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Independent restaurants

Our top picks for 2019 include a restaurant owned by last season’s winner of TV’s “Chopped,” a brewery with nearly 120 awards, and a bakery that makes macarons almost too cute to eat.

Many of our favorite places to eat in town are independent or family-run establishments. Our top picks for 2019 include a restaurant owned by last season’s winner of TV’s ”Chopped,” a brewery with nearly 120 awards, and a bakery that makes macarons almost too cute to eat.

Javier’s at Irvine Spectrum Center

The open-air dining at Javier’s is part of what sets the Spectrum Center restaurant apart.

What once was a bold experiment today is one of Orange County’s most recognized brands. Javier’s at Irvine Spectrum Center opened in 2004, and 15 years later guests still clamor for a coveted table at the always popular spot.

Javier Sosa began his journey in 1969 as a dishwasher at Tortilla Flats, working his way up to general manager of all three locations.

For 24 years, he worked day and night, learning the business from top to bottom and cementing lifelong bonds with men and women who, like him, had set their sights on realizing the American dream. When he was let go from the chain, it was these friends who would form the underpinnings of Javier’s success, providing initial funding for the first Javier’s restaurant.

Javier’s owner Javier Sosa

In 1995, the original Javier’s was born in Laguna Beach, followed by Javier’s Irvine. Other locations include Newport Coast, Las Vegas, La Jolla, Century City and Los Cabos, Mexico. The business is a family affair, with the Irvine restaurant and two others managed by Sosa’s children.

Sosa also treats his staff like family, and the restaurants always promote from within.

“We’re not going to be the best Mexican restaurant,” he tells his staff. “We’re going to be the best restaurant, period, from the service to the personality, the ambiance, the culture.”

His commitment to his menu is every bit as unwavering: “We serve Mexican food. Our food is not fusion Mexican. It’s the food we eat in our homes, but using the best ingredients you can get.”

For all of his successes, Sosa might be most remembered for a simple idea that became a national phenomenon. “In the 1980s, I invented Taco Tuesdays,” he says. “Tuesday was the slowest day of the week, so we put tacos on the bar for 50 cents. We got busier and busier, and it became a thing.”


Cauldron at Cypress Village Center

The Puffle, a warm cone that puffs up when cooked, put Cauldron on the map.

Cauldron got its start in an Orange County garage in 2014. Soon after, its photogenic Puffle, a warm cone that puffs up when cooked, went viral. Today, guests flock to the Cypress Village Center to try it. Cauldron makes each ice cream to order with fast-freezing liquid nitrogen, so there’s a bit of a show for the kids (vapor billowing from behind the counter, like a magician’s fog).

Saffron & Rose at University Center

Founder Ali Kashani-Rafye began making ice cream in his native Iran over 75 years ago, and his family continues the tradition of creating traditional small-batch Persian-style ice cream at their new Campus Plaza location. You won’t find a flavor list like this anywhere else in Irvine: Poppy Seed Slush, Pink Rose and Orange Blossom are among the fanciful floral offerings. Other unique scoops include Fig & Cranberry and Cucumber.

Honey & Butter at Irvine Spectrum Center

Owners of Honey & Butter, Irvine residents Pawel and Leanne Pietrasinski.

If the macaron shop’s Instagram feed doesn’t make your sweet tooth ache, we don’t know what will. Whimsical creations like Pokémon macarons and Halloween-themed treats delight patrons of this Spectrum Center shop. The store enjoys a loyal following, so much so that its website has a whole section aimed at managing the expectations of customers expecting to find a favorite theme or flavor. Macaron shells are made with almonds from California, jams are created from fresh fruits, and employees grind the pistachios and hazelnuts and temper the chocolate themselves to ensure the quality of each macaron.

Scoops N Scoops at Walnut Village Center

The owners of Scoops N Scoops at Walnut Village Center describe themselves as “homegrown, Irvine natives … whose passion for ice cream began with kitchen experiments ruled by our love of desserts and fresh, all-natural ingredients.”

One of those experiments yielded the ice cream “burrito.” This concoction allows adventurous ice cream aficionados to choose from funky flavors (Arabian Baklava) and toppings (Fruity Pebbles) wrapped in cotton candy.