Tostada Road Trip: Why Orange County is one of the best places to eat in America

 

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To the left, the La Llorona carne adovada and hatch chile sandwich. To the right, the Bird in Basket breakfast from Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana. All photos by Serena Maria Daniels

I have a special connection to Orange County.

It’s the first place I lived “on my own” after college when I was hired as a baby reporter at the OC Register. It was also the first time I realized that I might be a foodie.

The OC conjures images of million-dollar mansions overlooking the Pacific Ocean, fake tans and plastic boobs, giant malls and SUVs, Republicans and mega-churches. And all of those stereotypes are true. But another truth: Orange County is home to an incredibly diverse immigrant population and with that, something delicious for just about any taste and budget from just about every corner of the planet, but in particular an abundance of Latin and Asian cuisine.

And so it was there on my tiny entry-level journalist’s salary that I had the pleasure of indulging on many of these places and began to form the thought processes that would one day lead to a career in food writing.

Last month I took a brief 72-hour excursion to Southern California to visit with my mom and a few of my amigas. I crisscrossed my way throughout greater Los Angeles from the West Side to Koreatown, the San Fernando Valley to DTLA, Long Beach to the South Bay in pursuit of recapturing the many food memories that I had left behind when I relocated to the Midwest over nine years ago.

But it was Orange County, arguably one of the most underrated food destinations in the country, that I really wanted to reconnect with.

9 a.m.

The 405

On a bright Friday morning I recruit my mom to join me on the trip passed the Orange Curtain. We zip down the 405 with surprisingly little traffic from her home in Culver City and head east on the 22 to Santa Ana for our first stop (if you’re from Southern California, you refer to the freeways simply by number)

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Alta Baja Market in downtown Santa Ana

10 a.m.

Alta Baja, 201-200 E 4th St, Santa Ana

Alta Baja sits in downtown Santa Ana, which since I moved away has evolved from a mostly Latino immigrant commercial and cultural hub made up of quinceañera and bridal shops and mercaditos to being flooded with craft cocktail bars, trendy (read overpriced) eateries and CrossFit studios.

This gentrification is similar to other barrios across the country like Detroit’s southwest side, Chicago’s Pilsen or LA’s Boyle Heights. Alta Baja, owned by chingona Delilah Snell (with my homie/mentor/sometimes editor and her husband Gustavo Arellano as her helper) feels different and refreshing for this changing downtown. The market/diner/brilliant community space intersects the trendy, new with the traditions of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, featuring high-quality, hard-to-find grocery, home goods and an innovative breakfast and lunch menu. Enter the space and it has a subtle industrial feel, lightened up with details like the hanging string of colorful papel picado that accents the exposed ceiling.

Arellano tells us — over a sandwich called La Llorona (a New Mexican-inspired dish featuring a flavorful rendition of carne adovada and hatch chile enveloped between two thick, earthy slices of bread) and a sip of Alta Baja’s killer house-made michelada — that he regularly makes long trips across California, NM and elsewhere to procure unique items for the store. Indeed, I was pleased to see a display full of Incense of the West, an incense in brick form that gives off the rustic aroma of native piñon. Usually sold by the boxful at curio shops in Santa Fe with a kitschy ceramic teepee holder, it instantly makes me think of desert sunsets surrounded by prickly pears.

Taking care not to spoil my appetite for more eating, we box up our leftovers and head to our next stop, Burritos La Palma.

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A burrito with birria de res from Burritos La Palma in Santa Ana

11:30 a.m.

Burritos La Palma, 410 N. Bristol, Santa Ana

The thing that mentors like Arellano and the late great legendary LA food critic Jonathan Gold have instilled in my understanding of finding delicious food is that the best dishes are found under the radar, often in suburban strip malls. The good thing about Orange County (at least when it comes to food), is that the region is chock full of strip malls.

And that’s exactly where you’ll find Burritos La Palma.

So. Cal food writers have been raving about Burritos La Palma for years, as evidenced by the bros who ventured into the spot just after my mom and me, who read about the slender, flavor-packed burritos on Eater. Situated in a cluster of small storefronts in Santa Ana at Bristol and 5th, there are a couple of things you need to know about the menu. First of all, you’re not gonna find blanket-sized flour tortillas that are used to fill a buffet’s worth of carne asada, beans, rice, etc. etc. Instead, they’re a little bit smaller in size than, say, the frozen burrito you might nuke at the local gas station. Don’t let its small stature fool you. Order one (or three!) of bean and cheese or birria de res — which Arellano says is a specialty of Jerez, Zacatecas that uses beef instead of the goat familiar in birrias in Jalisco. And don’t just fixate on the fillings. Though they offer just the right portion to satisfy a savory snack craving, it’s the flour tortilla, made fresh daily each morning on the premises and almost translucent in thickness, that is truly the star of the show here. It’s one of the most heavenly, buttery tortillas I’ve had in years (and I lived for many years not far from the stalwart decades-old Carrillo’s Tortilleria & Mexican Delicatessen in San Fernando whose pillowy flour tortillas are the stuff of legend). But these Zacatecas-style tortillas were so good, I added a pack of them to my collection of mementos to take back to Detroit (more on that later).

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The Lee’s Combination banh mi from Lee’s Sandwiches in Garden Grove

12:30 p.m.

Lee’s Sandwiches, 13991 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove (multiple locations)

Next on our itinerary came a Vietnamese mainstay, the banh mi. And for me, my introduction to these foot-long baguette vessels for cured meats, smooth pâtés, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro and fresh green chilies came around 2008 when I pulled up to the drive-thru of a Lee’s Sandwiches in Garden Grove, aka Little Saigon.

Spread across Westminster and parts of Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Fountain Valley, Little Saigon is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. It’s where you’ll find all manner of the diaspora spanning decades — from the first waves of refugees who made their way to the OC in the 1970s with the fall of Saigon and began opening businesses to their second-generation Vietnamese American kin who are redefining the cultural landscape in new and interesting ways.

Lee’s Sandwiches came on the scene in Orange County somewhere around the middle. Actually, the beginnings of the chain can be traced to the early 80s when founder Chieu Le and his brother started the Lee Bros. Foodservices, Inc food truck company in San Jose. The Bay Area family-owned business gained traction for several years, with Le’s parents selling banh mi at the San Jose State campus. Eventually, in 2001, Le saw potential in opening up a brick and mortar and picked Westminster as its first location. In addition to its selection of banh mi, Lee’s carries a variety of European-style sammies, fresh-baked croissants and a number of Viet and Euro-style coffee drinks.

While most locals would argue that Lee’s is just OK, that there are far better options for banh mi, what this chain does for me is that it exemplifies immigrant greatness. The Le family took pieces of their Vietnamese heritage, which is already steeped in colonial history, and applied American entrepreneurship to create a space that celebrates Asianess, where not only can one find the classic mobile banh mi and a coffee (as well as a huge selection of packaged treats that you’d never come across at a 7-Eleven), but one can gain access to other like-people and enjoy shared language and culture without concern of the white gaze.

When I was living in Orange County, I wasn’t eating much meat, but I found that not to be a problem at Lee’s. For right around $3, I could get an ample portable meal, perfect for scarfing down in the car between assignments. It wasn’t just cheap. The banh mi offers a simple satisfaction from ripping into its crusty bread (like, you can tear the thing in half and eat smaller portions bit by bit throughout a busy day) and a variety of salty, vinegary and spicy sensations with every bite, thanks to the oodles of crisp veggies packed inside.

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Bluff Park in Long Beach

1:15 p.m.

Long Beach City Beach

A bagful of munchies under our belt, we head to one of my favorite places on Earth, Long Beach. When I worked in the OC, I first relocated to the 562 with the understanding that the LBC would provide me relatively quick access to my office in Anaheim, but still provide the urban feel that a 20-something would desire. I lived in a funky Art Deco-ish pink building managed by a Mexican immigrant family who lived in a small bungalow behind it. My adjustment in Long Beach was rough. A mere hour’s drive south of the San Fernando Valley where all my friends and family were, I felt like I may as well be on another planet.

One of the few sources of comfort came from my proximity to the ocean. A short drive to the Belmont Shores neighborhood on Second Street and I could go shopping, get a bite at this little creperie and then walk a couple of blocks to the beach. When I was feeling especially low, I could easily spend all afternoon walking up and down the steps at nearby Bluff Park, just sweating out the stress that came with the demands of a new job and a new life.

The area also came with Rosie’s Dog Beach, which when owning a dog seemed like a daydream that I would never realize, was cool for checking out other peoples’ pooches as they frolicked through the gentle crush along the shoreline.

Southern California is known worldwide for its pristine beachfront, and by all accounts, I can’t think of many who would include Long Beach as their favorite seaside town. But with its calm tide thanks to the 1940s-constructed breakwater, the area is a quiet, no-crowds pocket of the Pacific Ocean in the heart of a big city. Perfect for reflection, getting your toes wet, cracking open a good book and getting a little color on that Midwest-pale skin.

And sharing a banh mi with your mom, while admiring the dogs in the surf.

3 p.m.

Back to Culver City

Had I had more room in my stomach for eating I would have hit up the city of Orange, home to Fuji Grill, which has been dishing out Japanese takeout-friendly sushi bowls long before appropriated poke began trademarking Aloha. Or for dinner I might have made reservations at the critically-lauded Taco María, helmed by Chef Carlos Salgado, who has several James Beard Foundation nominations under his belt for his mastery of Alta California cuisine, which the restaurant describes as a “mezcla of Mexican and American cultures.”

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The exterior of La Guelaguetza in Koreatown, Los Angeles
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From left, an empenada, chile relleno, a tlyuda de mole and a spread of traditional Oaxacan meats from La Guelaguetza in Koreatown, Los Angeles

Alas, we had an early start that day and also northbound traffic to battle before I ventured off in another direction later that evening, the iconic Oaxacan eatery La Guelaguetza in K-Town for an overdue reunion with some of my hermanas from college (for an interview I had with La Guelaguetza co-owner Bricia Lopez-Maytorena who paid homage to Gold after his death last summer, click here).

One thing I made sure to stow away in my carry-on, that package of tortillas. Upon my Midwest return, they still maintained their quality.

And they made for the perfect wrap for leftover Detroit-style botana.

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is the co-founder and head chingona of Tostada Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit and specializes on the intersection of food, identity, and culture.

Find her on Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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