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Orange County suggestion please, 1 night only?

My wife's family is from OC and we'll be visiting next weekend. I must admit that while I'm quite familiar with restaurants in the greater LA area, Orange County is not on my radar at all. I'm looking for a really great dinner suggestion and the only requisite is that it can't be too formal or expensive (avg. $35 entrees). Fun atmosphere and ambiance would be great, but if there's some deadly roadside taqueria, Latin American cafeteria, Korean bbq joint, etc. that shouldn't be missed then I'm just as happy to do that. I would probably either lean towards some sort of ethnic food that is not as common in San Francisco, or else just a really great local seasonal Cal bistro kind of place with a strong wine/cocktail list and good neighborhood feel. Anywhere in OC works... Thanks for the help!

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  1. Gabbi's mexican in downtown Orange just south of the plaza. Super food, nice unique space, great service, reasonable.

      1. re: JAB

        Thank you both for the suggestions!

        They both look like great candidates and I'll probably let my wife decide! Are advance reservations strongly recommended for both places and is either one a clear winner over the other or are they just as great?


        1. re: OliverB

          I respectfully put Playground several classes above Gabbi's which I didn't care for. Patio seating is available at Playground without reservations.

      2. $35 entrees? Holy smokes, you can eat anywhere!

        Get yourself to the Playground and go crazy!

        If you'd like something a bit more intimate, go to ARC.

        1. Gen KBBQ in Tustin $20/person (prepare for a long wait though), Kentro Greek Kitchen is a nice, upscale greek restaurant mid range prices, Brodard Chateau is a great place for classier vietnamese fare (best nem nuong spring rolls in the OC hands down) and also mid range prices. It really just depends on what type of food you want because OC is filled with plenty of nice atmosphere/ambiance restaurants around $35 entrees...if you want a spectacular view to wow your family but food that's slightly more pricey you can check out Orange Hill restaurant

          1. Thanks everyone!

            Last question: best ethnic resto in the area? I think I've read that Golden Gables has a big Asian community... are there any great Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean restaurants that are worthwhile?

            1. Also, Playground VS ARC... is there a clear winner?

              Thank you all!

              5 Replies
              1. re: OliverB

                I would say the Playground is clearly better, but I still really like ARC.

                They are quite different. The Playground has a way better alcohol selection. Tons of locally brewed beers for $5 on draft. Great bottles of wine. Interesting cocktails.

                Tons of small plates that change often. Very playful cuisine.

                ARC has a set menu that is much smaller, but they also have the best off-menu Burger ever (be sure to order it if you go).

                It's about 1/4th the size of the Playground, no outside seating available. All of the food is done in cast iron skillets over open flame (wood fire). It's basically the same as TBD in SF.

                Honestly, I'd say you should go to the Playground. But ARC is not a bad alternative. You could also go to Taco Maria, which is right by ARC.

                1. re: BacoMan

                  Thanks, Playground it is!

                  I'm making the reservation now.

                  1. re: BacoMan

                    Rats, there's no tables on OT! I'll call the restaurant tomorrow but it looks like it's fully booked.

                    What's out next best bet for next Friday evening this late in the game? Should I just grab a table at ARC if there are any available?

                    It sounds like Playground was the best New American/Cal cuisine in the area, but what about just some really great no frills ethnic hole in the wall if there's no rival or equal for modern locally sourced menus?

                    1. re: OliverB

                      The playground has quite a few tables that are outside, and available for walk-ins I believe. You might not be as out of luck as you think if you are willing to go without a reservation.

                      What kind of ethnic hole-in-the-wall are you looking for? There's always Brodard for Vietnamese.

                      I don't really know that much.

                      I mean, you can get some great barbacoa in Huntington Beach at Taqueria Don Victor, but I am not sure you will be able to sit down there, and there is no English spoken there as far as I can tell.

                      You might want to go in the same area as The Playground and try out the upper-end Mexican fare at Lola Gaspar. Pretty tasty, and a fun atmosphere.

                      You could try to get into Mil Jugos in that area too, which is more of a hole-in-the-wall arepas place.

                      In Anaheim there's a place called Jäger Haus that is not really a hole-in-the-wall, but somewhat quaint, that does great brats, sauerkraut, and schnitzel (brats and kraut made by an old German woman).

                      If you want to have your mind blown by a hole-in-the-wall joint doing BBQ you can go to Smokey Fred's in Orange. Possibly the best rib tips, and brisket in SoCal for dirt cheap prices done by an old guy named Fred.

                      There's a Peruvian place in Huntington Beach called Casa Inka that a lot of people like. I was not that impressed by it, but it's not bad.

                      You might like Taco Adobe in Orange, too.

                      There's a very creative little place called Xa Sweet and Savory Cafe you might enjoy. It's kind of a hole-in-the-wall, and kind of a super-creative little cafe. Basically expertly prepared organic chicken with inventive sauces + very creative cookies, for pretty low prices.

                      I would see if ARC has a table...idk... it's hard for me to imagine having a family meal at most of these places (Jäger Haus is the exception to that), but I suppose it's feasible with the right family.

                      (P.S. Just realized that while I am typing up OC recs here...I am simultaneously asking you about SF picks on the other board. How funny!)

                      1. re: BacoMan

                        Thanks so much; all great advice that we'll consider!

                        I really appreciate your help!!

                  1. re: revets2

                    Second Taco Maria. $48 for four course tasting.

                    1. re: jblee

                      3rd Taco Maria. If you have 1 meal in OC and looking for something truly special and different, Taco Maria is the one.

                      I've been to Playground over a dozen times probably. The food is good but not on the level of Taco Maria. The best part about Playground is the zero corkage fee policy and the fried chicken. Everything else can be hit or miss. Pasta was great on Saturday. Everything else a bit too salty.

                      1. re: Porthos

                        I guess I'll hop on the Taco Maria band wagon here. The only reason that I didn't rec it from the beginning was the OP's $35 request and TM's $48 set menu.

                        1. re: Porthos

                          As much as we ask them to lay off, Playground has been very heavy handed on salt.

                          1. re: revets2

                            I guess I like salt.

                            Or have never really noticed.

                            Which dishes suffer most from this?

                            1. re: revets2

                              We've mentioned it a few times. The answer is always: "it's as the chef intended".

                            2. re: Porthos

                              My recollection of the salt issue at Playground was eating a rib eye steak that came topped with something or other. When you just ate the steak alone, it was too salty but, when you ate it with the topping, it was just right. Perhaps, lending credence to "it's as the chef intended".

                              1. re: Porthos

                                Absolutely Taco Maria!! Way better than ARC in the same center! Keep in mind that Taco Maria is not a typical Mexican restaurant. Indeed at dinner, you'll likely not find a taco in sight. This is a unique restaurant whose owner/chef is classically trained, has worked in a Michelin starred restaurant, and is now reinventing the Mexican dishes from his heritage. You will not find the likes of Taco Maria anywhere else. Do try to reserve ASAP!

                                1. re: josephnl

                                  Thanks for the clarification everyone. I've really fallen short lately at giving any relevant context. Horrible.

                                  To clarify...there are NO tacos (or at least never in my many visits) at Taco Maria for dinner. Chef Carlos does serve tacos at lunch. Don't think there is anything like this in NoCal.

                                  Carlos was once the pastry chef at Commis in Oakland.

                              2. re: jblee

                                OP clearly states not too expensive of $35 avg entree and you suggest a $48 tasting menu.

                                Playground in Santa Ana is a great choice.

                                If you're willing to drive to La Habra, you can check out Moro's, it's a small cuban restaurant, good paella's, not too expensive, and BYOB.

                                1. re: JMan604

                                  $48 for 4 courses puts it at $12 a dish which is far less than $35 entree. OP didn't say $35 all in.

                                  1. re: Porthos

                                    Thank you for reading my mind.