Unbeknownst to many in Los Angeles, their southern neighbor Irvine is quickly becoming one of the best, most diverse culinary destinations in Southern California. While Los Angeles no doubt has many edible delights throughout its vast metropolis, there are some unique dishes that are not available in the City of Angels and that can only be found in Irvine.
Don’t get us wrong, Irvine is not exactly a quick hop, skip and a jump from Los Angeles. Without traffic, the commute is still a good 45-60 minutes; but when is there ever no traffic? With traffic, it can be sometimes double that. However, with that in mind, some of the food in Irvine is so good that it can make up for the time it takes to get there from L.A. Therefore, Irvine Weekly decided to start a new monthly series spotlighting dishes that are worth the drive from Los Angeles to Irvine. Each month, we’ll spotlight two dishes from two different restaurants that we feel can only be found in Irvine. Some of these dishes are one of a kind and simply don’t exist up north. Others may be similar to other dishes found elsewhere, but something about the one in Irvine makes it different or more special than its counterparts.
To kick off our series, we’ve decided to spotlight three restaurants (six dishes total) that are so good, they should not only be enjoyed by those in Orange County, but are also worth it for those in Los Angeles to come down and enjoy. We have some sweets at Honey & Butter Macarons, some delicious ramen at HiroNori Craft Ramen and a unique brunch and dinner option at Bosscat Kitchen and Libations. Get out your stretchy pants and let us take you on a food tour of some of Irvine’s best dishes!
Our first stop on our culinary tour of Irvine is for those with a sweet tooth: Honey & Butter Macarons. Located in the Irvine Spectrum, this unique bakery offers something rare these days: hand-made everything. “Our drinks are from scratch, all of our cookies are from scratch, the meringue, almond flour, everything,” says Front of the House Manager Krysthel. And that’s been the case since the start, over five years ago, when the owners, Leanne and Pawel Pietrasinski, were selling their macarons out of an air stream in Costa Mesa. They were able to open the storefront in the Irvine Spectrum in 2016.
“When they just had the air stream, they would bake from home. It was mainly them two [and] maybe some other helpers,” says Anabelle Dimang, Back of the House Manager and Baker. “So now we have a little under 40 employees that make up the front of the house and the back of house, and to see the growth is just amazing.”
Honey & Butter has plenty of macaron options available, from their classic macarons to their dozen daily flavors, to rare flavors and character macarons. For those that may not know, macarons are cookies that originated in France. Not to be confused with macaroons, which are sweets made from coconuts or almonds, macarons are meringue-based and typically made with egg whites, sugar, almonds and food coloring. But the macarons at Honey & Butter aren’t your typical macarons. “We’re kind of a new take on macarons. [We’re] not the traditional French macaron,” says Dimang. “We don’t age the macarons because we like the freshness of the daily bake.”
Another unique aspect of Honey & Butter is their tie-in with pop culture and their themed events. “We’ve been working, especially in the past year, with a lot of marketing companies, so they’ll reach out to us to promote certain films that are releasing and they’ll provide giveaways, movie tickets, merchandise and we’ll create character macarons along with that theme,” says Dimang. “Different companies we’ve been working with are Atlus who have Persona 3 and Persona 5, Pusheen and Tokidoki. [We even work with] some independent artists and they collaborate. They sometimes do a store takeover.”
But of course the food worth the drive from L.A. is the macarons. With so many to choose from, how does one pick the right flavor? “If a customer is stumbling on their flavor options, we tell them to give us the options they like, whether they like tart, more subtle, more of a chocolate base, more sweet or less sweet,” says Krysthel. “When it comes to more sweet, we go with more of the cereal bases [like] French toast and Fruity Pebbles or Cookie Butter. But if they prefer tart ones, of course we’d recommend more of the fruity flavor types. And then our number one that we try to push out is always a rare item because we don’t have it too often and we don’t want our customers to miss out on the flavors.” Every week they rotate out about three rare flavors.
According to Dimang, because Honey & Butter is a small independent business, a lot of what they do at the Irvine location (as opposed to at “the lab” in Costa Mesa) is “research and development.” “Typically, if we feel inspired or come up with an idea for a flavor or flavor combination, we’re able to do some R&D as soon as that day,” she says. “It’s nice because our environment has a decent amount of creative freedom that we can test flavors out.” So with so many flavors, which two flavors do we most recommend?
The first dish that’s definitely worth the drive from L.A. to Irvine is the Crème Brûlée, one of Honey & Butter’s rare flavors. The bakers make the custard in house to produce a delectable buttercream. For the brûlée aspect, they sprinkle sugar on the top shell and torch it. “It adds the wonderful crunch texture and visual appeal,” says Dimang. “It’s a lot of our favorite.” Indeed, the cookie is able to perfectly encapsulate the taste of traditional Crème Brûlée.
The second dish worthy of the trek would be one of the character macarons, the Corgi. Shaped like the famous dog, it’s almost too cute to eat – key word “almost.” The Corgi macaron was created because the owners own two Corgis. “They are our unofficial mascot,” says Dimang. “Our character macarons are all batter-based. Batter is time sensitive and breaks down, thus we have to manage time well when creating character macarons and laying down the different details. The consistency of the batter needs to be taken into account, as well as certain parts of the character needs to dry before laying details if we want to achieve depth.” The rich sweetness definitely makes this a dish not to miss. In the near future, Irvine won’t be the only home to Honey & Butter: They’re currently developing another location at the SteelCraft Garden Grove.
The next restaurant on our list is Bosscat Kitchen and Libations, located right next to John Wayne Airport. First opening in 2014, General Manager Chris Daily describes the restaurant as a “southern style whiskey bar with a California twist.” The story behind the inception of the restaurant is pretty unique as well: It all started when the owners were at another bar and got some less than hospitable service. “[They] ordered a Coors Lite and a shot of Jameson at a bar and the bartender was extremely rude and said we don’t serve that kind of stuff here,” Daily says. “And that sparked the idea of bringing old school customer service to a whiskey bar that does unique food and [has great] service. No matter if the guy’s wearing board shorts and a tank top or [if another] guy’s got a business suit on drinking a $50 glass of wine, the bartenders and the staff make sure everybody’s treated and incorporated into the conversation together. So it’s one big party, no pretentiousness, and that’s kind of the whole reason why the restaurant opened.”
Indeed, it is a big party at Bosscat, and for those who like cocktails, especially whiskey cocktails, it’s definitely a place to visit. Offering over 300 whiskeys, Daily says that the bar staff is very well versed and can make whatever you want. One popular drink that pops on and off the menu is the Kentucky Orange Blossom, made with Buffalo Trace whiskey. “If you took a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned and they had a baby, that’s kind of how it would be,” says Daily. “It’s Elderflower liqueur and sweet vermouth with a Kentucky Bourbon and a little bit of orange bitters and orange drops on top, served on a big cube.”
No doubt the Kentucky Orange Blossom may pair well with our first dish worth the drive from Los Angeles to Irvine: the 12 Hour Beef Short Rib. “We braise [the meat] for 12 hours and the meat is handpicked,” says Daily. “We do our own black pepper sauce glaze on scalloped potatoes with fried onion strings. It’s one of the four [dishes from] the original 2014 menu and it’s still on the menu. It’s an amazing dish.” We couldn’t agree more. Braising the meat for 12 hours really makes it a unique dish that is definitely worth the trek from L.A. And the sauce really makes this short rib dish different from short ribs you’d get in any other restaurant.
The other dish is only available for Saturday and Sunday brunch but is truly worth the effort: Fruity Pebbles French Toast. “It’s cheesy bread that we incorporate fruity pebbles into,” says Daily. “We cut the [bread] up, stack the [slices] and we do a condensed milk syrup on top. And then [we put] fruity pebbles and fresh fruit on it. So of course [it’s] completely Instagram worthy.” The colors alone definitely make this dish Instagram worthy, but the condensed milk, strawberries and blueberries really make it tasty. As if the dish isn’t unique enough, the bread that’s used also sets it apart from a normal French toast dish. “It’s a fun play on a French toast. We don’t use traditional French toast bread, we use a little bit of a harder almost sourdough-y kind of texture with the condensed milk and the fresh fruit and everything,” says Daily. “It’s a very fun, unique dish to what we do. It’s been very popular on the menu for a couple of years”
The next dishes worth the drive from L.A. to Irvine belong to one of the best ramen places in the city, HiroNori Craft Ramen. First opening in May 2017, the restaurant is named after its two owners: Hiromichi Igarashi and Tadanori Akasaka. While there are many ramen places throughout Los Angeles, the reason why the ramen at HiroNori is worth the drive is because of its authenticity. As Igarashi explained, they have the “recipes and technique” to make truly great ramen. This comes from years of experience back in Japan. They worked for ramen shops in Japan over the course of a decade and then traveled throughout the country eating a lot of ramen.
“We traveled to eat ramen. I only had like 3-4,000 ramen, different kinds of ramen, but Nori has tried 6,000 ramen bowls and has all the notes that he’s been taking,” says Igarashi. “So we know all the good ramen shops all over Japan and we kind of combined all the good parts and then tried to find out what’s the best to sell to attract the people [of Irvine].”
What brought Hiro and Nori to the United States was the desire to show the American people what good ramen truly is. “[About] 15 years ago [mainstream America just started] knowing what ramen is. I tried their ramen and it was really bad but people were still enjoying it so that’s why we decided to come this country, to make the ramen shop,” says Igarashi.
So why Orange County specifically? “Orange County has a good diversity of culture all mixed, like lots of Asian culture, Latino culture and Americans,” Igarashi says. And while Irvine was their first location, they opened a second location in Long Beach in May 2018 (so yes, it’s probably an easier drive from L.A. to the Long Beach location, but since the Irvine one was their original restaurant, we still think it’s worth visiting). Soon enough, however, Angelinos won’t have to drive to either location, as there are plans for HiroNori to open in Los Angeles, as well as in San Diego and San Francisco.
So what two dishes are really worth it? The first would be their Vegan Ramen, which contains sesame miso broth, broccolini, tofu, corn, bean sprouts, soy meat, baby kale and chili oil. Vegan ramen is a bit rare, but it’s becoming more common. HiroNori’s stands out from all the rest for a few reasons. “The broth is a little bit unique. We make the miso base by ourselves and I see most of the bases [at other ramen restaurants are bought, not homemade],” says Igarashi. The noodles are also handmade (not in house though). “Lots of places try to make the vegan option but it’s not that good [because] they don’t have the knowledge [that we obtained in Japan],” says Igarashi. “But [for] our vegan [ramen], lots of customers are surprised it’s actually vegan [because] it’s extra tasty. I think we have a really good combination of all the vegetables to make the flavor.” We definitely agree.
The other dish worth the drive is a more traditional ramen, the Tonkotsu Ramen, which contains pork chashu, green onion, spinach, seaweed and bean sprouts. “[Nori is] from Hokkaido, which is very north, like 500-600 miles north from Tokyo and then I learned ramen in Tokyo and Yokohama,” Igarashi says. “Our Tonkotsu is more like Yokohama style, which I and Nori learned and we both like the style.”
Although the Tonkotsu Ramen may be heavily influenced by the Yokohama region, a lot of their ramen is so unique and tasty because it’s a mixture of all the ramen they tasted and studied throughout Japan. “[Our ramen is] authentic and also a little bit unique because we combine lots of different styles,” Igarashi says. “It’s not only from the one specific location but also other locations.” Irvine is definitely lucky that Hiro and Nori decided to bring all of their ramen knowledge to Orange County for our enjoyment.
Whether you’re a carnivore or vegan, prefer sweet or savory, are looking for dinner or brunch, or enjoy ramen or short ribs, there are definitely dishes worth the drive from Los Angeles to Irvine. And we’ve just scratched the surface of the culinary amazement that’s available in Irvine. Come back next month for four more dishes that we highly recommend as worth the trip down south. Los Angeles may have a lot of food options, but Irvine is definitely giving it a run for its money.
Honey & Butter Macarons
633 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, CA 92618
Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
4647 MacArthur Blvd, Newport Beach, CA 92660
HiroNori Craft Ramen
2222 Michelson Drive #234, Irvine, CA 92612