Top 10 South Orange County restaurants guaranteed to impress your guests from out of town

Photo of restuarant LEEROY Agency | Pixabay

10 recommendations for the best places to eat locally.

As a native New Yorker, I’m pretty snobby about what I choose to eat.  New York is by far the gold standard when it comes to fine dining. It has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other place in the country. However, it’s the small hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are the true stars of N.Y. The immigrants that move to America and share their cultural dishes with us.

 When I moved to Orange County 26 years ago, I was thoroughly disappointed in the quality of most restaurants. It’s like the restaurants in Orange County spend more money on rent and less on quality.  Luckily, I’ve found 10 options that exceed expectations.

BRU Grill and Market, 23730 El Toro Road, Lake Forest, CA 92630

This place is pretty decent. I have been trying to duplicate the tamarind sauce they drench their brussels sprouts in since I first tasted it.  Needless to say, it was always the star of any meal.

Mollie’s Famous Café, 32033 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA  92675

Careful! There is a copycat restaurant with a similar name. Do not confuse it with Mollie’s Country Kitchen, which deserves zero stars. Mollie’s Famous Café breakfast tastes like someone’s grandmother, who studied in France, is in the kitchen making you a giant pancake and whipped cream piled mile-high hot chocolate. This place is real home cooking.

Lupe’s Taco Shop, 33621 Del Obispo Street, Dana Point, CA 92629

Taco shops are a dime-a-dozen in California.  This one seems to get creative with its menu as the smoked tuna taco and the octopus tacos are amazing. The homemade tortillas are tasty.

Eden Vegan, 32860 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, CA 92629

I am a meat lover. However, Vegan Eden is one of my go-to spots for vegan food. My favorite is the garlic noodles with extra fake shrimp, the orange chicken and the fried mushrooms.  I love this restaurant… period. The fact that it’s a healthy option is a bonus.

Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse, 623 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, CA 92618

Oh, how I love meat. It deserves its own holiday.  I declare every Monday should be meat day! The thing about a good cut of meat is it only needs sea salt and no other seasoning. The chef at this restaurant understands this concept. This is a perfect restaurant for a celebration. Just sit back, relax and let the meat come to you.

Himalayan Taste, 32341 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA  92615

This is a pretty small and intimate spot. The food transports you to Nepal in the dead of winter. The chicken momo’s and the tandoori plates are the stars of the show. The seasoning is minimal and the authenticity is to die for.

C’est La Vie, 373 South Pacific Coast Highway, CA 92651

This restaurant is so scenic I take all my out-of-town guests here, yet the chef is pretty on-point. This is one of the few restaurants that didn’t sacrifice taste for rent as they have a prime spot near the beach.

Poached Kitchen, 17595 Harvard Avenue Unit A, Irvine, CA 92618

My favorite dish is the churro waffle and the benedict. That hollandaise sauce is spectacular and the waffles are better than any wafflehouse I’ve been to.

Taco Maria, 3313 Hyland Avenue, Suite C21, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

The first Michelin star restaurant on the list and it’s clear they earned it.  The tortillas are blue corn and hand-made in front of you. I am in love with their caesar salad.

Inka’s, 16277 Laguna Canyon Road, Irvine, CA 92618

By far, my favorite restaurant on the list. Do not confuse it with Inka Grill or other Peruvian spots, it’s just Inka’s. I swear there must be a little Peruvian old lady in that kitchen making every dish because it doesn’t seem like restaurant food. Spots like that are everywhere in NY and the food excels beyond everything. I want to taste Peruvian culture and Inka’s deliver on that promise. I recommend the seafood paella and the chicken porteno with plantains. I give you my word, you won’t regret it.


Updated May 28 at 4:12 a.m. to fix image, caption, spelling, grammar, and format issues and to add the “opinion” tag