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Leftovers: Bear Flag Fish Company

The seafood shack of every Southern Californian’s dreams for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by MARK BOSTER / L.A. TIMES

Bear Flag Fish Co. is the seafood wonderland we all long for on idle summer days, a fish market-cum-restaurant where brilliant slabs of tuna glint like rubies and the spindrift of crashing waves hangs in the air. It’s minimalism at its seafaring best — Bear Flag understands that often all a fish needs is a satisfying char and the salty rush of a beach breeze.

The restaurant sprouted from between the corporate cracks of Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula. Since it opened in 2008, owner Thomas Carson, a Newport native who grew up working on his father’s commercial fishing boat, has seen Bear Flag blossom. There are those who bemoan lunch lines now, but they inevitably wait it out, patiently eyeing the shoal of fillets being branded by the grill.

Bear Flag is a perpetual beach scene: flaxen hair bleached by days in the sun, skin as golden as freshly fried fritters. There may be talk of Lakers losses or the varying niceties of local cigar lounges, but conversation here always wades back into the water, thoughts on surf, sand and shore. The restaurant is Newport Beach incarnate.

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Leftovers: Habuya

Okinawan cuisine’s entry into Orange County for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by GLENN KOENIG / L.A. TIMES

A skein of flat, linguine-like noodles and shards of ginger are so fine they all but dissolve in the broth. There are pork ribs, with brawny slabs of meat thick as a Little Leaguer’s baseball bat. But the soki soba is all about the bones, marrow-filled ribs stewed until they can be eaten.

If there’s one thing Mayumi Vargas wants everyone to know about her native Okinawa, it’s the island chain’s affinity for pork. And at Habuya, Vargas’ new Okinawan restaurant in a hidden corner of a Tustin mini-mall, pork is a uniting force.

Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture apart. Although the subtropical islands have been absorbed nominally into Japan’s national identity, they remain culturally individualistic. Habuya reflects that in its humble cooking, which is less like that of a refined seaside restaurant and more like that of a salt-licked coastal pub.

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Leftovers: Zait & Za’atar and Wraps Xpress

Manakeesh‘s Orange County moment for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by KATIE FALKENBERG / L.A. TIMES

There’s a moment in a cuisine’s acculturation when a dish morphs into a movement. In Orange County, that moment belongs now to a multinational influx of Middle Eastern flatbreads.

Like banh mi before them, manakeesh have here become the accepted ambassadors of an entire region, pizza-like flatbreads thin as gauzy sheets of vellum. At Zait & Za’atar and Wraps Xpress, restaurants already in the purview of the county’s most seasoned eaters, they’re an herb-rubbed and meat-smeared gateway to the eastern Mediterranean.

Anaheim’s Zait & Za’atar is a big step toward manakeesh modernity. The city’s Little Arabia is already crowded with similarly specialized Lebanese bakeries, but Zait & Za’atar may be the most accessible. It’s a case of aesthetics — brick-red walls and a counter set in stone — but, more important, one of clarity, as the restaurant plainly details every dish.

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Leftovers: Bruxie

The emerging world of waffle sandwiches for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by GINA FERAZZI / L.A. TIMES

Some culinary trends come with promises concocted in the vague argot of marketing executives and brand managers. But a few rare ideas spring from something universal. They’re the restaurants and recipes that tap into unknown pleasures, manifestations of all our unconscious cravings.

Such is the case at Bruxie, a weeks-old stand in Old Towne Orange whose s’mores-stuffed and prosciutto-packed Belgian waffle sandwiches are fulfilling the fantasies of every syrup-soaked childhood and late-night binge.

Bruxie is a sweetly nostalgic place. Rather than load up a Twitter-equipped food truck, the waffle shop sought out history among downtown Orange’s innocent Americana. It found just that in the former home of Dairy Treet, an aging burger and shake shack that had been in operation for more than 60 years. Still, Bruxie is modern, self-aware and already crawling with students from nearby Chapman University. The novelty of it all is so precisely calibrated to the surroundings that some customers have been wondering aloud whether Bruxie is part of a fledgling franchise.

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Leftovers: Uyen Thy

A French-inflected breakfast in Little Saigon for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by LAWRENCE K. HO / L.A. TIMES

In Little Saigon, modest fortunes have been made on spring rolls alone. Entire legacies have been decided by the buttery crunch of a warm baguette. Diners anoint only the most exacting items: fresh-pressed sugarcane juice with muddled kumquats, whole baked catfish with skin caramelized into candy. Here, restaurants are immortalized in the details.

It’s with that diligence that Uyen Thy Bistro so often succeeds. This is a restaurant innately aware of its strengths even when the immensity of its menu sometimes indicates otherwise.

Uyen Thy is predictably secluded in a sliver of space at the bottom of a three-story strip mall behind a 7-Eleven. But the restaurant isn’t easily eclipsed — it’s the namesake of Uyen Thy, host of a well-known Vietnamese cooking show on the Garden Grove-based Saigon Broadcasting Television Network.

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Leftovers: Hoang Yen

Comforting Vietnamese classics for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by ALLEN J. SCHABEN / L.A. TIMES

There’s an unquestionable comfort in Hoang Yen’s chao. The Vietnamese congee is a homey, hearty meal of rice boiled down until it takes on a consistency somewhere between that of oatmeal and Cream of Wheat. Even for those whose childhood memories revolve around grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, the porridge possesses an innate familiarity.

All of Hoang Yen’s dishes share that fundamental comfort. Simple pleasures define the year-old restaurant, which replaced a Mexican eatery that was awkwardly grafted onto the backside of late-night standby Luc Dinh Ky. Hoang Yen’s succinct menu of Vietnamese family classics better occupies the narrow space.

The Westminster restaurant is decidedly modern: deep blue tiles climb one wall as if to draw a high-water mark; a flat-screen TV recedes elegantly into the back of the dining room. It’s a clean style cultivated by the Chau family, which runs Hoang Yen with a welcoming air. The result is an open and inclusive space where uniformed electricians lunch alongside young mothers, and businessmen pop in for takeout as they pass through Little Saigon.

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Leftovers: Wadiya

Anaheim’s Sri Lankan find for the LA Times:


PHOTO by CHRISTINE COTTER / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Wadiya turns tropical the second you pass through its doors. Consuming all of one wall is a multi-canvas mural depicting a neon beach scene. Stationed at the restaurant’s center is a cash register shaded by the thatched roof of a seaside shack. And creeping out from a corner is a fake, gangling tree, its limbs unnecessarily groping for some sun. Wadiya’s is a dedicated design — one that swaps the Anaheim restaurant’s strip mall surroundings for the paradise of Sri Lanka’s island style.

After Wadiya chef-owner Chintheka Ganasekera spent years behind the steam tables and hotel pans of the catering business, his utopian vision became a reality mere months ago. That Wadiya is Orange County’s sole Sri Lankan restaurant only seems to inspire the kitchen: It doesn’t filter or blunt its cooking, instead proudly presenting a cuisine that, even with its Indian and Indonesian influences, remains completely distinct.

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