This blog post will chronicle my recent attendance of the Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour and all the foodie follies that came along with it. This foodie tour is officially called the “Orange Sampler Tour” and is led by the “Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour” organization. The Sampler Tour takes you through the historic Old Towne Orange and allows you to sample a wide variety of cuisines from French Tea to Mediterranean. For those of you who are not familiar with Old Towne Orange, it is one of the first towns settled in Orange County. Today much of the original downtown has been preserved. This blog post will help you learn more about Orange County’s best culinary and cultural enclaves. With very close proximity to Chapman University, the local area is abuzz with positive energy. Despite the University town vibe, Old Towne Orange retains its Early American Century charm, just like I jumped in the Delorian with Marty Mcfly.
I met the owners of the “Old Towne Orange Walking Tours” at the OC Foodie Fest and fell in love with their tour idea, which is a foodie centric tour of the historical Old Towne Orange. The owners of the company are Deanna and Renee. They are two sister that decided to take their knowledge and passion for Old Towne Orange and create several different walking tours. Between the two sisters, they have had plenty of experience eating their way through the community and have developed relationships with the restaurant owners. These ladies are “in the know” for all things food in Old Towne Orange, so I was excited to tap into this knowledge and eat like a local. This tour, as I would soon find out, is a serious eating tour and an empty stomach is highly encouraged!
Start of the Tour and Starbucks
Meet up time for this tour is 10:45am at the Starbucks connected to the Wells Fargo building on the East side of the circle. It was a late Sunday morning, so there was plenty of parking both on Glassell Street and the actual circle. It was a sunny day with a cool breeze and the American flag was waving from the center of the circle, I really did feel like I was taking a step back into time. When we arrived at the Wells Fargo building, my initial impression was that the building had an old Federal style like I was watching an old black and white Superman episode on a sick day from grade school. When walking into the bank, I noticed that half the building was carved out into a high-end Starbucks and the other side remained the original bank. Between the marble floors, high ceilings and plenty of overstuffed sofas, this place was ripe for handing out. The folks lounging around on this random Sunday were Chapman University Students, “Mac Snobs” mooching on the free Wi-Fi and a few baby boomer hipsters drinking their latte while squinting to read the New York Times on their Kindle. I looked around and saw our tour guide waiting at a table. With a mother’s soft smile, we were welcomed by Renee, our “foodie tour guide” for the 3 hour tour. She explained what we should expect on the tour and was genuinely excited to share her love of Old Towne Orange with us.
The tour actually started in the Starbucks / Wells Fargo building, with a sampling of Starbucks seasonal coffee. We were lucky as that Sunday was the seasonal launch of their pumpkin spice latte. After having several sampler cups of this delicious coffee, I was amped up on caffeine and ready to eat.
But before we talk about food, let’s first get a quick architectural lesson . Renee explained that the building was built in the 1920’s and the interior was created during Mediterranean Revival Period, which was influenced by folks, such as William Hearst. The architectural style of the interior is called “Bull Arts” and is typified by the hand painted teak wood ceilings, which were rumored to have been imported directly from roofs in Italy. The ceiling reminded me of a concert hall we stumbled upon during our trip to Venice many years ago.
Before we left the Starbucks, my fellow tour attendee told me that I should really pace myself with each of the samples, especially when there are extras. She explained that she and her husband went on this tour a couple of months ago and that she actually got sick from eating too much. “Bleh!” I said, “Let me eat cake!” My idol is Adam Richman from Man versus Food, I can take it! This is a foreshadow… I was proven wrong
Felix’s Continental Cafe
We walked around to the other side of the Orange Circle to Felix’s Continental Café, one of Orange County’s only authentic Cuban restaurants. The restaurant opened in the late 1970’s and has developed a reputation for traditional recipes, inexpensive prices and the best paella in Orange County.
As with all stops, the restaurant brings out a sampling of their best item and explains the dish with loving detail. Felix provided us their beef empanada, a grilled plantain and a side of salsa verde. For those not familiar with empanadas, it is a fluffy pastry that is stuffed with a filling (meat or sweet). Felix’s empanadas are baked so it has a fluffy pastry that has a slightly crunchy exterior and a fluffy, doughy interior. The stuffing was a combination of ground beef, onions and green onions and green olives. The flavor of the pastry was slightly sweet and had a nice combination of crunchy and soft textures as I bit down. The filling was a combination of sweet and savory. The ground beef, olives and onions provided a naturally savory flavor, although there was also a tropical sweet aftertaste that cut through the fats in the meat. The flavor was excellent and had the right combination of flavors and textures. It was so good, that I ate the two extra empanadas and plantains on the table. If you go on the tour, don’t be afraid to try the empanada with the salsa verde. The salsa added a little bit of spice and heat to the empanada and added a third level of flavor. The empanadas were delicious either way.
Paris in a Cup
After we finished up at Felix’s Continental Café, we took a little stroll around the Orange Circle and onto South Glassell to find something special, Paris in a Cup. This boutique / tea saloon is modeled after the featured saloon in the classic movie, “An American in Paris.” On the outside the shop had bistro tables under a veranda, perfect for people watching will sipping on tea and eating French mandeleines. When you enter the front door, there is a small boutique and patisserie counter with a great pastries. The star of this shop is their tea saloon, which makes you feel like you are stepping into a Parisian Tea Saloon with its simplistic yet elegant flare of dark woods and white paneled walls. In the saloon, you can enjoy, lunch, tea or even a formal high tea. It was a pleasant sunny day, so we sat at the bistro tables outside and one of the owners came out to greet us and introduced us to their shop. After the introductions we were given our tasting samples, a hand blended tea called “flower dance” and their French style potato cream soup.
The “flower dance” tea is hand blended with rooibos and flowers. The tea was light and had pleasant floral overtones that were easy to drink, even though it was a hot day. I would definitely drink this tea again; I knew I liked it when my pinky popped up on the last sip. The potato cream soup was full of flavors and was a symphony of textures. This soup contained cream, celery, carrots and onions, chives, chunks of potato and was topped with shredded cheddar. The flavor was rich from the cream and had a whole mouth flavor from the fresh herbs and vegetables. As I chewed on the thick potato cream soup, the textures of the sweated vegetables slightly crunched as I ate. The soup was full of flavor and I wanted to order a cup to go! But alas! I was on a food tour, so I had to delay my desire for immediate gratification and save my stomach for the other venues. Paris, I will see you again.
Although I couldn’t eat more soup, the dessert counter was calling my name. I ordered some classic French macaroons and chocolate sea salt truffles …for the ride home. P.S. They were glorious…..and they didn’t make to the car
As we strolled back around the circle Renee, our foodie guide, explained that Chapman University runs a Black and White Film Festival on the weekends. They have played such classics under the stars as “The Maltise Falcon” or “Philadelphia Story”.
<<Attention to all the gentlemen reading this blog post>> Great date idea for the lady in your life, take her for high-tea at Paris in a Cup and then see on the classic black and white movies at Chapman. Bring a blanket and a thermos of hot cocoa. I personally guarantee positive results Double points if you pick up some chocolates.
At this point in the tour my stomach was still running on light side due to my careful pace of eating; although, Watson’s would cut into my disciplined apporach. Located on East Chapman, Watson’s is one of the oldest original institutions on the Orange Circle and still retains its original 1950’s soda fountain charm. Watson’s started as a pharmacy, by Dr. Watson, and later expanded to a Soda Fountain. Although the Pharmacy was sold, the soda fountain / café have not only survived, but have continued to thrive. We sampled their most famous item, the “Chocolate Malt Shake.”
The sample shakes came out and they were a deep brown chocolate color with a fluffy white whipped cream toping. The shake was thick, yet extremely creamy such that it was easy to suck through a straw. The flavors of the malt powder and rich chocolate were pronounced and had a smooth creamy texture on the tongue. The malt was extremely delicious and to my luck, there were extra malts to be had. So what does a foodie do in the situation? Drink the extra malts! Woot Woot! My fellow tour mate warned me not to drink the extra shake, “don’t do it! there is so much food coming.” Ha-ha! I said, let them eat malts!
Watson’s also has a full breakfast /lunch greasy spoon café menu. I chatted with a couple eating a late breakfast on the patio and asked them if the food was good. They responded with, “This is some of the best bacon, eggs and hash I have had in a while.” They also had a fully stocked bakery, I didn’t try any of them but it was doing very brisk business.
…I quick break to Learn a little history of the Orange Circle
The City of Orange was originally called Richland and agriculture was the largest source of income for these early pioneers who settled the area around 1886. Legend has it that four rich gentlemen were playing poker one night, including Mr. Glassell and Mr. Chapman who made an interesting wager. The winner of the poker match earned the right to rename the town. According to legend, Mr. Glassell was originally from Orange County, Virginia… guess who won the game?
As the Town of Orange began to grow, the plaza at the center of the town (intersection of Glassell and Chapman) started to become disheveled. “The Plaza was weed infested and worn into a web of wagon tracks, and the ladies were concerned that the square was giving a bad impression of the community. After all, Orange was the up and coming town in this boom period of Orange County history. They soon decided to cultivate the grounds and put in a circular park with shrubs and trees. To add a jewel to their accomplishment, they decided a fountain was in order. They raised the money by dinners, musicals and festivals, and even wrote a play called “The Plaza” which was not only well attended but raised the final amount of money needed to pay for the fountain.” This history excerpt was taken from our tour guide Renee Dallas’s blog post on Iheartoldtownorange.com “A Tale of Two Fountains.” As the society ladies had planned it, the fountain catalyst to clean up the center of town and make it the focal point for the city.
Back to the Food Portion of the Blog….
Olde Towne Grinder and Ice Cream Parlor
After feeling very proud of myself for drinking my two malts and half of my wife’s, we moved down North Glassell towards Chapman College and found a restaurant called the Olde Towne Grinder and Ice Cream Parlor. This place was a throwback hipster restaurant with a fresh vibe and full of Chapman students. This restaurant is known for having over 30 types of root beer and serving hot or cold “Grinder Sandwiches” (a.k.a. hoagies, subs or heroes). They are also known for their rich ice cream cones and sundaes. We sampled the cold turkey grinder with sweet potato fries. The sandwich was a classic turkey sub on a fluffy role, fresh shaved turkey, shredded lettuce, tomato and onions. It was very fresh and the ingredients had a clean flavor. The sweet potato fries were crispy flakey on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. The fries came with a sweet chipotle sauce that matched well with the fries. I did manage to try one of their specialty root beers, which had a rich sweetness that you don’t find from the fast-food fountain root beer. At this point in the food tour, I was starting to slow down as my stomach started to protest. There was an extra sandwich on the table and Renee offered it to me, I responded with, “I’m not full, yet but perhaps I should save a little room.” Deep down inside I knew that the root beer was expanding the bread in my stomach and I was starting to get full.
The Bite Market
Speaking of being weighted down by carbs, the next place we visited was a place for those folks who are gluten and dairy intolerant, calledThe Bite Market. The owner of The Bite Market has Celiac Disease, so she carries only items that are gluten and dairy free. If you are gluten intolerant or have a family member that is gluten intolerant, you know how hard it is to find a good food source. I sampled dairy free and gluten free chocolate chip cookie, it was incredibly moist and flacky. The shop keeper explained that they use milk alternatives like almond milk. The brownie was relatively fluffy as well, not like the dense flowerless versions I have tried in the past. Their bakery items are definitely worth a try, even if you are not gluten intolerant. This shop carried a wide variety of products from bakery, dry goods, fresh produce, and refrigerated and frozen section meals.
Next, we walked around Glassell street through a hidden alleyway to a brick courtyard to find Zito’s Pizza which is known for being a New York style Pizza Parlor. We were told that the owner became frustrated with low quality pizzas and decided to open up a pizza shop that uses the highest quality ingredients and generous portions of toppings. Our Foodie Guide had pre-ordered us a large Margherita pizza to share with the group. When the pizza came out it was hot and steamy, I began to salivate in true Pavlovian fashion. The pizza had a nice golden brown crust that was crunchy on the exterior and steamy hot and gooey on the inside. This margarita pizza used a premium olive oil as a base. In addition, the Margherita pizza had mozzarella & feta cheese, tomatoes, garlic and basil.
I have had many margherita pizzas in my time, including in Italy, and this was one of the best. Why you ask? First the crust was of “uber” quality and had the right blend of yeasty flavor and contrasting crunchy / gooey textures. Second, the toppings were extremely flavorful and were added on in the right proportions of crust to toppings. The use of feta also added a little bit of flavor differentiation to the margherita pizza. The feta’s salty and creamy flavor was not prominent, but rather stealthily amped up the natural flavors of the other ingredients to make a wonderful pizza. At this point in to the food tour, I was offered an additional slice of pizza but my stomach was starting to get painfully full. In capitulation, I was forced to turn down the extra pizza. I did the walk of shame out of Zitto’s unable to live up my glory days of eating. I may not be able to be with you, my lovely pizza pie, but we shall see each other again one day.
Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company and Orange Candy Company
We made our way a little further down the courtyard to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company. The shop is a family owned franchise and they offered us a sample of their dark brown fudge. It was rich and smooth, although it didn’t have a Wow factor. Perhaps I should come back when I am hungrier.
Next we strolled down the street to a throw-back candy shop called the Orange Candy Company, where they sold candy from each of the past 60 decades. This shop’s theme matched perfectly with Old Town Orange’s retro old school feel. Since I am a Gen-X kid, I saw quite a bit of my old favorite candies in their original packaging like “Nerds”, “Bubble Tape”, “Gummy Bears”, “Pop Rocks” and “Big League Chew.” The shop even features some throwback curio items from the 80’s like “Return of the Jedi” lunch boxes. So, after making a visit to memory lane and loading up on some sweet goodies, we continued down Glassell while I chomped down on a box of Lemon Heads.
Citrus City Grille
Less than a half block stroll down Glassell led us to one of the highlights of the tour, the Citrus City Grille. This restaurant features Mediterranean inspired New American cuisine. The architecture and interior has a modern Art Deco style with a flare of Mediterranean. We were lucky that on Sunday it is buffet day at the Citrus City Grille, which means that the tour group is allowed to partake in the buffet! Boooyaahhhh I say!! But my temporary excitement came quickly way to reality that I was full and at a buffet. I started to hum the Alanis Morissette song to myself, “Isn’t it Ironic…don’t you think” “it’s like a free buffet, you just can’t take”, O.K. enough of Tom hacking up classic 90’s songs as a shameless writing tactic. Fortunately I found the silver lining in this predicament, this is a sampler tour which means you are just supposed to “sample” the buffet and not go back for 3 plates. I can do this!
The buffet had a real nice selection of breakfast and lunch dishes. At the carving station was roast beef, turkey and ham. For breakfast was the standard eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes but they also had eggs Benedict and eggs Florentine. For the hot lunch items they had a nice feta stuffed chicken, fresh tilapia in a lemon beurre blanc sauce. On the cold side, there was large “peel and eat shrimp”, Ahi Poke, three types of salads, fruit, and fresh vegetables. After gingerly selecting small portions of most of the items, I made my way back to the table, sat down and looked down at my plate. What did I discover? My plate was overflowing and I could not see the white on my plate! I was thinking to myself that I am a pig <oink>, but then I looked around the table and the entire tour group was in the same situation.
All the dishes were pretty amazing, although a few of them stood out from the rest. On the breakfast menu, the eggs Florentine were my favorite. The eggs Florentine had a crispy and gooey English muffin base, poached egg over easy, sautéed spinach and hollandaise sauce. The eggs were cooked perfectly and the rich creaminess blended well with the garlicky sautéed spinach. The hollandaise was rich and creamy and tied the whole dish together. Another dish that stood out was the stuffed chicken, which had a nice blend of prosciutto and feta cheese stuffed in the chicken with fresh oregano and rosemary. It was tender, juicy and extremely delicious (almost as good as the one my Wife makes). Finally on the cold side, the ahi poke was amazing, as it was both fresh and perfectly seasoned with miso yaki and sesame seeds. It was light and fresh and perfect for anyone who has over eaten and needs to refresh their palate. Fifteen minutes later I looked down and my plate was empty. My fellow foodie friends, what is the moral of the story? It is quite simple, “If you ever think you can’t finish a dish, just take it one bite at a time.”
We hit the streets again down Glassell and our tour guide let us know that we were coming near the end of the tour by stopping at Café Lucca for dessert. There is always room for dessert, despite my already full belly. We walked down Glassell to Café Lucca which was fashioned after a restaurant the owners dined at during a vacation in Lucca, Italy. The restaurant is part espresso bar, Gelateria and traditional Italian street café. With both inside and outside seating, Café Lucca offers pasta, pizza and meat entrees. I peeked at a couple tables and all the dishes looked and smelled delicious and reminded me of my trip to Tuscany. Although the pizzas or osso busco dishes looked good, we were there to try their famous Gelato. I interviewed a couple people on the street and they said that the Gelato was, “Comparable to gelato from Florence.” Hmmm, this claim was a little too good to be true. I would have to try some of their gelato, strictly for “investigative reporting” purposes of course.
As part of the tour you are given a sample cup (about 2 ounces) of the gelato of your choice. To properly judge, I had to pick the two flavors I ate the most in Italy, the Stracciatella (chocolate chip) and Nutella (chocolate and hazelnut cream). For good measure, my wife ordered the pistachio gelato, which was actually brown in color. One of the members of the groups asked why the pistachio is brown and the server responded, “It is made fresh without artificial colors or flavors.” The flavor tasted of intense pistachio and was extremely delicious. My wife and I both concluded that the gelatos were extremely creamy and had the right balance of sugar to cream. The flavors were all natural and used the right proportions of mix-ins. Based on my investigative eating; I can confirm their gelato is on par with the finest gelaterias found in the streets of Florence. I actually plan on coming to Café Lucca for dinner and desert before attending the black and white film screening at Chapman University.
My Final Thoughts
With my last spoonful of gelato, our gastronomic tour through the heart of the Historic Old Town Orange was coming to an end. The Old Towne Orange Tour group did an effective job at picking the right blend of restaurants and shops to paint a very vibrant picture of the Orange food scene. Some of the people in our group were Orange natives and told me that they have been eating in the Orange Circle for the past 10 years, but had yet to discover half the places on the tour. Bite by bite, The Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour provided me the cultural education via my stomach and left me with a laundry list of restaurants to try. I think our tour guide was really passionate about the local culture and bustling foodie scene, as she seemed very excited to share her knowledge and experiences. This tour is great for anyone who enjoys good food and would like to get to know the Old Towne Orange Food scene from a local’s perspective. Aside from the obvious eating portion of the tour, you will definitely get to learn the history of Old Towne Orange and the famed Orange Circle. I am giving The Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour a well-deserved 4 out 5.
Cost of the Tour and Booking
The tour costs $54 a person for a 3 hour walking and eating tour, which is a good deal when you consider the amount and quality of food you eat. As a bonus, you will learn quite a bit of history of Old Towne Orange and get some exercise. Reservations are required. To book at tour follow this link http://www.zerve.com/OldTowneFood.
Note: What is not included in the cost of the tour is a customary tip to the tour guide. Many people are unsure if you should tip a tour guide, the short answer is yes… if you received attentive, energetic and enjoyable experience. I used to be a tour guide at one point of my life, so I can attest that a 10-20% tip is greatly appreciated for great service.
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