San Juan Capistrano
South County’s culinary epicenter offers a slew of spots near your stop
The train tracks run along one side Trevor’s at the Tracks restaurant on Verdugo Street in San Juan Capistrano, on Wednesday, September 27, 2023. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
By BROCK KEELING
Over the last few years, San Juan Capistrano, once known for its centuries-old mission and returning swallows, has turned into south Orange County’s biggest food destinations — with no sign of slowing down. From Heritage Barbecue, which serves Texas- and California-style barbecue, to El Adobe, a Mexican-American stalwart located inside a state historical landmark where a former U.S. president frequently dined, San Juan Capistrano has a slew of culinary options, most of which can be found in some of Orange County’s oldest buildings, and all of which are a stone’s throw from its train station.
The city’s Mission Revival-style train station originally opened 1894 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Today it serves Amtrak and Metrolink lines: Metrolink makes a total of 15 stops on weekdays (eight running north, seven running south) and 12 stops on weekends (6 in each direction). Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner makes 20 stops daily (10 in each direction). Of all the stations in Orange County, the San Juan Capistrano location has the highest concentration of restaurants within the shortest distance.
Keep in mind that selected venues throughout the series are each within a reasonable distance of their stop, whether on foot or by wheelchair, with no major roads or freeways required to cross. This list doesn’t cover every single San Juan Capistrano bar and restaurant in the area; consider this a guide to our favorites within a reasonable walking distance from the platform, or a jumping off point for your layover.
3:16 Bakery Shop: The Biblically named bakery whips up divine treats steps away from the train platform, including gelato, cakes, iced cookies, cinnamon rolls and more. Don’t miss its Capistrano Sandwich Roll, a grab-and-go ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich on a French roll. It’s deal should passengers require immediate sustenance before their train chugs away. 26762 Verdugo St., San Juan Capistrano; instagram.com/316bakeryshop
Bloom: This 2,400-square foot space, located one block away from the train station, opened nearly one year ago. Since then, residents and visitors alike have been drawn to Bloom head chef Jarred Cook’s Southern-inspired comfort fare. Menu highlights include crispy pork belly and pumpkin-ricotta gnocchi with candied walnuts and sage-infused brown butter, bacon-braised black kale, the crispy Jidori chicken sandwich served on a challah bun and a vanilla and blood orange cheesecake. The expansive space also comes with a 10-seat backlit bar where they pour craft cocktails, craft beers, and wines by the glass. The venue’s arched windows provide choice views of passersby and the historic Mission directly across the street. 31760 Old Mission Rd, suite A; bloomsanjuancapistrano.com
Don Juan Mexican Kitchen and Bar: One of the area’s newest restaurants, Don Juan Mexican Kitchen and Bar features such tony fare as lobster enchiladas, Chilean sea bass, heirloom beets with burrata and even a handful of sushi offerings like yellowtail and rainbow rolls. The full bar also serves fanciful cocktails like a key lime pie martini or blackberry mojito, in addition to a strong selection of tequila and wine. An ideal spot for a sit-down dinner a few yards away from the train station. 26762 Verdugo St., suite C; donjuankitchen.com
Customers dine at Mayfield in San Juan Capistrano in March 2023. The roughly 2,500-square foot, two-story restaurant with large front windows on Verdugo Street, is just a few steps away from the nearby train station in San Juan Capistrano. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Ciao Pasta: An Italian-American restaurant with salads, pizzas, pastas like porcini mushroom pappardelle or portobello ravioli, and such hearty entrees as chicken parmigiana or branzino. A decent place to stop (strongly recommend eating on the patio) if the line at neighboring Heritage Barbecue is too long of a wait. 31661 Camino Capistrano #205; ciaopasta.net
Easy Breezy: A frozen yogurt/custard chain offers rotating flavors like pineapple Dole whip, berry cheesecake, vanilla bean, and vegan chocolate. Also of grave importance: the peanut butter sauce in which you can (and should) drown your frozen treat. 31761 Camino Capistrano, suite 4; easy-breezy.com
El Adobe de Capistrano: Popular with former U.S. President Richard Nixon, who frequent the place while staying at his nearby San Clemente residence, this Mexican-American restaurant has the distinction of being located inside a historical landmark. It also boasts being one of the oldest operating restaurants in Orange County, opening in 1948. Historical trivia notwithstanding, hungry passengers can enjoy such fare as ceviche, cheese quesadillas, short rib enchiladas, fajitas galore, lobster or blackened fish tacos, carne asada and more. 31891 Camino Capistrano; eladobedecapistrano.com
El Campeon Taqueria: If you have time and don’t mind a brisk walk from the train station, your six-minute trek will be rewarded by some of the best authentic taqueria food in the city. Tortas, tacos (the goat meat birria are particularly noteworthy), burritos, tostadas, tamales and more can be found at this counter service-style eatery. Be sure to visit its mercado located next store stocked with Mexican staples. 31921 Camino Capistrano, suite 15; elcampeoninc.com
El Zarandeado Seafood: A new entry to San Juan Capistrano’s roster of choice eateries, El Zarandeado Seafood offers shrimp tacos, tuna ceviche and chile rellenos. But the star of its menu is the titular Zarandeado fish, which is split in half from head to tail before being grilled over an open flame, lightly charred around the edges, and arriving at the table in show-stopping fashion. 31952 Camino Capistrano, suite B3
FKN Bread is located on Camino Capistrano in downtown San Juan Capistrano, a block from the train station and across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano, on Wednesday, September 27, 2023. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Ellie’s Table: Yet another eatery located inside a historic home, Ellie’s Table, a breakfast-forward bakery, can be found inside the Egan House, one of San Juan Capistrano’s few Victorian/Renaissance Revival- style buildings. Come for the detailed brick exterior and wrap-around wooden deck — stay for the array of pastries, breakfast burritos (sausage, bacon, egg white, or vegan), omelets, toasts, chicken and waffles, espresso drinks and more inside. Closes at 3 p.m. 31892 Camino Capistrano; elliestable.com
Five Vines Wine Bar: This tracks-adjacent wine bar, rated one of the top 25 wine bars in the U.S. by Travel and Leisure, offers a sundry of reds, white, roses, sparkling and even “slushy” wines. While sampling the varietals, you can also chow down on three-cheese skillet mac and cheese, pear and brie skillet melt, chicken marsala poutine, a crispy chicken sandwich, salmon tacos, and a bevy of flatbreads. Best of all, most of the food and wine are available for take-away. 31761 Camino Capistrano, suite 11; fivevineswinebar.com
FKN Bread: Pronounced “eff kay enn,” FKN Bread, by husband-wife team Dave and Bree VandenBerg, features artisanally baked cookies, croissants, breads and more. The small bake shop also prepares big-flavor sandwiches (roast beef, ham, tuna, turkey and veggie, to name a few), toasts (avocado, peanut butter and banana or smoked salmon), and house and caprese salads. It also brews coffees from beans prepared by nearby Hidden House. Open Tuesday – Sunday from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. 31760 Camino Capistrano, suite B; fknbread.com
Hennessey’s Tavern: This burger and brews joint, one of 11 in the mini-chain’s portfolio, serves up comfort food like a spicy fried chicken sandwich, shepherd’s pie, prime rib dip and more. 31761 Camino Capistrano; hennesseystavern.com/locations-san-juan-capistrano
Heritage Barbecue: Acclaimed as the No. 1 restaurant in Orange County, according to the Orange County Register’s 75 best restaurants list of 2022, Brenda and Daniel Castillo’s Heritage Barbecue, lauded at one the best places in the country for Texas- and California-style brisket and beef and pork ribs. It also helped change the landscape of dining in OC, especially in San Juan Capistrano, which has since turned into a South County foodie haven. Be prepared to wait in line; Heritage fans queue up as soon as the doors open for business. As out former food critic described it in 2022: “Yes, they serve barbecue on aluminum trays, and you’ll eat beans out of paper boats with a plastic spoon. And no, they don’t take reservations. You’ll have to stand in line, sometimes for hours if you try to eat here on a weekend. But there’s no lack of hospitality. This is, all around, the best restaurant in Orange County right now.” 31721 Camino Capistrano; heritagecraftbbq.com
Customers sit on the porch and at tables in the yard of the Hidden House Coffee located on Los Rios Street in San Juan Capistrano, just a few steps from the train station, on Wednesday, September 27, 2023. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Hidden House Coffee: White white subway tile and sparse aesthetics have had a stranglehold on cafe design over the last few years, Hidden House Coffee, located across the tracks along Los Rios, provide a refreshing stylistic break by being located in the historic Oliveras House (circa 1890). In addition to coffees, cold brews and express drinks, you can also purchase whole beans, which Hidden House roasts at its Santa Ana roastery. Should you have time to wait before your train arrives, grab a seat on the store’s wooden porch or down on the arboreal-studded patio. 31791 Los Rios St.; hiddenhousecoffee.com
L’Hirondelle: For a charming sit-down dinner, L’Hirondelle (meaning “the swallow” in French) offers Belgian-French classics like beef bourguignon, duck salad, tarragon chicken, frog legs sauteed in white wine and garlic, and escargots, and baguette sandwiches. Also of note, the restaurant’s charming interiors, from the vaulted beamed ceilings to the Dutch door. 31631 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano; lhirondellesjc.com
Mayfield: Confit tomatoes, corn rib, pineapple glazed pork belly, za’atar fried chicken and orange blossom mousse are a few menu highlights at this Levant-style restaurant less than a block from the train platform. If you can’t sit for lunch or dinner, grab a few bottles of wine, preserved lemon or tinned fish at its adjoining provisions market. 31761 Camino Capistrano, suite 5-6; mayfieldoc.com
Paddy’s Station: The Irish bar and restaurant offers diners a classic pub fare like sausage rolls, fish and chips, and shepherd’s pie. Located next to the tracks, this eatery ups the train game by also having a private dining room that’s inside a repurposed caboose. 26701 Verdugo St., suite B; paddysstation.com
Ramos House Cafe: Built in 1881, this wooden cabin-style restaurant’s seating area is entirely outside near the train tracks, while the kitchen is inside. Highlights at this date-night-perfect spot include Scotch quail eggs, basil-cured lox, beef stew with blue cheese mash and banana berry shortcake. Open Thursday through Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. 31752 Los Rios St.; ramoshouse.com
Rancho Capistrano Winery: Orange County’s largest winery offers approximately 40 award-winning wines for sipping. Open for brunch, lunch and dinner, its menu items include wedge salad with pickled onions and blue cheese dressing, chicken rollatini, rack of lamb, steak frites, and seven flatbreads. 26755 Verdugo St.; ranchocapwinery.com
Selma’s Chicago Pizzeria and Tap Room: Found inside Franciscan Plaza, this family-friendly Chicago-style pizzeria sells the midwestern pizza that layers the cheese underneath the sauce in a deep-dish crust. Thin crust pies are also available. The corner restaurant also features salads galore, plenty of suds on tap, and an array of baked pastas. 31781 Camino Capistrano, suite 201.; selmaspizza.com/san-juan-capistrano-location
Texas barbecue at Heritage in San Juan Capistrano (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Sundried Tomato Bistro: This 27-year-old establishment, also located inside Franciscan Plaza, offers a mix of dishes ranging from blackened chicken spring rolls and duck taquitos to cioppino and tomato penne. And, yes, the creamy sundried tomato soup is how the restaurant got its name. 31781 Camino Capistrano; sundriedtomato.com
Tavern at the Mission: After 25 years in downtown San Juan Capistrano, Cedar Creek Inn changed its name to Tavern at the Mission in June. And with the new name, owners David Wilhelm and Gregg Solomon also revamped the menu, adding new items like his buttermilk fried chicken with thyme gravy and French onion soup topped with Comte cheese. A major renovation is set to take place next year. 26860 Old Mission Road; tavernatthemission.com
Tea House on Los Rios: Sip premium loose leaf teas (or a glass of Veuve Clicquot) at this tea spot inside a circa-1911 cottage. High-tea towers come with an assortment of tiny tea sandwiches, sweets and other delectables. A la carte British-inspired fare includes English pasti, a puff pastry-topped stew of braised beef; seasonal vegetable quiche; and currant scones. 31731 Los Rios St.; theteahouseonlosrios.com
With plenty of sandwiches, gelato and seafood fare, ‘chew chew’ your way through San Clemente during your next stop.
The Pierside Kitchen is across the street from the San Clemente Pier Metro Stop in San Clemente on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Despite Southern California’s well-deserved reputation as the epicenter for vehicular dependency, the train system in Orange County — stretching from San Clemente to Brea — has 11 stations-slash-stops, many of which offer a bevy of eateries, cafes and cocktail spots near the depots. Enter the Orange County Register’s new transit dining series.
Our first stop? San Clemente Pier and other San Clemente stations. Only fitting as the seaside track has been repaired and reopened in April. Metrolink and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner rail services once again connect Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and Orange County to San Diego County.
Keep in mind that selected venues throughout the series are each within a reasonable distance of their stop, whether on foot or by wheelchair, with no major roads or freeways required to access the good grub waiting for you.
San Clemente Pier Station
While this station drops passengers smack-dab onto the beach and a nearby dining area, only four Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains per day stop at the station (two trains in each direction), with Metrolink’s Orange County Line and Inland Empire-Orange County Line stopping at the station on Saturdays and Sundays. Riders stepping off the platform here will be rewarded with one of Orange County’s best small-batch coffeehouses and a handful of choice eateries. Best of all, most of these venues are within a stone’s throw from each other.
Please note that weekday Metrolink service does not stop at the San Clemente Pier Station; however, four Metrolink Orange County Line trains and two Inland Empire Line trains stop in each direction on the weekends (12 total stops). The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner also services the area seven days a week, making two stops at the San Clemente Pier in each direction.
Bear Coast Coffee is across the street from the San Clemente Pier Metro Stop in San Clemente. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Bear Coast Coffee: Founded by comedian-turned-restaurateur Jeff Clinard, Bear Coast Coffee, with two other locations in Dana Point, has rapidly emerged as the leader of the third-wave coffee scene (a movement in coffee emphasizing high quality beans and brews over pinky drinks and garish merchandising) in South County. In addition to expertly made and deeply flavored espresso drinks and small-batch coffees, Bear Coast Coffee offers a stellar lineup of grab-and-go food, including a feta egg sandwich on a brioche bun, avocado toast that piles the avo high, a bacon breakfast burrito, and ricotta toast with seasonal jam. 618 1/2 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; bearcoastcoffee.com
Caterina’s Gelato: Providing a (better) alternative to standard ice cream fare, this place features more than a dozen house-made rotating flavors, which might include lemon cookie, smores, pistachio, and more. They even make homemade bone-shaped dog biscuits. Be sure to sit outside to take in the oceanic views as well as the beautifully tiled facade. 614 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; instagram.com/caterinasgelato
Cosentino’s Pizza: This slice house offers standard pizza pies, ranging from classic margherita style to clearly contemporary chicken bacon ranch; boneless chicken wings with blue cheese dressing; a host of salads; custom calzones; and a foot-long meatball sub made on toasted garlic bread. Patio seating provides choice views of the beach. 626 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; cosentinospizzamenu.com
Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar: Opening in 1982 on the San Clemente Pier, this seafood joint offers some of the best outdoor dining in Orange County. Menu highlights include fried calamari, crab and shrimp cocktails, clams, fresh oysters, mussels, coconut shrimp, clam chowder in a sourdough bowl and Oysters Rockefeller. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 611 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; thefishermansrestaurantsanclemente.com
La Galette Créperie is across the street from the San Clemente Pier Metro Stop in San Clemente on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
La Galette Creperie: This French comfort food spot features titular crepes filled with sundry flavors, including mushroom and spinach; bacon, egg and cheddar; smoked salmon; berries and cream; and Nutella and banana. Also on the roster are avocado toast, French toast, goat cheese salad, and roasted chicken sandwich. 612 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; lagalettesc.com
Pierside Kitchen and Bar: While this sit-down restaurant serves a contemporary menu with hearty dishes like short ribs, seabass and shrimp scampi, its whimsical cocktail menu shouldn’t be missed. Must-sip libations include the Papagayo featuring jalapeño tequila doused with lime and pineapple; the Dust Devil, a cognac and Jamaican rum concoction tinged with demerara sugar, mace and allspice; the Wedding Crasher, a mixture of vodka, cacao, lemon, coconut and passion fruit; and Freefall, a potent blend of blanco tequila, lime, passion fruit, cilantro, Xila and mace. Have one. Have three. Have eight. The nearby train stop will get you home safely. Open for brunch, lunch and dinner. 610 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; piersidesc.com
Landers North Beach in San Clemente on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
San Clemente Station
The city’s northernmost train stop in North Beach, nearly two miles from its sister station, lacks the abundance of eateries compared to the Pier Station, but a handful of choice restaurants can be found in spitting distance of the platform.
Metrolink service stops at the San Clemente Station on weekdays a total of 15 times (six Orange County Line trains heading to LA Union Station, five Orange County Line trains heading to Oceanside, two Inland Empire – Orange County Line trains in each direction) and on weekends with 12 total stops (four Orange County Line trains in each direction and two Inland Empire-Orange County Line trains in each direction).
Beach Hut Deli: This shop (with another location in Dana Point) features nearly a dozen sandwiches with names honoring beach culture. The North Shore comes with ham, turkey, pastrami, Monterey jack and Italian dressing; the Beach Bikini features sliced turkey, cream cheese, cranberry sauce, sunflower seeds, spinach and mayo on wheat bread; and the Santa Cruz is a pastrami number with avocado, bacon and cream cheese. They also have toasted sandwiches, like the turkey-and-cheddar Spicoli, a chopped pastrami-and-Swiss cheese Malibu, or the Righteous Ruben. 1844 N El Camino Real, San Clemente; beachhutdeli.com
Landers: Located in a gorgeous Spanish-Mediterranean building on El Camino Real near the train tracks, Landers was described in 2021 by our former food critic as “(p)art retail boutique and fashion brand, part bar, part restaurant, it’s the sort of place that a travel guide-book would refer to as a ‘concept store.’ And the concept here is sort of Wild West meets the California surf lifestyle.” How can you resist? Menu highlights here include classic comfort foods like hamburgers, fried chicken sandwiches, pulled pork, house-made potato chips, steamed mussels, and fish and chips. The extensive cocktail list features potent, Western-themed concoctions bearing names like the Dolly Patron, the Copperhead, or the Calamity Jane. Continuing with the boozy vibe, the 21-and-over set can enjoy a Guinness float for dessert. (Don’t worry; all ages are welcome here.) Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 1814 N El Camino Real, San Clemente; landersliquorbar.com
Moulin: Croissants, fresh baguettes and other French favorites can be found at this Parisian eatery. Located inside the circa-1937 Casino San Clemente building (reason enough to check it out), the 60-seat bistro comes with an ocean-view patio, pastries and bakes galore, steak frites, sandwiches and more. Open for breakfast and lunch. 120 W. Avenida Pico, San Clemente; moulinbistro.com
One of Orange County's most walkable cities offers an abundance of flavors and dining experience not too far from the train station.
The 4th Street Market in downtown Santa Ana is near the Santa Ana Metrolink Station. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
By Brock Keeling
Completed in 1985, the Mediterranean Revival-style Santa Ana train station was, at the time, one of the largest train stations in the United States. In addition to Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink’s Orange County Line and Inland Empire–Orange County lines, it also acts as a Greyhound station and hub for international bus service to and from Mexico. Being at the nexus of so much transit, it’s hardly surprising that nearby blocks come with food choices aplenty.
The Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, as it’s formally called, is served by 20 Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains (10 in each direction) daily, while 20 Metrolink Orange County Line trains (11 northbound and 9 southbound) run each weekday. Weekend service consists of 8 trains (4 in each direction) on Saturday and Sunday. The station is also served by 14 Metrolink Inland Empire-Orange County Line trains (7 in each direction) on weekdays and 4 trains (2 in each direction) on Saturday and Sunday heading towards Orange County in the morning and towards the Inland Empire in the evening. But that’s not all: OC Bus, the transit bus service operated by the Orange County Transportation Authority, and Greyhound lines to and from Mexico and the United States also board and terminate at the Santa Ana station.
All of this to say that Santa Ana, with an impressive walking score of 89, should be your next vehicular-free dining destination.
Keep in mind that selected venues throughout the series are each within a reasonable distance of their stop, whether on foot or by wheelchair, with no major freeways required to cross. This list doesn’t cover every single Santa Ana bar and restaurant in the area; consider this a guide to our favorites near (or near-ish) the station, or a jumping off point for your layover.
4th Street Market: Noted as one of Orange County’s best food halls, 4th Street Market offers an array of eateries conveniently located in one venue. Here you will find Mexican-Californian Alta Baja Market; Zacatecas taqueria Burrito La Palma; Daily Kombucha for your daily dose of fermented probiotics; sandwich purveyors Deli Station; contemporary Hawaiian comfort food by Faka’s Island Grill, Gina’s Crepes and Waffles; plant-based, vegan and gluten-free taqueria La Vegana Mexicana, which specializes in (excellent) tamales; Loose Leaf Boba Co.; build-your-own burrito or bowl Mix N’ Bowl Co., Recess by Playground for cocktails, sodas, beers and wines; sushi care of ShariNori; smashburgers and Nashville-style hot chicken at Golden Eatery; Thai-style chicken comfort food from the Chicken Rice; and chef-founder Toto Limsombat’s sublime Tuk Tuk Thai Street Food. Phew. 201 E Fourth St. (at North Bush Street), Santa Ana
Benchmark: A contemporary American casual fine-dining restaurant is noted as being one of the best places to eat al fresco thanks to Benchmark’s expansive patio under a canopy of trees. Menu highlights include hamachi aguachile, gochujang fried chicken, Santa Maria-spiced flat-iron steak, and a roasted citrus half chicken. 601 E Santa Ana Blvd. (at North Minter Street), Santa Ana
Bird and Barrel: As its name suggests, this poultry-forward eatery serves shatteringly-crisp fried chicken sandwiches. They also offer cracklings (fried chicken skins); agave habanero wings with garlic, chives and fish sauce; chicken egg rolls; and a hearty beef noodle soup. Not sure what to order? Try the kitchen’s secret weapon: a fried chicken thigh prepared Japanese katsu-style. 305 E. Fourth St., #105 (at French Street), Santa Ana
Birrieria Jalisco: This birrieria and pupuseria serves Mexican and Central American favorites like burritos, menudo, goat or beef stew, pupusas, seafood, salads, aqua frescas and more. 404 N. Grand Ave. (at East Fourth Street), Santa Ana
Cafe Cultura: Located inside the gorgeous white-and-green brick West End Theater, this self-described contemporary Mexican cafeteria brings its coffee from Chiapas to make cafe de olla, cold brews, Mexi-frapps (in horchata, Mexican chai, Abuelita and rompope). For the 21-and-over set, you can enjoy Modelo, Pacifica and Victoria beers. Don’t miss out on Cafe Cultura’s waffles, especially the churro iteration topped with strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and caramel. 324 W. Fourth St., #B (at Birch Street), Santa Ana
Chapter One: At this library-themed gastropub you can find duck fat fries, fried cheese curds, lumpia rolls, blackened shrimp tacos, flatbreads and meat and potatoes. The dessert menu is particularly decadent, featuring a white chocolate souffle, sopapilla cheesecake and house-churned ice cream. While you’re sipping your suds, be sure to pay it forward and buy a round of beer for the kitchen for only $10. 227 N. Broadway (at West Third Street), Santa Ana
Chiva Torta: A family-owned and -operated business for more than 21 years, this food truck offers some of the best torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich” in English) in Orange County. Come for the Guadalajaran pork sandwich drenched in red chili sauce, stay for the refreshing horchata. 514 N Spurgeon St. (at North Bush Street), Santa Ana
Coffee Muse: This small-batch cafe decked out in wood trim is a great pit stop for all your caffeine-related needs. The deeply flavorful cold brews and pour overs are strong, while a series of syrup and mix-in flavors (like dirty vanilla chai, Mexican mocha, Honey Nut Cheerios, lavender, chocolate mint, hazelnut, vanilla, white mocha, caramel or mocha) can be added to espresso drinks. 310 E. Fourth St. (at French Street), Santa Ana
Crave Restaurant: A mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Santa Ana serving sandwiches, salads, soups, avocado toast, energy bowls, Breakfast burritos and more. 410 W. Fourth St., 2nd floor (at Birch Street), Santa Ana
El Mercado Modern Cuisine: Chef/co-owner Danny Godinez’s contemporary Mexican restaurant, with dim lighting making it ideal for a date night, features pork belly estofado, carnitas with house-made tortillas, chicken mole with pea puree, and pulpo a la plancha (octopus marinated with Oaxaca chiles). 301 N. Spurgeon St. (at French Street), Santa Ana
El Rincon Mexicano: Carne asada, chilaquiles, mole, enchiladas verdes and birria can all be found on the menu at this authentic Mexican spot. Order a refreshing michelada while you wait for your order, which is always made fresh in-house. 104 E Fourth St. (at Main Street), Santa Ana
Hammer Burger: At this burger joint you’ll find smashburgers galore, fried chicken sandwiches, fries (ranging from shoestring to chili to sweet potato) and soft-serve ice cream swirled high. 313 N. Bush St. (at East Fourth Street), Santa Ana
Hidden House Coffee: One of Orange County’s best cafes, Hidden House Coffee also has the distinction of being located near two train stops (its first location can be found directly across the tracks in San Juan Capistrano). The coffee purveyor’s flagship Santa Ana location offers small-batch coffees, cold brews and espresso drinks, as well as whole beans that are roasted on-site. While the coffees and pastries (baked in-house daily) are reason enough to make the 10-minute walk from the train station, Hidden House Coffee’s exceedingly charming store, located inside a circa-1914 brick warehouse, is a must for proud design geeks. 511 E. Santa Ana Blvd. (at North Minter Street), Santa Ana
Hopper and Burr: Good coffee. Light fare. Minimalist décor. This cafe located at the corner of Fourth Street and Sycamore offers artisan cafe staples from almond milk lattes to avocado toast. An added bonus: weekly wine tastings on Thursdays. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. 202 W. Fourth St. (at Sycamore Street), Santa Ana
I Can Barbecue: Korean Grill, wherein you get to grill your proteins at the table, features a bevy of options, including marinated beef joo mul luk, chadol (thinly sliced brisket), pork belly, pork butt, baby octopus, tofu and more. Halal lunch and dinner menus are also available. 414 W Fourth St. (at North Rose Street), Santa Ana
Kaizen Shabu: One of North County’s best places for shabu-shabu (the other being Shabu Shabu Bar, just on the other side of the 5, hence its omission from the train station-dining guide) where you cook thinly sliced meats and vegetables in a hotpot of flavorful broth. Ideal for group nights out. 303 N Spurgeon St. (at French Street), Santa Ana
La Chiquita Restaurant: Highlights at this Mexican restaurant, a Santa Ana staple since 1950, include a velvety chile con carne, the taco enchilada tostada and margaritas. Of particular importance is the cheese enchilada. As former Orange County Register food critic Brad A. Johnson wrote in 2022, “For several years now I’ve been on a quest to find the best enchiladas in Orange County. …The cheese enchilada at La Chiquita in Santa Ana is perfect in every way.” 906 E. Washington St. (at North Custer Street), Santa Ana
Maz Cafe Con Leche: Coffee house that serves Hispanic-inspired specialty drinks like agua de mazapán, Abuelita chocolate, horchata, coconut and dulce de leche lattes. Don’t miss out on seasonal treats, like the pumpkin cream chai or the galletas Maria latte, and impressive selection of ice cream. (Bonus points for the pink pastel-hued decor.) 608 N Lacy St. (at E Sixth St.), Santa Ana
Omakase by Gino: Chef Choi Jinho takes center stage at this omakase restaurant with only 10 seats per serving inside a shoebox-sized space. What it lacks in size and seating it more than makes up for with flavor by way of precision sushi prowess. Highlights could include anything from potent uni, torched wagyu tataki, hotaruika (firefly squid) and more. Available Wednesday to Saturday, with two seatings per night at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. 304 N Main St. (at East Third Street), Santa Ana
Perla Mexican Cuisine: Dishes at this Downtown Santa Ana spot include short rib tacos, shredded beef flautas, grilled octopus marinated in Zarandeado sauce, five types of enchiladas, prime skirt arrachera steak, chilaquiles and more. Don’t skip the pastel de elote, a Mexican corn cake with a spoon bread-like consistency. 400 W. Fourth St. (at Birch Strreet), Santa Ana
The Pizza Press: This national pizza chain, noted for its newspaper industry-themed dishes, like the Herald (topped with white sauce, mozzarella, chicken breast), the Times (olive oil, chicken, red onion, barbecue sauce), the Tribune (red sauce, pepperoni, sausage, kalamata olives, ricotta), or the Jr. Editor (small pizzas for kids 12 and under), is open seven days a week. 117 W. Fourth St., #101 (at Sycamore Street), Santa Ana
Tacompadre in Santa Ana is located in the McFadden Public Market at 515 North Main Street 2023 and is near the Santa Ana Metrolink Station. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tacompadre: Brothers Jermaine and Alejandro Sanchez bring the flavors of Mexico City, where they spent much of their childhood, to their Santa Ana restaurant. One plate comes with three tacos with your choice of asada, pastor, birria, suadero, cochinita (sweet pulled pork), chicken, chorizo or veggie/vegan. They also serve a mean burrito and quesadilla. Dessert highlights include rice pudding, flan de la abuela, mosaico Jell-o, and chocoflan. 515 N. Main St., #A (at East Fifth Street), Santa Ana
Taqueria El Gordito: This downright charming taqueria with counter seating serves up breakfast burritos, street-style tacos and burritos (the birria mini taco and toasted burrito are particularly noteworthy here), tamales and so much more. Shout out to the impressive array of Jarritos soft drinks and real Mexican Coca-Cola. 415 N Grand Ave. (at East Fourth Street), Santa Ana
Taqueria Hoy!: Operating since 1980 by owner Rafael De Anda (and now his sons, Christian and Raphael), this Santa Ana staple, which underwent a rebranding in 2020, offers build-your-own tacos and burritos with carne asda, lengua, chicken, buche, al pastor, cabeza, carnitas, chorizo and more. Don’t miss out on the cheesy quesadillas too. 1029 E. Fourth St. (at Poinsettia Street), Santa Ana
Trust: Chef Justin Werner (who honed his skills within the Tom Colicchio collective of restaurants and at the now-shuttered Norma in Denmark, once considered to be the greatest restaurant in the world) and his omakase-structured restaurant invite guests to experience a myriad of flavors drawn from a variety of worldwide locations. “It’s not a dinner, it’s a dinner party,” he explains. The premise is that a handful of diners (18 seats per seating) come in and “trust” the chef’s menu that night, which could range anywhere from French to Italian to Spanish to anything from anywhere. Two seatings per evening at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The immersive dining experience lasts anywhere from two to two-and-a-half hours. 220 E. Fourth St. (at North Spurgeon Street), Santa Ana
Waba Grill: Rice-bowl chain featuring chicken, beef, Plantspired steak (aka vegan meat), salmon and tofu. Also of note are sides like dumplings, edamame kimchi and jalapeño carrots. 431 E. First Ave. (at North Spurgeon Street), Santa Ana
Wursthaus: This European-inspired gastropub serves hand-made sausages — ranging from classics like spicy Polish and pork-veal Nernbergers to exotic tubesteaks made from kangaroo and alligator meat — and 20 draught German and Belgian beers. Wursthaus’ happy hours are gleefully long, from 6 p.m. to close Tuesdays through Thursdays and all day on Sundays. 305 E Fourth St., #106 (at French Street), Santa Ana
Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo, Irvine, Tustin
These stations offer few nearby dining options for pedestrians.
The platform at the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Station. (Photo by Brock Keeling)
By Brock Keeling
While the San Clemente Pier, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano train stops offer a host of restaurants and cafes steps from their respective platforms, without having to cross busy streets or trek too far, the same cannot be said for the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo, Irvine and Tustin Stations.
The three stops are primarily used by regular commuters who either drive and park or take the bus to and from the station; not so much by passengers seeking destination-worthy dining. (Though many use it to reach nearby FivePoint Amphitheatre.) There’s just not a lot of commercial zoning, and even less residential zoning, surrounding the stations.
“When you don’t allow housing density, not just near transit but also commercial corridors, you’re really starving those areas of small businesses and customers,” explained Sen. Scott Wiener (D-11th District), who has authored bills to create more affordable and multi-use housing near California transit stations. “So small businesses don’t open up to support or they struggle. It’s in the interest of small businesses to have people living nearby.”
Compared to South County’s southern stations, these three offer few choices for hungry passengers.
Laguna Niguel / Mission Viejo
No dining options exist outside the platform without having to cross Camino Capistrano, a somewhat busy two-lane street with no nearby crosswalks for safe pedestrian travel. Since jaywalking is all but required to access one of the few dining options across the street from this South County stop — unless you travel more than half a mile down the road to the nearest intersection crosswalk — it’s hard to recommend hopping off the train here to find food.
However, if you must, passengers can dine at the following restaurant. Again, accessing food requires jaywalking, which is neither safe nor legal. Consider yourselves warned.
Escape Craft Brewery: Billed as Laguna Niguel’s first brewery, this suds spot offers more than 20 craft beers on tap. While technically not a restaurant, Escape Craft Brewery features pop-up trucks just outside its doors, like Big Rick’s BBQ 714, on Fridays and Saturdays and occasionally on Thursdays and Sundays. Guests can also bring their pooch as this place is a dog-friendly spot. Open Tuesday through Sunday. 28162 Camino Capistrano #109A, Laguna Niguel; escapecraftbrewery.com
Aside from Escape Craft Brewery, you can find several fast-food options across Camino Capistrano and down the road, like A’s Burgers, In-N-Out and Carl’s Jr., via an estimated 13- minute walk south of the train platform.
The freeway impedes a lot of walkability at the Irvine Station. Even though some spots like the Hello Kitty Grand Cafe Sanrio are close as the crow flies, pedestrian access is inadvisable since you can’t cross the freeway sans automobile; pedestrians would have to walk two extra miles to go around it, which isn’t reasonable. Station Cafe, which used to operate at the train station’s building, closed in 2020.
The nearest dining options accessible via public transit can be found at the Irvine Spectrum (670 Spectrum Center Drive). Passengers can take bus 403 from the station to the Irvine Spectrum Center. Bruegger’s Bagels (3991 Irvine Blvd.) and Maast Indian (15358 Alton Parkway) can be reached by taking the 86 bus from the Irvine train station.
The Tustin Station is located in an industrial area, with no easily accessible dining options outside of fast food joints, like a nearby Subway Sandwich (3017 Edinger Ave.) and Jack In the Box (3089 Edinger Ave.).