eating behind the orange curtain

Having survived in Orange County for three years and lived to tell my silicone-free, pudgy tale, I find the place mostly horrific and sometimes amusing. But is making fun of the nouveau riche ever really funny? I mean, it’s like poking fun at George W.’s butchery of our native tongue: shooting oversized, resource-wasting, born-again fish in a gilded oil barrel. But. Having grown up in a place where I doubted that the beach culture and Beverly Hills ridiculousness actually existed, convinced it was a TV fantasy, I feel obligated to share with the world that Southern California is real, and there are still plenty of guffaws to be had on every street corner.

I bring you Exhibits 1 and 2.

A Gucci suit and a Baccarat gazelle, to match your Baccarat chandelier, of course. In my triennial trip to South Coast Plaza, the absurdist-dream-come-true megamall in Costa Mesa, where I discovered to my great dismay that replacing my wine glasses, purchased 10 years ago from my wedding registry at Williams Sonoma, had jumped in price from about 7 bucks a glass to 18 with a proportionate reduction in quality, I snapped a few shots for posterity. My friend Miss C was surely mortified, and I’m sorry for that. I need GAUDY, I snapped, waving around my camera, work it, girlfriend, work it! We also managed to find similar-looking wine glasses to mine at Crate & Barrel, plain, sturdy, all-purpose balloon glasses that were made for breakin’ at 5 bucks apiece. The glass quality isn’t fine, but it also isn’t Ikea, either, if you know what I mean.

I called Retrogrouch to brag of my success. You didn’t buy varietal glasses, he warned dangerously, because I will divorce you if you wasted my money to buy varietal glasses. With a sigh, I stopped lustfully fingering the Riedel Riesling glasses, and reassured him I hadn’t. And decided to wait before telling him about the shoes.

But this is a post about eating behind the Orange Curtain, not the travails of being a Crate & Barrrel multipurpose glass girl in a Baccarat crystal gazelle world. And eating there, friends, is not at all bad. Sometimes it is even sublime.

Again with the Exhibits. The first is, without question, Thai Nakorn in Stanton (near Garden Grove) the best Thai restaurant I’ve ever patronized, except for well, maybe one vegetarian one in Bangkok.

But why is it that I’m always eating Thai with vegetarians? Although my companion generously offered to share a meat dish (if I recall correctly, she was drooling over Thai sausage), I told her to preserve her chastitity; I could deal. So we ordered Pad Thai and Chinese Water Grass with Bean Sauce, and I partook in the Crab Egg Roll, which was a fresh crab stuffing inside a tofu skin roll. So much yum. I’m only devastated that I’m just now discovering I lived so close to such a wondrous place.

But we couldn’t stop there. We also ate at Felix’s Continental Café in Orange for breakfast, just because we couldn’t fit in one more dinner, one more lunch. Felix’s has terrific roasted meat, one of my raisons d’être, but the breakfast isn’t bad, either. We were able to sit outside on yet another beautiful day, right smack dab on the circle in Olde Towne Orange, looking at the peaches, er, oranges growing impossibly on the trees around the central fountain. Soon enough we stopped noticing the people, and dug into our carbohydrate-laden grub. That’s me with the Eggs Hussarde, with not only Hollandaise but also

Marchand de Vin sauce. Oddly, Felix’s replaces the latter with their bittersweet, orange-marmaladey white wine interpretation, but it was still good, and the fried potatoes and eggs were divine. For dessert was a picture-perfect fruit fritter with some kind of red berry glaze, but not being much of a sweets girl, I only nibbled at it. My lovely companion chose smartly: Cuban huevos ranchero with black beans, rice, and extra sauce. And dear heavens, did I mention the price?

And I can’t forget to mention Taco Rosa in Newport Beach, for that Cali-Mex upscale cantina taste you (inexplicably) can’t find anywhere but Cali. Carnitas Baked in Banana Leaf with Pibil Sauce and a corn tamale, Portobello mushroom quesadillas, and a trio of bocadillos (marinated carrot, a tostadita with beans, a mini beef chimichanga) sure do go down easy with a few margaritas.

But believe it or not (o ye who knowst me), I didn’t eat at my absolutely favorite Orange County fine dining establishment, Wholesome Choice Supermarket. If it weren’t for my adorable ex-roomie and departmental homegirl sublettor who made me dinner in the ‘hood, Irvine’s graduate ghetto, I would have. (My ex-roomie, a Chilean, is a fantastic cook, and one of the main reasons I survived my return to The OC last fall. We ate Chilean comfort food — a type of shepherd’s pie and homemade bread, and a big Greek salad, and I got to spend an evening with two beautiful ladies, so who’s complaining? )

But I must speak on the wonder that is the Persian hot food deli counter at Wholesome Choice. I have eaten so many kebabs from the Persian deli there that I swear to you that at least 50 lbs. of my body is made of fillet mignon seasoned with a juiced half-lemon and sumac, topped with yogurt-cucumber dressing, and snuggled up next to buttered Basmati rice pilaf with a crust of fried Persian bread and rice.

This time, however, this last time I might ever be in Irvine, I merely took a longing look and said my goodbyes with a bag full of citrus salt pistachios, Persian pistachio-rosewater ice cream, and a big jar of Morello cherries in syrup. Could there be a better way to say thanks to my last, best graduate school? I think not.

eugenius reluctantly allowed into orange county

I made the drive down south yesterday in record time. I was seriously mellow when I left San Francisco, like floaty mellow, like marsh mallow, like I left my heart there mellow, with caffeine not yet in my veins and the jazz station turned up high. No traffic. Gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky. And yadda yadda yadda, I found myself in hazy LA. The traffic wasn’t bad at all for a change, so I whizzed through and ended up swallowed by the Orange Curtain, where you can have both Disneyland AND a ball.

I lived in Orange County for three years, and to put it politely, didn’t feel it, but there are a handful of fantastic foodie finds that should be noted herein. They will not include the entire fast food industry, which was born here, or the orange groves, long gone and forgotten, or the grains, raisin grapes, almonds, apricots or avocados that preceded the oranges. If you still haven’t read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, try it sitting under a rat-infested palm tree hooked up with canned music issuing from a speaker in the fronds with a nice, hazy view of the 405. Think about Carl Karcher, native son, founder of Carl’s Jr., looking around at the fast food wasteland he helped create in the groves of his youth, thinking, now that’s progress!  And don’t forget to breathe.

I’m staying in the lovely city of Orange, in the hearte of Olde Towne, to be exacte, with one of my very closest friends, so it’s all the more beautiful to me, but it sure ain’t Berkeley.

Still, we can walk to Felix’s, one of Orange County’s treasures. It’s a Cuban café that has been around forever, a place that still sells hunks of marinated fried meat with a mound of rice and beans and calls that dinner. And thank the heavens for that. God Bless America, etc. My husband was very upset to learn that I failed to buy pistachios on our wine country trip the other day, because that’s what we would *always* do, so I will not fail him by skipping Felix’s this time.