Irvine is not your typical college town. In fact, it’s not really a college town at all. Well aware of this fact as an entering freshman at UC Irvine, I decided to take on the challenge of searching for the best of the best (food included) in Irvine by the time I graduate. One would think this would be an easy task for a college with an Eater (short for anteater) as the mascot. Let me tell you, it’s not. The first thing every Eater learns is that you must escape the Irvine bubble and venture into the surrounding Orange County towns for some fun.
When I say “fun” in Orange County, I’m not talking about the rich people drama you might remember from The O.C. and Arrested Development. I’m talking about real college fun for us starving college students! In fact, most of the best things to do in Orange County are either discounted or free (yes, the best things in life truly are free). And for those of you car-less college students like myself, Orange County public transportation is super convenient for getting around. Here is a guide to the best college-budget finds, as well as some opportunities to splurge a bit, in Orange County.
Brynn Cahalan, a senior at UC Irvine, is a proud anteater who loves searching for new restaurants that offer all kinds of food, ants and all. As a business economics student, she especially can’t pass up a good college-budget find.
Best Saturday Morning Activity
Irvine Farmers Market
Corner of Bridge Road & Campus Drive, Irvine
What’s the #1 thing to do on the weekend? Getting up at 8 in the morning to rush over to the University Town Center (AKA “the UTC”) for those speciality produce items you can’t get at the grocery store. As the largest farmers market in Orange County, it has roughly 100 vendors selling produce from all over California. Is it really all just for the love of produce? Of course not. It’s about exploring new cultural crops (Middle Eastern, Taiwanese, you name it), getting to know your local vendors, and returning to buy your farmers market favorites, including roasted corn, tamales, flowers, hummus, and freshly baked bread. Oh, and did I forget to mention free samples? You must get there before it gets too crowded! This is seriously the only time you will ever see the UTC with swarms of people. Guaranteed, it will be more lively than the party you attended the night before. See what I mean? Irvine is far from typical.
Best Late Night Excursion
640 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach // (949) 497-1635
I have to admit, I actually ended up here because of a Valentine’s Day disaster gone bad. Starving and restless after a night of searching for a restaurant on PCH that wasn’t already packed, my boyfriend and I stumbled upon this find. First thoughts upon arriving here? A hole-in-the-wall taquería with a hippie-ish vibe. It’s not everyday that you see a taco stand that serves black tofu mushroom burgers (which happens to be their most popular menu item), am I right? Despite the skepticism I initially felt, this place beats out every other casual, cheap, late night food place because of its menu variety. With menu items ranging from blackened sword fish tacos to calamari nachos, Taco Loco will satisfy anyone’s cravings for a Mexican food fix. All in all, a chill place to sample a variety of tacos with your friends by the beach at midnight.
Best Late Night Delivery Service
The concept of sushi being delivered to your apartment late at night is so ingenious, it makes me wonder why I didn’t think of it! Although a bit on the pricey side in comparison to other sushi options in Irvine, it’s definitely worth it when you feel the onset of those random sushi cravings the night before your midterm. If you follow their Facebook fan page, you can justify the price of your sushi cravings by snatching the happy hour discount code for the night. Be sure to beat your cravings and order before you get hungry! Orders take about one hour to be delivered (yikes!), and this can be a huge inconvenience when you’re starving. If you live within the delivery region near campus, Ippo Sushi beats all the fast food chains when it comes to satisfying those late night cravings.
Must Order: Crunchy Roll (shrimp tempura and crab on the inside; tempura flakes, masago, and sweet sauce on the outside)
Best Revolving Sushi Bar
15435 Jeffrey Road, Suite 119, Irvine // (949) 552-2260
For those of you wondering what a revolving sushi bar is, it’s a casual sushi restaurant that serves the sushi on small plates that travel through the restaurant on a conveyor belt. Weird or totally cool? I’m going with totally cool. Sushilicious definitely knows how to appeal to the college-aged crowd with their entertaining sushi concoctions. Seeing the WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) plate go by is one way to start a conversation (It’s an empty plate with no sushi on it. Go figure.). Make reservations if you plan on going with a group! This place fills up quickly because of the UCI discount that charges only $2 per plate for UCI students. Good-quality sushi, cheap prices, and fun times: what more could you want? How about a waitress that tabulates your bill on an iPod Touch? Oh wait, they have that, too.
Must Order: Irrational Exuberance (baked California roll topped with scallops, caramelized onions, spicy aioli, and daikon)
Strickland’s Frozen Custard
4523 Campus Drive, Irvine // (949) 387-9955
I scream, you scream, we all scream for…milkshakes? That’s right. Strickland’s creamy, smooth milkshakes are what every UCI student screams for, especially on Mondays when they’re 50% off from 4pm – 8pm. This cute ‘lil ice cream parlor provides you with an indulgence that will hit the spot and help you get through the rest of the week. Although I can’t stop myself from ordering an Oreo Cookie milkshake (one of my many addictions) every time, you can get creative and mix ‘n match your flavors. And don’t forget to bring your UCI student ID to get another 10% off. Gotta love college discounts!
Best Ice Cream
Hans’ Homemade Ice Cream
3640 South Bristol Street, Santa Ana // (714) 979-8815
Is there really anything that beats homemade ice cream? Yes: having lots of it. Hans’ is an old-school ice cream parlor with classic flavors for decent prices. For only $3.50, you can get a scoop of ice cream on a cone. Wait, let me rephrase that. For only $3.50, you can get a quarter-pound scoop of ice cream on a cone! Coming from a hardcore ice cream lover, believe me when I say that one scoop is enough. Rich and creamy, this homemade ice cream goes best on their waffle cones. Going out with a group of girlfriends for a therapeutic ice cream run? Share the “Pig Out”: 9 scoops with whipped cream, fudge, wafers, and cherries for $20. When you’re looking for homemade classic ice cream (and lots of it), Hans’ is the place to go.
Must Order: Butter Pecan or Root Beer Swirl (Trust me, one scoop is plenty!)
Best Beach Area
Although there’s access to numerous beautiful beaches in Orange County, Laguna Beach wins the hearts of college students. Laguna is one of those beach towns where there is something for everyone. Artsy people can enjoy the numerous murals, artistic displays, and art festivals, while sporty people can play basketball or volleyball on the beach (or surfing, skimming, etc., you can do at any other beach) . If neither of these appeals to you, I can guarantee that you won’t be able to resist enjoying the beach view while indulging in some gelato. The best way to enjoy the view is to ride the open-air trolley that takes you up and down the coast, especially during summertime when all rides are free! If you happen to have a dog, Laguna is a great place to jog on the beach with your pooch. If not, you can always stroll down the wooden boardwalk, after going into town to grab some grub, of course.
Best Beach Town Brunch
Alta Coffee Warehouse & Restaurant
506 31st Street, Newport Beach // (949) 675-0233
Alta is that homey coffee shop restaurant you keep returning to whenever you have time for brunch. Everything they serve has that homemade touch to it, especially their omelettes. Their chai tea latte, a mix of vanilla and spices, is the best you will ever have! As one of my best friends put it, “It’s love in a cup.” Be sure to request outdoor patio seating so you can take a whiff of that fresh ocean air while you’re sipping on your hot coffee drink. If you happen to be in the Newport Beach area at night, stop by Alta for some live music and 50% off pastries.
Must Order: South of the Border Omelette (eggs, chilies, hominy, jack & cheddar cheese, salsa, sour cream & avocado, served with homemade toast & strawberry jam, and your choice of fresh fruit, cottage cheese, potatoes or hominy) and a Chai Tea Latte
Best Nap Spot
University of California, Irvine
When you’ve got weather as nice as we do in sunny California, the library doesn’t even come close in comparison to this beautiful, 19-acre park. Conveniently located in the middle of campus, you can peacefully nap under one of its 11,000 trees in between classes. Not in the mood for a nap? Other popular Aldrich Park activities include playing frisbee, having a picnic with friends, or frolicking with the campus bunnies. And if you’re lucky, you might even see the UCI Swag Man going for a stroll!
Best Friday Night Activity on Campus
Anthill Pub & Grille
C-215 Student Center, University of California, Irvine // (949) 824-3050
A pub on campus, say what?? Yes, having access to beer on campus is one of the many perks of going to UC Irvine, but I’m not here to tell you about their beer. I’m here to tell you how awesome this pub is, even for those of us who are not 21 yet. In addition to their food selection of burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, and other grilled items, they have a secret menu that includes the infamous “Stoner Fries,” which are basically carne asada fries (a SoCal favorite!). Besides having good food, this pub has the perfect ambience for de-stressing and hanging out with friends. They usually have events on Friday nights, including performances by local bands, making it the perfect place for good food, good drinks, and good times. If you have time to kill on Monday night, stop by for Comedy Night with comedians from Comedy Central, The Tonight Show, and more.
Must Order: Stoner Fries (french fries topped with carne asada, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa)
Best Restaurant for a Romantic Date
Javier’s Cantina & Grill
7832 East Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach // (949) 494-1239
Javier’s is the place to win over someone’s heart with a romantic, upscale Mexican dinner overlooking the beach. There is no way you can go here without splurging, so that’s why I say it is strictly for special occasions. The atmosphere is very chic with the most beautiful decor you will ever see in a restaurant (just check out the photos on their website and you’ll know what I mean), making it the perfect setting for romantic meal. If you want to get cozy, sit by the fire pit in their outdoor patio area with heaters and couches. Any of their entrée items with seafood are winners. I mean, if Kobe Bryant says it’s his favorite Mexican restaurant, you know it’s legit.
Must Order: Enchiladas Pueblo (two Maine Lobster enchiladas, sautéed in garlic, butter, and onions, then covered in a tomatillo sauce garnished with shredded lettuce, avocado slices, sour cream, and cotija cheese)
Best College-Budget Outing
Starplex Cinemas Discount Theater – Woodbridge Movies 5
4626 Barranca Parkway, Irvine // (949) 733-0980
On the flip side, an inexpensive way to spend a night out in Orange County is at the old-school dollar theater. Movie tickets are $2 each for regular movies and $4 for 3D movies. See a movie here on a Tuesday night, and you’ll only have to pay one dollar. Seriously, where else can you get such a bargain? Okay, here’s the catch. The movies they show have been playing at large multiplex theaters for 2-3 months already. Does it really matter? Not really when you’re so swamped with school work that you don’t have time to see movies when they’re released anyway. Be sure to stop by the nearby Ruby’s Diner for a burger before or a late-night milkshake after.
Best Sports Game on Campus
UCI Men’s Basketball
Bren Events Center, University of California, Irvine // (949) 824-5000
UC Irvine is notorious for lacking school spirit, but you wouldn’t have guessed that if you went to one of the men’s basketball games. Without a football team, basketball is UCI’s sport for showing Anteater pride! Not only do the players play with heart, the UCI spirit squad and pep band know how to get the student section standing and cheering with their dance routines and entertaining free throw distractions for the visiting team. If anything, every UCI student should go to a basketball game for the freebies and giveaways! Who doesn’t love “crunch time” (when free Nestlé Crunch bars fall from the ceiling into the student section) or a “call from Gina’s” (when the most spirited fans get a hot, fresh pizza from Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria to share with their friends during the game)? Rip ‘em Eaters!
Best Uses of the Gym
Anteater Recreation Center
680 California Avenue, Irvine // (949) 824-5346
UC Irvine’s gym has so much to offer, it’s time-consuming to figure out the best things to do there. Where do you begin with options like an indoor jogging track, top-notch exercise equipment, a rock climbing wall, cooking classes, and a smoothie bar? And what about those indoor basketball courts that Kobe Bryant uses for practice? Actually, you begin with none of those. The top three facilities to take advantage of at the gym are the free group exercise classes, racquetball courts, and massage therapy. Massages at the gym? Oh yes. There’s nothing like a Swedish massage to rejuvenate the body after midterms. Getting a massage at the Anteater Recreation Center will be the best $50 you ever spend.
Best Healthy Restaurant
True Food Kitchen
451 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach // (949) 644-2400
One word comes to mind when I think of True Food Kitchen: fresh. From the food to the atmosphere, everything here gives you that refreshing feeling. Since UC Irvine is heavily surrounded by fast food chains, this restaurant helps fill that niche for nutritious food by using simple, fresh, and tasty ingredients. Whatever you order, it will leave your body feeling cleansed and satisfied. I highly recommend ordering one of their natural refreshments to go with your meal (especially their “Medicine Man,” made with pomegranate and cranberry juices, black tea, carbonated water, and pomegranate seeds).
Must Order: Wild Mushroom Pizza (with roasted garlic & tallegio) or Wild Ahi Sliders (with wasabi aioli, radish, avocado, & cucumber)
Best Thursday Night Food Truck
You know those moments when you’re craving Korean and Mexican food at the same time? The Kogi BBQ truck can take care of that with their tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and more. It’s like a spicy, Korean BBQ plate married a a traditional, homemade Mexican taco, giving their menu items a nice kick. There’s always a gigantuous line for Kogi at the Eater Stop (UCI’s Thursday night food truck event).
Must Order: Spicy Pork Tacos
Le Diplomate Cafe
4237 Campus Drive, Suite B161, Irvine // (949) 854-5161
Imagine this: chicken, melted swiss cheese, and lots of garlic sauce on a toasted French baguette. It’s a garlic lover’s dream. With so many sandwich options near UC Irvine, Le Diplomate Cafe (AKA “Le Dip”) is king with their mouth-watering sandwiches. Everyone agrees their garlic sauce should be renamed “crack sauce” as it just goes so well with the ooey goodness of the melted cheese and perfectly toasted bread. If their sandwiches aren’t what get people lining up at the door, I don’t know what does. Except maybe their oh-so-low prices. How much better does it get?
Must Order: Chicken Garlic (chicken, melted swiss cheese, & garlic sauce on a toasted French baguette)
Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria
4533 Campus Drive, Irvine // (949) 725-1144
Another garlic lover’s addiction is Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria because of their infamous cheesy garlic bread with marinara dipping sauce. I have tried replicating their recipe numerous times and have failed. Their garlic bread is the real deal, but so is everything else they have on their menu! Family-style pizza, pasta, and wings are sure ways to win over college students, and just about everyone else in Orange County. This will be the #1 restaurant I will miss when I graduate.
Must Order: A full order of cheesy garlic bread (Don’t even think of settling for just the half order)
Best Ethnic Grocery Store
18040 Culver Drive, Irvine // (949) 551-4111
Although I will always be a Trader Joe’s girl at heart, Wholesome Choice stands out from other Orange County grocery stores with their international food court. Serving healthy and ethnic meals from all around the world (Europe, the Middle East, Russia, South Africa, India, Mexico, Southeast Asia and Japan), you can’t get fresh gyros, Persian kabobs, and tandoori tikka chicken masala all from the same place anywhere else for such reasonable prices. Craving a plate of hot international food that comes in massive portions? Go to Wholesome Choice!
Best Summertime Event
88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa // (714) 708-1500
Sure, the OC Fair has your typical county fair faves: cute animals, classic rides, games, and (best of all) lots of food. I’m not talking about the usual roasted corn, turkey legs, corn dogs, and ice cream. Oh no, not at all. I’m talking about all the deep-fried goodness you could possibly imagine (and even some creations that you never thought could exist). Chocolate-covered bacon? Deep-fried Kool-Aid? Deep-fried butter? The OC Fair is the perfect way to let loose and try crazy deep-fried concoctions (but be warned: it is torture for the diet-restricted!). Follow the OC Fair website for ways to get into the fair for free, such as through clothing or food donations. Best way to end the day at the fair? Cool off on the ski lift that takes you across the park.