Lent marks the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday as Catholics prepare for Easter with prayers and fasting on select days throughout the season. Included in this fasting is abstaining from eating meat on Fridays (although fish is typically allowed). What better time to take a look at seafood, vegetable/grain-forward, and plant-based destinations in Orange County, brought to you this week with the help of our photographer, Julie Leopo, a practicing vegan, and Voice of OC intern, Crystal Henriquez.

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing for eight years at OC Weekly in which she interviewed over 330 industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show. In 2022, Anne Marie was a judge for the James Beard Awards.

Kabob Republic, Costa Mesa

One of the more vegetarian and vegan friendly cuisines has got to be Mediterranean food, which emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods such as whole grains, nuts, beans, vegetables and fruit. This cuisine tends to stray away from red meat, however it is still prepared and eaten in moderation. If you’re trying out a meatless diet and are confused on where to start, there’s no harm in checking out some Mediterranean restaurants and recipes. If you want the real deal of Mediterranean food, Kabob Republic is the place to go.

Chef Ekrem Ozturk opened Kabob Republic in Costa Mesa just four years ago in 2017, and the restaurant has since become extremely well known for its authentic gyro, kabobs and other fresh dishes. Ozturk has also become somewhat of a local hero throughout the pandemic, providing hundreds of free gyro meals to individuals and families in need, as well as any medical workers in the community. 

Ozturk has done well at including a variety of tasty vegetarian options, while still staying true to his old family recipes. The lamb and chicken gyros are beloved customer favorites, however the meatless options are just as delicious. The falafel wrap will not only have you feeling happy and satisfied, but you won’t be missing meat at all. The falafel — made of chickpea and fava bean — is served inside a pita wrap along with mixed greens, tomatoes, pickles, marinated red onions, red cabbage and tahini sauce. Same goes for the fried cauliflower wrap, consisting of deep-fried cauliflower florets wrapped in pita but with tzatziki sauce rather than tahini. 

You also can’t go wrong with any of their salads if you’re feeling like eating light. All of their salads, except for the Greek salad, are vegan — so no need to worry about that. The favorable tabouli salad is a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, and Ozturk has perfected his recipe which contains diced tomatoes encircled with finely chopped parsley, fresh mint, scallions and cracked wheat; seasoned with lemon juice and herbs then drizzled with extra virgin olive oil dressing. – Crystal Henriquez

Ono Seafood Market, Santa Ana

For more than two decades, Ono Seafood Market has been a destination for practicing Catholics. On Fridays, one can always count on seeing a line forming out of the market located on a Santa Ana strip mall on the corner of Edinger Avenue and Fairview Street. One of its most ordered items is the fried tilapia.

The employee handing out orders, busy herself, relayed that the owner was not available for comment,  because he was “too busy at the moment.” Which understandably was true. This past Friday was no different: Lines of Latinos, even out-of-state clients such as Craig Bellman, who is from South Carolina, referred to this as “some good fish fry.” Owned by a Samoan family, the cross-cultural exchange intensifies during Lent season.

An employee gives a client their to-go fried fish order at Ono Seafood Market on March. 5 in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Among Latinos the fried fish fry is referred to as a “mojarra.” Clients can expect to pay around $2 per pound on a tilapia fish.  “I paid $6 for this fish!” commented a satisfied client as she walked out of the market. 

The fried seafood is made to order, while you wait. In other words, be prepared to wait outside — no more than two to three customers are allowed inside the market.  – Julie Leopo

Eden, Dana Point

Eden is a sister restaurant  to the vegan Vietnamese eatery in Orange County Mitasie. Eden, a new endeavor, opened its doors in 2019. It’s located in the southern coastal region of Orange County along Pacific Coast Highway. 

From left, “Thai spicy salad” served with vegan chicken and “Kung Pao chicken” in a to-go container from Eden, a vegan Vietnamese restaurant in Dana Point. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Serving different types of Asian foods, Eden’s “Kung Pao vegan chicken” is one of the most ordered items on their menu. The Kung Pao vegan chicken is paired with carrots, green, zucchini, beans, onions, jalapeño and nuts. It is always made fresh to order. Another favorite for a light meal is: the Thai spicy salad.  The salad is unique in flavor, boasting tones of spice and herbs such as basil, cilantro and mint. 

Eden also serves wine to make any evening dinner delightful. – Leopo

Fermentation Farm, Costa Mesa

Six years young and celebrating a recent expansion, Fermentation Farm has sprouted from a modest, membership-only space best known for kombucha to an umami-packed home of hearty soups, small bites, and fermented eats such as beets and curtido. While not quite a meat-free establishment, consumers can rest assured of the high-quality ingredients and care put into preparing vegan lentil soup, French celery root salad, and gut-friendly kraut grilled cheese (Note: FF offers six flavors of kraut). 

Owner Dr. Yasmin Mason elaborates: “They say you should have one-quarter to one-half cup of fermented vegetables daily for gut health, and sauerkraut stuffed between sourdough and melted cheese is a really good vehicle for that.” A go-to recipe in her household, Mason and her husband would regularly incorporate homemade batches of kraut into their grilled sandwiches for an additional layer of flavor. An extensive selection of both organic ingredients and prepared foods means shoppers can purchase a ready-to-eat product and also gather what they need to cook wholesome meals in their own kitchens.

Beyond sandwiches, Ferm Farm’s new executive chef Amy Lebrun (who befriended Mason in the Farm’s early days) began serving a seasonal salad featuring her kogi beet vinaigrette. It incorporates Midnight Moon goat cheese and avocado, plus blood oranges and tangelos from Sunny Cal Farms. – Anne Marie Panoringan

La Vegana Mexicana/Naughty Panda, Downtown Santa Ana

In a gentrified section of Santa Ana, 4th Street Market has evolved into an appealing collective of curated brands under one roof. From “Chopped” champion chef Joe Youkhan’s Smörburgers, to Michelin Guide discovery Burritos La Palma, this is worth a visit. In fact, there are not one, but two, vegan eateries currently occupying this food hall. 

Loreta Ruiz’s La Vegana Mexicana stemmed from her daughter’s decision to go vegan at the age of 18. Making nutritious and appetizing dishes possessing the same flavor profiles of Mexican cuisine became Ruiz’s goal. Start with an iced café de olla, La Vegana’s twist on coffee, topped with coconut milk. Cauliflower ceviche refreshes one’s palate, while savory and sweet tamales satiate without leaving one stuffed — especially LVM’s black bean with mole or nopales (tender cactus) and salsa verde flavors. Online requests can be made two days in advance. 

In July 2020, I had the pleasure of interviewing Santa Ana native Skyler Tanksley live during a 4th Street Market event. Naughty Panda is a hybrid of Tanksley’s My Vegan Panda and fellow chef Adrian Garcia’s Naughty Boy Sushi. Offering rice bowls, sushi rolls and loaded fries with unexpected ingredients, Naughty Panda’s use of plant-based ingredients and soy proteins is executed in such a way that one can easily dismiss the notion that animal proteins are being substituted. Deceptively delicious, my favorite bites were orange chicken-topped fries with a cilantro-jalapeno mayo glaze. Read up on Panda’s monthly specials via social media or ask when you’re there. Bonus: Tanksley also operates vegan joint Munchies Vegan Diner down the street. – Panoringan

Uoko, Lake Forest

There are sushi spots at virtually every corner of Orange County, but not very many have the same intimate feel of Uoko, an authentic Japanese spot perfect to satisfy any craving. 

Since the opening in Lake Forest back in 1985, Uoko has remained family owned and operated. Chef Masatoshi brought his love for the culinary arts over to the States from Tokyo, where he gained fruitful experience at his family’s fish market. Masatoshi mastered how to pick the freshest fish of the highest quality, and south OC is lucky to have his expertise. He continues to teach his grandsons his skills so they can carry on his legacy at Uoko.

Uoko serves a variety of dishes ranging from sushi, udon, rice bowls and hot pots. Whether you’re meatless or vegan, there’s plenty of veggie items to choose from. The yakisoba at Uoko is a treasured noodle dish, as well as any of their udon. To make it meatless, just ask for no meat with your noodles, and the taste will be just as delectable. Their agedashi tofu is also another meatless miracle, which consists of tofu lightly dusted with potato starch or corn starch and then deep fried until golden brown. Other options include their seaweed salad or their veggie tempura.

The “vegan egg and ham” dish served with fresh greens and a slice of sourdough bread. From Freesoulcaffe in Tustin. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Currently, Uoko is offering outdoor dining and takeout. Unfortunately, delivery options aren’t available but you can always call in and place your order for pickup. Nestled in a busy plaza, it’s definitely a hidden gem. – Henriquez

Freesoulcaffe, Tustin

Freesoulecaffe, a part outdoor and indoor vegan restaurant, is a quiet presence in the hustle and bustle of downtown Tustin. Freesoulcaffe serves all vegan fare with all of their sauces and mock meats made in house since 2010. Their menu is very eclectic with some meals having an Asian-fusion slant. Their most notable meal is the “vegan egg and ham” plate — served for brunch. The scramble is made from bean curd and seasoned with herbs, leeks and shallots. The meal is bursting with flavor and makes for a healthy and light breakfast. Their black pepper-cured “ham” that accompanies the dish takes five days to make. “The process takes a long time because we want to get the consistency and flavor correct,” says the restaurant manager.  

They are open for dine-in in their patio area that looks out to downtown Tustin. Espresso-based drinks and desserts are also served. – Leopo

Morning Nights, Long Beach

Menu spread at Morning Nights at LBX food hall, The Hangar. Credit: Photo courtesy Henry Tang

When Philip Tsan wanted to take his then-girlfriend out to try dim sum, he realized there wasn’t a spot that could accommodate her vegan lifestyle. Fast forward to meeting his friend, The Kroft co-founder Stephen Le, at Long Beach Exchange’s/LBX’s food hall, and inquiring if any spaces were still unoccupied. After approaching management with his vegan concept with a full bar, they were on board with creating nightlife at The Hangar, and Morning Nights would chart the course.

Securing a corner floor plan was only the beginning. In addition to the plant-based menu, Morning Nights wanted to build cocktails in a speakeasy setting. This meant the extensive buildout of garage-style windows, a counter topped with imported mahjong-tiles, wrap-around patio seating, and a high privacy wall. Morning Nights features a modest selection of small and craveable bites; their scallion pancake roll stuffed with cilantro and cucumbers deserves a dip in hoisin sauce, while salt and pepper oyster mushrooms include a punch of flavor from fresh chiles. Having soft-opened right before November’s outdoor dining restrictions, the reopening of its patio has seen an uptick in returning guests. “We are a scratch kitchen, so the shumai, xiao long bao, and spicy wontons sell out faster than we can make them,” Tsan said. -Panoringan

Amuse Bouches

SoCal Restaurant Show Appearance

My recurring segment on AM 830 KLAA out of Angel Stadium aired on Saturday, Feb. 20. Over two segments, host Andy Harris and I discussed my progressive ramen roundup, previewed the square pizza article, and chatted about a recent chef shuffle. You can find the first and second podcast links here.  My next in-studio appearance is scheduled for April 17.

Pork Cheek Adobo with chimichurri and fried egg at Mix Mix and Terrace by Mix Mix for OC Restaurant Week. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

OC Restaurant Week In Full Swing

From March 7 to 13, kitchens throughout the county are providing an alternative to cooking at home as they adapt their offerings for Orange County Restaurant Week to comply with coronavirus limitations. This time last year was also when I wrote about OCRW recommendations. It was the last article in the food column without the words “pandemic” or “COVID” used. From The Halal Guys offering complete meal packages (Try their fries!) to Rich Elixir’s second branch in Old Town Tustin with its secluded back patio, overall, restaurant week pricing is more modest than in previous years.

Places I’d like to check out include Mission Viejo’s Hatam Restaurant for Persian cuisine, Starfish in Laguna because locals tell me to, and The Tea House on Los Rios for its afternoon tea special — a first for OCRW. Restaurants I recommend when asked include Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Downtown Santa Ana or sister spot Terrace by Mix Mix at South Coast Plaza, THE RANCH in Anaheim, and both locations of Habana in Irvine Spectrum and Costa Mesa. If ordering takeaway, I always advise calling ahead if you already know what to order; otherwise, making outdoor reservations is best to reduce wait time.

2021 Virtual Japanese Food Expo Now Streaming

Previously an in-person food event, this year’s Japanese Food Expo debuted for free on Sunday, March, 5 on YouTube Live. Featuring live cooking demos and behind-the-scenes videos, host Lisle Wilkerson was the best virtual host one could ask for. Michelin-star sushi chef Masanori Nagano was one of many presenters, and viewers also took a mini-tour of multiple prefectures (districts) to learn about miso and green tea production. The  two-hour expo may have ended, but it lives on over here. Thank you to the Japanese Food Culture Association for making it possible. 

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.

Julie Leopo is the staff photographer at Voice of OC. She can be reached at jleopo@voiceofoce.org.

Crystal Henriquez is an intern for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at crystalh774@gmail.com.

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