On a brisk September evening at Indo Ranch market, a low-slung grocery store and restaurant cornered into the end of a strip mall in the Orange County city of Lake Forest, an Indonesian man sits in front of a steaming bowl of oxtail soup. “It reminds me of Bandung,” he says with a faint smile, before tucking in for a taste. Bandung is the capital of West Java; it also happens to be the diner’s childhood hometown. While the city itself remains far away (particularly now, during an ongoing global pandemic), for a night at least, the flavors found at Indo Ranch are transportive enough.
With international travel still out of reach for many, members of some immigrant communities in Southern California are finding comfort in reconnecting with places that remind them of home. Enter Orange County’s many varied regionally specific grocery stores, like Indo Ranch, which trade in comfort foods and grocery staples from across the globe. On their best days, these markets offer a doorway for distanced diners seeking familiar flavors, and for everyone else — be they college students, construction workers, or discerning grandmothers with shopping lists in hand — they’re a fascinating look into the multicultural grocery store trails in Orange County and beyond.
Indo Ranch (Lake Forest)
In 2010, Wati Wolf opened Indo Ranch OC in Lake Forest, southeast of Irvine. A compact market inside offers a variety of Indonesian pantry staples and Southeast Asian-style snacks such as krupuk (Javanese fried crackers) and Teh Botol jasmine tea, both essentials for most Indonesian American meals — but it’s the attached restaurant that is the main attraction.
Southern California’s Indonesian American population has grown significantly since Wolf opened Indo Ranch more than a decade ago. Pew Research Center data indicates that in 2019, approximately 45 percent of Indonesian Americans resided in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. By comparison, Orange County’s community is a lot smaller, and as a result Indo Ranch remains one of the few brick-and-mortar places where people can go when they’re craving Indonesian sustenance.
The building’s small dining room consists of eight tables, which tightly seats 25 people. The setup keeps changing, but occasionally, there are a few spots for al fresco dining. Inside, a light wooden partition separates the market from the restaurant. The whole space is only 2,000 square feet, lined in colorful Indonesian pastels. Packages of sweet confections such as nastar klasik (pineapple jam-filled tart cookies); steamed pandan-flavored tapioca cakes; and savory appetizers such as risoles, lightly breaded croquettes resembling spring rolls stuffed with creamy chicken and peas; are piled high, ready to go.
The restaurant tries its best to offer a variety of specialties from across Indonesia — not easy, considering the country is the largest archipelago in the world, spanning some 17,500 islands. The nation is also culturally vast, with Hindu influences in Bali and Muslim-rich traditions in Jakarta, to say nothing of the significance of years of subjugation at the hands of the Dutch and Japanese. Much of the food in Indonesia today reflects these cultural touchpoints, inspired in some places by religious doctrine and in other areas by colonial history.
The risoles’ creamy filling with hints of grated nutmeg evoke the country’s European and Dutch culinary influences. The rest of the menu adheres to halal tradition; that means, in part, no pork. Instead, proteins such as chicken, beef, lamb, shrimp, and tofu are available. The tempeh mendoan, crispy Javanese-style fried soy, is a plant-based option that even meat-eaters won’t disparage.
For newcomers to Indonesian fare, start with the satay meat skewers and nasi goreng, an Indonesian-style fried rice. The sweet soy sauce and fried shallots combine with fragrant jasmine rice for an umami-packed course. The mie ayam jamur, egg noodles with sautéed mushrooms and chicken accompanied by an Indonesian-style beef meatball soup, is another entree reminiscent of Indonesian street food. A slurp of the clear broth serves as a reminder for some of the power of Southeast Asian night markets, where endless carts come filled with steaming, often restorative goodies. For dessert, in-the-know diners opt for the blended durian smoothie or the cold es cendol, a sweet coconut milk concoction with palm sugar and bright green pandan jelly, topped with jackfruit.
22722 Lambert St., #1701, Lake Forest, CA. (949) 458-1108 Hours: Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Nosh House — OC Kosher Market (Tustin)
Further north in Tustin is Nosh House, Orange County’s first glatt kosher restaurant. The eatery is an offshoot of OC Kosher Market, located just a few doors down in the same unassuming shopping center in Old Town Tustin. Both offer a variety of food for shoppers and diners to (as the name notes) nosh on, though in predictably different settings. Customers swing by OC Kosher’s refrigerated section for quart containers of chicken noodle soup, potato kugel, and ready-made matzo balls, or head to the bakery section for chocolate nut rugelach and other staple items reminiscent of Southern California’s historic Jewish bakeries, like LA’s Diamond Bakery.
Over at sit-down restaurant Nosh House, fans can tuck into a more robust menu that includes everything from chicken wings and crispy egg rolls to hummus plates. The real reason to visit, though, is the broad collection of deli sandwiches, panini, and shawarma. The staples here are on full display including hot corned beef and pastrami, each served on rye bread with mustard, a side of pickles, and potato salad or coleslaw. From there, diners can meander into full dinner entrees like a 14-ounce rib-eye steak, crispy chicken schnitzel, or lamb chops.
There are salads too, of course, with options ranging from seared ahi tuna to grilled chicken, but the star of Nosh House may well be Odi’s OMG, a fried chicken behemoth served on a pretzel hoagie roll. As the name implies, this one is a massive symphony of fried chicken, crunchy purple cabbage slaw, and soft, salty roll — and it’s entirely kosher.
678 El Camino Real, Tustin, CA. (714) 265-7909 Hours: Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Wholesome Choice (Irvine)
UC Irvine students regard their first visit to Wholesome Choice as a rite of passage. The international specialty grocer, known for its food court and the variety of cuisines served there, can be head-spinning for first-timers, but that’s part of the fun. Arab, Persian, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Thai dishes are all available inside, as well as an assortment of grocery and pre-made items for take-home dining.
On most days, the longest line is reserved for the Persian hot food vendor inside the market; be patient, it’s worth the wait. The Baghali polo with lamb shank and Fesenjan stew with pomegranate and chicken are two comfort food dishes that have found their audience, thanks to sizable portions and big flavors — both key elements for kids on a budget and eager for leftovers. Hearty kebabs are grilled to order and the beef koobideh (made with onion, spices, and ground beef or lamb) are staples as well.
The braised lamb shank is served with a small container filled with the meat’s red-hued braising liquid; before each bite, diners should dip the tender meat into the sauce. The robust flavor of slow-cooked lamb infused with the essence of onion, lemon, and saffron are compacted into one silky concoction, and work equally well when served over long-grain rice or with a side of sangak flatbread.
The most inviting dish in the whole place may well be that sangak, Wholesome Choice’s signature bread. The four-foot-long, thin sourdough flatbread is dotted with sesame seeds and has a spongy, chewy texture, marked here and there by bits of char and slightly crisp edges. This is ideal stuff for dipping into creamy hummus or smoky baba ghanoush. The stone oven from which these flatbreads emerge is located at the market’s entrance (on the opposite end from the food court), making sangak the first smell to hit customers as they step inside. It’s also likely to be the first thing they eat upon exiting.
As for navigating the large near-campus market, simply order food from any of the interior vendors and pay for it (along with snacks, drinks, and other bits that may make it into the car) at the grocery cashier. Tables for onsite al fresco dining are plentiful out front as well, though the real pros know to pack up their meals for a picturesque picnic at William R. Mason Regional Park or UCI’s Aldrich Park.
18040 Culver Drive, Irvine, CA. (949) 551-4111. Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Zion Market (Irvine)
Zion Market at the Northwood Town Center in Irvine features a decent selection of Korean food staples, perfect for the county’s booming Korean population. There’s a kimbap stand that prepares fresh Korean-style rice rolls throughout the day, and a Paris Baguette bakery housed directly inside the market that permeates the store with the scent of freshly baked milk bread.
Here, cases are filled with pastries and Korean-French-style breads, and croissants topped with Oreo cookies are stuffed with chocolatey cookie cream, each making for a delicious and very Instagrammable treat. Less picturesque (but no less popular) are the curry-filled croquettes and spicy hot dog bread, warm savory snacks that are easily devoured in the car.
For those seeking a more substantial meal, try Hong Kong Banjum, a walk-up stall inside Zion Market. The Korean-Chinese stand always has a steady stream of customers eager for comfort foods like jajangmyeon, a Korean-style Chinese noodle dish with pork and black bean sauce, and gunmandu, or fried dumplings. The jjamppong, a spicy seafood noodle soup dotted with pork, squid, and mussels, is another extremely popular Korean-Chinese dish with an equally rich history that traces back to Chinese immigrants who made their way to Korea (often via Japan) and, along the way, created a kind of timeless fusion of each culture in one pot.
At the next stall over, Furai Chicken serves several styles of Korean fried chicken. The soy-garlic and gangung chicken with serrano chile, almond, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds are the biggest sellers, but it’s hard to go wrong with the old-fashioned, delicately crisped chicken with pickled radish. The whole-bird presentation is nice enough to share with discerning dinner guests at home, and it pairs well with steamy white rice and daikon pickles available on the market side.
And then there’s MochiCat: Donut & Hot Dog, home of all things hot dog on a stick. The Half & Half is a deep-fried take on the traditional American corn dog genre, where a half-sausage, half-mozzarella stick combination sits in for the usual dog, and the breading is laced with cubes of fried potato. It’s a monster to eat, like something from the Orange County Fair — except here it’s available daily. Other photogenic options include dogs rolled in crushed instant ramen noodles and dusted with sugar, a feat worth ordering, photographing, and eating at least once. Better still, pair it with a cold Hite beer, also available at the do-it-all Zion Market.
4800 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, CA. (714) 832-5600. Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.