The white-hot Orange County restaurant scene continues to grow, with big openings across the county from San Juan Capistrano to Home Depot parking lots in Cypress. It’s a wild time, with operators opening street-food stands, strip-mall operations, and upscale projects galore — and that’s to say nothing of the area’s many shopping centers and public markets, all situated well away from the beach. From French bistro snail pancake bites to Laotian beef short ribs, here are five of the hottest Orange County dishes to try right now. For a look at Orange County’s most essential restaurants, head here; for the region’s hottest new restaurants, head here.
Ebelskivers at Populaire Modern Bistro
The escargot ebelskivers at Costa Mesa’s Populaire Modern Bistro are certainly unique, not just for Orange County but all of Southern California. Michelin-lauded chef Ross Pangilinan and chef Nicholas Weber have partnered together to open Pangilinan’s second South Coast Plaza restaurant, a breezy ode to bistro food with lots of flair. Inside the ebelskivers, the escargot tastes like bites of mushroom wrapped in fluffy pancake orbs. A creamy buttermilk sauce drizzled with parsley oil is served with the four ebelskivers for dipping, making for a decadent new bite.
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa.
Brisket tacos at Heritage Barbecue
Most first timers visiting Heritage Barbecue will order the delectable barbecue platters, and why not? The heaving plates are famously photogenic and can come filled with slow-smoked chicken, housemade sausages, sturdy beef ribs, and an array of sides. But for Heritage’s San Juan Capistrano regulars, it’s all about the brisket taco, which is usually listed on the special’s board. It’s a smaller bite compared to those dino ribs, but no less filling, thanks to owner Daniel Castillo’s tender Creekstone Prime beef brisket that is oak-smoked for more than half a day. The tender meat is sliced to order, then rolled into Burritos Las Palmas soft flour tortillas and topped with housemade pickled red onions and cilantro. San Diego County will soon be getting its own taste of Heritage Barbecue, with a second location planned for Oceanside next year.
31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
The Lao beef short ribs plate at Kra-Z-Kai Laotian Barbecue
Owner Musky Bilavarn insists that Kra-Z Kai isn’t traditional Laotian cooking. Instead, this buzzy barbecue operation — first brought to big LA area acclaim by former Los Angeles Times critic Patricia Escárcega — leans into Laotian flavors with plates like beef short ribs infused with Bilavarn’s own secret marinade. At the restaurant’s new location inside Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton, ribs are finished on a hot grill to resemble Korean-style galbi, but with plenty of lemongrass and fish sauce flavors. The short ribs are served with a complement of sticky rice.
Rodeo 39 Public Market, 12885 Beach Boulevard, Unit 3, Stanton.
Bánh xèo seafood at Quan Mii
Several Vietnamese restaurants serve the stuffed rice pancake bánh xèo, but the one at Quan Mii in Fountain Valley is among the best in the county. The bánh xèo here is served with an abundance of seafood, and can easily be a shared dish for the table. It arrives folded in a half-moon shape stuffed with shrimp, squid, and scallops, with diners assembling their own servings inside leaves of romaine lettuce alongside cilantro, mint, and Thai basil. The whole thing is then dipped into nuoc cham for maximum effect. There’s also a second location of Quan Mii in Westminster.
16031 Brookhurst Street, Fountain Valley.
Ojai chicken sandwich at Ojai Burger
Ojai Burger is here, and already drawing eyeballs. This Old Towne Orange newcomer is an offshoot of Ojai’s Yume Japanese Burger Cafe, where thick patties can come sauced with teriyaki and topped with fried eggs with bright-yellow yolks. And while the name does rightfully point to all those signature wagyu options, the real insider’s dish to try is the Ojai chicken sandwich. The simple, well-layered sandwich is a combination of crunchy shredded cabbage, black pepper-speckled Kewpie mayo, and Japanese-style karaage fried chicken thigh, all tucked inside a brioche bun. For casual dining, it’s hard to beat this newcomer that’s helping to reshape the once-staid Old Towne Orange dining scene.
238 W. Chapman Avenue, Orange.
March 17, 2022
Hot kimchi butter katsu chicken at Shootz Hawaiian
The hot kimchi butter katsu chicken sandwich at Shootz Hawaiian sounds like a gimmick, but that’s far from the reality at this busy OC restaurant out in Stanton, where the flavors come fast and strong and don’t stop until the last bite. The crispy chicken and cold macaroni salad meld with the soft potato bun, each bite evoking a Hawaiian plate lunch packed into a single sandwich. After that first taste, it’s understandable why Shootz Hawaiian, which opened at Rodeo 39 in October 2020, sells more than 5,000 of these specialized takes on Japanese katsu every month.
Shootz Hawaiian at Rodeo 39, 12885 Beach Blvd., Stanton.
Salmon ceviche at O Sea
Restaurateur Mike Flynn opened O Sea in June 2021 as a sustainable seafood option near historic Old Towne Orange, pairing his fish with an extensive wine program that the cozy neighborhood loves. The brick and white-walled dining room is brightly lit with a prime view of the open kitchen. It’s a renovated space that melds old and new, perfect for a progressive seafood restaurant in one of Orange County’s oldest communities. Situated just a few miles away from Chapman University, O Sea is where executive chef Carla Arce, an Orange County native, serves her take on progressive seafood and showcases her commitment to transparent sourcing. It’s also where you’ll spot a blend of generations and cultures, students and longtime locals, all eating together — especially over orders of the salmon ceviche with coconut leche de tigre, habanero oil, and crispy taro chips.
O Sea, 109 S. Glassell St., Orange.
Chicken and waffles at Tableau Kitchen and Bar
Chef John Park and Ed Lee opened Tableau Kitchen and Bar at South Coast Plaza in January 2022. Best known for Toast Kitchen + Bar in Costa Mesa and Lee’s family fish taco empire, Wahoo’s, the duo have decided to elevate their game with this newest opening and so far it meets all expectations. The star dish is the chicken and waffles, a staple on Tableau’s breakfast menu. Here, Korean-style garlic soy chicken wings marry with crispy waffle-like Japanese taiyakis that are filled with kecap manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce) custard and pickled daikon.
“We make classic Korean fried chicken wings glazed with sweet garlic soy,” says Park. “The kecap manis, mixed with custard, creates an amazing salted butterscotch-maple flavor.”
Tableau Kitchen and Bar at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bear St., Suite 119, Costa Mesa.
The Mountain Burger at Butcher’s House
Chef Jeoffrey Offer spent years cooking at Laurent Vrignaud’s Moulin in Newport Beach before branching out on his own with Butcher’s House Brasserie. Offer came to the States in 2013 from his native France “with a backpack and a dream,” he says, working his way up in Orange County kitchens until December 2021 when the Butcher’s House opened at SoCo Collection. He’s in good company there, considering the development also houses powerhouse dining destinations ranging from Taco Maria and ARC Kitchen + Bar to Portola Coffee Roasters.
Offer’s Mountain Burger is made with dry-aged beef stuffed with potatoes, caramelized onions, bacon, dijon mayonnaise, and topped with raclette cheese, equal parts upscale and absolutely unfussy. Order this gargantuan burger as part of the lunch special and enjoy it with the chef’s housemade fries, a refreshing delicate green gem salad, and a glass of wine or sparkling rosé.
Butcher’s House, 3321 Hyland Ave. Ste. D, Costa Mesa.
La Cau Chilean sea bass hot pot at Lâu Tȏm 5 Ri
Fountain Valley’s Lâu Tȏm 5 Ri quietly opened in December 2020, an auspicious time for even the most media-savvy restaurants. Instead, this quiet strip mall Vietnamese operation has cultivated a loyal local following for its seafood-heavy menu, with nearly every table taken nightly. The hot pot is the thing here, bubbling containers of broth and herbs and fish. Each is its own specialty, a comforting seasoned to taste with chilies, cilantro, and basil, but it’s the La Cau Chilean sea bass option that has proven to be the star. It’s an ideal gateway dish for first-timers at Lâu Tȏm 5 Ri, especially when served among friends — and with rice noodles — on a brisk Orange County night.
Lâu Tȏm 5 Ri, 17431 Brookhurst St., Ste J, Fountain Valley.
A final note: Eater does its best to make sure that each of these dishes is on the restaurant’s menu at the time of publication, but items do come and go over time.