As the weather progresses further into fall here in Philly, I still find myself backed up on blog posts and reminiscing about summer meals in warmer climates. But fear not readers–this will be my last summer installment and I will finally be caught up on writing. (Eating faster than blogging is certainly a flaw of mine. )
As a native Los Angelino, I never spent much time in Orange County. My perception of the region was less than flattering: suburban sprawl, Real Housewives, and chain restaurants. But after spending more time there over the summer, I realized there is much more to the OC than meets the eye. Hidden among the generic strip malls and bland chain eateries are terrific ethnic restaurants serving interesting cuisine worth driving for. Here are 3 of my favorites.
Located in a sleepy Tustin strip mall, Del Tomate gained some buzz after the LA Times gave it a rave review. My boyfriend and I stumbled upon it when we were looking to grab a late lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was one of the few places open that day, and boy, were we glad to have found it.
The allure of Del Tomate is in the attention to detail. Owners Guillermo and Giacobbe, the husband and wife team behind the restaurant, don’t cut any corners when it comes to their rustic Argentinian-Italian fare. Pastas are all handmade and made to order. Empanadas and desserts are baked on the premises. And the Argentinian style sandwiches are packed with fresh ingredients and high quality meats.
Del Tomate’s attention to detail is highlighted in the complimentary bread. Crusty on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, the bread is served with homemade chimichurri that is best slathered on. Bright, tangy, and punchy, I could literally eat a whole bowl full on my own.
Next, we tried the empanadas, baked daily at the restaurant. Both the chicken and the eggplant empanadas were flaky, flavorful, and fresh–and a steal for $1.60 each.
For our mains, we tried one dish each from the Italian menu and the Argentinian menu. I couldn’t resist the cannelloni alla Rossini ($13)–homemade cannelloni wrapped around ground beef, argentinian sausage, bacon, ricotta cheese and spinach, topped with a spicy pomodoro and bechamel sauce, and baked until it is melty and divine. It was definitely cheese overload, but in a fantastic way. The quality and care put into the ingredients really shined through, as all of the flavors were well-balanced and greaseless.
The finale of our meal was the Entrana sandwich ($9). Thin slices of smoky grilled skirt steak piled on top of the freshest lettuce and tomato you could imagine, all sandwiched between a fresh baguette smeared with mayo and that amazing chimmichuri.
Needless to say, we were waaaay too full to eat dessert–though we were certainly tempted by the full dessert case, displaying homemade cakes, cannolis, and cookies. We’ll definitely return to Del Tomate to try these, and for the rustic and refined Italian-Argentinian cooking.
It takes a lot for me to be impressed by a Thai restaurant, especially when Jitlada (of Jonathan Gold acclaim) is just a few blocks from my house in LA. But Siam Taste of Asia, tucked in yet another generic strip mall in Santa Ana, is turning out reasonably priced, fiery Thai cuisine that rivals its more famous counterpart.
The restaurant’s most popular dish is its deep fried tofu ($6.95), which even the staunchest of carnivores rave about. Crisp on the outside, light and airy on the inside, the dish shows deep frying at its best, transforming otherwise bland cubes of tofu into bite-sized nuggets of joy. And don’t forget to dip them in the garlic chile sauce, which adds a subtle sweet-spicy note to the dish.
Siam Taste of Asia also executes classic Thai dishes well. The chicken basil ($7.95) gradually built up heat, eventually making my eyes water in that pleasantly spicy way. My favorite, however, was the tom yum goong soup ($8.95). The soup arrives at the table steaming hot and fiery red, and looks like it will literally set your tongue on fire. That it does, but the spiciness is also tempered by earthy lemongrass, fresh scallions, cilantro, and the occasional shrimp, making the flavor profile more sophisticated and layered. Served with a refreshing salad topped with a mint dressing and rice, the tom yum goong will certainly satisfy any spicy food craving.
Peruvian food is so hot right now in LA, but the cuisine has held steadfast in the OC for years. Dx Peruvian Restaurant, located in (of course) a strip mall across from South Coast Plaza, offers classic Peruvian dishes in a surprisingly intimate setting.
One of the most well-known Peruvian dishes is lomo saltado ($14.95), and Dx serves up a quite tasty version. The classic dish reflects Peru’s history as a destination for Chinese immigrants, melding Chinese and Peruvian cooking techniques and ingredients. Lomo saltado is thinly sliced steak, onion, and tomatoes, stir fried with soy sauce and french fries, and served over rice. Though it sounds like a strange combination at first, the ingredients actually work quite well together; think of it as Peru’s version of meat and potatoes.
Another classic Peruvian dish is aji de gallina ($12.95): shredded chicken slowly cooked in a blended bread, milk and walnut sauce. Though not the most visually or texturally pleasing dish, the flavors were earthy, mild, and satisfying. It was quite a large portion, so I would recommend sharing this with someone.
Finally, don’t miss out on the homemade lucuma ice cream ($6.00). Lucuma is a sub-tropical fruit native to Peru, and tastes similar to maple and sweet potato. The ice cream is pleasantly fruity and subtly sweet, with a unique flavor that I’ve yet to taste elsewhere.
Dx Peruvian Restaurant offers a relaxing atmosphere that will rejuvenate hungry shoppers and give a tasty introduction to Peruvian cuisine for foodies and novices alike. So next time you are near South Coast Plaza, forego Maggiano’s and head to Dx!