Not to be outdone by the eclectic culinary landscape of neighboring Los Angeles county, the cities flanking the Interstate 5 South have quietly cultivated a thriving foodie identity all their own. While gourmet in Orange County is often still associated with the old school and white linen of the Southern beach cities, there is an active, assertive generation of young chefs that are pulling off quality eats without the contrived formality that can hamper an otherwise memorable dining experience. Approachable, effortlessly hip, and meticulous about every plate that leaves the line, this is a reference list of some of Orange County’s finest culinary craftsmen.
3313 Hyland Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
A Michelin-star chef and Orange County native, Salgado has spent well over a decade earning critical acclaim for his culinary innovation. From his bay area locale, Commis, Salgado returned home to helm the brick and mortar version of Taco Maria. A pioneer of “Chicano Cuisine”, Salgado’s transformation of working class heartiness is elevated in imaginative ways. Classic mole is married with specialized protein like Guinea fowl to create a unique dish from conventional roots. Salgado’s Campechana, essentially a mixed seafood soup, comes loaded with geoduck clam, abalone, and Mayan octopus. Running with traditionally familiar staples, Dungeness Crab tostadas, octopus tacos with hand made squid ink tortillas, and mushroom chorizo chilaquiles are just a small example of why Salgado and Taco Maria have caused such a stir in Southern California.
136 E Commonwealth Ave
Fullerton, CA 92832
Earning his culinary stripes among the lofty expectations of Santa Ana’s Arts’ District, Nguyen relocated from The Crosby to settle in at Fullerton’s Meeca of whiskey (they have 140 varieties of the stuff), as exec chef of Hopscotch Tavern. Embracing a modern take on California cuisine, Nguyen utilizes locally specific flavors (like his Guajillo Chile Pork Ribs special) to add color and depth to traditional savory plates. Chef Nguyen’s farm to table approach combined with a desire to push the envelope equates to consistent culinary creativity. From conventional classics like pan seared scallops to a housemade smoked salmon mousse – that is kind of range Nguyen flexes on the line.
6084 Orangethorpe Ave
Buena Park, California 90620
While ‘hidden gem’ is a talking point overly referenced, Chef Spencer Kim opened up shop in a dilapidated strip mall in Buena Park to become the very definition of just that. This no wait service, casual café boasts gourmet dishes with sometimes irresponsibly affordable prices. A tasteful fusion of Pan-European influences, Kim’s from scratch kitchen cranks out slow braised Oxtail Ragout with house made pasta, blueberry marinara pork ribs, and an under $20 traditionally sound Beef Burgundy that rivals any fine dining offering. Rotating menus seasonally and personally running the show, (it’s not uncommon to have Spencer himself scribble down your order then get to work on what he just wrote down), there is an intimacy that Kim translates to his food that drives home the concept of gourmet with zero pretense.
320 Main Seal Beach
320 Main St
Seal Beach, CA 90740
Battle-tested in the prestigious kitchens of Bouchon Beverly Hills and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole of New York, Chef Jamie Carrano works as the perfect compliment to 320’s incendiary handcrafted cocktail program. Specializing in savory selections, your Pimm’s Cup from the bar might pair well with Carrano’s bacon wrapped pate. The beachside eatery amped it’s menu with Carrano’s ambitious vision and anchor items like the Grilled Octopus salad, Pork belly mac n cheese, and 16-ounce bone-in ribeye give the subtle Seal Beach cocktail bar the juice to compete with the pomp and circumstance of suit and tie destinations.
Wild Goose Tavern
436 E 17th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
It would be tough to omit a Vegan chef that can competently craft a Wild Boar Banh Mi from this list. Originally from Philly, the nomadic Rubenstein has worked in kitchens across the country and has now settled in, ironically, at Costa Mesa’s homage to the cozy hunter’s lodge, the Wild Goose Tavern. Ever dexterous, Rubenstein’s wild game sausages remain the hallmark of the sportsmen’s style pub. From alligator, duck, and elk offerings, to the traditionally tasty Guinness bratwurst, everything that leaves the hot line in this themed eatery is as consistent as it is adventurous. Juxtaposing the overt masculinity of a wild game protein menu is Rubenstein’s firm grasp of accoutrements – housemade chutney, aioli, mustard – hell even a housemade cheez-wiz (in true Philly fashion) make the Wild Goose much more than a culinary novelty.
2920 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Serving up savory Southern cuisine with a Left Coast swagger, Chef Diego Velasco opened Memphis at just 23 years old. In the years since, Chef Velasco has made regular appearances among Best of lists, adding his own impression of timeless Creole dishes. In terms of being inventive, Velasco might take a succotash and transform a typical corn and bean medley into a marriage of smoky lima beans, micro celery, and grape tomatoes all folded into a sweet corn flan. Blackened catfish, buttermilk fried chicken, and spicy seafood gumbo adhere to locale’s Southern frame work, but the same menu offers a duck quesadilla with black eyed peas or maybe perfect pair of golden fried crab cakes to ensure there are some curveballs to keep diners on their toes. Memphis and Chef Diego nail comfort food plated with flair and vision.