For all my talk of near-religious devotion to the institution of Taco Tuesday, you may be surprised that I have not yet publically declared my favorite OC instantiation of that weekly rite. You can be sure I’ve done my due diligence, and there are certainly posts to come about the many fantastic places—both muy auténtico and Gringoified—where you can get a great taco nearby. But when it comes to my precious Tuesdays, I’ve become a creature of extreme habit. For the past two years, my Tuesday nights are all about Bear Flag Fish Co., the Newport-based seafood market and casual restaurant. There is a lot to recommend this place, especially if you like simple, perfectly-cooked preparations of really fresh fish—and who doesn’t? Their tuna and salmon poke is the stuff of dreams are made of, and far-flung friends and family alike often wax poetic about the sheer decadence of going at a pound of Bear Flag poke with a bag of locally-made El Toro Bravo chips.
But we’re locals, yanno? We don’t have nearly the Benjamins (or the mercury-tolerance) for weekly bouts with raw bluefin. Instead, we go to Bear Flag each week expressly for their Taco Tuesday special: panko-crusted fish tacos at two bucks a pop. A riff on the classic Baja fish taco, these beautiful, corn tortilla wrapped babies are topped with green and purple cabbage, pico de gallo, and a drizzle of mayo-based “Tommy sauce.” Add a shot or two of one of the many hot sauces available—including Bear Flag’s vinegary, house-made habanero version—and you’ve basically got the best thing ever. We get three apiece; thus for twelve dollars, we have a pretty perfect meal for two people. Even if you don’t make it on a Tuesday, they are usually only three dollars each, making it a bargain dinner in these pricey climes.
I’m probably giving away too much stalker-ammo here, but we actually prefer the newer Crystal Cove Promenade location and can be basically found there every Tuesday. It’s closer to our house and our thrice-weekly hike, and while it’s surely in the most appallingly nouveau riche shopping center in the world, the surfer guys that work at Bear Flag are super-friendly and efficient, at least to the regulars. Moreover, the parking lot of the Promenade has a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean, and watching sweeping sunsets is easy from the Bear Flag patio. Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely an odd place. We once arrived to a row of eight (seriously, eight!) Ferrari Testarossas all parked in a row out front—a jamboree of ostentation, if you will. But Taco Tuesday is the great equalizer, and we smugly ate our six tacos while the sun set over Catalina, the light bouncing off the hoods of those many mid-life crises.
On the first episode of the last season of the Real Housewives of Orange County (yes, I watch it, shut up), one of the ladies threw a New England-style clambake to get all the women together to start fighting. The hostess—a pinched-looking creature who is married to a successful Orange County plastic surgeon—called the event a clambake, but it was really a lobster boil. I was under the impression that a clambake involved digging a hole, burying some clams with hot coals, and then unearthing the whole thing later on. The centerpiece of this Newport Beach party was instead an awe-inducing spread of beautiful, enormous lobsters. Clambake? I think, “Eh, will I get sand in my teeth?” Lobsterbake? I’m in every time. Even if it means chowing down amidst shrieking harpies with immobile faces.
I was quite amused, then, to see that the housewife procured her lobsters and clams from none other than Santa Monica Seafood, a fish market located in Costa Mesa that I also happen frequent for my own piscivore yearnings. Santa Monica Seafood was one of the first places I found in Orange County that truly blew me away – coming from a landlocked state, this kind of fresh fish market is just mind-boggling. It’s pricey, of course, but everything they sell is positively gorgeous. Moreover, Santa Monica Seafood supplies all of the high-end surf and turf restaurants in Newport Beach, so I like to rationalize that while it may be spendy, I’m getting the same damn salmon as the Housewives and their “entrepreneur” husbands get at Mastro’s. And mine is always perfectly cooked.
Seriously, though, Santa Monica Seafood is particularly great if you are looking for locally-caught, responsibly-sourced fish in Southern California. I particularly like picking up California halibut or Carlsbad mussels for easy, economical fish dinners. If we’re feeling a little more decadent, I’ll get a dozen oysters for a weekend lunch – Santa Monica usually has a great selection of Fanny Bay, Malpeque, Kumamoto, and Coromandel oysters on hand at about a buck fifty a pop (sometimes less). As you know, B is our resident shucker and an excellent one at that, but the fishmongers at Santa Monica will do your shucking for you if you are weak-willed. And none of this business of bringing home a bag of shellfish only to discover that half of them perished before you even leave the store. These fishmongers are pros, tapping each and every shell to make sure your entire purchase is alive when it comes to dinnertime. I literally once watched one guy methodically tap through nearly five pounds of mussels I bought for a party. At only five bucks a pound, it wasn’t a particularly big purchase, especially not in an area where Real Housewives have Tuesday night lobster bakes. But Santa Monica Seafood has wonderful customer service for even the unnipped, untucked population, and it’s a pleasure to shop there.
And look, as I’m sure my regular readers may remember, we are also occasionally of the homarine persuasion. As has become our tradition, B makes a show of his love for me each Valentine’s Day by brutally murdering a lobster (sometimes two). In recent years, we’ve discovered that I am a far more coldblooded executioner of crustaceans than my kind-hearted husband, so now I’m usually in charge of the grisly part. The last two Februaries we have gone to Santa Monica Seafood mid-afternoon to pick out two big fellas (I like to choose the meanest-looking ones). With our new friends clanging around in a cooler, we stop at Hi-Times to pick up a nice bottle of Sancerre. Then we head home, boil up a big pot of onions and fennel, and send those lobsters to the great hereafter. After the most decadent of meals (two lobsters, drawn butter, and a smidge of Old Bay), we get to work frying up the shells along with shallots, carrots, celery, peppercorns, and bay leaves to make an enormous pot of lobster stock. We freeze most of it for bouillabaisse and cioppino, but I always do end up getting my bisque fix a few days after Valentine’s. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll post B’s recipe. It’s so tasty that it would make even a Housewife jealous.
Los Angeles lifestyle blogs – and you can bet your ass I read all of them – present a positively warped vision of consumer life in this second-largest American city. If the Instagrammed object worlds of the Angelino taste-making elite are to be believed, life in these fair hills is entirely composed sun-drenched patios decked out in Heath pottery, succulents, and macramé wall hangings. Daily hikes in Runyon Canyon are de rigueur, as are evenings at the Hollywood Bowl. Everybody always seems to be slurping up a pizza at Mozza, a butterscotch budino at Gjelina, or a round of oysters at Hungry Cat. Or maybe they are snapping a quick shot of the tsukemen ramen at that place that everybody can’t stop talking about. There is a veritable catalogue of Angelino lifestyle blog clichés, and I can’t seem to get enough of them. One that has reached near-icon status is this guy:
Ah, Sqirl’s Kokuho rose brown rice bowl. Mysteriously tender brown rice doused in sorrel pesto and punctuated with preserved Meyer lemons, “lacto fermented” hot sauce, watermelon radishes, feta cheese, and a poached egg. With the addition of a house sausage patty, natch. I’ve seen so many photos of this bad boy that it’s positively egregious to add my own shot to the archive. And a filtered shot from my own Instagram, no less? The shame. The Nouveau parti anticapitaliste will never have me back.
But is it tasty? Yes, totally. My girl K, who is definitely in the know about all the best things in the city, took me to Sqirl when I requested a lady brunch at a place that would make my husband squirm. And oh man, would he have squirmed. A throng of calculatedly casual Angelinos in Priuses and handmade shoes? Check. Quince and rosemary jam? Check. Burnt toast for seven bucks? Check. I joke about the last one – the “burnt brioche toast” is quite deliberate and really delicious, smeared with fresh ricotta and apple butter. The whole place is a scene, but a good one, and that rice bowl is really worth a fuss. It’s such an unexpected breakfast combination, one that probably could be replicated to some degree in your own home. As B would grumble, come springtime sorrel grows in ditches all over the Midwest. Better snatch it up before the in-crowd catches wind.
San Clemente has always held a special role in my imagination as something like the last beach community untainted by the various blights of the Orange County coastline (grotesque plastic surgery, obscenely decadent consumption, racist Minutemen, heteronormative gender policing that would do the 1950s proud, etc.). This assumption may not even be remotely true, and I’m well aware of the military base and enormous mammary of a nuclear power plant that might contradict this fantasy. Nevertheless, San Clemente is – in my mind – a sleepy town of surfers unencumbered by the venial sins of the rest of the county. Heck, Ruby’s hasn’t even co-opted their pier yet!
My dear friends J and BC lived in San Clemente for several years and did little to dispel any of these conceptions. Sure, they complained sometimes about their neighbor’s politics, but it seemed like they were pretty tan and eating a lot of fresh-caught fish whenever I came to visit. Whenever I get mad at Corona del Mar (which is basically every day), I tell B that we are moving to San Clemente. We probably never will, but I think it’s important to always give yourself a plan of escape, even if it remains only in your head.
One entirely legitimate reason to move to San Clemente tomorrow is so you could eat at The Rider’s Club every single day. It’s nothing much from the street, but J and BC had raved about their carnitas sandwich for several years, so I was pretty darn psyched to finally try it. Dear lord. Shredded pork on a Challah bun, topped with carrot slaw, cilantro, a creamy sauce, and jalapeños. It’s like a perfect taco made out with a bánh mì on Shabbat. Their burgers are really special too; B claims that a cheddar, roasted green chile, bacon, and avocado combo makes for the best burger in SoCal. The draft beer list is off the chain, with Old Rasputin usually on tap along with other great selections from breweries like Alesmith, Green Flash, and Bear Republic. The soundtrack often veers loud with the Pixies or Love and Rockets blasting out onto the patio, though J and BC inform me that they’ll happily put on cartoons for your kid. The Rider’s Club is basically the perfect post-beach joint, and nothing tastes better after a long day in the sun than a cold beer and salty, fatty grub.
PS. If you really want to put that final sparkle on your evening, the little chocolate puddings housed in Dixie cups are basically all the things you ever wanted chocolate pudding to be. Just so you can’t say that nobody ever told you.
I recently started working with a graduate student from Sichuan province. She’s quite lovely, and we’ve talked a bit about her hometown at the end of her sessions. According to her, there is a serious dearth of English teachers in Sichuan compared to other provinces in China, and native speakers are few and far between. I continually joke that if I get to eat Sichuan food all the time, I’ll move to Chengdu in a hot minute. Last week she showed up with a brochure for a company that would arrange such a thing, and I started to wonder if I shouldn’t take her up on the idea.
Short of the occasional road trip to the San Gabriel Valley, I didn’t eat much Sichuan food when I first was living in California in the mid-aughts. I wouldn’t have been very interested if someone had proposed eating Sichuan in Orange County (and for that matter, nobody did). Fast forward to 2013, when I happened to notice a bumping Chongqing-style spot adjacent to the Ranch 99 where I sometimes shop. Curious, and not willing to drive all the way to the Valley for a fix when gas was over four bucks a gallon, I dragged B back to check it out a few nights later. The obsession was born.
To say that the fried tofu cubes with hot pepper at Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan Restaurant in Irvine are the best thing I ate last year would be such an understatement. They may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten? The dish certainly hits all the best notes: spicy, salty, fatty, crispy, and creamy. Cubes of tofu are deep fried with red chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and ginger. That’s it. Why is it so transcendently perfect? I don’t know. There is something about how the crunchy, spicy exterior sort melts into the silky tofu. All I know is that I literally have a filthy fantasy life entirely centered around this stuff.
They have some great other dishes as well – we always seem to order some variation of dan dan noodles, cumin stir-fried lamb, fish filet with preserved chili, or spicy eggplant. The service is really friendly, and it’s a great place to bring a group of people. They even have lazy susans! But really it’s that tofu. Oh man, that tofu. Make sure you order a #4. I’ll be the junkie in the corner with my own mound.