Costa Mesa, California: Food Heaven in Orange County

I plan my travels around eating, prioritizing my meals and figuring everything else out around that. And if you’re anything like me, then I know you will love Costa Mesa because eating is the main attraction. What may have started as an inland suburban town nestled within Orange County, has quickly become a food mecca within Southern California. It continues to grow and define itself. There are quiet neighborhoods, classic spots, quirky establishments, and all within easy access of each other and to other popular OC attractions. When I’m in this residential yet urban town, I feel like a kid in a candy store, excited about all the treats in store.

FAT Scale (Food, Attractions, Transportation): 8.5/10

  • Food: 9/10
  • Attractions: 8/10
  • Transportation: 8.5/10

HAPPY Scale (Hotels/Lodging, Ample Period of Time, Price, Population, Yearning to Return): 8.6/10

  • Hotels/Lodging: 9/10
  • Ample Period of Time: 2-3 Days
  • Price: $$
  • Population: Young couples/families, young professionals, hip parents that look genuinely cool (maybe even cooler than you)
  • Yearning to Return: 8.7/10

FOOD

There is absolutely superb food all over Costa Mesa. From upscale Mexican to traditional Taiwanese, you will find so much to explore and devour. See my current list of must hits below:

Taco Maria

Exactly one year ago, Taco Maria aka Chef Carlos Salgado’s quirky and refined yet simple and comforting California-Mexican restaurant, became The Times’ 2018 Restaurant of the Year. Salgado and his team have so effortlessly (it seems) fused traditional Mexican flavors with local seasonality of California produce to create his own fine-dining yet no frills taco spot in this random Costa Mesa mall. A couple of things: 1) don’t expect the normally cheap $1-$2 tacos from a truck. Salgado is elevating the connotation of tacos as solely street food. They are also much larger in size than a regular street taco. 2) The menu changes slightly based on what is in season, but you can trust that everything will be on point.

Pro Tip: each taco order comes with 2, but you can split this order and get one of each so that you can try as many varieties of tacos as you like.

A few favorites: Aguachile with Hokkaido Scallops | Mole de Pollo Taco with Jidori Chicken, Ancho-Almond-Mole, Queso Fresco, Pickled Onion |Pork Cheek Taco with Piloncillo Glaze, Cara Cara Oranges, Salsa de Aguacate

Din Tai Fung

This Taiwanese import is the STAR MVP in its field. Din Tai Fung crushes the game with killer consistency and cleanliness in flavor. For your first time, you simply have to get the Xiao Long Bao aka XLB aka soup dumplings aka morsels of joy filled with perfectly tempered broth, minced pork and crab, all beautifully and delicately wrapped in a thin, hand wrapped, 18-fold dumpling. Dip this in a soy sauce, vinegar, ginger sauce mix and then pop the whole thing in your mouth and let the symphony of flavors just burst. This is their selling signature sensation. Past this though, I genuinely love their other, less praised items. The Shrimp and Pork Spicy Wontons are not only a menu favorite for me, but some of my favorite wontons overall. Also be sure to get their Sautéed Garlic String Beans, Braised Beef Noodle Soup, and Pork Chop Fried Rice. This is a lot of food (all 100% worth it), so maybe order some tea to help you digest.

Sidecar Doughnuts and Coffee

My favorite doughnuts ON THIS PLANET. Which means a lot coming from me because to be honest, I’m not the biggest sweets lover, and these doughnuts have converted me. Each flavor tells their own distinct story, but a few things remain consistent throughout: the cake doughnuts are superior because their glaze on the exterior creates this ever so slight crunch for texture, as you bite into the soft, moist, perfectly cakey interior. Did I mention? All doughnuts are made FRESH on the hour, and the original Costa Mesa location is the perfect place to experience this firsthand.

Favorites: Old Fashion | Huckleberry | Butter & Salt |Basil Eggs Benedict (only in the mornings until 11:30AM or sold out)

Old Vine Kitchen & Bar

Not many places serve brunch daily. Even less serve FANTASTIC, high-quality brunch day in and day out. Old Vine Kitchen & Bar is your standard folks. I have to be honest, I don’t completely understand the theme here cuisine wise, but I don’t mind because everything I had, from the Rabbit Mole to the Fried Green Tomatoes, was delicious. My favorite though: Lengua Omelet with Slow Cooked Beef Tongue, Queso Fresco, Spicy Tomatillo Salsa and Pickled Serranos. The beef tongue was braised for hours so that it tenderly melts in your mouth. The richness of this is cut by the fresh and spicy salsa, and it all comes together enveloped in a fluffy egg omelet. This omelet also comes with their homemade sourdough toast and one of their house-made spreads. BUT Pro Tip: Ask for both their Strawberry Marmalande and Pistachio Nut Butter for a unique and delicious “Peanut Butter & Jelly” experience.

East Borough

After Old Vine Kitchen & Bar, we were stuffed. But in the same complex called The CAMP, we came across East Borough: a modern Vietnamese Kitchen. After taking one whiff of the smells wafting from the kitchen, we had to stop by and order at least one thing. We settled on a Vietnamese Coffee and Kaya Toast (with French butter, Coconut Lychee Jam, Egg, and Maggi), and both were WONDERFUL. I wish we had more room, but it just means we’ll have to revisit.

Playa Mesa Mexican Kitchen

This is your vibrant weekend hangout. We were surrounded by so many groups of people: a bachelorette party, couples, friends, other people meeting and becoming friends. This is a great spot for drinks and fish tacos. Playa Mesa Kitchen uses seasonally fresh fish, and we were lucky enough to have a light and flaky Red Snapper Taco with a lovely beer-battered crunch, topped with cabbage, lime, crema and salsa.

ATTRACTIONS

The LAB Anti-Mall

This place is both a true hipster’s and lifestyle Instagrammer’s dream. Yes – I realize these are two opposite demographics, but the LAB, which stands for Little American Business, is a collective community dedicated to supporting passionate local businesses. In genuinely doing so, they have created so many picture-worthy spots. From their tunnel created out of shimmering CD-ROMs to their indoor loveseat swings, you will find so many perfect pics for your ‘gram.

The CAMP

Similar to an actual college campus of related yet separate buildings and majors, The CAMP is an authentically eco-friendly space filled with handpicked retailers and restaurants. This whole place is just cool, and a different way to eat, drink, and shop. Old Vine Kitchen & Bar and East Borough are both located in The CAMP.

South Coast Plaza

There are your local suburban malls for basics, and then there is South Coast Plaza. As the largest shopping mall on the west coast, this is a mammoth place filled with some of the most top-brand luxury stores and spectacular dining options. Even if you’re not in the shopping mood, you should come here just to window sho[ and see stunning displays throughout.

Costa Mesa is also super close to some of my favorite beach towns: Laguna Beach and Newport Beach

TRANSPORTATION

  • While of course, you can figure out public transportation anywhere, I’d recommend just renting a car or using a ride app like Lyft or Uber.

HOTELS/LODGING

Avenue of the Arts Hotel Costa Mesa

I loved my stay here on my most recent visit to Costa Mesa. This is a Tribute Portfolio hotel by Marriott, and as soon as you walk in, you’ll be greeted to this funky yet cozily modern lobby filled with unique color tones of eggplant purple and dark magenta.

The theme follows into the spacious rooms, which each have a Keurig and coffee mugs, which for me, makes all the difference. I don’t know about you guys, but I just love drinking coffee out of a real mug versus a disposable stirofoam-like cup, and this little detail just adds to the experience of feeling comfortably at home.

Lastly, and I do not say this lightly, but the in-room dining here is great. Room service at hotels can be hit or miss, but The Silver Trumpet inside the hotel delivers for breakfast. Get the Crab Cake Benedict and the Breakfast Burrito with Short Rib and Guacamole, and I promise, it’ll be a satisfying midweek in-room dining brunch.

This spot is also conveniently located a 5 minute walk away from South Coast Plaza, which can be a dangerous thing for your wallet 😉

Other Amenities: Outdoor pool, sauna and spa tub, fitness center, business center, and complimentary shuttle service to and from John Wayne Airport (SNA)

AMPLE PERIOD OF TIME

  • To me, Costa Mesa is one of those places that you should just keep coming back to because there are just so many culinary gems. You will not be able to get through it all at once. Come for two days here and two days there so that your stomach can continually be satisfied each time.

PRICE

  • You will find great value for your money here, especially being located in Orange County. If you want to vacation in Orange County and explore various towns, I’d highly recommend making Costa Mesa your home base for a great price, and then just take day trips to where you desire, all while coming back to a great suburban city

POPULATION

  • The population here is quite diverse. There are young couples, young professionals, full-fledged families, and older yet quite hip Southern California couples throughout town.

YEARNING TO RETURN

  • This was not my first time in Costa Mesa and it will not be my last. While LA tends to get more attention than OC food-wise, I love what’s materializing here. I can’t wait to return and explore more through this town as they continue to evolve. Specifically, Costa Mesa’s 2019 TASTE in collaboration with LA Times is coming up October 2019. Who wants to come with me and devour some fantastic food?! 😉

Stay hungry,

*While all opinions are my own, as a disclosure: this trip was sponsored by and in partnership with Travel Costa Mesa*

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