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Critic’s Notebook: My terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week of dining in O.C.

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.  

Vegan pizza at Healthy Junk inside the Packing House in Anaheim (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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.  

Pour Vida in Newport Beach (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Pour Vida in Newport Beach (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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? 

Hours posted in the window of Maruca's in Tustin (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Hours posted in the window of Maruca’s in Tustin (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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. 

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