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.
I recognize that my coverage of all things beverage-related is lacking, so when the opportunity arises to feature a topic I’m interested in, I run with it. The notion of a speakeasy first came to be during the 1920s Prohibition era when it became illegal to sell alcohol. Being told not to do something only made the desire to imbibe stronger (insert “Footloose” analogy here), and many entrepreneurs began offering spirited sips behind unmarked doors. These undisclosed watering holes required lowered voices so the police wouldn’t bust them, thus explaining the term speakeasy.
Recently there’s been an uptick of these bars hidden in plain sight stretching from San Clemente to Huntington Beach. While most speakeasies are focused on pouring a proper drink, a few offer a modest menu of small plates. Some are better tucked away than others but all are spirited alternatives to your usual neighborhood spot where everybody knows your name. Also, be warned that the more custom the beverage requested, the longer it will probably take to prepare – like upwards of 15 minutes or more. Keep these speakeasies under lock and key while they are still unknown to the hoi polloi.
Momoku No Usagi, San Clemente
This mellow beach city gained a duo of bars in the fall with one of speakeasy status. Housed within the same building, The Lost Inferno is a lively tiki bar that doubles as an ode to a Steven Spielberg film. Camouflaged in another area is the upstairs entrance to the secondary bar. The team at Japanese-themed Momoku No Usagi incorporates house-made tinctures and bitters into its drinks to enhance the overall experience.
“We do this in order to construct our best possible version of cocktails paired specifically to match with different varieties of spirits – with a focus on whiskeys,” said Leonard Chan, CEO of The Alchemists restaurant group. Its bartenders have also perfected a time-intensive process of curating bright and herbal flavors for house syrups and cordials using molecular gastronomy techniques. A custom carbonation system was created to craft cocktails to be more effervescent, which allows bartenders to better showcase flavors and textures.
According to Chan, it has been a challenge rehabilitating a former restaurant that was running for over 40 years. Last week, Momoku launched its new sushi hand roll (a.k.a. temaki) program incorporating fresh seafood, crisp nori and warm rice in every roll.
“We definitely were lucky rabbits to have our great friend and chef Jason Yamaguchi (executive chef of Mugen in Waikiki and nephew of acclaimed chef Roy Yamaguchi) fly in from Hawaii to help create our menu and educate our staff on the traditional temaki process,” Chan said.
Momoku No Usagi’s cocktail offerings are divided between spirit-forward and light and refreshing. For me, I base my drink decision on the weather: the cooler the temps, the more spirited I select. My next visit will likely include a Kiku with dry vermouth, benedictine and absinthe. For a complete menu, including the new temaki selections, you can view it here. 425 N. El Camino Real
Kai Lounge, Huntington Beach
Initially discussed in Voice of OC’s food section of its fall preview, Kai Lounge is shopping and dining center Pacific City’s newest tenant featuring multiple facets of Japanese cuisine including sushi, yakitori and other popular dishes. With a very limited number of seats, the speakeasy’s primary purpose is for 18-course omakase meals by chef Tin Nguyen on Tuesdays and other select nights; walk-ins aren’t recommended, but the lounge does offer an alternative way to plan a visit.
Guests can book the speakeasy by emailing manager Kylee Lologo at firstname.lastname@example.org. If it’s not booked for the evening, in-the-know guests can ask their server to enjoy pre- or post-dinner drinks inside and they will be escorted accordingly. I stopped by Kai Lounge during opening month to peruse the menu and linger for a cocktail in the elegant speakeasy. My drink of choice is a Purple Rain with Haku vodka, blackberry, apple brandy and lemon. Kai Lounge’s speakeasy room is so exclusive it’s best to request ahead of time so you can find out availability. 21010 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite M238
Cowboys and Poodles, Costa Mesa
After walking around the outdoor complex known as The Camp a couple of times, I finally asked a friendly face behind the counter of Hi-Lo Liquor Market for help locating my next speakeasy. It turned out that if I had paid attention to the actual address listed and not fixated on its Camp neighborhood, I would’ve been sipping much sooner.
Adjacent to a brewery, the Cowboys and Poodles concept was explained to me by manager Jennifer Eguiluz. It was created with the idea of self-expression and the dichotomy that is the human existence. “We all may be rugged and tough at times, and other days feel as delicate and sweet as a poodle,” Eguiluz said.
Within this semi-hidden spot (a hip hallway and moveable bookcase reveal your destination) is a place where details are plentiful, including seating areas within a carriage as well as a confessional. Even its powder room is a quint, shabby chic nook to freshen up. The vibe is easygoing and crowds are friendly. I mean, it’s hard to take things seriously there when some of the bar stools are designed to resemble a horse’s backside.
A Cocktail Rant
Why do runners (as opposed to servers and bartenders) nearly always assume that when a cocktail is ordered that it has to be delivered to the male at the table? In fact, when any alcohol is sent out, they immediately assume it’s my male companion and not myself. I am bothered by it, because maybe two in 10 meals do they get it right.
Now, I only drink one (occasionally two) spirited beverages when I go out. In the past I would say nothing and have a date slide my drink over after the runner departed. But I’m tired of being polite about it. Women drink. If a runner doesn’t know, they should ask and not assume. If a table has assigned seat numbers, it should be correctly assigned. This is a training concern. Please fix it.
Cowboys & Poodles possesses a similar thought process behind its beverage menu as Momoku No Usagi, with two paths a thirsty soul can go down. “You want a spirit-forward, straight to the point cocktail (think martini and old-fashioned), or a super fancy, easy drinking cocktail, we’ve got it,” Eguiluz said. I selected a curated creation called The Best Is Yet to Come consisting of two types of bourbon, lemon, apricot and cardamom.
Note: One of the more complex drinks named A Whole Mood is served with a bit of burning sage, making the room a tad smoky. Cowboys and Poodles is a reminder that life can be fun – but don’t expect a food menu, line dancing or pets on leashes. 2948 Randolph Ave., Unit B
Holiday Hideout, Newport Beach
One of my favorite speakeasies when it was still a secret was Y.N.K./You Never Know, found just beyond the lobby bar of the Irvine Marriott near John Wayne Airport. I was skeptical of the location at first, but the thought and care Ravin Buzzell put into his cocktails was second to none (I will visit you in Denver someday, Ravin!), so the notion of visiting a seasonal spot within a much larger property wasn’t out of the question.
For the month of December only, VEA Newport Beach (coincidentally another hotel from the same hospitality group) reimagined its members-only space into an upscale wonderland called Holiday Hideout. For an amount ($65) that factors in tax and gratuity, guests are treated to a selection of savory and sweet bites as well as two cocktails. It is open Tuesday through Saturday until Dec. 31 with reservations available on OpenTable.
Of the six specialty drinks Holiday Hideout is offering, I’m checking out the beverage named Automatic Reply: “Out of the Office” with a spiced rum base, orgeat, Pierre Ferrand Curacao and St. Elizabeth All-Spice. And if you read my column, you know I intend to hand all the sweet items to my date and help myself to steak tartare, Parmesan arancini and pork rillettes. 900 Newport Center Dr.
I attended the 2022 Michelin Revelation announcements for California restaurants last week at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The biggest news of the evening was Addison in Del Mar advancing from two to three stars, making it the only restaurant in Southern California with the honor. The last time I was surrounded by so much positive energy was at the James Beard Awards in Chicago this past June.
Michelin Starred Restaurants
Orange County’s three, one-star Michelin restaurants Taco Maria, Hana Re and Knife Pleat (all located in Costa Mesa) retained their current status for another year. A single star means an establishment has high-quality cooking and is worth a stop. Two stars translate to excellent cooking and worth a detour. A three-star experience is considered exceptional and worth a special journey.
I’ve dined at one-star dining rooms Taco Maria and Knife Pleat. Two star visits include Saison in San Francisco, minibar in Washington D.C. and Addison a year ago when it was upgraded from one to two stars. For three star experiences, I’ve traveled to Napa for The French Laundry, Chicago for Alinea and most recently Lasarte in Barcelona. While this is a partial list of Michelin-starred places I’ve gone to, I would say that my one and three star experiences are spot-on with Michelin’s designations; I felt Saison and minibar were on the cusp of being top tier.
Bib Gourmand Designation
In addition to stars, the Michelin Guide for restaurants has other classifications known as Bib Gourmand. Bib Gourmand recipients are considered best value for the money; it’s also the name of the Michelin mascot. Of the dozen (I consider listings that have branches in the county like newly opened Mian at South Coast Plaza part of the list) or so OC Bib Gourmands, I’ve dined at all but one.
The newest local Bib Gourmand announced was Ramen & Tsukemen Tao, a modest dining room along the border between Cypress and Buena Park. Chef and owner Toshimasa Sano trained at Tsujita in Tokyo; its Los Angeles outpost was a favorite of the late dining critic Jonathan Gold. Sano departed Tsujita to go off on his own after a decade of service. Tao previously had a second dining room in Orange that closed in August of this year, but has plans for expansion into Gardena.
A miso broth base is the specialty at Ramen & Tsukemen Tao, offering both a red and white version that requires 40 hours to craft. Sano prefers to pair the robust soup with fresh Kobayashi Seimen noodles originating from Hokkaido, Japan. Michelin suggests including an order of pork buns to your meal. I ordered the savory chicken ramen (I prefer chicken broth over pork these days) and it didn’t disappoint. The combination, alongside a spicy tuna bowl on a chilly Friday morning, carried my appetite over to dinner.
Michelin Guide Listings
The third type of designation found in Orange County is a general listing in the Michelin Guide. While it might not be a star nor Bib Gourmand, to be acknowledged and associated with world-class dining rooms is an honor in itself. A handful of local establishments were added to this year’s listings including OmG: Omakase by Gino and Gem Dining, a progressive Southeast Asian concept in Fountain Valley.
I reached out to executive chef and chief executive officer Viet Nguyen of Kei Concepts to congratulate the popular restaurant group (they also oversee Sup Noodle Bar, Vox Kitchen and Nep Cafe, among other places) on Gem Dining’s recognition. Upon learning about its status, Nguyen met with Gem’s team to discuss how to proceed. “So we’re going into the new year firing on all cylinders and pouring all of our resources into elevating the restaurant; everything’s getting a refresh, from the ambiance to the ingredients. Nothing will go unnoticed,” Nguyen said.
Guests visiting Gem Dining next year will be welcomed with an entirely new experience. However, the restaurant will still retain some of the heart and soul that’s gotten it to this point. “Until now we’ve been a diamond in the rough, but once cut and polished, Gem Dining will truly be able to shine,” he said.
Anne Marie Panoringan’s Latest Columns
SoCal Restaurant Show Appearance
On Dec. 3, I stopped by Angel Stadium to speak in-studio with “SoCal Restaurant Show” host Andy Harris. We discussed my recent vacation in Barcelona, newly opened Bloom Restaurant and Bar and my column on the Cheferbly private chef platform. I was on the air live for two segments; links to both can be found here.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.