Under the Radar Irvine
We share the attractions and challenges of our larger urban epicenters of education, employment, innovation and inspiration: the cosmopolitan cores at Irvine Spectrum, UCI, Irvine Business Complex, and increasingly in and around the Orange County Great Park/Irvine Transportation Center.
The combination is what makes Irvine great. Yet it’s easy to become insular as a result. We can shop, dine and stroll within our own neighborhoods, and be unaware of hidden gems elsewhere throughout the city.
So consider this a guide to some of those hidden gems. Well-known to those who live and work nearby, but remain hidden from many of us. Also consider this a call to action to explore, to have a little adventure in our own city. Get out, meet someone from another neighborhood, and revel in living in the best city in SoCal.
Those following city news know that we’re facing a budget deficit that can be defined in one word: Amazon. Many of us enjoy the convenience of online shopping with quick home delivery—but at what cost? The city says its sales tax revenue is down $6 million. So put down the mouse, and shop local. Here are just a few of the many cool shops in town to discover.
Whale of a Tale Children’s Bookshoppe is a civic treasure, offering an incredible selection of books for kids of all ages. But it’s also a reminder of what makes local shopping a superior experience: exceptional service and in-depth knowledge one can’t find online, know matter how much of your privacy is infringed upon by algorithms, machine learning and tracking of your buying and browsing habits. There’s none of that at this shop hidden off of Alton and Laguna Cyn. (yes, it’s the same one that for years was across from UCI). The secret at this store is owner Alexandra Uhi’s love of books and kids. Plus, after nearly 30 years owning the store she has an incredible ability to size up a kid’s reading preferences and come up with the perfect suggestion for a new series or a single volume that will become a new favorite.
16277 Laguna Canyon Rd.,
The Golden Dreidle also has a great selection of books for kids, as well as adults (we found a Chinese Kosher Cooking recipe book we love). Whether you’re Jewish or not, this lovely store off of Jamboree offers a welcoming shopping experience with an extensive selection of Judaica and gift items. It’s the spot to shop when you’re in search of a wedding gift, a card for Bas and Bat Mitzvah celebration or a honey dish for Rosh Hashanah.
2626 Dupont Dr.,
Barnes & Noble
Though they’re far from hidden, let’s remain appreciative that we have three Barnes & Noble bookstores in Irvine, at the Spectrum, Woodbridge Village and the Irvine Marketplace. Some cities (Whittier, for example) and shopping centers don’t have a single bookstore: with the recent closing of Assouline, South Coast Plaza is one of them. So let’s celebrate our civic good fortune by buying books the old fashioned way: in person.
Whether you are handy around the house already or merely aspire to be, Orchard Supply Hardware in Oak Creek center is the perfect place to get inspired. It feels like several stores in one, with aisles full of home goods and garden supplies, clothes, hardware, and more. Get your keys copied, knives sharpened, lawnmower repaired or fob batteries replaced. And if you have a question, the friendly and informed folks who work at OSH are easy to find and happy to help.
5715 Alton Pkwy.
OSH does offer plants for sale in its garden center, but when you really want to get your hands dirty in the yard with unique plants from out-of-the-way places, check out Aki Nursery on Alton, and California Greenhouses/OC Succulents on Warner Ave. near Jamboree. But the prettiest place to indulge your green thumb has to be Habitudes at The Nursery by Southwinds. Located along the Marine Ave. entrance to the Orange County Great Park. Visiting the place is an aesthetic adventure, with beautiful plants, pots and furniture.
7000 Marine Way,
An inspiring way to explore Irvine’s diversity is by shopping at its many ethnic markets and gourmet grocery stores. First, we appreciate that what’s usual fare to some may feel exotic to others. No matter your cultural identity, it’s easy to find a place in Irvine that feels less familiar in Irvine. Enter with an open mind and choose something you’ve never tried before at Wholesome Choice, H Market, Mitsuwa Marketplace, 99 Ranch, Seafood City, and Zion Market, gourmet grocers like Gelson’s and Whole Foods, or organic spots like Sprouts and Mother’s.
Two places to experience a taste of Irvine’s agricultural heritage are Smith Farms Certified Organic in Northwood and The Original Manaserro Farms on Jeffrey. The latter has organic produce but also offers gourmet gifts and even a beautiful al fresco space to host dinners and events.
Parks and play
Perhaps the most overlooked natural resource in Irvine is William R. Mason Regional Park (18712 University Dr.). We are proud of our open space reserves, and we agree that the Orange County Great Park is, and will continue to evolve, as Irvine’s most remarkable place. So it’s easy to overlook the lovely and understated wonders of Mason Park. At 339 acres, it has a lake, three playgrounds, walking and biking paths, bridges, a butterfly garden and more, all in the heart of the city. And, when there’s not a festival, movie or concert in the park, its remarkably uncrowded.
Eat, drink and explore
The Irvine culinary scene has grown over the past decade in both the depth and diversity of the choices available in the city. There are unexpected gems on the edges of the city, in the office parks and lobbies of the commercial centers and towers, and in the smaller strip shopping centers. Depending upon where you live and work, some of these choices may be familiar and close at hand, others are worth checking out when in the area, others are worth the drive on their own.
Two anticipated additions to the city’s barista culture are The Lost Bean coming to Woodbridge and BLKdot opening a second Irvine location at the Spectrum. Other cool caffeine cafés to search out include Coffee Toma (try the homemade pretzels!) in Culver Plaza, Sootha Coffee near Zion Market, Café Habana at the Spectrum for delicious Cuban coffee and pastries, Kona Loa, the Hawaiian-themed café at Diamond Jamboree (who doesn’t love spam musubi?), across the parking lot from the always-amazing 85°C Bakery Café in the same center. The line is still long at the latter, but parking at the popular center is much easier in the a.m. hours. Be sure to try the sea salt coffee when the second Irvine 85°C Bakery Café location debuts at the Spectrum this summer. It may remain a hidden gem for, oh, five minutes or so.
On the way to JWA
Technically, John Wayne Airport is in Santa Ana. But Irvine shares a border with it, and there are some interesting dining choices in the simple industrial parks and commercial centers along Main Street, MacArthur Blvd. and Red Hill Ave., across the freeway from the runways. Part of why they are hidden gems is that they’re only open on weekdays, and close by mid-afternoon. Ono Deli (18218 E. McDurmott) is worth searching out for an excellent breakfast burrito, while Sandwich King (17885 Sky Park N) does rule when it comes to big, tasty and reasonably priced lunches. The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at Vishnu (17945 Sky Park Cir J) includes both staples like biryanis, curries and dosas, along with delicious dishes not normally seen on most Indian restaurant menus, and the selection is always different. But our favorite find in the area is Mariko’s Deli (17779 Main Street, J, marikosfoodlab.com). Its small-is-beautiful Japanese farmhouse vibe is as aesthetically pleasing as any hipster café. The menu includes amazing organic sandwiches, as well as salads and soups served in returnable Mason jars. Don’t miss the delicious grilled chicken roll.
Some of our favorite cafés and restaurants are tucked into well-known stores. They often are less crowded, offer excellent service and are more family friendly than most. The Kitchen, Deli and Juice Bar at Mother’s Market (2963 Michelson Dr.) is healthy, the staff is welcoming and it’s a relative bargain, too. Most of the menu items are priced around $10. And the kids menu is even a better bargain, with pasta ($4.25), grilled cheese ($3.50), and meatless burritos ($3.95) for much less than other restaurants that cater to families charge. Located inside Zion Market in Northwood, Furai Chicken (4800 Irvine Blvd.) is a top spot to order Korean fried chicken (order sweet and spicy and don’t forget the garlic jam) to go. The spicy miso ramen from Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is a must. It’s part of the food court located inside Mitsuwa Marketplace (14230 Culver Dr.). But our favorite in-store dining destination is definitely Café Bistro at the Irvine Spectrum Nordstrom (800 Spectrum Center Dr.) It’s rarely crowded, has comfortable booths, delicious food and servers who actually seem to enjoy their jobs. It’s the best of the Nordstrom cafés in the area. Order at the counter, and don’t forget to try the kalamata olive aioli that comes with rosemary French fries.
If only Irvine had a tenth as many intriguing Mexican food options as we do Asian. While we love Puesto, Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen and Taco Rosa, it’s hard to find a hidden gem. La Sirena Grill (3931 Portola Pkwy.) is one. If you live near Orchard Hills Village Center, or frequent Laguna Beach, you may know that the gourmet Mexican restaurant serves dishes made of grass-fed meats and organic beans, rice and produce. The several kinds of breakfast burritos are delicious, and there’s a decent selection of wine and craft beer. The delicious but out-of-the way-for-most-of-us eatery belongs on a “worth the drive” list of places to try.
Beer and barbecue
One of Irvine’s most nondescript strip centers is Sand Canyon Plaza. That looks to change with the opening of Left Coast Brewing Company (6652 Irvine Center Dr) at one end of the center. The San Clemente-based craft beer maker will house a small-batch production facility at the Irvine location, along with a tasting room and Kansas City-style barbecue restaurant. Of the 25 taps in Irvine, 10 will be dedicated to experimental beers produced on site. And this just in: the spot will also house Irvine’s first distillery, serving limited samples of house made vodka, gin, whiskey and rum, with bottles to go.
We’ve raved about our favorite breakfast and sandwich restaurant, S’Wich Bistro, (6277 Laguna Canyon Rd.) several times before. Enough that it probably doesn’t qualify as a hidden gem. Still, despite the ink and the restaurant’s popularity with employees of the adjacent Blizzard, its location seems far from the hustle and bustle of greater Irvine. Whale of a Tale bookstore is located in the same center, as is Yasai, an affordable Japanese café, and Quickly, a fast casual café serving boba, ramen burgers, milk tea and other treats. Inka’s Restaurant (inkasoc.com) is also there. The kitchen serves excellent Peruvian cuisine, with amazing aguadito chicken soup, paella and saltado. An extra bonus: unlike many restaurants in business districts that are packed at lunch and then close, Inka’s is also open for dinner.