Like slipping on your favorite worn hoodie after a surf or an extra large Snuggie™ with room for two, comfort food can sooth the soul and spark memories of the smells only Grandma’s kitchen can create. Pair that fantastic reminiscent food with a charming setting and you might not notice the wintery season approaching. Beginning with familiar flavors of home-made goodness, today’s culinary artists are transcending tradition by playing with new ingredients and exciting combinations. Comfort food is changing to reflect our more adventurous appetites and my exploration of our county’s glorified, gluttonous offerings made me laugh, cry and squeal with pleasure. Orange County’s comfort-food style stretches from curry-flavored crispy fried chicken on fluffy waffles to spicy swordfish with kicks of Thai chile, and  finishes like creamy flambéed cakes served with scoops of house-made pecan ice cream. Yum! Is your mouth watering yet? I give to you the most comforting locales in our cozy county by the sea.

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Memphis at the Santora
201 North Broadway,
Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 564-1064
www.memphiscafe.com

Allowing its 50s-era design to determine the direction of the food, Memphis has been “serving up soul” every day since its Costa Mesa doors opened in 1995. Memphis at the Santora opened in 2002 to provide a playground for Executive Chef and Co-Owner of The Memphis Group Diego Velasco. With a mix of mod in the shape of the popcorn seats, industrial touches like the tin partition and little surprises including the giant lite-brite-like art affixed above the open-concept kitchen, Memphis at the Santora’s soulful spirit radiates the space with energy while delivering exciting, modernized comfort food. Bringing the comforting “cookery” of America to the urbanites of Orange County, Chef Diego uses Memphis at the Santora as a dynamic staging ground to create dishes for Orange County’s grass roots foodies, hipsters and social bees. Chef Diego applies a combination of refinement to original ideas and transforms those ideas into more palatable dishes for the Orange County eater. Seated in a circular leather booth topped with 70s-style, printed upholstery, we feasted on humble food that still challenges the senses with distinctive flavorings like hints of what reminded me of curry in Chef Diego’s Chicken and Waffles. Unique gravy made with a union of real maple syrup, bacon and butter, sprinkled with crispy cabbage and a hazelnut green bean salad all atop the flaky fried chicken and savory waffle, somehow create a finish with fenugreek character. The taste was so surprising that I all but licked my plate clean trying to figure out what it was. This dish is the epitome of contemporary comfort food made with super simple, fresh ingredients elevated by fascinating flavor combinations. But maybe you’re in the mood for something a little lighter . . . or at least smaller? Try Memphis’ Shrimp and Grits, prawns served whole with the heads, so buttery and soft that they melt in your mouth and wrapped with in-house smoked Tasso (only the tastiest bacon your palate can image). The creamy green chile grits with pickled okra made by a local master canner could be a meal of their own for veggie lovers.

Native Knowledge: The “cigaresque” Spanish-style Santora building was once a fried chicken house for ladies who lunch back in the 20s. Staying true to the locale’s roots, Memphis is still serving fried chicken as well as their mouthwatering meatloaf.

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Port Restaurant & Bar
440 Heliotrope Ave.,
Corona del mar, CA 92625
(949) 723-9687
www.portcdm.com

With elements of worldly flair, Port Restaurant & Bar was reinvented and engineered by owner Ali Zadeh to fulfill the space’s potential as a neighborhood gathering place. Meandering through the expansive eatery, I feel like I’m getting an education in culture. The walls are decorated with Persian painter Reza Sepahdari’s art, the restaurant’s layout reminds me of hard-to-find hangouts in Rome, and the exuberant vibe feels very European. Dishing up a continental menu with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern character, Port provides a sense of sophisticated comfort for those of us who love to travel and a visionary representation for those who would like to encounter another country right here in Orange County. Producing a plethora of flavor profiles, the smiling servers spoke passionately about the food. A Mediterranean entrée and a favorite of the house is the Chicken Breast Kabob Plate with a mixed rice of lentils, raisins and dates, grilled tomato and tzatziki sauce. However, my favorite plate took me to Italy. Port’s Gnocchi is made with homemade pesto, morel mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes – all traditional toppings for a gorgeous gnocchi, but Port’s Gnocchi is exceptional because of its crispy texture (it’s sautéed!).  This dish can be ordered as an entrée with chicken or shrimp or as a starter with the basics. Another cozy classic is their gourmet pizza – the topping choices are unusual and endless.

Native Knowledge: Port is a place for foodies, but specifically foodies who love music. Port features an eclectic live music series seven nights a week, including OC Music Award winners, up and coming artists and local favorites. Come early and grab a table in the open-air patio for front row seats.

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The Porch
508 29th Street
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 673-1600
www.meetattheporch.com

Tucked away in the Cannery Village is The Porch, so hidden that over 50 percent of their customers walk or ride their bike to get there. Although its location might lend itself to exclusivity, The Porch will leave an impression that is anything but exclusive. This hideaway is so welcoming that it wraps its warmth around you before you’re through the door. Decorated with plush and familiar touches that will remind you of entering someone’s home, The Porch features a large bar at center-stage with cozy nooks here and there for more intimate conversation. The back “porch” is perfect for private parties or sharing local gossip with friends after work. The menu itself is “built to be better than what your grandmother would make . . . better than homemade,” said Owner Christine Overstreet. She was right – Chef Pablo’s eclectic all American food is approachable and pleasurable to the palate. With a chili that rivals Chasen’s Hollywood-famous chili, and a Rustic Apple Tart that will remind you of your childhood, The Porch will make you miss Christmas dinner at Grandma’s. The chili is made with large short ribs and meant to be hearty. This chili reaches the ultimate factor with fresh toppings and house-made tortilla chips for chunk-style scooping. Everything on the Porch’s menu is made to be shared for those intimate impromptu gatherings. I’ll meet you at The Porch!

Native Knowledge: Bring your laptop, because The Porch always offers free wireless for those of us who can’t get away from work or want to make those last-minute fantasy football picks.

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Rusty Pelican
2735 West Coast HWY,
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 642-3431
www.rustypelican.com

A staple in Newport for 41 years, Rusty Pelican has the “upscale-casual” concept down. Pull in off PCH for a quiet place to watch the boats go by while enjoying the catch of the day. With a focus on fresh, Rusty Pelican’s succulent seafood is not the only item that is delivered daily. Their garlic bread is delivered daily and sometimes twice a day through the backdoor from C’est Si Bon Bakery across the street. The best way to try the famous bread is to cozy up in the corner by the pelican-embellished fireplace with a steaming bowl of Rusty Pelican’s mussels. With the addition of Pernod in the traditional white wine and herb broth, this earthy anise flavor adds an exotic twist to the overall taste of the mussels, and the garlic bread is like the cherry on top. If it’s a delectable piece of fish you’re searching for, try this season’s Swordfish Firepot. The sauce is hoisin-based with chiles and garlic, making a perfectly balanced liquid in which to poach the shrimp that finish off this warming winter-time dish.

Native Knowledge: Make your reservation now to secure a table at Newport’s best location to watch the Holiday Boat Parade. In addition to the amazing view, Rusty Pelican offers a pre-set menu for the annual festivities.

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The Lumberyard
384 Forest Avenue,
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 715-3900
www.lblumberyard.com

When Cary Redfearn sold the 22-year-old Oysters in Corona del Mar, many of us mourned the thought of living without Chef Armando Ortega’s fantastic food. Luckily the Oysters team was only moving to a slightly more southern location at the original home of the Laguna Lumber Company (Laguna’s longest running business – operating for 73 years). Appropriately named, Lumberyard, with a refined, architecturally lodge-like feel and drawing upon the historical aspect of the building, traditional American fare fills the menu’s pages. “We wanted to create a restaurant that was an everyday restaurant where families are welcome, but the adults still feel like they’re at an adult restaurant. Our cuisine is very approachable. It doesn’t get more comforting than chicken pot pie and meatloaf,” Redfearn said. So without hesitation I ordered the Chicken Pot Pie and the Lumberyard Meatloaf. Even after being pre-warned of the wow factor that their Chicken Pot Pie delivers, I still couldn’t hold back my burst of joy at the sight of the pretty porcelain casserole with filling oozing down the sides. And the smell! The light crust smelled like freshly baked pizza dough, and it tasted like heaven. The Lumberyard Meatloaf was just as impressive, with more depth and flavor than most meatloaves, likely due to the addition of red wine and smoky bacon. Everything is better with a little bacon! And the Lumberyard also has a great basic burger of which they sell 1,500 – 2,000 per month. Now that’s a lot of comfort food.

 

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Mesa
725 Baker Street,
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-6700
www.mesacostamesa.com

Mesa is where Orange County’s sophisticated late-night crowd swarms for chic cocktails and stylish yet soothing food. Since its opening, Mesa has undergone several modifications, which General Manager and boutique property developer Peter Jaisel said is due to the fact that they wanted “the people of the community to dictate what the space should be. People’s tastes and perceptions were changing with the recession; people were looking for value, but they still wanted to escape.” Keeping the flow of the impressive space loungy and relaxed, Mesa added moveable seating with cushy corduroy ottomans and leather booths under the retractable roof for comfy conversation under the stars. Architectural cabanas line the dining area and boast large screen TVs in each to simulate dinner parties at home. “We want people to spend an entire evening here. Start with a cocktail at the lovely bar, move to a cabana for a lovely meal, and 2 hours later, head to the open-air atrium for socializing. It is magnetic for people. I love to see people meeting each other and finding out about the cool people in OC,” Jaisel said. Test your networking skills and try one of Mesa’s market-fresh flatbreads – a menu item that many gravitate towards due to its amazing value and the fact that it comes straight out of their own wood-burning oven. Pick your favorite toppings and pair it with a beer for under $20. But my personal favorite is Mesa’s Heirloom Apple Salad, because it reminds me of my childhood apple tree. The Pink Lady apples are playfully layered with a 5-year aged Gouda, slivered celery, Marcona almonds and tarragon for a licorice-like punch; so earthy and rustic. And don’t forget, Mesa is open and serving food until 1 am, so you can get your groove on and your chow on into the wee hours of the morning.

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Wildfish Seafood Grille
1370 Bison Avenue,
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 720-9925
www.eddiev.com

With drama and design, the enormous bar takes center-stage in Eddie V’s more modern restaurant concept, Wildfish Seafood Grille. With one of the most happening happy hours in Orange County, it’s a good thing Wildfish has several seats to fill, offering the warmth of the fire on their outdoor patio, and cool blue mood lighting around the bar. Cooking “food that you crave” is Wildfish’s specialty, and what’s more craveable when you live in Southern California than a taco. Wildfish intensifies the traditional taco by stuffing it with thick juicy chunks of main lobster, wrapped in homemade tortillas with avocado, cotija cheese, and cool sweet corn pico de gallo which makes this mouthful taste like the sea on a plate. To top of the luxuriousness of the lobster, I dare you to try the adventurous tableside flambéed Pineapple Upside-down Cake (which gives Mastro’s Butter Cake a run for their money). Beginning with a sweet, yellow cake, the center is filled with gooey cream cheese, topped with candied pineapple, pineapple-flavored caramel and homemade butter pecan ice cream, all lit on fire in front of your eyes and sizzled to perfection. If this dessert sounds like something to savor for special occasions, then pair it with one of Wildfish’s 12 Signature Cocktails of Christmas. Beginning 12 days before Christmas, Wildfish pours creative concoctions like the Pumpkin Pie Martini, The Angry Elf, and the Gingerbread Cookie Martini, priced at the happy hour price of $6.

Native Knowledge: You won’t find any frozen fish here. Wildfish Seafood Grille has only one small freezer used for storing ice cream, espresso and plates. All of their seafood is flown in fresh daily from all 3 coasts.

About The Author

Kristal Docter

A writer transformed by the beatniks before her, Kristal Docter headed west after earning a BA in Literature and Creative Writing with a journalism concentration from Southwest Minnesota State University. Her career has been driven by diversification as a newspaper editor-in-chief, copy editor, corporate advertising professional, non-profit marketing maven, and brand contributor to a venture capital firm. Throughout her journey, Kristal continued asserting an appetite for all things linguistic, and now contributes a fresh voice at LOCALE.

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