10 Essential Irvine Restaurants
Photo by Edwin Goei
For better or for worse, I do a lot of my eating in Irvine. I've probably eaten at almost all, if not 90%, of the restaurants in the city. And what I can tell you is this: contrary to what you may think, this master-planned Burg by Bren isn't overrun by chains...at least not any more. With the exception of a good taqueria, you can find almost everything in Scurvine. Did you know that Irvine has the highest concentration of Taiwanese restaurants in the county, or that its Korean restaurants outnumber its McDonald's?
What follows is my list of favorites--places that I frequent, sometimes as obsessively as on a weekly basis.
As always with top tens like these: It's not a comprehensive list; it's not a perfect list; but it's what I think best represents the town in which I spend most of my eating time...for better or for worse.
What's yours? Share 'em in the comments.
1. 85°C Bakery Cafe
Photo by Edwin Goei
There may be other 85°C's in the works in OC (and a store in Hacienda Heights now), but the crowds at the first U.S. location in Irvine hasn't changed since day one. The constant turnover guarantees that no item stays un-bought longer than a few minutes. Stocks are continually replenished and this fact makes every item crackle at its most optimal, which, in turn, brings in even more customers. It's a self-feeding cycle of freshness. Sometimes, what you eat is only seconds removed from the oven. I plucked coffee bread from the arms of an employee carrying out a tray from the kitchen. Its fluffy insides billowed java-perfumed steam when I tore it open. A few moments later, the rest sold out. Lesser bakeries would revert to boring, easy-to-churn-out standards to keep up with this kind of demand, but 85°C's popularity seems to only embolden its resolve and spur its creativity. Every hour yields something new.
2. Agora Churrascaria
After you've had your fill of steakhouses and their boring slabs of meat, Agora will show you how steak should be done: impaled on metal swords, served by sash-wearing gauchos and offered as an all-you-can-eat. Except maybe the Argentineans, no one can match the Brazilians' love of beef. And in Orange County, no restaurant demonstrates the expression of that love better than Agora. This meat-a-palooza is a parade of protein only a brazen carnivore hopped up on cholesterol meds could embrace. It is a meat feast to end all meat feasts. On those sabers comes a never-ending steak procession, hunks of cow roasted over flames with nothing more than salt and respect. You'll call over the gaucho who carries the sanguine pleasures of rare sirloin more than once, asking him to carve off yet another slice. You'll pop those nuggets of filet mignon wrapped in bacon like popcorn. The restaurant also boasts an immaculate buffet line of sides. They do a mashed potato so smooth it could pass for crème fraîche. But who are you kidding? You're here for the meat, and you're going to have it, one bloody piece at a time.
Before Capital opened, The Irvine Spectrum Center only coyly flirted with its choice of Asian restaurant tenants. Most of those that Bren's flagship mall has let in were whitewashed versions aimed at those who would rather have a sweet and sour chicken than a drunken one (or even know what that meant). Most, with the exception of P.F. Chang's, never took hold. Capital is the anti-P.F. Chang's. It serves unfiltered Chinese dishes and real dim sum. The dishes here are cooked with unmitigated authenticity and the dim sum is pushed around in carts in decidedly un-whitewashed varieties. Think chicken feet and tripe. If you've had better Chinese and/or dim sum in Irvine up to this point, it was in the Chinese enclaves of the city not ruled by Bren, or at the Capital Seafood at Diamond Jamboree.