Irvine Dining

A few random notes from the culinary wastelands:

Mimi’s Cafe

I was really looking forward to this little restaurant on Barranca. Several people had recommended it, and it was always packed. When we walked in I couldn’t quite place the decor. It looked vaguely like it was trying to be a French brasserie. My wife finally identified it: this is supposed to be New Orleans! All I can say is whoever designed the decor and the menu cannot possibly have ever been closer to New Orleans than Bastrop Texas. It looked a little more like French brasserie. Possibly the designer heard that New Orleans was French (something that hasn’t been remotely true for over a century now) and checked out a picture book of Paris from their local library.

The menu was a bit of a shock given the recommendations we’d had: the same prepackaged Sysco pablum you can buy in any Chile’s or TGI Friday’s around the country. They may have listed one or two items as “Cajun”, but there was nothing the least bit Cajun about them (not that New Orleans is or ever has been a Cajun city anyway). I had the pork chop, which was the typical large but bland pork chop you can find anywhere. I don’t know if I can really blame them for this though. Pigs have been so wrongly bred for so long now that only a few specialty farms still raise decent pork. Unless you know where the pigs come from, a pork chop is almost always a mistake nowadays. Still, they could have at least put a little seasoning or something on it. They didn’t even have Worcestershire sauce, the old standby of flavorless meat everywhere.


One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark strip mall. Reliably good food, if a tad on the pricey side. Do be careful to warn them not to put bacon on everything if you don’t eat pork, though.

Chaparosa Grill

Technically, not in Irvine, (just outside it in Tustin) but I had to include it just to prove I don’t hate everything out here. This is a shockingly good restaurant right outside an AMC multiplex. Beth and I just popped in to grab some Margaritas before a movie started, but were charmed into staying for dinner instead. The food was excellent: redolent with interesting spices and tastes, exactly what’s missing from everywhere else we’ve eaten in Irvine. The Chaparosa Cioppini was a wonderfully spicy bouillabaisse. We’ve had it several times now. The Shrimp Scampi was possibly the best Shrimp Scampi I’ve ever eaten: nothing like the prepackaged reheated Korean shrimp slopped over pasta at most chain restaurants. The seafood pasta was equally unusual and interesting.

This restaurant is several notches above everywhere else we’ve eaten, and quite reasonably priced for the quality. What it’s doing in a shopping mall I have no idea, and I don’t know if it will be able to survive in a climate of diners trained to think that The Olive Garden qualifies as fine dining, but enjoy it while you can. Highest recommendation.

The Bluewater Grill

Also in The District and thus technically not in Irvine (just outside it in Tustin). I confess I didn’t give this one a fully fair trial, showing up once on Mother’s Day a week and a half after it opened, and then ordering chicken at a seafood restaurant. Nonetheless, I have to wonder: if their chicken is really that dry and tasteless, why do they even put it on the menu? The Wedge salad was adequate, but could have used bacon. Beth liked her crabmeat salad, but thought there was two much butter on the steamed clams. Dessert was the single worst rendition of Bananas Foster I’ve encountered. The ice cream was the only edible component. We won’t return here.

Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill

Yet another local favorite in in The District. (We keep ending up there because it’s the closest theatre showing major Hollywood releases.) I can’t understand why though. It’s as bland and tasteless as every other Mexican restaurant in this town. We’re only two hours drive form Tijuana. Surely someone here knows something about what Mexican food is supposed to taste like? (Hint: it’s not just refried beans covered in melted American cheese.)

The Winery

Or should that be “Whinery”? My wife loved her meal; but my ribeye was tough and gristley, a thoroughly bad cut of meat. OK, this happens occasionally, and I wouldn’t absolutely rule out a restaurant for just one dish. However the waiter persisted in asking me what I thought of it. I don’t like to give capsule reviews of mediocre food to waiters because I won’t lie about it; but I don’t want to make a fuss. Usually I just wait for my wife to spout a few bland platitudes unless the food was exceptionally good or bad.

However this time the waiter wasn’t satisfied with that. She persisted in asking me directly, “How was your steak?” despite my nonresponsiveness (which should have clued her in). I told her it was “OK”. Even this wasn’t enough for her. “Good, or just OK?”, she queried, obviously wanting me to express my approval, though they certainly hadn’t done anything to earn it. “Just OK” I said rather firmly. To be honest, that was too generous a rating, but I really didn’t want to make a big scene. So she then insisted on wanting to know what was wrong. Then, to compound matters, she brought the maitre’d over to further discuss the quality of the meat, exactly the sort of scene I was trying to avoid. Not only did he insist on talking about the meal I didn’t want to talk about. He kept putting his hands all over me, trying to reassure me; and I’m wondering if I should just yell at him to take his hands off me. They ended up discounting the steak 50%, but even if they had comped the entire meal, I’d never go back there. The best I can say is that at least the chef didn’t come out too.

Il Fornaio

Adequate, upscale Italian dining. We ate here our first night after being turned away from another restaurant that was closing at 9:00 P.M. because there weren’t any customers at that “late” hour. Not bad, but probably not worth returning to.


All-you-can-eat buffets are terrified at the idea of some linebacker or fourteen-year-old teenager coming in and eating more than $7.95 worth of prime rib or fishsticks. SoupPlantation has succeeded in eliminating this risk by simply removing everything that costs more than a dollar a pound from the menu. It’s all salad, pasta, soup, and softserve ice cream. There’s no meat or hot vegetables to be found. What a concept!

Claim Jumper

A decent steakhouse chain that’s several notches above Outback. The portions are large, and the food’s pretty good. It doesn’t aspire to be the Knickerbocker in New York or Charlie’s in New Orleans, but you won’t go wrong here.

Ruth’s Chris

The only restaurant on the planet that I actively hate. I don’t mean I detest the food. I mean I hate it personally. After what they did in the wake of Katrina, there’s no way I’m ever setting foot in this chain again. Ruth Fertel is spinning in her grave to see what the carpetbaggers managing her legacy have done to it and her city.

Steelhead Brewery

Not actually a brewery so far as I could tell. My wife tried a beer sampler. I’d rate five of the six beers undrinkable. Luckily I ordered Diet Coke.

Food-wise it was the standard bad burgers and nachos, about what you’d expect. Neither the beer nor the food reached the level of the Heartland Brewery.


Edible, but way overpriced. Not nearly as good as the numerous curry palaces that line East 4th Street in Manhattan, not to mention actually good Indian restaurants like Haveli’s.

Indian Cook House

The best Indian food we’ve found in Irvine, and reasonably priced. The Tandoori chicken was good, and the Tandoori Fish was wonderful. However the Papadam was a bit soggy, and the Cheese Nan was a mistake. The service is quite slow though, and they lost track of both our drinks and the check several times. About as good the East 4th Street curry palaces, and maybe approaching Haveli’s, if they can resolve their service issues.

Mungo Sushi

Not the worst sushi I’ve ever eaten, but that’s only because I’ve eaten some really bad sushi. The fish was mostly dry, tasteless, and overcooked. (Yes, the sushi was overcooked.) The eel was oversweetened. The California roll was covered in mayonnaise. Only the salmon approached tenderness, but most of the fish was just tough.

Pho Bac Ky

Probably the single worst Pho restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, though still better than 90% of what passes for ethnic cuisine in Irvine. If you like Pho, it’s adequate, and the only game in town. (There is another one I have to try a few miles away in Tustin.) Just don’t make the mistake of ordering anything except Pho here; and if you do, be sure to cover it in hot sauce.

Saigon Thai

A strange mix of Vietnamese and Thai near UCI. (The product of a mixed marriage, perhaps?) It’s neither great Thai food nor great Vietnamese food, but it is acceptably tasty and spicy, and quite reasonably priced. You won’t go wrong here.

In and Out Burger

Can someone explain to me why Californians are so enamored of this chain? Apparently it’s considered “special” that they only serve fast-food hamburgers and fries, instead of expanding out into chicken and salads like McDonald’s and Burger King. No one seems to have noticed that the hamburgers are just as bad (maybe worse) than McDonald’s and Burger King’s.

Carls’ Jr.

Ditto. Why these are all over the place instead of the far superior Wendy’s, I cannot explain. Perhaps a small cut above In and Out Burger, but that’s damning with faint praise. They seem to be very actively promoting a $6 restaurant burger. Obviously no one at Carl’s Jr. ever walked around the corner to eat a real $6 burger at Chile’s. (Not that Chile’s is the height of burgerdom by any means, but if you’re aiming this low, the least you could do is know what you’re aiming at.)

El Pollo Loco

The only actually good fast food restaurant in this town. Not gourmet cuisine, of course, but a genuinely tasty, relatively healthy meal in a hurry for not very much money.

Jack in the Box

Botulism in the Box.


Maybe if they cover up the hot dogs in enough chili and cheese nobody will notice that the meat’s flavorless? Nathan’s it’s not.

6 Responses to “Irvine Dining”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    s/East 4th St./East 6th St./, not that this matters to anyone but you and me.

    “Waiter, you see this steak?”
    “Yes, sir?”
    “Well, I want you to take this steak back to the kitchen, give my compliments to the chef, and tell him to shove it up his ass.”
    “Very good, sir.”
    [Waiter removes steak; long delay.]
    “I’m very sorry, sir; there are two other steaks and a roast duck ahead of you.”

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Damn. I’ve been away from the East Village for too long. :-)

  3. Dolan Halbrook Says:

    Lol – this was a pretty funny post. Having grown up in So Cal it was a flashback. Can’t say I ever spent much time near Irvine, but I certainly never pictured it as a gastronimical mecca.

    El Pollo Loco is definitely a hidden gem. I miss it greatly — there is no equivalent here in Portland unfortunately. I’m also partial to Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, though the quality is all over the place with them.

    Can’t believe you don’t like In-N-Out. It’s waaaaay fresher than any large chain burger place. I mean, they actually slice the onions, tomatoes, etc while you’re waiting. Ask for an animal style burger next time — grilled onions melted into the cheese — and their milkshakes are pretty tasty too. To each their own.

    If you want decent cheap eats, I’m afraid you’ll probably have to head into LA proper. Next time you’re near Culver City (my hometown), hit up Johnny’s Pastrami, Versailles, Fatburger, or India Sweets and Spices. For upscale, try La Serenata de Garibaldi, or probably my favorite LA restaurant: Warszawa in Santa Monica.

    Happy eating.

  4. J. Says:

    The fact that you can’t tell the difference between In-n-Out and McDonald’s (and that you think Wendy’s is superior to either of them) tells me that you have pretty awful judgement when it comes to food.

  5. Maria Emilia Says:

    Yep… I had pretty much the same impression from some of the places when I moved to Irvine.I don’t know if you like Italian food but Roma D’Italia in Tustins is a good choice. Good food and not overpriced. It is a family bussiness, therefore, does not have that chain feeling.
    Below is the address:
    611 El Camino Real
    Tustin, CA 92780

  6. August Miranda Says:

    Botulism knows where you live! o_o

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