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Local businesses pour a range of new beverages, signifying California’s full reopening and the beginning of summer. We sample what’s being offered, along with a look at Japanese restaurants as Asian American Pacific Islander month comes to a close. 

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and 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.

Plus, OC’s most progressive seafood destination just might be O Sea; Dee Nguyen teases dinner service at Break of Dawn; and the craft beer industry is addressing a culture of harassment.

Libations for Summer

Cheers to the long weekend, end of the school year and beginning of summer. June is a grand month for many, and we toast with a handful of adult libations. Stock up your fridge and liquor cabinet, because OC small businesses are ready to accept your order.

Mai Tais To-Go at Billy’s at the Beach

A mainstay in tiki bars, the mai tai is a rum-based cocktail that’s shaken with Curaçao, orgeat syrup and lime. Billy’s at the Beach has been pouring this signature concoction in Newport for over 20 years. Owners Asia and Ted Jones closed the restaurant for the majority of 2020 (having reopened in November) to renovate the property, making it difficult for regulars to partake in their preferred beverage. 

To help compensate for the mai tai drought, small batch drink cans are now available. Sold with fresh pineapple and cherry garnishes, each eight-ounce serving includes enough crushed ice for your solo cocktail indulgence. Pull up dockside or call ahead and utilize curbside service for the $15 beverage to-go. 

Chapman Crafted Hard Seltzer

Evolving beyond a beer-focused brewery, Old Town Orange’s Chapman Crafted developed a pair of hard seltzers to help its clientele transition into the sweltering days of summer. Going by the name SAVOR, these brews are 5% ABV, low in both sugar and calories plus gluten-free. Sold in a six-pack and on tap, liquid refreshment is presently available in either passion fruit or mango and guava. 

As co-founder Wil Dee articulates, “It speaks to the current times, as we see people leave their homes and spend more time outside with family and friends.” I enjoyed a glass of passion fruit to balance the hearty nachos from visiting La Machetera food truck. An easygoing alternative to Chapman Crafted’s existing hoppy lineup, look for expanded tastes down the line.

Rad Beer in Anaheim

While it may be another brewery in Anaheim, the ownership behind Rad Beer opted to initially launch an eatery in Dana Point named Rad Brat months before. By doing so, there’s now a dedicated means of feeding customers when the need arises – like when the state says you can’t operate without food service. Previously housing Legends Brewery, a permanent kitchen with an ordering window will be built out in coming months allowing for a condensed Brat offering of sausages, fries and other tasting room eats. 

Joe Wilshire, Cameron Collins, Steve Martin and Dylan Mobley are partners for Rad Beer. Credit: Photo courtesy Rad Beer

The minds behind this ‘90s-era skate shop theme include head brewer Dylan Mobley of Helmsman Ale House, Cameron Collins from Brew Ha Ha Productions, Joe Wilshire of Docent Brewing and Project Social in Dana Point, and Steve Martin, also from Project Social. Of the half-dozen brews on tap, my favorite was a 7.7% ABV stout called American Export. With more hop than an Imperial Stout, it finishes dry with balanced chocolate and coffee notes. Hopheads may want to check out Rad’s West Coast Double IPA, For Thee – Not Me. Clocking in at 9.5% ABV, it’s brimming with citrus and tropical fruit. Now open. 

OTACA Tequila

“Once Tried, Always Craved Agave” is the definition of OTACA, a premium spirit launching in early June. Tequila that’s been filtered and distilled twice via a proprietary process, the fermented, aged blue agave that begins the journey is sourced from plantations in Jalisco, Mexico. Co-founders Anthony and Nicole Accetta sought out and achieved an eight-year matured agave ideal for sipping that they’ve named the Plata. Akin to a blanco, it possesses citrus and vanilla notes with a refined, smooth finish.

OTACA founders Nicole and Anthony Accetta. Credit: Photo courtesy of Nicole and Anthony Accetta

“OTACA Tequila is a bottled celebration of terroir, history and culture that illuminates the depth and intricacies that agave-based spirits have to offer,” Accetta says. Upcoming iterations for the brand include cognac barrel-aging of a six-month reposado as well as a 24-month añejo. Headquartered in Aliso Viejo, OTACA can be found at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Sol Agave, Red O and another 600 retailers and restaurants throughout the Southland.

Piston Broke by Watson Ranch Vineyards

Piston Broke from Watson Ranch Vineyards is a Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Photo courtesy of Anne Watson

A 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon which will be released in June, Piston Broke is the first varietal from Watson Ranch. Owner Anne Watson is best-known for her prolific, award-winning culinary photography throughout Orange County and beyond. 

Piston Broke is a play on words from Watson’s husband Tim (who passed away due to cancer earlier this year), an English bloke. The piston reference stems from their love of motorcycles and cars. “Broke” speaks to the modest lifestyle of fostering a vineyard, as she elaborates: “You certainly don’t do it to become millionaires. You do it because you have a passion for growing the grapes, tending the land and getting to taste and enjoy the fruits of your labor.” Tim’s eloquent way of putting it is “pissed and broke.” 

Bottled by Fallbrook Vineyard, head winemaker Euan Parker describes the vintage as having notes of chocolate and cherry, undertones of vanilla and spice and supple yet agreeable tannins. Possessing 14% ABV, sales of this South Coast appellation will primarily be handled online via Watson’s social media account.

Wrapping Up Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month with a Few Japanese Restaurants

To wrap up AAPI month, I wanted to highlight a few restaurants with Japanese ties. From brands recently expanding into Orange County to a confectioner collaborating with anime pop culture, the culinary growth continues.

Jinya Ramen Bar, Tustin

Since the end of March, Jinya Ramen Bar has been feeding the community with a customizable menu and meat-free alternatives from its newest outpost in Tustin. Thick or thin noodle slurping options feed the picky eater in all of us, while pork, vegan and chicken broths mean those with dietary restrictions can be appeased. With 30 toppings to decide between, ramen requests can be as simple or complex as one feels.

Spicy chicken ramen from Jinya Ramen Bar. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jinya Ramen Bar

Crispy wonton tacos, salads and filling rice bowls make Jinya much more than a ramen bar. According to manager Colette Nguyen, juicy karaage chicken and slow-braised pork buns are also popular: “We have been thrilled with the positive response Jinya has received in Tustin and are looking forward to serving more guests when we open at full capacity.” A forthcoming location in Long Beach was recently announced. 1086 Irvine Blvd. (714) 714-0467.

Champion’s Curry, Irvine

Wagyu hamburg gratin from Champion’s Curry. Credit: Photo courtesy of Champion's Curry

In April of this year, Japan-based Champion’s Curry extended beyond its initial California storefront in Little Tokyo to Irvine’s Trade Market Place. Chief operating officer and chef Yoya Takahashi’s concept specializes in rice plates and dipped sandwiches, with diners selecting between original or spicy curry beside their protein of choice. Sleek, lunch box-style packaging securely consolidates one’s goods for transport.

It was tough not to order everything katsu off the menu, but I was curious about the vegan-friendly dish of grilled veggies plated with cauliflower curry roux and tomato rakkyo salsa. Adding a fried egg and sliced avocado gave my meal an extra protein punch I was seeking. The wagyu hamburg gratin (already a favorite in Little Tokyo) was recently added, infusing American Wagyu beef into a macaroni and curry sauce blend – its mozzarella cheese pull is an unexpected bonus. For well-seasoned, quick service curry in a bustling patio, trek to Champion’s. 2222 Michelson Dr., (949) 418-9315.

Sushi Ii, Newport Beach

Shokunin is Japanese for craftsman, but master sushi chef Susumu Ii takes the term further, consciously navigating to achieve a level of expertise at his Newport Beach omakase dining room. After receiving washoku (a.k.a. Japanese cuisine) training in Osaka, Ii spent decades refining his craft before opening Sushi Ii right around the time of the initial COVID shelter in place. Throughout the past year, it maintained its superior quality and service even when forced to conduct outdoor-only seating and takeaway alternatives. 

As Orange County moves further in the direction of permanent indoor dining, Ii is pleased. “We are thrilled to be able to finally invite our guests indoors with the prospect of being able to continue to be open,” he said. “I am amazed to see how much appreciation the locals have for traditional sushi now; so much more than, say, 10 years ago.” Elevate your senses by studying Ii as he demonstrates the art of nigirikata – a concise method of cutting and shaping the fish to maximize the texture and flavor of each piece of sushi. 100 West Coast Hwy, (949) 287-6268.

Honey & Butter, Irvine

Macarons may be a French pastry with an Italian backstory, but updated tastes and themes on this delicate sweet bring a classic into modern era relavence. Irvine’s Honey & Butter is a divine example of one bakery bringing petite treats into mainstream culture through inventive flavors and Japanese collaborations. Weekly updates to H&B’s selections may include French toast, strawberry lemonade, Oreo and even cookie butter. 

Assorted macarons from Honey & Butter. Credit: Photo courtesy of Honey & Butter

Owner Leanne Pietrasinski recently came out with a piping guide to tutor home bakers on crafting popular characters onto macarons using piped icing – a speciality of Honey & Butter. For the month of June, the bake shop is collaborating with Sony Pictures to promote a new mobile game named “My Hero Academia: The Strongest Hero.” A Japanese action role-playing game, it’s already out on iOS and Android and is a favorite of Pietrasinski’s. Future collaborations include ones with characters Rilakkuma and Hatsune Miku. 633 Spectrum Center Dr. (949) 536-5556.

Amuse Bouches

Break of Dawn Serving Saturday Night Prix Fixe

Known as a dining room that primarily serves brunch, Break of Dawn owner Dee Nguyen is testing out dinner service for his future Old Towne Orange location. More specifically, Nguyen plans to offer Saturday evening hours in his Laguna Hills spot as of June 5. His menu will consist of a single, prix-fixe meal featuring steak frites. 

Pulling from his Ritz-Carlton tutelage and infusing the popular European meal with Asian nuances, the starting course is a housemade Parker roll with seaweed butter. Next is romaine and radish salad dressed in a miso-mustard vinaigrette; a bowl of his kabocha bisque soon follows. Beef is sourced from Double R Ranch, based in the Northwest. 

Expressing his displeasure with high-end steakhouses, Nguyen intends to keep the quartet of courses below $50: “Unfortunately, all steakhouses are expensive and not up to par with the juicy greatness American beef has to offer. I want to offer simple, great American beef at a super affordable price. People don’t have to pocket pinch when they go to BoD steak for dinner.”

His new Saturday service begins this weekend with approximate dinner hours from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dessert will be à la carte with Basque cheesecake, chocolate ice cream, creme brulee and a fourth delicious indulgence to be announced. 24291 Avenida de la Carlota, Suite P-4, (949) 587-9418.

A Word About the Craft Beer Industry

In early May 2021, Brienne Allan’s social media account ignited when she asked followers about sexual harassment experiences. As a production manager and brewer in Salem, Massachusetts for Notch Brewing, she received personal accounts from individuals throughout the country sharing their anonymous stories, which she in turn posted on her Instagram stories. 

While Allan doesn’t vouch for their accuracy, it was painfully apparent that the uncalled for behavior towards women in the industry needed to be addressed. From verbal to physical to sexual, the assault and abuse sickens me to read about. I reached out to multiple local breweries for statements and insight, and one responded: Kellie Watts, taproom manager for Gunwhale Ales in Costa Mesa. Here are her thoughts regarding current beer culture and the treatment of women.

“The craft beer industry has always been about community. This is why people come to work for Gunwhale; this is what we strive to uphold. The most important thing I remind my team to remember is that communication is key. Because I have witnessed discrimination my entire life in the service industry. I know how it can be for young people just starting out. 

“Therefore with proper training regimens, communication and a management team that displays a welcoming, non-dismissive ear, we can eliminate any and all discrimination within the workplace. It takes a community, and we are here to work toward a better future for the craft beer and brewing industry.”

If you or someone you know has been put in an uncomfortable situation, the Brewers Association for Small & Independent Craft Brewers has a complaint process online. Use your voice, report the incident and help put a stop to this behavior.

First Look: O Sea

A welcome change from the aesthetic of many restaurants, the generously lit O Sea in Orange provides greater clarity for those visiting; it’s easier to read the menu, appreciate the natural hues from a wine pour and notice all the components in one’s lunch or dinner. It’s subtle adjustments such as this that owner Michael Flynn considers then incorporates into his fine-casual seafood establishment. 

Executive chef David Yamaguchi and Flynn crossed paths while working at Water Grill South Coast Plaza. Between Yamaguchi’s culinary background in seafood and Mexican cuisine (he’s of Japanese and Mexican descent) and Flynn’s management acumen, their approach to O Sea blends creativity and thoughtfulness to a niche market. This is not your standard fish grill. 

What I found inviting about the starting lineup and wine list – two areas too often expediting appetizers of rich carbs and countless bottle choices – was a logical range of appealing selections. Smoky, sesame-based salsa macha alongside creamy burrata, topped with chive blossoms sourced from Orange Home Grown and rustic bread for slathering, for example. Or seasonal ceviche showcasing salmon in a Peruvian leche de tigre (coconut marinade) with lemon verbena, shaved red onion and taro chips to scoop up. Both refreshing with relaxed spicy notes, they sparked my taste buds without weighing heavily.

Ten reasonably-priced vino selections offered by the glass ($8.95-$12.95), half and full bottle make a selection less daunting, going so far as to include tasteful commentary to describe each. A “fruit roll-up zin” or “pool wine” becomes more relatable than the 2019 Zinfandel from Swayze Vineyard. It’s O Sea’s succinct verbiage that encourages an occasional wine drinker to partake. The noticeable inclusion of Thai milk tea, yuzu lemonade and agua fresca cater to less carbonated tastes.

Larger format listings of salads, plates or bowls empower eaters to decide both the type of protein as well as its portion size (4.5 or 6 ounce). Patrons are led beyond obligatory mixed greens and familiar tastes; hazelnut pesto and cotija cheese contribute an unexpected hum of flavor to arugula with grilled peaches. Mexican halibut married well with “kimchi’d” brussels and six-minute tamari egg. A section of hands-on entrees including crustaceans and Jidori chicken katsu sandwiches continue the diverse offerings. 

O Sea’s fine-casual hybrid lies above quick service with full-service elements. The deduction of assigned servers translates to more accessible price points for quality cuisine. This also eliminates undue waits to pay your check. It’s Flynn and Yamaguchi’s progressive attitude, discretely shunning what diners expect from ocean-centric concepts, that has this writer hooked. O Sea opens on June 1 at 109 S. Glassell St.

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

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