland’s closure to get a taste of the iconic vegan dessert. It comes in newfangled creations such as the lime-flavored Dole Whip inspired by Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) from “The Mandalorian.” The watermelon and coconut-pineapple flavors are also favorites. Huntington Beach, 949-295-0292

Smooth Cocktail
The Velvet Alley at Selanne Steak Tavern is elegant and light. Made with Empress 1908 gin, peach bitters, and lemon, the drink’s lavender shade makes it delicate and perfect for any occasion ($15). It goes down so easily, you’ll be tempted to indulge in many. The restaurant’s specialty cocktails change every three months to keep deliciously in season; this one will linger from the spring menu into summer. Laguna Beach, 949-715-9881

Crab Pasta
When in the mood for something truly special, try the crab tajarin at Twenty Eight Restaurant and Bar. Golden strands of pasta are generously topped with truffle crab cream, lump crab, shellfish crumbs, and a Jonah crab claw. $29. Irvine, 949-852-2828

Aquavit Cocktail
Always on the leading edge, Blinking Owl Distillery presents the 20/21 Vision, a killer post-pandemic cocktail laced with its superlative Aquavit. Try it with chef Luis Perez’s cacio e pepe pizza, blistering hot from the oven on the new, here-at-last patio. Santa Ana, 714-852-3947

Taro Boba
What distinguishes Omomo Tea Shoppe’s take on the classic bubble tea flavor is the house-made taro paste on the bottom ($4.50). The freshly pureed, creamy taro, used as a filling for many Asian desserts, pairs perfectly with milk. Two locations in Irvine, 949-861-8828, 949-418-9470

Tea to Go
Stun your fancy friends by hosting a perfect high tea. Morning Lavender Cafe preps the dainty eats to go—finger sandwiches, pastries, jam, and your choice of teas ($35)—so you can transfer the bites to your china and casually ask, “One lump or two?” Tustin, 714-486-1429

Upscale Burrito
Leave it to Taco María to elevate a humble dish to noble heights. The not-so-standard burrito is made with refried pinto beans, jasmine rice, browned butter, and ancho chile wrapped in a remarkable handmade flour tortilla, freshly charred on the grill ($12). Costa Mesa, 714-538-8444

Fresh Corn Tamales
Huchepos—sweet corn tamales, light as a feather and redolent of fresh and ground corn—are found only at Chato’s Bar & Grill. Bring your favorite vegetarian and discover why we say Sergio Ortega is a high master of masa creations ($14). Santa Ana, 714-852-3256

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