A Taste of Orange County

18315 Brookhurst Street #1
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Calling all starving students — leave those Top Ramen packets in the pantry and treat yourself to one of the best kept secrets in Fountain Valley – a Ramen joint called Shin-Sen-Gumi.
Perhaps one of the most significant characteristics of this restaurant is how the history of its name creates its friendly ambience. During the Edo period in Japan, “Shin-Sen-Gumi” referred to the brave samurais that dedicated their lives to protect the Tokugawa Shogun from the Ishin-Shishimen who tried to overthrow the government. Using this historical event as an inspiration for the restaurant, Shin-Sen-Gumi uses that same level of dedication to ensure that its service is at an optimal level of excellence.
Upon arriving at the quaint Japanese joint, courteous waiters greet and seat you then give you a slip of paper for your order. On this paper, you are given the opportunity to customize almost every aspect of your Ramen, from the firmness of the noodles to the thickness and richness of the soup. You even have a choice of extra toppings, such as flavored eggs and spinach, ranging in price from 50 cents to $1.50. For those who have big appetites, dumplings, fried rice, or rice balls can be added to make it a combination meal.
One of the only qualms about this restaurant is that because of its relatively small size, there is a long waiting list during peak hours. However, it is relatively inexpensive as everything on the menu is priced below $10.00. In addition, if you have extra room for dessert after your Ramen meal, there is a Corner Bakery conveniently located next door.
—Brittany Baguio

Mess Café
(Inside Irvine Halal Meat & Produce Market)
14805 Jeffrey Rd
Irvine, CA 92618

There is a huge menu at the Mess Café, but don’t be intimidated. Just go in, tell the proprietor you would like to eat, and let her size you up. Don’t be offended, she just wants to figure out what would be best for you. You can take her suggestion, which is sure to be delicious, or just go ahead and order one of Irvine’s hidden gems, the Indian Chicken wrap (or as everyone calls it, “the burrito”). With large chunks of chicken swimming in a spicy red Tikka sauce, it is like biting into a fistful of heaven.
At the Mess Café you are essentially dining in the aisles of a sub-continent mini-market, but don’t let that stir you away from the possibilities of all the deliciousness available. The “Desi Burrito” will change your life. It is even better with the house sauce – a spicy green yogurt sauce with fresh mint and cilantro – dribbled over each bite.
If the idea of a South Asian “burrito” is too scandalous for your MexiCali-loving palate and you want something more “traditionally” sub-continental, try the Sikh Kebab with your choice of complexly-spiced chicken, beef or wonderful lamb, or the chicken curry.
Other highlights include the Samosas, which are also available with a variety of fillings inside their light crust, and the fantastic bread selection.
This is not the cheapest place to eat, with a meal coming in somewhere around $15, but it is worth the price when you have a craving for great Pakistani and Indian fare.
If everything turns out a bit too spicy, don’t worry – Yogurtland is only 15 steps away.

Honda Ya
556 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

A Japanese Izakaya-style restaurant (think Japanese tapas/pub), Honda Ya is open from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m., and on the weekends it is packed the whole time. But don’t let the line outside discourage you. Just put your name on the list, lounge on the benches and ask your fellow would-be patrons about their favorite dishes. The menu covers many culinary traditions and specialties, from sushi to grilled pork to spicy Ramen, and since pretty much everything is delicious, it is a good idea to get multiple perspectives.
Once inside, take a moment to notice the massive wooden beams, the many seating sections at the bar, and if you are lucky, the “tatami” room – where you lose your shoes and sit on the floor.
Every meal starts out with half-pickled cucumbers, a crispy and cool introduction to the meal, but after that it is up to you. As in any tapas restaurant, you order many different small dishes and share them with tablemates as you quaff 20-ounce Asahis (a type of Japanese beer) or a variety of sakes, taking your time to explore the many corners of deliciousness open to you.
The key to dining at Honda Ya is not to panic; choose whatever looks good right off the bat, then keep a menu around for additions to your meal whenever you find something that looks interesting. Take your time. Have another beer. Relax with your friends. There is no right or wrong order—except don’t go for sushi because it’s better elsewhere. It is tough to pass up the eggplant (Nasu Miso), short ribs, special heart (yeah, it really is heart), bacon-wrapped asparagus, beef with mushrooms, and nanban (kimchi and pork) Ramen. Polish off the heavy spiciness with some creamy green tea ice cream and go to bed happy.
—Brock Cutler

The Wheel of Life
14370 Culver Drive, Suite 2G
Irvine, CA 92604

In a city where new businesses seem to sprout like pesky weeds, there remains The Wheel of Life, a 100 percent vegan Thai restaurant that has been run by fourth-generation vegans for ten years.
The Wheel of Life is a small, independently owned restaurant that doesn’t have the publicity that, say, Veggie Grill has. However, it’ll give you what you want when eating out: a broad menu, good food, good service and good prices.
The owners, Victor and Kim Lee, know how to welcome their guests. As the hostess sat me down, Victor walked over to greet me. He asked what my ethnicity was, and since I am Vietnamese, he said, “Chao, co” or “Hello, Miss.” He then went to each table and started a light conversation—something that you often don’t see anymore.
Kim, also the head cook, recommended the barbecue chicken served with rice, but I had the Wheel Fresh Spring Rolls and Pad Thai, and my friend had cashew chicken with rice. The “chicken” in the spring rolls was sweet and tender, and the lettuce inside the rolls added a perfect freshness to the appetizer. Coupled with a sweet sauce, the spring rolls made me eager to try the main dishes. The Pad Thai consisted of rice noodles and well-seasoned soy meat. The cashew chicken didn’t look like how I imagined it would. The meat was a thin, square shape. It didn’t look as real as the Pad Thai meat, but that didn’t matter. It was tasty, so I ordered it again on my second visit. I ended my hearty meal with Better Than Cheesecake and fluffy Homemade Coconut Ice Cream.
Try The Wheel of Life; it’ll be sure to attract more than just your taste buds.
—Hong Kong Tran