Orange County has a thriving food scene that gives its neighbor to the north, Los Angeles, a run for its money. Tourists who flock to the restaurants along the coast or in or around the area’s two theme parks (Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm) are rarely disappointed — but where do the locals go to eat? The list could go on and on, but we’ve narrowed it down to the five we think you should absolutely know about. In no particular order:
1. Taco Maria
Even though Carlos Saldago was recently named a Food & Wine 2015 Best New Chef, his restaurant, Taco Maria, still flies largely under the radar of most Orange County tourists. But most locals prefer it that way — it’s already hard enough to get a seat in the tiny space at The OC Mix, a collection of boutique shops and specialty food purveyors. Lunch is limited to upscale tacos, like pork cheek and peaches or shitake mushroom chorizo with crispy potato, served on handmade tortillas. At dinner, Salgado serves a prix fixe menu featuring creative Mexican cuisine.
2. Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails
This Irvine establishment is popular for its Mediterranean-inspired menu featuring the likes of a lamb burger, Moroccan wrap, and masala chicken flatbread. Don’t worry, there’s more traditional fare as well, including scallops, filet mignon, and roasted chicken. Locals appreciate that ingredients are locally sourced, organically grown, and sustainably raised — but dining here has an added bonus: One hundred percent of the restaurant’s profits benefit the Andrei Foundation, established to honor the brother of owner Natalia Olenicoff, who was afflicted with an eye disease. The foundation funds research to find a cure for retinal degenerative diseases and supports related programs like as Guide Dogs for the Blind.
3. Anaheim Packing District
Few Disney-goers ever make it to downtown Anaheim, but the locals come in droves now thanks to the Anaheim Packing District, a collection of more than 20 eateries, located in a restored citrus packing house and a neighboring former car showroom. Think of it as a food court for grown-ups that has live music on the weekends. Offerings inside range from soul food and seafood to ramen and pizza. We love local favorite Iron Press, known for its devotion to beer and waffles. If you’re looking for something a bit healthier, head to Lemon Drop Pressed Juicery & Farm Shoppe for a fresh squeezed juice.
4. Peppino’s Italian Family Restaurant
Named for owner Joe Moscatiello — “Peppino” means “Little Joe” in Italian — Peppino’s Italian Family Restaurant serves huge portions of the Italian classics that Joe learned from his mother. The menu has something for everyone, from pizza and pasta to steak and seafood. If you’re looking for something a little different, try the Lina Rolls, a combination of mozzarella cheese, Romano cheese, spinach, and friend eggplant baked in fresh dough and served with marina sauce. The family still works at the original location in Lake Forest, but our favorite is the Mission Viejo store. Ask to be seated on the patio for great views of the lake.
5. Han Yang
In the culinary world, Buena Park is associated with fried chicken dinners at Knott’s Berry Farm, but locals head to the growing Korean community here to sample kimchi, barbecue, and other delicacies. For authentic Korean dishes, score a table at Han Yang. Diners rave about the restaurant’s galbi tang, a beef short rib soup, but you can’t go wrong with anything else on the menu. The restaurant is small, so expect a wait, and be prepared for the staff to be somewhat distant. But, rest assured, what Han Yang lacks in five-star friendliness it more than makes up for in flavorful dishes.