If an ice cream cone at Ikea is the best thing you’ve eaten all week, welcome to the club. That’s the sad predicament I found myself in recently. The life of a restaurant critic isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. And that’s precisely the way it should be if I’m doing it right.
I dedicate a good chunk of every day — sometimes day and night — driving around the county looking for something to eat. While I often review the big, splashy restaurants that I learn about from press releases, I actually spend most of my time driving around looking for smaller, off-the-radar restaurants that no one is talking about already. I love finding restaurants that can’t afford publicists and don’t even know that I exist. I keep a running list of dozens of places I want to try. My calendar is always full. But that research frequently proves useless.
I rarely write about the places I don’t like. I do that only when those restaurants are already getting lots of press, or when there’s a famous chef involved thus everyone’s expectations are running high, or when there’s a restaurant in a high-traffic locale with scores of unsuspecting diners walking past the front doors every day.
That latter category is where I recently discovered the worst pizza of my life. I drove to the Packing House in Anaheim to sample a wood-fired pizza at Healthy Junk, a vegan restaurant that recently took over the long-empty pizzeria spot that used to be Ecco. I figured a wood-fired vegan Margherita pizza might be a great idea. And I’m certain it could be, but the execution here was horrific.
When the cashier handed me my pizza box, I was confused by its weight. It felt like a box of bricks. I picked up a slice and took a large bite. I wish I could have seen my face.
I thought for a moment I had bitten into a piece of the box instead of the pizza, but no. The crust was just extraordinarily dense and rigid. It was layered with a bizarre goop, some sort of “cheese” made from nuts, which reminded me of warm peanut butter. On top of this glop was a thin smear of tomato sauce that tasted more like beans than tomatoes. And there was a mysterious yellow stuff sprinkled on top that did nothing to improve either the flavor or texture.
I waited until the weird sensation in my mouth had subsided, then I tried again, thinking I must have done something wrong. I got the same result. Determined to give it a fair shake, I brought the pizza to my lips a third time but my mouth refused to open. I threw the whole thing in the garbage and went to a nearby kabob place for whom mediocre would be a complement.
The reason I ended up at the Packing House that day was because my first attempt at lunch had already failed. I went to a cute hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the road. I thought maybe if it was good I could help put them on the map. The food wasn’t awful but it sure wasn’t good. It shall remain off the radar. Sometimes it’s best to let a sleeping dog lie. And that wasn’t my first encounter with a dog that week.
The night before I had driven to Pour Vida in Newport Beach, a new taqueria that I included in my recent 75 Best Places to Eat. I was excited to go back. The food is fantastic. They’re open until 9 p.m., but when I got there at half past 7 they were already shutting down because it was slow. They offered to let me order takeout. In a mood to be served, I declined.
Showing up to a closed restaurant turned into a theme. I drove to Tustin to have dinner at Maruca’s, one of my regular go-to spots for pozole. I knew they always close early, around 7:30 p.m., but when I arrived at barely half past 6, the lights were already off, the restaurant empty. Where the heck is everybody? Couldn’t they at least leave a note?
It was with great excitement that I got dressed up and drove to Paragon, a swanky new brunch restaurant in Costa Mesa for champagne, eggs Benedict, the works. I checked the hours online before telling a friend to meet me there. “Ooh, I can’t wait,” she said. The restaurant wasn’t answering the phone, which isn’t unusual these days, so I cross-referenced their Yelp page with their Instagram, both of which assured me they were open. When we arrived, the doors were locked, not a creature in sight. No note, despite hours posted in the window indicating they should be open.
My friend purchased a sandwich from a nearby bakery and rushed back to work, disappointed. I drove down the street to Ikea and bought an ice cream cone.
I did have one great meal that week, but I’m not ready to tell you about it yet. I still need to go back for more. I sincerely hope they’re open when I get there.