COCKTAILS, PART 2: Over the next few weeks, our food writers, Anne Valdespino and Anne Marie Panoringan, are taking a deep dive into places around Orange County that are great spots to grab a drink with friends.
In recent years, a fresh crop of stellar cocktail spots has popped up with so much to offer that we think it’s time to name 10 new classics. This is part two of our list. (Here’s a link to part one and part three, just in case you missed it.) We’ll also have a follow up report on the best new and newish bars to try in December.
Read on for a list of outstanding watering holes where the glasses are well chilled and the cuisine is always creative.
PHOTO 1: Painkiller and Holy Grail cocktails at Stowaway in Tustin. Photo courtesy of Stowaway; PHOTO 2: The interior of Stowaway in Tustin has a tiki theme. Photo by Chloe Chen; PHOTO 3: Stowaway in Tustin has zombie and other tiki décor. Photo by Jeremy Chan
Forced to relocate last year, Stowaway not only retained a Tustin address, but returned with renewed vibrancy. Expansive bar and seating areas enhance the kitschy, tiki experience. Its mellow setting is an exotic respite in a county overrun with high heels and
Cocktails run from $13-15. Rum fans will swoon over the potent Zombie (or browse Stowaway’s list of over 100 rum bottles); we suggest getting lit with a Cococano … and coveting its vessel. Bonus: Dole whip finales and magic-infused brunch grub for weekend warriors.
Starters are $9-13. 14401 Newport Ave., Tustin, 657-208-2088. stowawaytiki.com
PHOTO 1: Get a pumpkin spice fix by ordering Who Watches the Watchmen ($15), a pumpkin black Manhattan that’s spirit forward at The Blind Pig in Rancho Santa Margarita. PHOTO 2: The Power Stone ($14), is billed as an ube lavender mai tai at The Blind Pig in Rancho Santa Margarita. Photos courtesy of The Blind Pig
The Blind Pig
With a lakeside view from the patio and a long list of creative cocktails, many mixed with house-made infusions, syrups and more, it’s no wonder The Blind Pig is celebrating its 10th anniversary. One of the first gastrobars to capitalize on the cocktail trend when it opened, it has stayed hip thanks to owner Tony Monaco and Executive Chef Karl Pfleider.
Monaco and Pfleider have worked together to keep the menus chef driven. Pfleider draws on his Filipino, Asian and Hispanic background, but this is more than fusion food. He takes dishes to such heights that he’s creating something new while keeping them hearty enough to pair with boozy, flashy drinks.
Don’t miss the big plates like the Jidori Chicken Adobo ($25) in a soy demi glaze. The sauce is lightened up from the traditional Filipino fare; pearl onions and slices of fingerling potatoes add an English pub touch. Shaved fennel brings freshness and white rice provides a traditional accompaniment.
Striped sea bass ($28) leans toward Southeast Asia with its crisp skin, sitting in a pool of khao soi sauce topped by shredded green papaya and peanuts for crunch. Cilantro and mint counterbalance the rich curry.
There are many tempting choices on the shareable side of the menu such as deviled eggs, fries, crab cakes, mac and cheese and more. We liked the newly added bacon-wrapped dates ($12). That preparation, made popular in tapas bars years ago, has been reinvigorated here. They’re enrobed in a thick jacket of bacon and stuffed with a creamy goat cheese. The sweetness of the dates is balanced with a tart balsamic syrup to finish the dish.
PHOTO 1: The Jidori Chicken Adobo ($25) mixes traditional Filipino fare with pearl onions and fingerling potatoes for an English pub touch. PHOTO 2: The Blind Pig in Rancho Santa Margarita has a lakeside patio. Photos courtesy of The Blind Pig
Cocktails still rock. For the light and breezy palate try the Power Stone ($14), billed as an ube lavender mai tai. It’s a blend of rum, house-made coconut liqueur, ube, lavender, coconut, pineapple juice, lemon and bitters poured over crushed ice. It’s photogenic too: lilac colored with a ruffled dehydrated pineapple that looks like a yellow flower blossom.
Man Without Fear ($14) turns a New York sour into a rich winter drink with bourbon, Montenegro amaro, spice wine cordial, lemon and bitters. I Can Do This All Day ($15) is another wintery drink, this one based on the Vieux Carre, with rye, apple brandy, amaro and Becherovka, the Czech herbal liqueur that adds some nice complexity. A jaunty dehydrated apple slice gets clipped to its side.
And if you absolutely have to get your pumpkin spice fix, ask for Who Watches the Watchmen ($15), a pumpkin black Manhattan that’s spirit forward with pumpkin-infused rye, bourbon, chai-infused amaro and bitters.
It’s not just the food and drinks, it’s also the hospitality that regulars love, with friendly helpful waiters who eschew that “everything’s good” line and happily reveal their favorites to help you find yours.
Don’t miss the daily happy hour with discounts on draft beers, house wines, some specialty cocktails and well drinks.
Locations: 31431 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita; 949-888-0072. 4975 Lakeview Ave., Yorba Linda; 714-485-2593. theblindpigoc.com
PHOTO 1: A full dinner menu is served at The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim. PHOTO 2: The short rib stuffed gyoza is served with a savory sauce. PHOTO 3: The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim has a 1920s theme with a vintage look bar. Photos courtesy of The Blind Rabbit. PHOTO 4: The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim is a speakeasy with a hidden entrance behind a faux wall of sake barrels. Photo by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC
The Blind Rabbit
When the hostess isn't at her post, the only indication that there’s a hidden gem on the other side of a wall of faux sake barrels is a rabbit-shaped door handle. The Blind Rabbit is the most stealth of all of Orange County’s bars calling themselves speakeasies.
Since 2014, it’s been a leader in the local craft cocktail movement with its dark-as-midnight atmosphere that mixes the feel of a library with a liquor storehouse.
Once inside you’re surrounded by books and bottles. The whiskey list is steep and deep and we like that you can call your bourbon or rye for your perfect old fashioned ($16 or more depending on how fancy you want to get) but there’s also a cool list of cocktails to explore.
Try the Champagne Problems ($18). It’s served in a honey bear glass with Barr Hill Gin, lemon and an Earl Grey vanilla syrup with brown butter for richness and lavender garnish to kick up the tea scent.
Or get the Figment of Your Imagination ($19), a blend of Tom Cat Gin, Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth, figs and a splash of fig balsamic that lends a sparky acidity. It’s so Mediterranean, served with a tiny amuse bouche skewer of Manchego cheese, spiced salami, strawberry and green olive.
The garnish will perk up your appetite while you look over a menu filled with shareable snacks and large plates. Tater tots ($8) make you feel like a kid again, sprinkled with parm and sided with a Mornay Swiss cheese sauce for dipping. Crab cakes ($24) are crispy outside and come on a bed of arugula and tomato salad. Don’t miss the wagyu short rib gyoza ($20), plump, meaty little dumplings served in a pool of savory sauce.
That piano isn’t just decor, there’s live music on Friday and Saturday that adds to the Jazz Age atmosphere and a whole set of rules to follow so you really feel like you’re living in the ‘20s and being really naughty. The two most important? Make a reservation or you could be turned away disappointed. And exit through the hidden door that looks like a bookcase because if you go out the way you came in you might knock the hostess off her post.
PHOTO 1: The signature Vaca Tonic ($16) is a frozen concoction with a few basil blossoms floating on top at Vaca in Costa Mesa. PHOTO 2: “Top Chef” star and executive chef at Vaca, Amar Santana, carves Spanish jamon serrano at the restaurant. Photos courtesy of Sarah King Photography
There are a million reasons to love this restaurant bar, but it all starts with the signature Vaca Tonic ($16), a concoction of Brooklyn Gin, frozen gimlet and Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic with a few basil blossoms floating on top. It’s a floral, citrusy trip to heaven for gin and tonic lovers: British and Spanish-style G&T meet in the middle.
While the dining room at Vaca is still one of Orange County’s most coveted reservations, it’s also one of the best places to sit in the bar. It’s always lively and downright fun, taking on the character of chef-owner Amar Santana and his business partner Ahmed Labbate, who met working for Charlie Palmer and decided to strike out on their own shortly before Santana became a “Top Chef” star.
They worked in New York City, and both this restaurant and Broadway, Santana’s Laguna Beach restaurant, might remind you of a trip to Manhattan. Each is set in a long, skinny room that makes maximum use of a minimal space, adding to the charged atmosphere when the place is crowded.
Settle in with a Vaca Tonic, a fruity sangria, or any number of gin or sherry cocktails. There’s a house-made vermouth to sample and the wine list is filled with Spanish bottles.
PHOTO 1: There’s plenty of charcuteria and cheese choices starring Spain’s famous jamon serrano, expertly carved at Vaca in Costa Mesa. PHOTO 2: Hot appetizers include the buttery bikini sandwich ($15) with Spanish pork shoulder Manchego cheese and truffles. PHOTO 3: Bola ($14), a croqueta-style fried sphere of potatoes and ground beef, is served with a delectable red sauce and garlic aioli. Photos courtesy of Sarah King Photography
Get a dinner reservation if you can. But if you’re at the bar there’s plenty of charcuteria and cheese choices starring Spain’s famous jamon serrano, expertly carved.
Hot appetizers include the buttery bikini sandwich ($15) with Spanish pork shoulder, Manchego cheese and truffles on grilled bread, and bola ($14), a croqueta-style fried sphere of potatoes and ground beef that looks like a billiard ball, served with a delectable red sauce and garlic aioli.
695 Town Center Drive, Suite 170, Costa Mesa, 714-463-6060. vacarestaurant.com
PHOTO 1: A Super Boof cocktail gets garnished at Vacation Bar in Santa Ana. PHOTO 2: Margherita and Heroic Dose pizzas are served at Vacation Bar in Santa Ana. Photos courtesy of Vacation Bar
Downtown Santa Ana’s nightlife includes Vacation, a dimly lit nook where you can have a conversation without talking over the music. A vintage look adorned in flora gives off an intimate vibe, although the bench-style seating is accommodating for social groups.
Hustling a tight cocktail selection ($14-16), the Surf Poncho entices with rum and eye-catching dragonfruit, while Super Boof takes advantage of Mexican gin and lemon chartreuse. To cure one’s appetite there’s pizza and fries ($9-17). Try a Heroic Dose pizza featuring garlic confit, sautéed mushrooms and black garlic cream.
204 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, 657-266-0855. vacationdtsa.com
Anne Marie Panoringan contributed to this story.