By Courtney Baird for Fathom | If your only familiarity with Orange County, California, comes from bad television, you'd probably be surprised to find that the area is populated with more than restylane-filled lips. In fact, the little county south of Los Angeles has a rich and vibrant immigrant community, which makes it a fantastic place to sample authentic dishes from all over the world.
Whether you're craving ancient Middle Eastern breads straight from the oven, fall-off-the-bone tender oxtail pho, or crispy, juicy chicken tacos, Orange County has you covered.
A is for Ash-e Reshte
Take in a spoonful of ash-e reshteh and you'll be delighted by the textures the thick Persian soup offers with grainy beans, slippery noodles, spinach, garlic, parsley, onions, mint, saffron, and turmeric. The OC is home to one of the biggest Persian populations in the United States, so there are plenty of places for a quick ash fix. Irvine's Wholesome Choice, a gourmet market and kitchen that offers various dishes from Asia and the Middle East, serves the best bang for the buck. Ask the attendant to mix in some yogurt — a common condiment in Persian cuisine.
It's easy to find Brodard in Westminster's Little Saigon — all you have to do is follow the crowds. With jam-packed tables and customers spilling out of its front doors, Brodard is one of the most popular restaurants among Orange County's large Vietnamese population, which some say is the largest outside of Vietnam. The spring rolls and dipping sauce are particularly good, but I can't get enough of the bo luc lac. Its sweet and spicy sauce is tangy and striking. The beef is tender, and the vegetables are crisp and flavorful.
Crab-Stuffed, Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp
There are plenty of Mexican restaurants that will spoil you for life, but I particularly love Antojitos Don Juan (1130 West Warner Ave.; +1-714-662-2035) in Santa Ana. You can order frog legs and escargot, as well as a molcajete filled with a smoothly spicy concoction of pinto beans, cactus, cheese, jalapeño, chicken, beef, and chorizo. The standout dish is crab-stuffed, bacon-wrapped shrimp soaked in a garlicky, cheesy, spicy, and tangy sauce that is so good, you'll find yourself spooning it into your mouth like soup. Picture classic Tijuana décor, complete with beer and soccer posters, Coca-Cola umbrellas out back, and a big wooden sign wreathed in Christmas lights.
Javier's Cantina and Grill
A high-end establishment lit with glowing candles and humming with the tinkling of wine glasses, Javier's Cantina and Grill is the kind of place that attracts the stereotypical OC crowd. (You'll see plenty of botched plastic surgery jobs.) It has, in fact, been featured on the Real Housewives of OC. But it more than makes up for this mark against it with its fresh seafood, savory steaks, premium tequilas, and creamy, fatty refried beans that are so good, you just might ignore the ambiance and lick your plate. The steak picado is unctuous; the sweet scallops will have you waving off the $28 price tag. Started in Laguna Beach in 1995 by Mark Post and Javier Sosa (who began working in the industry as a dishwasher), there are now four locations exuding the American dream.
Vietnamese bakeries are renowned for their flaky French pastries, and I have a huge sweet tooth. One of my favorite spots for macarons is Au Coeur De Paris (9441 Edinger Ave.; +1-714-775-8465), a little hole-in-the-wall bakery in Westminster. The flavors are powerful, the texture is gooey with just the right hint of crispiness, and the fillings are the ideal blend of foaminess and creaminess.
Nina's Indian and British Grocery
Whenever I visit Britain or a commonwealth nation, I always scarf down as many Cadbury chocolate bars as possible because the ones sold in the U.S. just don't taste the same. The big Indian population in Orange County gave rise to Nina's Indian and British Grocery, a tiny, fluorescent-lit market that imports candy from Britain and is literally packed to the brim with bangers and beef-and-onion pie, along with hard-to-find Indian spices, curries, chutneys, and doughs. The produce section stocks lychee and other exotic fruit.
Drive down Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon, and you'll be buffeted with sign after sign for phở, a broth-based Vietnamese noodle soup filled with your choice of meat: fillet mignon, oxtail, chicken, shrimp, and even tripe, and topped with garnishes such as onions, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and lime. But if you want to taste what Orange County phở is all about, pluck up the courage to venture into the dingy whiteboard building in the city of Garden Grove that is Phở Dakao (15532 Ward St.; +1-714-531-2009), and be greeted with ambrosial chicken (their specialty) and noodles swimming in a sweet broth.
I'm not the biggest fan of Korean food, so I was very pleasantly surprised when I discovered Peking Gourmet, a Korean-Chinese establishment in Garden Grove's Korean business district. The first time I visited, I stuffed myself to near explosion on the dinner prix fixe. From the mild, sizzling rice soup and the sizzling beef plate (well worth burning my tongue) to crispy duck whose meat was the most succulent I have ever tasted, I kept telling myself to breathe deeply so I could just jam one more bite into my stomach. What stands out most about this place is how tender the meat is. And the fried shrimp with hot garlic sauce is a must.
The gourmet market where you got your ash-e reshteh is worth a special mention because Wholesome Choice is Disneyland for foodies who cherish Middle Eastern and Asian flavors. Sangak, an ancient Persian sourdough flatbread cooked in a hearthstone oven, comes out so soft and smoky that the line to purchase it can sometimes last as long as an hour. Customers are only allowed two pieces. Then again, that just means there's more room for baklava.
Courtney is the managing editor of Grindtv.com, a Yahoo sports and outdoor website, and freelance writer in her spare time. She travels for the perspective... and the food.