Finding Flavor in Garden Grove’s Car Country

The crawfish have that California roll covered.

The crawfish have that California roll covered.

When I first saw the numbingly repetitive suburban sprawl of Garden Grove, California, I asked myself, “Yeah, but where exactly am I?” I thought that the place could be Houston. Or Orlando. Or anywhere else in America where the city planning bowed to the dominance of the car. Most of Garden Grove is divided by avenues or boulevards every half-mile, forming neat, north-south/east-west squares as if partitioned by a computer program in its default “Create a city” mode. Within almost every square block, there is a planned suburban subdivision with cul-de-sacs (especially ones with fake little curves for that pseudo-rustic feel) and/or a hotel, or maybe an arcade of restaurants with the all-important array of parking lots that occupy more real estate than the buildings.

Such a layout was only broken up by a diagonal scar of an old train line that has long since been retired, but the larger implications of a car-centric grid gobbling up train tracks is telling. In such conformist hegemony, I initially had little hopes of eating my way past chain restaurants, especially since Disneyland is in nearby Anaheim.

A gastronomic reflection of some of the area's ethnic groups, under one roof. A melting pot with cheese on top.

A gastronomic reflection of some of the area’s ethnic groups, under one roof. A melting pot with cheese on top.

But during a walk around the block from my hotel (a long walk in which I encountered about three other pedestrians), I discovered that the ethnic groups that have recently moved to the area have opened up restaurants in the lookalike strip malls. Owned by a Korean couple, The Crazy Grill lives up to its name by mixing up several of the area’s ethnic cuisines in a tiny standalone building that used to be a diner on Haster Street near Lampson Ave. Their signage promises “taco / breakfast / hamburger /sushi / teriyaki” on the front, and as if to pay homage to the old diner, they kept the signage on the side that reads “banana splits / hamburgers” in 60’s style lettering (perhaps the oldest thing I saw in Garden Grove). And they serve it all too.

Sure, in New York City we have combo fast food joints that serve pizza/heroes/bagels/burgers/etc, and usually all items within are equally horrible. But at the Crazy Grill, I saw that the owners mixed up menus not just from the American food spectrum, but from beyond as well. How good could this be? I had to find out. In the no-frills seating area, my wife and I started with the bulgogi tacos. While Korean tacos are currently a trendy, sauce-laden offering in food trucks on the coasts, I noticed that the Crazy Grill’s bulgogi tacos followed a simpler route, consisting of tender bulgogi beef and pico de gallo, complete with big chunks of jalapeño. The sweetness of bulgogi and the fresh corn tortillas were begging for a kick, and the jalapeños came through.

Bulgogi tacos with pico de gallo, complete with Disney-repelling pepper heat

Bulgogi tacos with pico de gallo, complete with Disney-repelling pepper heat

Sushi, jalapeños, sririacha sauce, ketchup, together at last (even though I ignored the ketchup)

Sushi, jalapeños, sririacha sauce, ketchup, together at last (even though I ignored the ketchup)

The jalapeños in the sun & kiss roll (spicy tuna and jalapeño on the inside, salmon & avocado on the outside), however, overpowered the delicate flavor of the salmon. That’s when an extra large cup of horchata arrived. It was the first time I have washed down sushi with horchata, and, gosh darnit, the horchata calmed down that jalapeños just enough to bring the meal back in balance. Horchata, after all, is a rice-based drink, and the rice-iness of the horchata sought out the rice in the sushi, like two long-lost cousins recognizing each other in a crowd, and brought it all together.

The lobster roll, a misomer for a crawfish roll, was the big winner. Glazed in a sweet sauce, the crawfish topped a California roll, and when both were taken together, each bite was a rich treat.

How about those burgers, you say? Surprisingly, their avocado cheeseburger was decent. And by decent, I mean it is better than most burgers, because most burgers, from my experience, tend to get screwed up (overcooked; cold, unmelted cheese placed on bun instead of melted on the burger when on the grill; sawdust-dry buns; nasty, pink mealy tomatoes). So here we have a Korean couple making a respectable American burger at a tiny resto whose menu variety causes cultural vertigo.

The avocado, at home in Mexican, Japanese, and American cuisines, was the common denominator in many of their dishes. (As a side note, such a fact seems appropriate, because a little over an hour south is Fallbrook, the Avocado Capital of the World. Unfortunately, the realities of capitalism may soon dictate otherwise, since the avocado’s success as a trendy ingredient has actually lowered prices per pound paid to farmers—Mexican avocados, while not as flavorful, are cheaper. As a result, several SoCal ranches have sadly chopped down their money-losing avocado trees this past year, so I’m not sure how much longer Fallbrook may hold its title.)

Around the long block, on Harbor Boulevard, I encountered Flor Blanca #2, a Salvadoran restaurant where fresh pupusas are made. I liked how the outsides had a little grilled flavor and texture, while the insides were chewy and warm. I chose one filled with spinach, and the other with loroco, a tangy green flower bud. Their tamales were soft and moist, and their atol de elote, a creamy drink made with corn kernels (similar to Panama’s chicheme, a drink I mention in chapter 10 of Is There a Hole in the Boat?), was served too hot to greedily slurp down. I only found out how sweet and thick it was after it cooled. I didn’t take any pictures of Flor Blanca’s offerings because my wife and I had scarfed down most of it before I remembered to take out the camera. Here at Omnivorous Traveler, that sometimes happens.

Meat lover's pizza. Dang, that fake ham even looks like real ham.

Meat lover’s pizza. Dang, that fake ham even looks like real ham.

But I have a still shot of the meat lover’s pie from Vegan Pizza, a tiny joint on Chapman Avenue near West Street that is so new, it is not yet marked on Google Maps. Wait a minute: meat lovers? At a vegan joint? It’s fake meat, of course, but it just reinforces the point that many vegans want their vegan food to look and taste like meat. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Meat helped to put humans at the top of the food chain, so there is no shame in showing an innate desire for animal protein. The only shame is on companies making meat substitutes that taste somewhere between dog treats and wet corrugated cardboard. That wasn’t the case at family-run Vegan Pizza. Fortunately, their fake ham tasted so good—that is, it was smoky and tender with just a hint of salt— I dare say I enjoyed it more than real ham. For me, American ham has been so ruined by the curing process that it ends up tasting like salty rubber. And not new rubber. I’m talking old, cracked rubber you would find in dried-up grommets stuck to the inside of a dashboard of a 1986 Toyota Tercel. Is that un-American to say?

The Verdict: try not to let the sprawl of Garden Grove get you down; there are a few gastronomic smiles among the strip malls and the chain restaurants and the Disney shuttles.

About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
This entry was posted in California, Pizza and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Finding Flavor in Garden Grove’s Car Country

  1. Bud Quinlan says:

    The layout of Garden Grove sounds depressingly like that of the area around Boca Raton and Delray Beach in Florida, which we had to endure to visit the one relative of the sig.other’s who made it worth the visit (on top of which, we had to endure four other relatives we didn’t want to see).
    The good aunt of Boca/Delray has recently moved to be closer to her children in NJ (so now she’ll be the good aunt of..Parsippany? I’m not quite sure where in NJ her family is located). This makes me sorry I didn’t take a few more long walks around those huge blocks while she was in FL; I might have found something. Suburban NJ might have its own secret pleasures and gems; I just hope I walk enough to find them.

    • I used to write off the burbs, but if there are concentrations of ethnic groups nearby, you just might find cool stuff in the strip malls. Even if it’s more or less homogeneous, you still might find a funky store with some effort. If there is nothing there, then at least you get some exercise out of it. Driving by just doesn’t do it; you miss some of the signage and you can’t walk inside the restaurants for a peek and check out what everyone is eating, unless you want to park at every strip mall and get out. Also, not every store/resto is in Google Maps. It looks like ol’ fashioned foot travel is still an effective (but slow) way to explore, even in pedestrian-hostile areas like Garden Grove (or maybe even Boca Raton).

  2. Pingback: A Medium Rare Vegetarian Burger: Impossible? | The Omnivorous Traveler's Notebook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s