Cindy Avila holding her favorite shake from The Straw: Modern Milkshakes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cindy Avila

While I do my best to cover brand new as well as established restaurants, I’m reminded that there are many places that go overlooked for one reason or another. So to give a different perspective of the dining scene that is Orange County, I established a quarterly series of interviews with individuals in the community who share an appetite for good eats. I keep in touch with many people I research for a story, as they are often the catalyst for future topics. We share dining recommendations and, on occasion, break bread.

One person in particular is Cindy Avila, who has spent the past decade consulting on food halls and mixed-use properties. Her focus is on current and new venues as well as event spaces. She is also rebuilding the Union Market food hall in Mission Viejo. While most of her time is spent searching for new spots and identifying trends throughout Southern California, she calls Costa Mesa home. She considers herself lucky to live in OC. “We have so much good food here,” Avila said. “Why go far for good food?”

Cindy and I first met while working on a scholarship committee for a nonprofit. It was only after we started chatting at a beer festival that we realized how well we got along. Initially, she was concerned about the majority of her restaurant selections being in Costa Mesa. The fact of the matter is that most locals don’t want to drive far from home for a solid meal.

The patio at Outpost Kitchen. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cindy Avila

Outpost Kitchen, Costa Mesa

You’ll find Avila enjoying weekday brekkie or weekend brunch across the street from South Coast Plaza at Outpost Kitchen. Since some of the brunch listings cross over to breakfast, dining here is a win-win no matter what day of the week it is. Despite Outpost’s full bar, which contributes to the buzzy atmosphere on Saturdays and Sundays, Avila normally opts for either freshly brewed coffee with vanilla syrup or a matcha latte, in addition to one of the many fresh juice blends offered such as The Defender (carrot, orange, lemon, ginger, cayenne) and Good On Ya Greens (celery, green apple, cucumber, spinach, mint).

Outpost’s gorgeous interior combined with solid service and eye-catching dishware are just some of the reasons she’s a regular. Her favorite bites include the gluten-free blueberry pancakes with a side of millionaire bacon (thick-cut, spiced pork that’s been caramelized), as well as the prime skirt steak and pesto fried egg skillet, plated with avocado, tomato chutney, spinach and roasted potatoes. Personally, I think they’re the best-kept secret for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Pro-tip: if parking is tight, Outpost also validates the adjacent parking structure. 3420 Bristol St.

Salad, iced chai and chicken curry on baguette from C’est Si Bon. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cindy Avila.

C’est Si Bon Bakery, Newport Beach

Avila was frequenting this bustling ode to Parisian cafes since her years of teaching preschool. “They’ve been here forever,” she said regarding C’est Si Bon. She especially enjoys chatting it up with the bakery’s co-owner Paul Kohne (who first opened C’est Si Bon in 1979 with Bruno Campos) while waiting for her order.  Her go-to request is chicken curry salad sans bread, but she’ll also get a baguette with jam and butter to have her carb fix. That salad on croissant is one of my favorite lunchtime eats.

When Avila is in a sweets mood, she debates between dark chocolate truffle cups and cookies. An iced chai washes everything down. Service is brisk at this successful sandwich shop, as she often stops in on her way to strolling the nearby beach. Her roommate, Esmerelda Martinez, is a fan of the peanut butter cookies and mini cinnamon rolls that tend to sell out. 149 Riverside Ave.

Acai bowls from Berry Brand. Credit: Photo courtesy of Truong Kim

Berry Brand, Tustin

“I used to eat it all the time when it was at The District,” she said when chatting about Berry Brand’s acai bowls. The high-quality ingredients used at this bespoke sweets dealer were missed when it was forced to shut down with the rest of Union Market’s food hall tenants last year. Fortunately, Berry Brand reopened up the street at the corner of Newport Boulevard and Old Irvine Avenue with indoor seating plus an upbeat soundtrack. 

Her go-to bowl starts with a coconut dream base, although the new strawberry matcha blend is growing on her. A layer of coconut chia pudding comes next. (Avila misses how it used to be served warm.) She then rattles off a laundry list of preferred toppings: bananas, blueberries, almond butter, cinnamon powder, pink salt and cacao nibs. She considers a visit to Berry Brand a good in-between meal or snack for its healthy, whole ingredients. “You don’t feel overly full, especially during the summer,” she said. I wholeheartedly agree. Bonus: The vegan/plant-based meal freezes well for later consumption. 12932 Newport Ave.

Dinner at Mokkoji. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cindy Avila

Mokkoji Shabu Shabu Bar, Costa Mesa

Avila frequents this Japanese hot pot with seasonal, Korean, Spanish and California influences almost weekly, but she particularly enjoys Mokkoji Shabu Shabu Bar when it rains. Its consistently solid customer service keeps her coming back. Sipping a steaming cup of hot barley tea, she starts her order with the garlic shrimp and includes a request for pork-based broth infused with extra creamy garlic and onions. “I love my garlic so much,” she says. “I smell like it the rest of the day.” Radishes are also a favorite add-in before dipping strips of flat iron steak and veggies into the boiling pot.

She likens shabu to Korean BBQ by explaining how you have to make your perfect bite for both by assembling a preferred wrapper (rice paper, radish paper or lettuce leaf) around bite-sized servings of meat and veg. After she’s done being her own chef, Avila maximizes her dollar by drinking the soup left over. If I wasn’t already in a food coma by the end of my meal, I’d probably do the same. 1555 Adams Ave.

Charcuterie and cheese from SideDoor. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cindy Avila

SideDoor, Corona del Mar

Cheese boards, chocolate and cocktails, oh my! Orange County’s first gastropub is where you’ll find Avila for late-night happy hour or on a date. The bar at Five Crowns (now SideDoor) was converted to a sister concept back in 2009. Initially, diners were seated on a first-come, first-served basis; however, SideDoor’s website now allows online reservations.

She loves the relaxed ambiance, referencing SideDoor’s cozy fireplace and themed evenings like Tuesday trivia nights. In addition to specialty cocktails that change with the seasons, her designated entree is the prime rib sandwich plate served alongside au jus for dipping, horseradish and chips. Avila reminds us to save room for dark chocolate souffle, “a must for your sweet tooth,” she said. I prefer either a cheese board or fish and chips here, usually paired with a beer or spirit-forward selection. 3801 E. Coast Highway

Owner Patrick Nguyen of The Straw. Credit: Photo courtesy of Lori Bullard Photography

The Straw: Modern Milkshakes, Costa Mesa

For a dedicated dessert, Avila looks no further than The Straw and its contemporary take on a classic treat. Owner Patrick Nguyen crafts elaborate beverages on a level similar to bartenders utilizing fresh ingredients and dairy-free options. Unlike boba joints, dedicated shake shops aren’t nearly as common, making Nguyen’s operation a real find. 

A Thai mango and roasted coconut cream combination known as Bangkok Betty is Avila’s go-to when she heads there to treat her nieces and nephews. If they’re hungry for something more substantial, Vietnam Pearl next door is also owned by Nguyen and serves a mean bowl of pho.  I can’t wait to check them out when the weather gets warmer. 1215 Baker St., Suite A

Salad, pizzas and dessert from Pie Society. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cindy Avila

Pie Society, Costa Mesa

After a long day of emails, meetings and driving around, Avila winds down with a drink at this speakeasy tucked in the back of a pizza chain. Serving food nightly until 11:30 p.m., Pie Society’s space is beyond the back room of Pitfire Pizza. Its vast selection of spirits means there’s always a great drink to be had. “Cade is my favorite bartender for consistent cocktails and good service,” she said.

On the pizza spectrum her favorite is the Honey Bear, a tomato-free concoction topped with three cheeses, sausage, honey, Calabrian chile and bee pollen on a gluten-free crust. If she’s feeling like a salad, Avila orders a steak version incorporating avocado, onion, walnuts, blue cheese and a shallot vinaigrette. It’s been years since I’ve stopped by Pie Society, but that pizza sounds tempting. 353 E. 17th St.

Grilled spanish octopus from Raya by Richard Sandoval. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN/Voice of OC

SoCal Restaurant Show Appearance

Last Saturday, I was back in-studio at Angel Stadium for a couple of segments on the SoCal Restaurant Show with Andy Harris. We discussed my previous column on springtime activities, including afternoon tea at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and the chef de cuisine at Raya restaurant, Irving Nunez. My experience at a recent baking class also made the cut since I brought in the fruits of my labor (a feeble attempt at making scones) for the team to enjoy. You can catch up on both segments at this link.

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