Dust off your Real Housewives associations: Orange County is suddenly all about real restaurants.
"If I were to ask a group of people, 'What do you imagine the Orange County diner to be like?' the response would be overwhelmingly negative," says chef Jason Quinn, who has spent his career in the area.
Indulge your most stereotypical ideas of the O.C. and you see freeways, strip malls, and little boxes on hillsides. The restaurants? Chains. Tried, true, unchallenging.
But Quinn can't sell a plain-old filet mignon at Playground. "People would much rather have halibut cheeks," he says. "We have an unbelievable amount of adventurous diners—maybe even more than in L.A."
To be fair, Hunan-style fermented vegetables, Korean barbecue, bowls of cold-curing pho, and tacos made with hand-pressed corn tortillas have long had a home in Orange County. Now, though, the more interesting food moments aren't happening exclusively inside the walls of restaurants run by Asian or Mexican immigrants. Highly trained chefs are threading ethnic cuisine into modern American menus and opening their own restaurants in L.A.'s outskirts.
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It's a movement happening around the country, as big-city rents skyrocket past the budgets of young guns who want to work for themselves. Take a look at this year's Food & Wine Best New Chef winners and you'll see a healthy percentage of talent from smaller towns: Jonathan Brooks from Milktooth in Indianapolis, Katie Button from Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina, Tim Maslow from Ribelle in Brookline, Massachusetts. "It used to be that, as chefs, we were focused on the great food cities like New York or Chicago," says Carlos Salgado, who owns Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, California, and was also a Best New Chef winner this year. "Now when I'm traveling, passing through Milwaukee or the suburbs of New Jersey, I notice more independent chef-driven restaurants."
With that come diners whose palates slowly open up to the likes of…lamb testicles. "One night, we put lamb testicles on the menu," says Quinn. "I left to run an errand at around 5 o'clock in the evening and came back at 7 o'clock and we were sold out. I thought, 'What just happened?!'" Last time we checked Taco Bell, there were no lamb testicles or halibut cheeks on the menu.
"It felt somewhat disingenuous to come back to southern California after working in San Francisco to open a restaurant in L.A.," says Salgado. "I'm an Orange County kid."
Try these spots for a taste of the new O.C.:
Taco Maria in Costa Mesa
After training with Daniel Patterson at Coi in San Francisco and James Syhabout at Commis in Oakland, Carlos Salgado moved back home to launch a taco truck. His first brick-and-mortar spot, Taco Maria, is not a taqueria, although you'll find excellent heirloom blue corn tacos on the lunch menu. Four-course tasting menus come out at night, when you'll find Dungeness crab garnished with chicken skin or braised bacon served with apricots, Yahualica chiles, and grilled cabbage. "Salgado's cooking, largely vegetarian, may feature Mexican flavors, but the spirit is distinctly market-oriented modernist," writes LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who listed Taco Maria as one of his 101 Best Restaurants of 2014.
Playground in Santa Ana
Jason Quinn also has a food truck in his blood, having won the Great Food Truck Race in 2011. His greatest success so far, though, has come from opening Playground in downtown Santa Ana a year later, a time when the area was frankly a bit dodgy. Since then, Playground has spawned 2.0, a 17-seat "culinary theater" next door, and Quinn will add 40 seats to the original restaurant as well as a rooftop lounge this winter. And, yes, he has served lamb testicles, although you're more likely to find sunflower seed risotto with cauliflower heart cream or crispy striped bass with curried pineapple sauce on the dinner menu.
Haven in Orange
Chef and owner Greg Daniels was an early patriarch of local, sustainable cuisine in Orange County. A self-described gastropub, Haven "was a pretty progressive restaurant when it opened ten years ago," says Salgado. "A lot of young chefs at the more interesting restaurants in Orange County received their training at Haven." The menu lists comfort foods such as burgers and hand-twisted pretzels, but those burgers get St. Agur cheese and the pretzels come flecked with Jacobsen sea salt. Notify Daniels a week in advance, and you and 13 of your closest friends can share a humanely raised whole-roasted suckling pig.
Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach
James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef of 2014 Nancy Silverton expanded her winning Los Angeles pizzeria—and its beloved mozzarella bar—to Newport Beach in 2011. The menu consists of much more than pizza; antipasti range from bone marrow to jumbo asparagus with speck. And while it may be located on West Coast Highway, all deliveries are made on foot or by bicycle.
The North Left in Santa Ana
Until he recently left for Ludo Lefebvre's Petit Trois, Aron Habiger was responsible for the creativity on The North Left's savory dinner menu. While a replacement hasn't yet been found, the real star of this restaurant, pastry chef Ashley Guzman, remains. Go to the North Left for her playful desserts, which, at $10 each, are a steal for the labored-over semifreddos, mousses, and quenelles that go into them. Guzman is also the one baking the flaky biscuits served alongside prosciutto and maple butter under the small plates section of the menu.