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Monday, September 12, 2005

Johnny Rebs' in Orange

As a recovering flight attendant, I am plagued with sudden and overwhelming cravings for the intoxicating places of my past. It seems that when I can least afford to succumb, my travel addiction reaches maddening intensity. At times, I fear a quick jaunt across state lines will trigger a relapse and send me begging for help from round-the- world-ticket dealers. Instead, I turn to local remedies, places where for an hour or two, I can escape to another world, even if I'm only a few blocks away.

Asian Escape
I recently needed a Far East fix, so I fled my home in Dana Point for some Asian action in north county. My first stop was Mitsuwa Marketplace (665 Paularino Ave.) in Costa Mesa, a notch in the Japan-based chain of superstores. I ran through the parking lot to avoid the pounding rain, and as soon as the automatic doors slid open, I felt relief. I was in Tokyo. If I ignored the English aisle markers, I could convince myself that I was really at Jusco mall in Narita. Or if it wasn't for the cacophony of Japanese conversations, it could have easily been Seoul. The clean, bright, modern complex includes a grocery store whose aisles are stocked with imported goodies from seaweed to poki; a confectioners, with perfectly sculpted treats so beautiful I would be afraid to eat them; a bookstore decorated with alluring anime action heroes; and a novelty shop reminiscent of Japan's 100 yen stores, a popular version of our own 99-cent stores. The mini-mall is also home to pottery, cell phone and video shops. Like a typical Japanese department store, the grocery counters lead to an awesome food court where every eatery has plasticized entrees displayed in the windows. A panel of six TVs blasts news from Japan while Japanese pop music competes in the background. Four Japanese restaurants serve everything from Katsu curry to sushi and rice bowls. A Chinese restaurant serves chow mein and dim sum while Italian Tomato offers pasta dishes, because of course Italian is popular everywhere from Holland to China. My personal favorite is the eel egg bowl at Miyabi-Tei. The dish comes in a huge clay pot and is accompanied by miso soup and radishes. Looking for more variety, I ventured up to Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon, the center of Westminster's Vietnamese enclave. The street is lined with Vietnamese shops serving pho, a traditional noodle soup; banh mi, French influenced sandwiches on baguettes with pate, mint and spices; and Bo 7 Mon, a specialty that includes seven beef dishes.

A must-try, Tay Ho (9629 Bolsa Ave.) specializes in bahn cuon, sticky steamed rolls made of rice flour. But perhaps the area's most well-known restaurant is Lee's Sandwiches (9261 Bolsa Ave.) where patrons of all ethnicities regularly devour their renowned banh mi.

Across the street, an imposing pagoda-like entrance and larger-than-life Buddha welcome visitors to Asian Garden Mall (9200 Bolsa Ave.), a 150,000-square-foot complex with more than 250 shops. Carts, stores and stalls sell jewelry, "designer" purses, clothes, shoes, CDs, gifts, food, and more. Bargaining is expected, but transactions are strictly cash only. A small network of stalls on the second floor hints at the giant indoor mazes of Asian metropolises like the Pearl Market in Beijing where real bargains can be made.

A food court sells fresh rice paper spring rolls, fish balls, honey chips, fried bananas, steamed sweet rice concoctions, cups of fresh mango, boba, and smoothies in exotic flavors like durian, mango and taro topped with lychee and kumquats. Upstairs, smoke wafts from an altar where worshippers donate coins, light incense and pray to the towering red statue of Guang Gong, a protective warrior who fends off evil spirits. Wooden shelves hold fortunes written in Vietnamese.
I ventured into an apothecary shop and marveled at the hundreds of glass, steel and plastic jars full of dried roots and herbs. An herbalist in a white coat sat at the back of the store next to an altar filling orders with an abacus at his side. He patiently rolled a pile of black paste, which purportedly cures liver ailments, into smooth balls the size of chocolate truffles. Although I'm not generally into herbs, I bought a $12 bag of ginseng hoping for enough stamina to fight traffic on my way home. I was instructed to suck on the bite sized flakes and await the flow of energy. Nothing happened. A few hours later, just when I'd forgotten about the energy-boosting root, I couldn't slow down. I cleaned house with the mania of a stock broker on the trading floor and carried six bags of trash to the dumpster in the pouring rain. I'm surprised they don't market it as a tonic to ease roommate relations.

Asian Garden Mall; Memphis at the Santora; Watson's Drugs and Soda Fountain

Urban Assault
It's not the OC, it's me. I love idyllic Dana Point, but after living in some of the world's biggest cities, I occasionally long for a little urban angst. It may be a while before Orange County gets a hopping city center with towering skyscrapers, honking cabs and underground trains, but fortunately, we already have a few well-hidden urban hotspots.
When night falls, nothing beats Westside Costa Mesa, home to some of the county's hippest chill-out lounges, even if they are secreted away in non-descript strip malls. Small, cool and unpretentious, Detroit (843 W. 19th St.) and Kitsch Bar (849 Baker St.) could easily be part of London's fashionable Clerkenwell nightlife circuit, especially now that London is following our lead with a smoking ban. When I can't bear another beach bar, I head to Kitsch. With a black ceiling and floor, navy blue walls and a glowing red DJ booth, the intimately scaled lounge offers one of the most laid back vibes in town. A mostly-young crowd is otherwise eclectic, with plenty of fit and fat, hip and geeky 20-and 30-somethings kicking it on Ikea-style rolling chairs with fanciful cocktails close at hand. One glass encased wall defines kitsch as "art in pretentious bad taste" and displays rotating collections from local artists. On my most recent visit, an assortment of beauty-school mannequin heads added to an eery ambience as 80s movies played without sound on a flat-screen TV behind the bar. The DJ spun tunes in very "bad taste" like "Take Me With You" by Prince and "Losing Myself" by Queensryche.
For a daytime urban outpost in Costa Mesa, I'll often try The LAB (2930 Bristol St.), a warehouse inspired "anti-mall" with outdoor gathering areas and hip shopping: You can shop for streetwear at Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange and Black & Blue; underground electronic music at Dr. Freeclouds; or get a trendy haricot at Crew Salon.
Urban doesn't have to mean edgy, as swanky Sutra Lounge (1870 Harbor Blvd.) will attest. To be honest, I wanted to hate Sutra. If any place should be considered over-played, it's this "ultra-lounge." Even when I'm looking for a Sex and the City-style night on the town, long lines and clipboard Nazis just seem absurd in Costa Mesa. But at least some of the hype is warranted; as a club, it is the place to be seen, where a glamorous crowd dresses up and drops serious cash; as a restaurant, Sutra is at its best with a gourmet aphrodisiac-inspired menu by French chef Stephane Beaucamp.
Although these gems challenge Orange County's sedated image, sometimes strip-malls can get downright sickening, and downtown Santa Ana is the perfect antidote. Heading towards the Artist's Village, the ride down First Street looks like a Chicago neighborhood with prairie style houses and arts and crafts brick buildings. It brings you into the redeveloping downtown, perhaps the one place somebody walks in OC. It isn't beautiful, nor is it down-and-out gritty, but downtown Santa Ana does have a city flair. Even if they're only three or four floors up, the hodgepodge of contemporary artists' lofts with their corrugated tin walls, and the surrounding Romanesque, Art Deco, Victorian, and Edwardian buildings conjure a knee-high New York. Or with ranchero music blaring from storefronts, perhaps it's more like San Francisco's mission district.
A growing number of art galleries are sprouting up throughout the artist's village, starting at Second and Broadway, but the Santora Arts Complex (207 N. Broadway) is the center of activity and houses more than 30 studios and galleries. Plaza of the Artists, adjacent to the complex, is closed to traffic and is an excellent place to relax on a bench and people watch. Flanking the street are Memphis at the Santora (201 N. Broadway; also at 2920 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa) and the Gypsy Den Grand Central Cafe (125 N. Broadway; also at the LAB in Costa Mesa), two contrasting urban hangouts. Along with a fabulous if ironic comfort food menu, Memphis offers an L.A.-style mod-retro decor with polka dot tables, globe lights and smooth plastic furniture. Quite unlike its neighbor, the bohemian Gypsy Den is straight out of the Haight with mismatched furniture, beaded curtains, tasseled lampshades, lace tablecloths, and bookshelves full of tattered paperbacks. Its menu is equally granola.
Around the corner on Fourth Street, you'll find the Latin Business District. Amongst the art deco buildings between Broadway and French streets, you'll be inundated with mariachi and ranchero music, vending carts with fruit, candy, chips, and tamales. With every step, you'll pass a never-ending stream of bridal shops with flouncy wedding and quinceanera dresses. Nearby, the Plaza Fiesta at Fourth and Bush is closed to traffic and is a great place to wander. For a south of the border jaunt, without the border, take a spin on the plaza's small carousel, taste authentic dishes at Mexican restaurants like Mariscos Tampico, or head across the street where the historic Fiesta Teatro plays first-run movies in Espanol.

Old Town Orange Plaza; The Filling Station

Old School
My airline years weren't always fun. From lost luggage to missed connections, emergency landings, and irritating body malfunctions like "Delhi belly," things have gone wrong. But somehow, I only remember the good stuff. Life isn't much different. It's amazing how a little nostalgia can make us yearn for a place or time where things were easier, slower or happier - whether or not they really were. I'll admit that I wasn't around for the 50s, that my biggest connection with these happy days is repeatedly watching American Graffiti while my parents romanticized their youth. But even I can appreciate Old Town Orange, Orange County's headquarters for Americana.
Over the last five decades, so little has changed at the corner of Glassell and Chapman that the area is frequently used for movies set in the mid-twentieth century. Historic buildings and antique stores radiate from the park at the center of the intersection's roundabout. C.W. Moss (402 W. Chapman Ave.) sells reproduction parts for classic Fords and exhibits an impressive range of historic bikes and cars. Nearby, Watson's Drugs and Soda Fountain (116 E. Chapman Ave.), founded in 1899 and featured in That Thing You Do, is a haven from modern day OC; its spinning red-vinyl bar stools are a cozy place to indulge in a root beer float or banana split. Such sinful treats were much more accepted when work often meant physical labor, and housework easily burnt off the week's small home-made meals. As oldies like "Chantilly Lace" by Big Bopper and, well, anything by Elvis play, waitresses in short black dresses with pointy white collars and cuffs store pencils behind their ears and parade around like Flo from Mel's Diner. Formica tables capped off with chrome are squeezed into every square inch of a dining room that shares space with the working pharmacy. Unfortunately, despite what a large sign advertises, you can't get a hot dog and Coca Cola for 15 cents.
A few blocks away, The Filling Station (201 N. Glassell St.), an old gas station turned restaurant, offers a similar red vinyl decor on the inside but also has a great garden patio lit by a string of white Christmas lights. Modern heaters loom side-by-side with historical gas pumps and make for cozy al fresco dining even in the winter. A walk around old town might take you to Mr. C's Records where you can buy your favorite tunes on vinyl, Felix Continental Cafe, where you can eat traditional Cuban and Spanish food at a bargain, and the tiny Two's Company Cafe and Catering, a great place to enjoy a sandwich or pastry and listen to bebop.
Not all of the county's retro treasures are in Orange, or even in historic neighborhoods. Hidden in flashy Newport Beach, the Galley Cafe (829 Harbor Island Dr.) offers a subtle but authentic old school experience. Four generations of Flach family members have owned and operated this diner since 1945. The old fashioned soda fountain and cash register may be adorable relics, but the overall ambience is far from gimmicky; servers wear T-shirts and 21st century pop plays on the radio. The result feels less like a theme park and more like the real thing. Stop in for their specialty, the chili size, and enjoy incredible harbor views from a cushy beige booth or a stool at the formica lunch counter. If it's a Saturday morning, head up to the corner of Adams and Magnolia in Huntington Beach and check out Donut Derelicts, a 1950s style cruise-in that starts at 7 a.m. And to turn up in proper greaser style, have a custom zoot suit made at El Pachuco (801 S. Harbor Blvd.) in Fullerton.

Down South
When you need to get away from the fast-paced dog-eat-dog world of Southern California, there is nowhere better, or at least slower, than the South.
Although it's nowhere near as authentic as its little bitty Long Beach outpost, Johnny Rebs' (2940 Chapman Ave.) in Orange serves up some of the most finger licking ribs in Cali. A drainage pipe-turned smoke stack juts out from the rusty corrugated tin roof, and the weathered wood siding is painted with their catchy slogan - "Put Some South in Yer Mouth." Inside, a cavernous barn-like room welcomes guests with peanut-covered plywood floors and walls decorated with wrought iron farm equipment and rolling pins. You can sit in a carved pine booth and order a mason jar of RC Cola or a bottle of Dixie beer, some hush puppies and sweet potato fries to start. Authentic entrees include catfish po'boys and pulled pork sandwiches, but I'd stick with the baby backs if I were you, and maybe a side of Texas caviar, Cajun rice or collard greens. Hopefully they'll be playing something like Johnny Cash, but in case they try to ruin the experience with Britney Spears or even 60s classics, ask for a table in the claptrap patio room; with its dingy screen windows and lamps made from punched tin buckets, it's the perfect place to chow down on greasy barbecue.
For a more intimate experience, look for Burrell's Barbecue (305 N. Hesperian), a down home restaurant smack in the middle of a residential street. The red shack is hard to miss with an oversized grill out back and a sign reading "wanted, good woman." The one room barbecue joint has no indoor seating; just a counter and an overhead menu fit on the other side of the swinging screen door. Look past the chain link fence and you'll find a secluded backyard that's perfect for outdoor dining, where plastic tables and picnic benches sit right on the lawn.
If you'd rather keep things upscale, The Ramos House Cafe in San Juan Capistrano's Los Rios Historical District, is your place. The Ramos House, built in 1881, now serves traditional Deep South fare with a cosmopolitan flare. Stop by on the weekend for a killer brunch; try the New Orleans-style cinnamon apple beignets, the sweet corn hushpuppies with pepper jam or the sweet potato duck hash with mushroom scrambled eggs and collard green gravy.
Although it offers half the ambience and a watered down menu, Po' Folks (7701 Beach Blvd.) in Buena Park is another local option for delicious but fattening, fried comfort food. And Chick-fil-A may be a simple fast food joint, but it is a bonafide Southern institution and has just broken in to the OC market with shop in the Irvine Market Place.
Further down the coast, The Rib Joint (34294 Pacific Coast Hwy.) in Dana Point offers something none of the other restaurants mentioned can. Bad food, bad service and an honestly run-down drafty room. But it's fabulous, and it actually inspired this article. I was less than enthused when served defrosted corn on the cob complete with telltale wrinkles and watery flavor. In fact, my meal took so long to come out of the kitchen, I think they were trying to give the illusion of actually cooking it. But when I need an escape from all things OC, I know I'll find it here. A few hours in a dingy booth listening to a cowboy sing "stand by your man," and watching midwestern travelers from the adjacent Holiday Inn Express chow down while exclaiming "this feels just like home, California's not so different" and you'll feel like you left home for days. Not to mention, no matter how exciting your vacation may be, oftentimes the best part of traveling really is coming home. Especially when you live here.

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