Mae’s Cafe – Garden Grove

Food Adventures, Orange County

Mae’s Cafe… I used to drive past it all the time when I lived in Garden Grove. It’s situated right next to one of the most consistently busy In N Out Burger locations, and you can even see the Mae’s Cafe marquee from the 22 freeway! I was always curious about the unwavering blue and yellow sign and what lay beneath in the ordinary-looking restaurant. My best friend C was in town and wanted to meet up here to catch up over lunch — a divey diner, he called it. Mae’s Cafe is open 24/7 so he had plenty of high school memories of late-night meals with friends; maybe it was where all the cool kids hung out because I had never set foot in there until just last week.

Steak & Eggs at Mae's Cafe

Steak & Eggs at Mae’s Cafe

When we first walked in, well… we were tackled by a bear hug from C. But then we were warmly welcomed by the woman behind the counter; a closer examination of her name tag revealed that she is in fact Mae of Mae’s Cafe! That was a great way to start our experience and I was looking forward to the food to come. I had done my research beforehand (read: looked up the menu online) and I knew I wanted one thing — THE MANLY MEAL. I kid, I kid, although that only $14 for steak, potatoes, AND a choice of pancakes, waffles, or French toast, my wallet was tempted to dive in. Challenge… not accepted.

New York Steak & Eggs with Hash Browns

New York Steak & Eggs with Hash Browns

Instead I went for my all-time favorite diner dish — steak and eggs. Mae’s offers a choice of sirloin, t-bone, New York steak, or porterhouse (or for the strong of heart, country fried), and I opted for the New York steak with my eggs sunny side up and runny. The steak arrived rare to my liking, though this particular cut was a tad chewy. Nothing a dip into luscious egg yolk couldn’t fix! These are all served with your choice of hash browns or lyonnaise (pan fried) potatoes as well as toast, English muffin, or biscuits & gravy. As you can see in the photos above, I went for the hash browns – extra crispy and a beautiful golden brown. Now my readers, I’ll bet you know me well enough by now that you can guess what I ordered for my bread accompaniment….

Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits and Gravy

Not the prettiest plate in the world, the biscuits were absolutely drenched in a thick, white country-style gravy. The gravy was savory and hearty, but the texture was a bit odd — even visually you can tell it resembled cottage cheese. Still, the fluffy buttermilk biscuits underneath sopped up the all the flavors and were really comforting in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way.

Breakfast Fajitas

Breakfast Fajitas

C ordered the breakfast fajitas — a hot skillet piled high with strips of steak, ham, onion, and bell peppers, and topped with a dollop of refried beans and mountain of cheesy scrambled eggs. It was a man-sized meal (though not the Manly Meal) served DIY with tortillas and salsa. C said it was difficult to choose between this and the John Wayne’s Favorite, but he seemed to have zero regrets as he dove into this sizzling platter.

Le French Dip

Le French Dip

Martin was in a lunch-y mood and decided to go for Le French Dip. Because adding “le” makes it more French, I guess. The menu described it as “thinly sliced beef on a French roll, served with au jus dipping sauce,” but as we soon discovered, the beef slices were generously thick. They seemed to be a bit dry, so he let them marinate in the piping hot au jus which perked them up and made for a more enjoyable sandwich. The fries sounded crispy as Martin crunched next to me in the booth we shared, never offering me a single fry. :( The sandwich came with a pickle (reasonable) and a carrot stick (odd?).

The conclusion? It was a divey diner as promised. But the staff was no-nonsense yet attentive, the food was decent, the iced coffee was pretty good, and most importantly, it was a great place to share a booth with friends and enjoy a leisurely conversation over breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. Or any meal really, since they never close. Definitely better than Denny’s, that’s for sure!

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Check out Mae’s Cafe: maes-cafe.com

9062 Trask Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

See their Yelp reviews here!

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Pho 79 Restaurant – Westminster, CA

Food Adventures, Orange County

Born and raised in Garden Grove just on the outskirts of the ever-growing Vietnamese enclave, I never really paid attention to all of the changes in Little Saigon until I left the OC and moved to Westwood for undergrad. Visiting every weekend at best, maybe less than once a month at my busiest, I finally took notice of the constant construction, the rotation of new trendy restaurants replacing older storefronts, the evolution of the city itself as its northern borders encroached on The Korean District, and the influx of traffic from local residents and out-of-town visitors alike. Many of my favorite restaurants I dined at while growing up had either closed up shop, changed owners, or hired new chefs. But not Pho 79. I could always count on Pho 79 to bring to my table a piping hot bowl of pho just the way I remembered it when I was a little girl earnestly chowing down on the tô nhỏ (literally translated as “small bowl”) with extra gân (beef tendon) while my parents withheld the toy that would accompany the kids meal until I first finished my food. (That’s right – we were eating offal before offal was cool.)

Beautiful bowl of pho!

Beautiful bowl of pho!

Though we’ve graduated from the college town and moved on to other Westside neighborhoods, I still do not visit home as often as I would like (and certainly not as often as my parents would like), but on those rare occasions, Pho 79 is a beloved part of my dining-out rotation. This Little Saigon icon, situated in a humble standalone building just behind a liquor store, has remained largely unchanged throughout the past 20-something years that I have frequented it. Who knows – maybe it has even stayed more or less the same since it first opened in 1979 (hence the namesake) to serve the immigrant post-war families looking for a bit of familiarity. Even the menus have seen better days and I swear they are the same exact ones that my little 3-year-old hands would thumb through, looking for the soda xí muội (salted plum soda) on the last page.

Vietnamese drip-style coffee

Vietnamese drip-style coffee

Nowadays, my beverage of choice is the cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. I take it for granted that everyone here in LA always has somewhere else to be, so the slow-dripping French-style cà phê phin is just not a feasible option for the few Vietnamese restaurants on the Westside. Here at Pho 79 we can slow our pace, just for a bit, and let the dark roast steep at its leisure through the filter and into a mug ready and waiting with a dollop of sữa đặc (sweetened condensed milk).

My bowl (Martin's is MIA due to having been devoured)

My bowl (Martin’s is MIA due to having been devoured)

Martin always gets the phở tái sách, tô xe lửa – the largest bowl (literally translated as “train bowl”) with rare steak slices and tripe. I was unable to snap a photo before he dove right in. This is his standard order and he always looks very content while slurping away, strands of rice noodles hanging askew off the edge of his bowl, so just take our word for it – it’s good.

The condiments for pho

The condiments for pho

I like to go a teeny bit fancier with my pho. I will usually order the phở tái gân bò viên, tái để riêng, tô thường – a so-called “regular” sized bowl loaded with beef tendon and beef meatballs served with rare steak slices on the side. I learned this trick from my dad. See, the broth is always so hot that by the time the chef ladles it into the bowl and the server brings the bowl to my table, the beef has overcooked. Having them bring the beef separately allows me to control the process and enjoy the beef when it has just turned a nice pale pink, cooked by the broth’s residual heat. Yum. I also go crazy with the bean sprouts, mint/herbs (traditionally ngò gai, the one that looks like a long serrated blade, and rau quê, commonly known as Thai basil) and a generous squeeze of a fresh lime wedge. In a separate dish, I will also portion out some hoisin sauce (known affectionately as tương ăn phở, or literally, “sauce to eat with pho”) and Huy Fong Foods sriracha, everyone’s favorite hot sauce. At long last, I’m all set… and Martin’s probably halfway through his train bowl at this point.

Ready to drink - ca phe sua da!

Ready to drink – ca phe sua da!

By the time we are close to finishing our meals, the coffee is ready to be stirred and poured over the tall glasses of ice. Mmm… sweet, creamy heaven with a very strong coffee essence. Starbucks lattes ain’t got nothin’ on this!

If you find yourself in Orange County and craving a hot bowl of comforting soup, I definitely recommend stopping by Pho 79. Don’t be intimidated by the alley-side driveway entrance, and don’t be deterred by the apparent lack of parking – the turnover is excellent even during lunch or dinner rush, so sooner or later, someone will be leaving and you can snag their precious parking space. Sign your name on the clipboard hanging on the door or tell a friendly waiter how many people are in your party (holding up the number on your fingers is A-OK too). Then sit back, relax, and prepare for beefy goodness that will transport you to the real streets of Saigon… or (if you’re lucky) blissful memories of your mom’s kitchen.

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Check out Pho 79 Restaurant: pho79.com

9941 Hazard Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

See their Yelp reviews here!