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
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.
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.”
Taps Fish House & Brewery at The Market Place
That flight of beers you enjoy at TAPS started with an impressive journey.
TAPS owner Joe Manzella left a corporate job to pursue his dream: open a restaurant. First he persuaded his dad to back his venture, and recruited his sister to join the team. Then Manzella traveled the country to research his concept of an immersive dining experience, one in which the atmosphere is as important as the food.
In 1999, after what Manzella describes as “almost insurmountable setbacks,” the first TAPS restaurant opened in Orange County. Twenty years later, Manzella’s three restaurants and barrel room command $20 million in annual sales.
The Irvine location, which opened in 2015 at The Market Place, is where the menu “pushes the envelope,” executive chef Ryan Robertson says.
Among the innovative options at the Irvine fish house and brewery is the Crab Stuffed Shrimp Christopher – jumbo prawns stuffed with lump crab, corn, poblano pepper, cilantro and green onions with white corn grits and barbecue shrimp sauce.
If that’s not proof enough that TAPS is not a typical brewpub, consider the wine list that won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence five years in a row.
Then there is the beer. TAPS brews 30 to 35 Belgian, German and English ales and lagers, all crafted on-site. The brewery has won nearly 120 awards for its creations.
“We envisioned this as the cutting edge of TAPS,” Robertson says of the Irvine location. Further setting the Irvine restaurant apart is its open-concept design, an elevated bar that features daily happy hour, and an exhibition kitchen. Manzella describes the carefully planned atmosphere as “a potpourri of architectural design.”
What’s next for the entrepreneur? A presence at John Wayne Airport is slated to open in 2020.
ADYA at University Center
ADYA chef-owner Shachi Mehra gained a national following this fall when she won the popular Food Network reality show “Chopped.” But Irvine restaurant-goers already knew how talented she was.
Three years ago, she and her husband opened ADYA at University Center and have built a loyal following of students, office workers and families.
Mehra, who was born in India, crafts contemporary twists on tandoori dishes, curries and other traditional Indian specialties.
The ingredients that led her to victory on the “Ooey, Gooey Cheese” episode were slightly different, as she whipped up a three-course meal using, among other things, rainbow mozzarella sticks and cheese spray.
As a “Chopped” champion, Mehra joins a list of other successful Orange County chefs like Jamie Gwen, who won “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and Amar Santana, who competed on “Top Chef.”
“Guests are really excited about it,” Mehra says. “They come into the restaurant and say, ‘You’re the one who won ‘Chopped!’ ”
Those diners can expect more great things from Mehra in the years ahead. Her “Chopped” win came with a check for $10,000, which she is using to create a line of sauces and write a cookbook.
Cauldron at Cypress Village Center
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
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.