Did you know that the Asian restaurants in Orange County are fucking awesome? I know that now. I went there recently on my way up the coast expecting to be impressed, but blown away? That’s not easy to do. But it happened, and the food out there has seriously raised the bar in how I enjoy Asian cuisine. With a culinary scene that is full of talented people and highly engaged clientele, their Asian restaurants remain established, thriving, and waiting to be discovered by the hungry traveler.
I didn’t know that when I got there, and set out to explore. Luckily, I was staying in Santa Ana with my friends Jenny and Rafael, who are quite familiar with the local circuit, and both know good food when they taste it.
Gen Korean BBQ House
On my first day, Jenny brought me to Gen Korean BBQ House in Tustin. It was a buffet style grill with an on-demand menu of 30 different freshly cut, marinated meats to choose from, and a whole slew of side dishes with all kinds of vegetables and sauces. Patrons sit around each table and pile on the meat, and watch it caramelize, sizzle, and pop on the hot metal.
Servers brought out one order after another of braised meat that we cooked on the grill. I shoveled all kinds of things together on my plate, and whenever we ran out of something, one of five servers would come out of nowhere and put a new saucer on the table. I wasn’t sure which was better – the food or the service. It was so good that I didn’t want to get full and have to stop.
Din Tai Fung
Anytime I see a place with an hour-long wait on a weekday, it’s a good sign. It means that it has spillover from everybody who doesn’t want to wait even longer on the weekend. Plus, I think that that for me, part of it is psychological. When I have to wait for something good, I feel like I’ve earned it. On our second day, we waited for about an hour for a table at Din Tai Fung, and walked Ryder around the South Coast Plaza to kill time.
It was the first time I’ve ever had Xiao Long Bao, their world famous Taiwanese dumplings. In preparation, they place pork or other meats on a flattened piece of flour skin, hand wrap it around the meat, pinch it into notches at the top, and then steam cook it. When ready, the juices create a pocket of meaty soup in a dumpling, which they bring out in orders of ten in a big steaming pot. With a dash of soy sauce, it will be a mouthful of hot, brothy deliciousness like you can’t even.
For sides, we got shrimp and pork wontons and pork chops on a bed of fried rice. Again, I didn’t want to stop eating.
The Boiling Crab
I have three words: Vietnamese. Cajun. Crawfish.
This brilliant concept of a restaurant started in 2004, when its owners envisioned a southern Mississippi Cajun boil in the Little Saigon enclave of Orange County. In a very short time, their notoriety spread like wildfire, drawing a huge following in the local Asian foodie community.
I already love Cajun food, but add some buttery garlic and lemon pepper to it and it’s an entirely new experience. Just look at all that sauce in the second picture above. Soaking into the crawfish and shrimp like they drowned in it, sacrificing themselves to the human foodie-gods. Seriously, distance aside, my cholesterol is the only thing stopping me from eating pounds of that every day.
So far, they have other locations in San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Vegas, and Houston. I’m sure they will find new cities and new crowds to win over, since a place like that really can’t lose. And so will the other restaurants there, as long as that community continues to cultivate talented, competitive chefs and loyal fans.
That was it for now. On my last day, I rented a car from the airport and drove up the Pacific Coastal Highway. I had a highway to film, and was San Francisco bound.