GET TO KNOW ‘THE O.C.’
AN EATING & DRINKING GUIDE BEHIND THE ORANGE CURTAIN
As a Southern California native and resident, Los Angeles is the center of my universe. Yet some 40 miles to the south is Orange County—another world onto itself as far as I’m concerned. It’s home to Disneyland, conservative politics (they didn’t name their airport after John Wayne for nothing), punk rock (think Social Distortion), and surfing with its own Dick Dale the King of Surf Guitar playing the soundtrack.
My sojourns to The OC have mostly been to Disneyland or for the occasional rock concert—I’m in and out. But recently I decided to make a weekend out of it out there. My main interests…dining and drinking my way behind the Orange Curtain. I’m already a fan of 320 Main in Seal Beach—a great spot for quality cocktails and fare—but this time I had my sites set in and around Costa Mesa.
Brunching & Day Drinking at Habana
I’m a big fan of brunch and day drinking so discovering Habana was a great score. For over 21 years, Habana has been an O.C. go-to for Cuban and Latin-inspired cuisine. Located in The Lab, a former night vision goggle factory that remains a cool and eclectic shopping and dining destination, Habana offers fine fare and cool cocktails in a relaxed setting—its outdoor patio is the perfect spot to unwind, chill and day drink.
The handmade empanadas and Lump Crab Cakes are terrific starter items and are perfect for sharing. Cocktail wise, there’s the classic Mojito as well as the Caipirinha (the national drink of Brazil), which is very refreshing. The Hell Blossom made with muddled cilantro and cucumber, mezcal, Ancho chile liqueur, lemon, pineapple with a chile salt rim is a solid libation.
A brunch winner is the Plantain Pancakes—three buttermilk pancakes served with crispy jamon serrano and fruit—as it’s unique and delivers with plantain goodness. The Media Noche is the popular Cuban pressed sandwich with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, onions, tomato, pickles and Dijon mustard mayo. This is a pleasing and solid sandwich. Likewise, the Ropa Vieja, made with Cuban shredded beef pot roast with peppers, onions, garlic and tomato served with white rice, platano maduros and sofrito black beans, is a menu highlight. This dish is so flavorful and so delicious. With Cuban relations easing and restrictions to Cuba softening, travel to and from the island won’t be as difficult as it has been but until then, this Cuban gem delivers. Now if they could only pour some find Cuban Havana Club rum, well, then life would be too good (at least at brunch).
Habana is located at 2930 Bristol Street, Suite A110. Open daily. Call 714-556-0176.
Mesa—as good as it gets in O.C.
With no expectations, I found a new favorite spot in Mesa—a mix of fine dining in a club environment. It seems Orange County and strip malls go hand in hand but the “malls” out there are pretty sweet and swank. Located across the street from Habana and The Lab, Mesa is housed in the Camp complex, another hip “mall” loaded with cool shops and fine places to eat and drink.
Mesa is an adults only beautiful spot open for dinner with a vibe and energy that’s more Vegas than sedate Orange County. I went on a Saturday night and by 10pm there was a line out the door and down the street, well, parking lot, of young, beautiful people. It’s interesting that a place can serve good food and solid cocktails and yet maintain a club like atmosphere where the energy level never wanes.
Props to Chef Niki Starr Weyler, an Orange County native who is a star in her own right. She prefers simple dishes, evoking strong feelings with attention to detail and utilizing seasonal ingredients. While her dishes may be simple, the flavors she evokes are complex and satisfying to say the least.
The Avocado Grapefruit Salad with sliced avocado, segmented ruby grapefruit, blood orange, shaved fennel, and citrus shallot vinaigrette is a terrific starter—light and refreshing. Winning appetizers include the Ahi Tuna Tacos and the Cast Iron Skillet Mussels with P.E.I. mussels, sea salt, cracked pepper, butter, lemon, and XVOO (extra virgin olive oil). Consider the mussels a must-have.
The bar program much to my surprise is solid. The Tempest with thyme-infused gin, golden and pear liqueur, lemon, bubbles and absinthe hits the spot, as does the Eleanor Rigby with Earl Grey-infused Ketel One Citroen, honey, lemon, Elderflower and lavender. I am no fan of flavored vodkas yet this drink was very pleasing, as was the High Chai with Ketel One Vodka, chai, lemon, Fernet and tonic.
Entrée selections do not disappoint either as the Pan Seared Scallops with squash risotto, bacon lardons, maple black pepper gastrique and frisée (greens lightly wilted with oil) were absolutely pleasing. There’s a freshness and a lightness to these scallops, which made them savory yet guilt free.
And let’s not forget about the Wine Braised Short Rib served with house made gnocchi, mushrooms, sherry cream sauce, caramelized onions and parmesan cheese. Damn, this was a hearty and tasty dish. Definitely pair it with a glass of red wine and watch this standout selection elevate to a whole new level. While I’m not fan of sweet drinks, I’m a huge proponent of liquid desserts and the Rumchata was a winner in my book.
I was so floored by my experience at Mesa. The cocktails and food were stellar and the club like atmosphere is unparalleled to anything even in L.A. It’s 21+ so don’t worry about screaming kids in the table next to you. Go for fine dining, cool cocktails or to dance—you’ll find it all at Mesa.
Mesa is located at 725 Baker Street in Costa Mesa. Open Tuesday to Saturday form 5pm on. Call 714-557-6700.
Rumba Room Live—Get Your Latin Groove On
While Mesa offers a cool club vibe with fine fare and drink, the new Rumba Room Live in Anaheim’s Garden Walk is a straight up upscale Latin themed nightclub and intimate concert venue that also boasts a first-rate bar program.
The cocktail program was designed by Marcos Tello of Template Consulting. Imbibers in the know are well aware of Marcos for his acclaimed cocktail programs at 1886 Bar at The Raymond, Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, and The Edison among others. I don’t know of any other nightclub, serving up to 1,000 people, that offers cocktails this good. A nice tough on Marcos’ part is that all the spirits, from cocktails to beer and wine, are Latino, staying true to the club’s theme
Drinks that I normally would shy away from, because most bars just don’t get them right, like the Piña Colada and Margarita and Daiquiri are fantastic at Rumba Room Live. The Rumba Room Daiquiri with Ron Barcelo Rum, raw sugar and fresh lime is simple and as good a classic daiquiri as you’ll find—same with the Rumbarita and Piña Colada.
Funny enough, the Paloma Flores is the lone drink on the cocktail menu that breaks away from the pack and contains gin instead of the traditional tequila or mezcal as base. I’m a huge fan of the San Balthazar Summer with El Silencio Mezcal, cilantro, Serrano, watermelon and fresh lime. The drink has a great smokiness to it along with a balanced sweetness that is refreshing, yet packs a punch.
With no cover charge before 10pm and only $10 after, this is arguably one of the best places in Orange County to drink, let alone revel with hundreds of people dancing to Latin music. Sundays feature free salsa lessons and live music.
Rumba Room Live is open Thursdays and Sundays from 8pm to 1am; Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm to 2am.
Las Brisas—Dining with a view second to none
I had a mediocre lunch in Big Sur once but didn’t mind as I didn’t think a restaurant’s view could get any better in California, but dining at the famed Las Brisas in Laguna Beach (some 17 miles from Costa Mesa) impressed on all levels. The food was fantastic and the view was simple awe-inspiring.
Las Brisas is a Southern California landmark that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the breathtaking Laguna Beach coastline. At Sunday brunch, we enjoyed a four-course, full-service dining experience, including bottomless champagne, authentic Mexican pastries, as well as coffee, tea or milk. We started with a lovely array of seasonal fruit, followed by Mexican pastries and a delicious salmon chowder. Entrée selections include Panettone French Toast; New York Benedict; lamb chops; filet mignon and eggs; to traditional huevos rancheros. Brunch is offered every Sunday from 8am to 3pm and is $45 for adults and $16 for kids.
Monday through Saturday, Las Brias offers boffo breakfast, including traditional and Mexican specialty plates inspired by the fresh and vibrant flavors of the California Coast and Mexican Riviera. Consider the Chilaquiles—free range sunny-side up eggs, braised short rib, crispy corn tortilla, guajillo sauce, pico de gallo and cotija cheese—a must have. Other sensational selections include the Lamb Chops—Colorado lamb, pepita verde, garlic mashed potatoes and charred vegetables—and the Crepes de Laguna.
Good food and good drinks and a view that’s second to none, that’s what makes dining at Las Brisas a SoCal bucket list item. This is exactly where you want to have a long and lazy breakfast or Sunday (boozy) brunch. It just doesn’t get any better. And the same can be said for dining come sunset.
Las Brisas is located at 361 Cliff Drive in Laguna Beach. Open daily from 8am to close. Call 949-497-5435.
Lighthouse Bayview Café
In nearby trendy Newport Beach, the shopping rivals Beverly Hills and the waterfront view is impressive and pairs perfectly with dining. At Lighthouse Bayview Café Executive Chef Ryan Sumner incorporates fresh flavor profiles and unique interpretations on classic dishes.
Each night of the week, Chef Sumner presents a menu of select specials starting at just $7.95. Features include an all-night happy hour to take the edge off of Mondays with brats and beers, crispy fish taco Tuesdays, burger and beer Wednesdays, linguini and clams on Thursdays, fresh catch of the day on Fridays, rosemary roasted prime rib Saturdays, and Chef’s special BBQ dinner on Sundays.
“Growing up in my parents’ market in Costa Mesa, I experienced firsthand the seasonal change of fresh ingredients,” said Chef.
Lighthouse Bayview Café is located on the waterfront of Balboa Peninsula’s Marina Park within a 24,000-square foot sailing and community center that encompasses a park and multiple picnic areas adjacent to a 23-slip marina. The café features a dock space for boaters to access the park from the water. Offering guests 180-degree harbor, mountain and city views, access to the sand, the café’s modern beach ambiance and innovative menus are prefect for a respite from the rat race.
Menu favorites include the New England Clam Chowder with bacon chives and oyster crackers, as well as the Ahi Tuna Tostados with avocado mousse, Asian slaw, crisp wontons and spicy mayo.
While the “cocktails” are soju-based, they are refreshing although I personally would stick to beer and wine. With a beautiful view of the harbor, the sites are impressive as you can watch the boats sail by during the day and at sunset.
Entrée selections we enjoyed included the delicious Pappardelle Alla Bolognese with meaty tomato Ragu, parmesan cheese and basil, along with the hearty Red Wine Braised Short Rib with parsnip puree, oyster mushrooms, crisp parsnip, and horseradish gremolata. The short rib just screams red wine pairing, which only makes this delicious dish all the better.
And don’t forget about dessert as the Beignets with cinnamon sugar and cream cheese icing is decadently delicious. This will give New Orleans’ Café du Monde a run for its money.
With a warm and friendly environment and very pretty view, the Lighthouse Bayview Café is a dining gem void of pretention and attitude and instead offers a place to relax, unwind and indulge in hearty and divine cuisine.
Lighthouse Bayview Café is located at Marina Park at 1600 West Balboa Blvd in Newport Beach. Open Sun-Thurs 7am to 9pm; Fri & Sat 7am to 10pm. Call 949-933-1001.
Story and some pictures by: Jose Martinez
Photography Courtesy of All Locations Above