Oh, I loved my O.I. chili and so much else besides: Who doesn’t love the Orange Inn on Cleo & Coast, where tradition and good food meet?

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

This week’s food report took me to the extremely popular and very well loved Orange Inn.

The original Orange Inn dates back to 1931, however, the restaurant was not in the same location as it is now. The original location, between Laguna Beach and Corona Del Mar, was then the only food establishment situated on the coastal road for miles and miles.  

Originally a stop for Irvine Ranch cowboys, it became famous for its original smoothie and the California date shake. Over time the menu grew, and the Orange Inn became popular with travellers and locals alike and, as it says in its slogan, has been refreshing the California coast since 1931. 

John Bodrero worked at the Orange Inn in the 1970s. During that time he met his wife Kathleen. When the Orange Inn became available to buy, John’s father gave him a loan and John became the owner. 

In 1985 their son Alex was born and shortly after this, 1986, the Irvine Company purchased the land on which the Orange Inn stood and developed it. That area is now the location of Newport Center Drive and Pelican Hill Resort. 

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Not your usual roadside inn: this curry dish appeals to Brits like me, who love spicy food

Luckily for John, a location became available on a site formally occupied by the Sunshine Juice Bar, on the corner of South Coast Highway and Cleo Street, and the Orange Inn has remained there ever since. 

I was lucky enough to meet Alex Brodrero, son of John and Kathleen and now manager of the Orange Inn. Born and raised in Laguna Beach, his earliest memories of working in The Orange Inn contain images of him squeezing oranges at age six. 

Alex shares the same love of and enthusiasm for the Orange Inn as his father, and says that one of the nicest things about managing the café is watching loyal customers returning over and over, not just from Laguna Beach but from all over the world. 

From cowboy hangout in the 1930s to family favorite today

Alex also explains that his father John has seen young people who came in with their parents now coming in as parents of their own children, carrying on the rich family customer traditions that the Orange Inn prides itself on.   

And who can blame them? The Orange Inn has won numerous accolades. Esquire magazine named it as one of the 10 best roadside restaurants in America. Sunset Magazine gave it the honor of best roadside breakfast in S Cal and it even featured in Huell Howser’s California’s Gold. 

I’ve visited numerous times and it’s a firm favorite with my son. The menu is a rich variety of pastries, all freshly made in-house as well as omelets, burritos, sandwiches, grill specials, soups, salads and of course smoothies, juices and shakes. You can eat in or order to go. It is service with a smile and the music – I believe they support our local radio station KX93.5 – is always on. 

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The Lagoona Toona is a hit locally

As always, I asked Alex for the names of the best sellers at the Orange Inn and had him direct me as to what I should choose. 

The number one best seller on the menu was the Breakfast Burrito, a delicious flour tortilla with a three-egg scramble, vegetarian beans, avocado and cheese served with chips and fresh salsa. First of all, this burrito was pretty large, large enough that I split it into three (I had two guests with me for the tasting). It was delicious, very fresh and so tasty. 

It was then onto the curry pumpkin and black bean soup which is available in a cup or a bowl. Alex explained that his mother Kathleen makes all the soups and he insisted that as I am British and we love a good curry, I should try it.  He wasn’t wrong, it was phenomenal, the perfect soup for this little curry loving Brit girl.

Famous for its sandwiches, Orange Inn is a longtime local favorite

Following this I asked Alex for his recommendation on a sandwich and he said the Lagoona Toona was always a hit, a beautiful mix of albacore tuna with cilantro and onion. Served on a choice of whole wheat, sourdough or rye (there are no gluten free bread options, but there are salads available) with thin slices of cucumber and alfalfa sprouts. This was absolutely delicious and I can see why the Orange Inn is famous for its sandwiches.

We then had the O.I Chili, which is made with turkey breast and is available in a cup or a bowl: again this was really very tasty and was my personal favorite.  Not too spicy, but a wonderful variety of flavors. 

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O.I. chili is guaranteed to make you say, Oh I love this…

Alongside this we also tried The Original Orange Inn Smoothie, made with fresh strawberries, blueberries, bananas, dates, fresh juice, bee pollen and crushed Ice.  These are a firm favorite with my son and I really enjoyed mine. They are surprisingly filling too.

It’s no surprise that the Orange Inn has continued to be a favorite roadside restaurant in California since time began. It’s rich in tradition, history and has a familiarity to anyone who visits. The walls are adorned with old photographs of Laguna and the atmosphere of the establishment is warm and welcoming. Alex was great. He really took his time to talk about the business and go through the menu.  

It was also wonderful to discover that he is a musical theatre actor (which many of you know is my background also) so not only did I have a fabulous meal, I also gained another thespian buddy. 

I’ve promised to go and watch his next performance and I’ll be taking a bowl of O.I. chili with me.

The Orange Inn is located 703 S Coast Hwy, (949) 494 6085.

Splashes, at Surf & Sand Resort Laguna Beach

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Laguna Beach, we are so lucky.  Not only do we have some of the best beaches in California but we also have some of the best restaurants and hotels around also.

An example of this is Surf & Sand, a spectacular beach front hotel, with stunning uninterrupted pacific ocean views, 167 elegantly decorated rooms, a beautiful pool area, and Splashes restaurant, one of my favorite places to go even if only for an appetizer and a cocktail, where I can look out at the ocean and usually spot a whale and or a pod of dolphins.

Dining with a View

Splashes serves up fresh seaside cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With the sea just 25 feet below, you can dine watching the waves roll in. However, the ocean views are not the only thing to savor, Splashes food is as famous as its breathtaking views.  The gentleman responsible for this is Splashes’ Executive Chef Ron Fougeray.

Chef Fougeray’s experience is extensive and impressive.  Time spent at Philadelphia’s most famous restaurant, Le Bec-Fin proved instrumental for Chef Fougeray. Le Bec-Fin was rated America’s finest French restaurant, and the Mobil Travel Guide consistently awarded it five stars for 40 years. 

A Chef’s background

During Chef Fougeray’s nearly seven-year tenure, he was mentored by renowned owner and French chef, Georges Perrier, and worked his way up to Chef de Cuisine. Georges left an indelible impression on Chef Fougeray, teaching him to expect only the highest standards for his menu, staff and cooking equipment. Chef Perrier continues to be a mentor and personal friend. 

In 2009, Chef Fougeray transitioned to Bibou BYOB, where he worked side-by-side with owner and chef, Pierre Calmels. He started off as Chef de Cuisine and worked his way up to Executive Chef in 2013. Bibou garnered a variety of accolades during his tenure. GQ Magazine named it one of “The Top 10 New Restaurants” and it was voted the top restaurant in Philadelphia on NBC.com. It was also named a James Beard Finalist for Best New Restaurant and received four bells (highest rating) from the Philadelphia Inquirer. There were only four restaurants in the entire city to be awarded thatdistinction.

Chef Fougeray makes his mark on Splashes

Chef Fougeray moved his family to Laguna Beach from Philly three years ago, and the Splashes menu changed from a softer safe menu, to a French cuisine inspired palate of flavors that represents Chef Fougeray’s enthusiasm and energy.  My good friend and fellow writer, Diane Armitage described Chef Fougeray perfectly: he reminded her of actor Edward Norton – angular, earnest and comfortable in his own skin. He is warm and full of energy, and takes his time to leave the kitchen to greet my guest and I, and tell us all about his delicious food and his inspirations. 

Chef Fougeray firmly believes in quality ingredients as well as a dynamic menu, he prides himself in selecting the best fresh produce hecan find and using that to create the magic in the kitchen. I couldn’t wait to taste the magic.

Our food journey

We were shown to a beautiful table overlooking the ocean and as we perused the menu, we were lucky enough to be presented with a small tasting of crisp octopus with chickpea puree, cured olives, Tuscan kale, fingerling chips and a Fresno coulis. This was the first time my guest had tried octopus and we both agreed it was really spectacular: fresh, tasty and not overpowering. The octopus was melt in the mouth good and the chickpea puree was prime for “dunking.”

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The Crisp Octopus

Usually when I am doing a tasting, I like to try things I’ve never tried before, however I had to go for, and introduce my guest to, the Brussels sprouts. Having never been a fan of Brussels Sprouts when I lived back in the UK, I have to say you guys over here know how to cook these bad boys and Splashes’ Brussels Sprouts are absolutely delicious. They cook them up with toasted sesame, marcona almonds, candied sweet potato and maple yogurt and the result is complete perfection. 

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Splashes’ Brussels Sprouts

Following this we chose the half dozen oysters, also from the Appetizer menu, these were delicious fresh and tasty, served with a cucumber mignonette.

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Oysters with Cucumber Mignonette

It was then onto the entrees and I decided to try the special that evening. A six-ounce seared halibut lay on top of a carrot and cumin puree served with asparagus, broccoli and beats.  As a food reporter I’m going to go out on a limb and say this was the nicest halibut dish I’ve ever had. The flavors meted together beautifully, and the fish was cooked perfectly. 

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Seared Halibut special of the evening

With me choosing a fish option, my guest chose the seared petite filet cooked medium rare and served with Yukon potato gratin, red wine cipollini, baby bok choy,  and a médoc sauce.  This was really beautiful. The filet was cooked to perfection, leaving that velvet feeling with each bite.

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Seared Petit Filet

Alongside our entrees we chose two side dishes, the shishito peppers, which are cooked with parmesan and preserved lemon, and the French green beans, cooked with shallots and Asian vin. 

It was then time for dessert and Splashes yet again does not disappoint.

We chose to share two desserts: warm bourbon bread pudding served with

honey ice cream and crème anglais. This was a little taste of heaven. The bread pudding was moist tasty and the honey ice cream complimented it perfectly.

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Warm Bourbon Bread Pudding

Alongside this we went for the dark chocolate millefeuille – a chocolate wafer, with chocolate ganache on an almond cake, served with mango cremeux. This was beautiful, rich and perfect to share and to take home – we both have teenage boys that dined on our take home leftovers.

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Dark Chocolate Millefeuille

Splashes at the Surf & Sand Resort did not let me down. The service we received was outstanding, the view perfection, the ambience of the restaurant exquisite – and the food was above and beyond good. Like every single dish Chef Fougeray served us, the ingredients of this restaurant and the way they fit together make this place a ten out of ten every time.

Splashes, at Surf & Sand Resort, 1555 S Coast Highway

Lumberyard’s people pleasing menu 

is perfect for all seasons

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Located in the center of downtown on the site of an historic 20th century Lumberyard, Lumberyard restaurant has been a firm fixture in Laguna Beach for the past eight years.

A little backstory

Owner Cary Redfearn began as a busboy at the Marine Room in San Diego working his way through college on his way to a career in medicine, but quickly discovered that medical charts were no rival for the energy of the restaurant business. Before opening Lumberyard, Cary opened eight other restaurants including five Enterprise Fish Companies, currently known as Brophy Brothers (it was the John Dory when Cary ran it), in Santa Barbara and Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach. More recently, Cary owned and operated Oysters Restaurant in Corona Del Mar from 1989-2010, which gained recognition as one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Orange County.

On the evening I reported on The Lumberyard, Cary was out of the area, but Erik Pulver, the manager, more than catered to our needs. Erik worked at Sage on the coast prior to coming to The Lumberyard three years ago.

A lot of local color

The Lumberyard prides itself on having a loyal local Laguna Beach following. It supports and holds events for SchoolPower, The Board of Realtors and many other local community groups. It’s also a hive of activity during art festival season, and is hailed as “the place” to meet on the opening night either before or after the festivals (or both).

With summer fast approaching and Sawdust Art Festival being around the corner, I felt this was the perfect time for my review of Lumberyard, and let you all know what it has to offer Laguna Beach families (and visitors).

For this week’s review I took along my daughter Lula, my friend Stacey and her son Parker. Both kids are 11 years old. 

Our food journey at The Lumberyard

As with every report I do, I like to make my way around the menu, ordering from different sections. We decided to choose a couple of appetizers for the four of us to share.  Lula chose the Fried Calamari, served with lemon aioli. (Those of you who read my reports weekly will know that this comes as no surprise when I bring Lula with me; she will order Calamari or guacamole every time). It’s worth mentioning that a gluten free alternative is offered here – Calamari Kung Po style with crushed peanuts, cilantro and carrots.

The Calamari was really good, small tasty rings and lightly fried small squid, which we all thought looked like deep fried tarantulas, giving the kids many laughs as they ate.

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Calamari Kung Po style

We also ordered the Ahi Poke, a favorite of mine everywhere I go, but I had not tried Lumberyard’s, and I was not disappointed. Served with avocado, seaweed, and crispy wontons, this dish was seriously delicious and I know I’ll be back to order it again. 

From the kid’s perspective

It was time to move on to the entrées. Lumberyard offers a great children’s menu, with choices of fillet and salmon alongside the usual suspects; chicken fingers, ribs etc. At this point I would like to tell you that my young culinary diners decided to extend their palates, and go for the slightly more adventurous choices on the menu. But as many of us know, 11 year olds know what they want (or at least think they do) and went straight for Chicken Fingers and Ribs. However, these were by no means “junk food.” With a choice of sides (naturally, these guys went for the French fries option), the children’s meals are hearty portions and fun – the chicken is a chicken breast cut to represent five fingers and lightly fried in breadcrumbs.  

The children’s dishes are presented really well and are exceptionally tasty. Like I said, the portion sizes are large and we did in fact box and take home some of the meal.

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Ribs: the portion sizes were large

Adult special time

It was time for the adults to chose and with a really diverse menu of steaks, fish dishes, salads and sandwiches, as always the choice was difficult. In the end, we went for the night’s special dish: Halibut on Asparagus and Spinach Risotto, garnished with a tomato ginger salsa. To accompany this we chose the Kale Salad, and we split the dish. This was really good, very tasty, light, with lots of different flavors and textures that all complemented each other beautifully. 

I always think its worth asking for the “special” in restaurants, as it really does challenge you to try new things, and you know that the chef will be doing his or her hardest to impress with the new featured dish. Even though we split this dish, it was more than enough, with me taking home a lot of the Kale Salad.

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Halibut on Asparagus and Spinach Risotto

Sweet for all

It was then onto dessert and we allowed our younger diners to chose. They chose Lumberyard’s Hog Heaven Pie, which has a cookie crumb crust, chocolate ganache and peanut butter mousse, and topped with whipped cream. This was decadent, delicious and a big piece of pie. But we all made a gallant effort. 

Alongside this we chose the chocolate molten chocolate lava cake – a melt in your mouth chocolate cake that was as heavenly as the Hog Heaven Pie.

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Young diners enjoy every bite at Lumberyard

Our experience at Lumberyard was really very good.  It’s a perfect place to take your family pre or post art festivals (make sure to book though, as it does get busy), and with its huge local following you are guaranteed to run into someone you know. It’s a family friendly restaurant with great happy hour deals and a variety of handcrafted beers on tap, as well as TV screens broadcasting all the big games. 

Lumberyard is located 384 Forest Avenue  (949) 715 3900

Brussels and mussels make a fine combination on Forest Ave, our “little Europe” restaurant row

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Forest Avenue is like our own little taste of Europe: we have French, Italian and more, and this week’s food review focuses on our very own Belgium restaurant, the wonderful Brussels Bistro.

When I first arrived here in 2014 it was a World Cup year and as an avid football fan,  (I know you guys call it soccer but I just can’t get on board with that, I’m afraid) one of my first experiences of singing out in Laguna Beach was in Brussels Bistro watching England vs Holland. 

England lost but less about that… Instantly I loved Brussels Bistro, I loved the below ground cool basement style vibe, the wide variety of beers, the beautiful accents that resonate from the staff, but my absolute favorite thing was the fries. So when Brussels came up on my list as a restaurant that Stu News had not featured for a while, I jumped at the chance to go.

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My absolute favorite thing is the fries

Thomas Crijns opened Brussels Bistro in 2004 and it has been firmly established as one of the most celebrated restaurants in Laguna Beach, renowned for its authentic Belgium cuisine and of course its huge selection of Belgium Beers. It most recently won Open Tables February Diners Choice award, this alongside many other accolades since it opened. 

Seven months ago Thomas’ best friend of 40 years, Nicolas Servais, moved his family over from Belgium to partner with Thomas, a partnership that has only enhanced this already popular and successful bistro.

Brussels offers something for everyone: its weekly specials include Sunday steak and fries for $20 per person; Monday 50 percent off all beers when selecting an entrée; Tuesday “all you can eat mussels and fries” with a glass of beer or wine for $29 per person and Wednesday, any Belgium beer with an entrée for $25.  

My food journey at Brussels Bistro

As well as these themed nights, Brussels also offers a 4-6 p.m. happy hour and on Friday and Saturday nights, the bistro turns itself into one of the best dance music venues in Laguna Beach, playing dance music both European and American. 

I chose to do my report on Brussels on a Tuesday night. All you can eat mussels and fries? Er, I’m in!

Brussels prides itself on its mussels, which are flown in daily from Washington State and collected every morning from the airport. It’s estimated that they bring in 350 - 400 lbs every week.  

The Basic Broth starts with a base of celery onion and butter, which they call “Nature,” then additions are added, depending on what is ordered. Our server Adela was super knowledgeable and guided us through our mussel journey.

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Mussels Provencale

We started light with a small pot of Provençale, which is Nature, with tomatoes, basil and pastis. This was delicious, not too heavy but full of flavor and every mussel was equally as delicious as the next.  

Of course alongside the mussel dishes we had fries. Brussels fries really are the best, double fried in beef oil so they are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. We were also given a selection of their special sauces to dip in which were all spectacular. 

The next pot of mussels were the marinara, probably the most common of the broths available, this is made of the Nature, with added white wine and garlic and was just delicious, especially mopped up with the fries or the bread that was presented to us. 

It was then time to move on to the main course style mussels, which are denser as they incorporate cream into the broth. We started with the Hoegaarden beer mussels, again made of the Nature base, with added cream and beer. These were gorgeous, the beer and cream together worked and now there was the dense creamy base, the broth stuck to the fries: perfect.

Being a huge curry fan, I suspected the curry mussels would be my favorite. I was not wrong… Nature, cream and curry powder made this wonderful broth that I dipped way to many fries into and devoured my own body weight in mussels.

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Mussels and tequila taste amazing

Just when I thought I had reached my mussel limit. Adela presented us with the special that evening Tequila, jalapeno and cream and wow – these were really good.  I’ve told people about them since and have seen a few screwed up faces at the thought of tequila and cream, but trust me it really works.

My overall experience of Brussels was really very good. Everything about the Bistro from its décor to its website design to its menu is cool European chic. I love that fact that in the heart of California I can escape into this little basement and feel I’m in Europe again, which as much as I love Laguna, it’s nice to do at times. It was great to see that Brussels is so forward thinking in its weekly deals, and I am not surprised that it has won as many awards as it has. Well done Thomas, Nicholas and team on an outstanding Bistro. 

Brussels Bistro is located at 222 Forest Avenue and opens at 4 p.m. every day.

Find your bliss at Nirvana, where dishes are inspired by and in harmony with the changing seasons

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

In 2008 downtown Laguna Beach was graced with the arrival of Nirvana Grille, a sister restaurant to its flagship restaurant in Mission Viejo, which had opened just two years prior. 

Nirvana Grille is committed to offering delicious food and impeccable service. Their fresh menu allows a kitchen full of high-quality ingredients to take center stage. 

They describe their food as ‘clean’ California cuisine. They strive to work closely with purveyors to ensure access to the best-available provisions while changing menus with the seasons. 

The menu I got to taste was the fall menu – however, the spring menu is out this weekend, and I’ll be back to try that soon.

The menu is composed entirely of all natural meats free from hormones and antibiotics, organic free range Mary’s poultry and sustainable seafood. No food allergy or intolerance is too much of a challenge for these guys. Offering gluten free vegetarian and dairy free alternatives is no problem for this forward-thinking, adaptable restaurant. 

The nuances of American-, French-, Latin-, and local-seasonally influenced fare has earned executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales and Nirvana Grille accolades from both local press and her peers. 

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Light, fresh, gluten free and tasty: the burrata and organic heirloom salad

The night I chose to report on Nirvana Grille, Chef Lindsay was not there. However, she had no worries about this as she has full confidence in her sous chef, Jimmy Corona, and she left him full instructions that we should be presented with a delectable tasting menu.

I love it when chefs surprise you with dishes, it’s the best thing about this job – the element of surprise and trying all things new is my favorite thing to do.  

Our server for this evening was Enrique, who has been with Nirvana Grille Laguna Beach for six years and is charming, charismatic, knowledgeable and professional. He explains that we are to have a tasting menu that the chef will prepare fresh, therefore he will need to know of any allergies. 

With one of us choosing to be gluten free and the other not, he explains that he will cater the tasting menu to suit us both.

Our Food Journey at Nirvana Grille

The first dish to come out was the burrata and organic heirloom tomato salad. Served with a delicious basil pesto, balsamic reduction, kalamata olives, fresh basil and micro arugula, this dish was really good: light, fresh, gluten free and incredibly tasty. The organic cherry heirloom tomatoes were sweet and juicy. This is a dish I would definitely order again and again.

The next dish was Nirvana Grille’s famous poblano chile, a huge green chile stuffed with fresh spinach, artichoke hearts, shallots, cream and Parmesan cheese, served with cream cheese garlic toast for the gluten free guest. This was totally my kind of dish, the little kick of the pepper was just enough to taste and the texture of the whole dish felt right, not too greasy or heavy. It was a perfect dish and reminded me of a giant jalapeño popper. Great to share. 

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Delicious whole “Loup de Mer” sea bass is served with sautéed vegetables

I then chose a dish from the large plates section of the menu, a whole Loup de Mer sea bass served boneless, with a fresh herb coating that is grilled to give the fish a crisp coating and then baked in the oven to cook through. This is served with lemon, sautéed vegetables and sautéed lentils. This dish hit the spot on many levels. 

The fish was first of all cooked to perfection, because the two methods of cooking, lightly grilling and then baking, ensured it really did “fall apart” without being dry or chewy. The vegetables, in this case broccolini and zucchini, were cooked al dente (I suspect steamed) and were perfect. Lentils are so hard to get right, but chef Jimmy knows what he’s doing. No mush, no hard bites. A perfect side to a perfect dish.

Next was the grilled fillet mignon, a center cut, in our case cooked medium rare, served with herb maître d’ butter, roasted garlic mashed Yukon gold potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and Cambazola cheese.  This dish is usually served with a green peppercorn sauce, however that does contain wheat, so we were served with a delicious chimichurri sauce that worked just as well. 

This dish was tasty and surprisingly light given the density of the ingredients.  The fillet cut through like velvet and had that delicious melt in your mouth texture. The Cambazola cheese worked really well with the Brussels sprouts also.

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Individual mud pies were delicious, rich and perfect for two

It was dessert time and we were presented with two beautiful options to try.  

The individual mud pie was a gluten free chocolate cookie crust, with espresso ice cream, chocolate sea salt and truffle gelato, topped with macadamia nuts, chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream and strawberries. It was delicious, rich and perfect for two spoons.

The goats’ cheese ice cream was the second option and this was crazy good. Absolutely not what I expected (ice cream and cheese?) however it was insanely more-ish, smooth and had such an interesting flavor. 

I did take some strawberries from the other dessert to combine the berries and goat cheese and that worked really well too, so it may be worth asking if you could have a small side of berries to accompany this when ordering.

All in all, my experience at Nirvana Grille was really positive. I left feeling like I had eaten a healthy well-rounded packed full of goodness meal, even with having a dessert.  I didn’t have that stodgy, I’m full-to-popping feeling. 

In fact I felt in a state of bliss, oblivion – an ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability and joy, also known as: Nirvana…

Well done to Lindsey and the team. I look forward to your spring menu!

Nirvana Grille is located at 303 Broadway. Visit www.nirvanagrille.com or call 949-497-0027 for more information.

Yummy dishes, some served family style: the Avilas know how to please Mexican-food-loving Lagunans

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

When Salvador Avila came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico with his wife and children, he came with hope and the American dream in his heart. Five decades later, Avila and his children own and operate one of the most well known and highly successful groups of Mexican restaurants in Orange and Los Angeles Counties, Avila’s El Ranchito restaurants.

It all started in the kitchen more than 50 years ago. Mama brought with her recipes that have been in her family for generations, paying strict attention to freshness and quality.

It was Papa, though, who had the idea to involve the whole family and create a truly special restaurant. The entire Avila family pitched in and helped at the first El Ranchito when it opened in Huntington Park in 1966 with only five picnic tables. Even Grandpa Poldo offered a helping hand by washing dishes.

Today, the 50-year tradition that has made their authentic Mexican cooking legendary continues to be served at the family’s thirteen restaurants. It is still a family business, family owned, family operated and family loved. 

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Michael Avila, son Brandon, Lula Buckle and her friend – and fried ice cream…

Mama and Papa eventually shared the responsibility of running El Ranchito with their children and now their grandchildren. Each restaurant is under the personal care of a family member, guaranteeing the reputation the family has earned for treating the customers “like part of the family.”

My food tasting is in he Laguna restaurant (of course), which has been open for 14 years. I have the pleasure of meeting and being served by not just one, but two generations of Avila’s El Ranchito, Michael the owner and grandson of Salvador, and his 10 year old son Benson, possibly one of the cutest most polite waiters I have ever had serve me. 

Michael, after opening Avila’s in San Clemente, opened this place with his wife Christine, whom he met in San Diego.  Benson was one year old and Christine was pregnant with their youngest son Braden, whom I didn’t get to meet but I am sure if he’s anything like his brother he is a truly wonderful boy. 

Not only is Avila’s historical story fascinating, but Avila’s also has a history for me and my family as it was the first place we came to eat when we visited Laguna Beach six years ago on vacation. I remember sitting in there during Oscars’ week and having my first shrimp tacos – we are not renowned for our Mexican food in England… 

So Avila’s El Ranchito will always have a special place in my heart. 

Our food journey at Avilas Laguna Beach

It’s Taco Tuesday when we arrive and the deal on Taco Tuesday is $2 per taco and trust me this is a great deal, the tacos are huge and fully loaded. Avila’s El Ranchito deals do not stop there either with an array of daily specials including “kids eat free Wednesday” and $3 mimosas all day Saturday and Sunday- yummy! 

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Mama’s soup is something special, spring, summer, fall or winter

The restaurant is buzzing with familiar local faces and given its location, a large number of tourists also.  Avila’s El Ranchito rarely takes bookings, but in a true friendly family style restaurant, there are plenty of places to sit and wait if you need to the ambience is always welcoming and comfortable.

Michael had suggested I bring the family for this tasting so he could serve us dishes family style. Sadly my son was on babysitting duties, so we took my daughter’s friend along to feast.

I had saved myself. If there’s one thing I know about Avilas, it’s that the portion sizes are always substantial, so I knew I needed to prepare for a feast 

Sensing our hunger, Michael and Benson, along with Erika, our server who has been with Avilas for three and a half years, brought us chips and salsa. The salsa is sooooo good at Avilas! One of my favorites.  Lula’s friend quickly ordered her favorite guacamole (she’s obsessed) and we scoured the menu.

After our conversation, Michael had a firm idea of the types of food we enjoyed Mexican style, and seeing how quickly the girls – who had been in the ocean and were beyond hungry – wolfed down the chips, the Avila boys bought them a cheese quesadilla, a bean and cheese quesadilla and some fries to start off with.  

I would like to accurately describe how delicious this was, but within seconds of them being out in front of the girls they were gone. However the satisfaction in their faces told me all was good.

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Great tacos at Avilas

It was then time for The Avila boys to wow us with a selection of foods for us to try family style. 

The first dish bought out was Mama Avila’s soup, a large bowl of chicken breast and rice soup, garnished with fresh avocado, cilantro onions and tomatoes, cooked in mama’s special broth. This soup is beautiful, on a hot or cold day.

Next to try was the Californian burrito. It’s a crazy burrito, inspired by Michael’s wild college days, where in the early hours of the morning he would visit a place called Santanas in San Diego and order a plain flour tortilla stuffed with carne asada, French fries, guacamole, cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream.  

This is a complete carb fest and the kids LOVED it. I had a taste and it was yummy, definitely a good option to soak up one too many margaritas.

The Californian enchiladas came next: two enchiladas filled with shredded chicken and topped with tomatillo sauce, shredded cheese and avocado, served, of course, with Mexican rice and beans. These were great, surprisingly light, very tasty and the tomatillo sauce was one of the best I’ve tasted.

I’m a huge fish taco fan, so Michael bought us the halibut tacos, two seasoned grilled halibut tacos with cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado and chipotle aioli.  These were great, the halibut worked so well and was very salty and peppery which I loved I would for sure order these again and again. 

Finally came the shrimp botana platter, a favorite of my family’s, large Mazatlan shrimp sautéed in Avila’s special garlic butter sauce, with sliced avocado, fresh tomatoes, onions, jalepenos and lemon slices. This comes with rice and beans and tortillas so you can make your own tacos. It’s really good and a great dish to share.

Click on photo for a larger image

The shrimp botana platter is a favorite dish to share

As always, just when we thought we were done, it was time for dessert and we were served fried ice cream, crispy coated vanilla ice cream that is literally dunked into the fryer for a second so the sugar caramelizes around the ice cream, topped with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and caramel. 

This was decadent to say the least. The kids loved it. I could only manage a small taste.

Avila’s did not let me down. In fact Michael, Benson and the team went above and beyond to give my family a really pleasurable experience. Hospitality runs through the Avila DNA, and meeting young Benson, I feel like I saw the future of Avila’s right there.

Awesome job, Michael, Christine and your whole team. 

Avilas El Ranchito is located 1305 S. Coast Hwy. Phone: 949.376.7040

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

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