As milestones go, it’s been a good year for O.C.’s dining scene, especially when you consider that two Costa Mesa restaurants – Taco Maria and Hana re – earned one-star ratings from the esteemed Michelin Guide, which covered the entire state of California for the first time in its history.
Originally started in 1900 by brothers Édouard and André Michelin, the guide first began as a mode of reference and review for French motorists when looking to buy a new vehicle. The guide became well trusted and widely known throughout France, and its popularity increased after World War I, upon the addition of a restaurant section in which anonymous reviewers rated the food of different dining establishments. Today, the guide ranks among the most respected culinary review resources in the world.
The guide usually gives stars out to extremely high-end restaurants with months-long waiting lists and meals costing hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of dollars. However, aside from the main category, the guide also includes a subsection called the Bib Gourmand highlighting restaurants where diners can enjoy a two-course meal and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less. Originally started in 1997, this category was established as a way to showcase hidden gems that serve food to a wider audience. On May 28, the Michelin guide announced California’s list of Bib Gourmands, spanning the state from Napa to San Diego. And five of them were located right here in O.C.: Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen, Garlic & Chives, Hiro Nori Ramen, LSXO and Mix Mix Kitchen Bar. These Michelin-reviewed establishments offer some truly unique dining experiences and are definitely worth a try.
Here’s what you need to know about each.
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen is located in Old Towne Orange in a quaint and unassuming colonial-style building that dates back to the early 1900s. The food is inspired by Owner/Chef Gabbi Patrick’s Mexican heritage and the flavors she’s discovered throughout her travels, and she’s careful to incorporate seasonal ingredients into her culinary creations. gabbismexicankitchen.com
Garlic & Chives
You’ll find Garlic & Chives nestled in the heart of Little Saigon. It opened in December of 2014, and in the past five years, it has become one of the most popular spots in the area and is considered among the best Vietnamese restaurants in the region. It’s common to see a line out the door during the week, but it moves quickly. With dishes like deep fried salmon belly, garlic toothpick lamb and the consistently sticky, crunchy and messy chicken wings, it’s not hard to imagine the draw to this place. The chef behind the magic is a woman named Kristin Nguyen, who came from a family of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Garden Grove when she was just 7 years old. Her dishes embody both the roots she has in Saigon, as well as places she has traveled to such as Hong Kong and Bangkok. She took cooking classes in every place they went, and the dishes she learned inspired many of the popular menu items at Garlic & Chives. Needless to say, her booming passion project has been a success and a gift to Orange County’s food scene. Garlic and Chives
Hiro Nori Ramen
Hiro Nori Ramen has seven locations up and down Southern California, but the one located at Trade Food Hall in Irvine caught Michelin’s attention. The place is tiny, with only 35 seats that are often jam-packed for lunch. The attraction comes from their simple yet memorable menu, with carefully curated options that cater to vegetarians and vegans. They start with three distinctly different broths, the tonkatsu or pork bone, the soy-based shoyu, and the miso-based vegan. The tonkatsu is made by soaking pork bones for at least 24 hours, creating an incredibly rich, almost milky broth. The soy and vegan broths find their zest out of spices and soaked vegetables instead of the noticeable saltiness that overwhelms many veggie broths. Each ramen comes with your choice of thin or thick house-made ramen noodles, sautéed spinach, meaty cuts of charred chatsu pork, bean sprouts and an array of seasonal vegetables, if you order the vegan ramen. Co-owners Hiromichi Igarashi and Tadanori Akasaka came together to create this craft ramen shop with the simple shared intention to spread the experience of enjoying good ramen. With prices that range from $10 to $12 for a bowl of flavorful, individually crafted ramen, they have truly set a diversified tone to the attainability of that experience in Orange County. hironoricraftramen.com
LSXO stands as the most discreetly intriguing locations in this year’s Bib Gourmand list for Orange County. Behind an unmarked wooden door within the moderately upscale ocean-view restaurant Bluegold hides Tin Vuong’s 25-seat Vietnamese speakeasy. A twist of intensely nostalgic Vietnamese cuisine is served up to the lull of new age rap singles and EDM, while mismatched two-by-fours and wooden screens encompass the room. Dishes feature a multitude of items such as the popular curry-spiced lamb satay on a bed of soft egg noodles, foie gras and pho-spiced oxtail torchon, and bo ne, which is like a Vietnamese take on traditional steak and eggs made with gamey paté butter and served on a crunchy bahn mi baguette. The cuisine combines the traditional homemade with the experimental and is unapologetic in the use of spices, distinctly fishy sauces and greasy pan fries. dinebluegold.com
Mix Mix Kitchen Bar
Patrons will find the trek to downtown Santa Ana well worth the journey to experience the exotic creations at Ross Pangilinan’s Mix Mix Kitchen Bar. Gentle, unassuming prices list some of the strongest artisanal gastronomic creations offered in O.C. Mix Mix showcases a fusion of high-end French, countryside Italian and tropical Filipino accents in rotating dinner specials that start at $39 for a starter or small bite, the main course and a wine pairing. Found under the Starters list, the beets and burrata stands out as a sweet and rustic twist on many restaurants’ savory, tomato-inspired caprese salad, serving it instead with the beets, fennel, fresh strawberries, sticky candied pistachios and a balsamic gastrique. Diners will be delighted with the options of small plates like the Filipino-inspired citrusy shrimp lumpia, heavy with notes of grilled pineapple; the soft egg ravioli, made from black pepper pasta and soaked in browned butter; and the short rib bao buns stuffed with moist, braised short rib and pickled onions. Pangilinan then marries traditional rich and meaty French cuisine with that of the flour-heavy Italian in one of his most popular main courses, the duck leg agnolotti. The agnolotti is filled with roasted artichokes, ricotta and charred corn folded into a duck jus. Mix Mix Kitchen Bar is a culinary experience that will challenge your ability to flip between delightful cuisines and teach you to develop an appetite that craves the combination in globally inspired dishes served up at a reasonable price. mixmixkitchenbar.com