The Flame Broiler founder Young Lee found himself eating out of paper bags quite often. His career required a great deal of travel during the day, which made eating from fast food restaurants a habit. Unfortunately, his options for healthier, quick-service fare left him craving something different. In 1995, he took matters into his own hands and opened the first Flame Broiler location, serving Korean-style slices of beef and chicken that were free of dairy, trans-fat, HFCS, and added MSG. He didn't just take away harmful ingredients, though?he also added his signature Flame Broiler marinade and sauce, beds of white and brown rice, and slices of crisp vegetables. This more nutritious take on fast food caught on, as diners can now eat at 135 Flame Broiler locations in four different states and two parallel universes.
The master grillers and stir-fryers of East Winds Asian Cuisine craft a medley of Asian flavors with a menu boasting a variety of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai dishes. Having so many influences and cuisines coming out of one kitchen lets the restaurant please picky palates with dishes such as honey-walnut shrimp, barbecue spareribs, and japanese vegetable curry. The friendly wait staff can make informed wine and sake recommendations and answer questions about dishes or the history of the chopstick versus popsicle-stick pop-art era.
The decor of Habiba Abdi’s restaurant, Gendershe Cuisine, is not ostentatious—she tries to impress the four senses besides sight. The aroma of all-halal meats marinating in signature spices tints the air, heralding Somali entrees such as the hilib ari, a goat dish that OC Weekly deemed "gamy and glorious." Mango lassis cool the tongue with a mix of almond milk, fruit pulp, orange juice, and vanilla. Pieces of bur—somali fry bread baked onsite—engage the hands, encouraging patrons to soak up lingering sauces with their dough instead of a friend's shirtsleeve. All the while, guests absorb the sizzling sounds of salmon and tilapia being sautéed in the kitchen's special "mother sauce."
Named after the Somalian city where Abdi’s father grew up, Gendershe Cuisine is an outpost of a kind of cooking rarely found in the United States, much less Orange County. Even so, Somalia’s rich culinary tradition—influenced over the years by Italy, India, and surrounding East African cultures—means that many dishes may look familiar even to the uninitiated. Crispy, triangular sambusas are relatives to indian samosas, ethiopian injera pops up beneath stews of beef, chicken, goat, or fish, and spaghetti and lasagna lie under sauces subtly spiked with Somali herbs and spices.
The chefs at China Grill Bistro, an outpost of the Chong brothers' local restaurant empire, serve up traditional Chinese dishes alongside creative fusion creations. Kung pao chicken and spicy hunan beef share menu space with banana leaf-wrapped chicken tamales and paella on saffron rice, a combination that pays tribute to the brothers' Chinese heritage and childhood spent in Latin America. The cooks never add MSG to any of their dishes, because they believe it obscures the flavors of their top-notch ingredients. To complement these flavors, there's a wine list made of up nearly 100 California varieties.
From Chick 'N Chow's tables, which flaunt the rosy crimson hue of a bowl of sweet-and-sour sauce, soups launch warm steam alongside kosher and vegetarian dishes. Entire rotisserie chickens emerge from trips to a fryer with a golden cloak and satisfying crunch, and the menu also cheers dieters with low-calorie steamed dishes topped with broccoli that spells out encouraging affirmations. Beneath a fan painted with a traditional landscape, diners gather to-go containers, and delivery drivers tote bags laden with lo mein and memos from telecommuting fortune cookies.