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O.C. Eats | O.C. on the Menu

Chain Reactions

Got a taste for chicken? Two new outlets offer savory poultry among their standard fare.


Two recently opened places, located directly across the parking lot from each other at the Market Place in Irvine, represent chains new to our area--chains with quite different styles.

The first, On the Border, is a large adobe hut surrounded by large cactus plants and decorated inside with gaudy serapes and tequila banners. As the name implies, the cuisine is Mexican-Californian.

These days, I suppose, no one should be surprised to find a Mexican restaurant with its own Web site (www.OnTheBorder. com). Or to find that such a place is as far in spirit from a small Santa Ana Mexican cafe as a Cheesecake Factory is from a neighborhood bakery.

But diners are undeterred. On most evenings there's a short wait for tables, and a hostess hands you the now-familiar plastic sentinel that will eventually vibrate to let you know your table is ready.

One promising sign here is the presence of a special combination oven-griddle for making flour tortillas. Another is the big, appealing menu, filled with mouthwatering dishes and snacks.

I'd come back just for the smoked chicken flautas. They're corn tortillas rolled around a filling of shredded mesquite smoked chicken and deep-fried. You dip them in chile con queso, a spicy melted cheese dip served bubbling hot in a deep-fried cornmeal "bowl."

Tortilla con pollo soup is chicken, vegetables, rice, tortilla strips, avocado and cheese in mildly seasoned chicken broth. It's fresh and fine, but it doesn't taste even remotely like a soup that has been simmering on the back of a stove. The Border Bandoleros are spicy deep-fried jalapenos stuffed with a chicken and cheese mixture.

But in my opinion, the main reason to eat here is the mesquite-grilled fajitas. The beef version--crisp, spicy bits of lean steak--is great, and the one made with plump shrimp is delicious too. Order the Ultimate Fajita and you get both, plus chicken breast and smoky barbecued ribs. All fajita variations come on a hot iron skillet with roasted red potatoes and all the fajita fixings.

What should you stay away from? Well, most of the classic Mexican dishes, which tend to be bland, cloying or buried in lifeless processed cheese. The enchiladas are mealy. I've had a mesquite grilled swordfish that literally floated in a sticky-sweet jalapeno barbecue sauce that completely obscured the taste of the fish.

The green chile burrito filled with roast pork does pass muster, but the refried beans and Spanish rice are poor imitations of the real thing.

On the Border is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $2.99 to $9.39. Fajitas are $9.49 to $13.99.


Oscar's is much more modest in scale and also more kid-oriented. A family called Sarkisian literally built this chain out of a San Diego food stand. So in a way, this chain, with a menu that rambles on about homemade food and a clean, friendly atmosphere, embodies the American dream.

You could call it a cross between a cafeteria and a casual dining room with rather austere black and white plastic and vinyl appointments. You order at the register, then you get handed a card with a number on it to place in a stand on your table. You get your own tableware and condiments, and servers bring the food over when it's ready. Sometimes they wander around the crowded dining room for two or three minutes before they spot your number.

This menu isn't complicated; it's just chicken, ribs, salad, pizza and one or two pastas. The pizzas are doughy and fairly average. The fresh salads, especially the antipasto and spinach salad, are enormous and quite good, a fine value. The ribs are reasonably lean baby backs, cooked well-done and coated with a barbecue sauce baked-on like enamel.

But I wouldn't be writing about this place at all were it not for the chicken. I've had the chicken twice. One time, it was merely great. The other, it was just about the best baked chicken I've ever tasted.

I refer to Oscar's lemon chicken, to distinguish it from the restaurant's barbecue-style chicken, which is not in the same league. It has a good deal in common with the chicken served by the famous Zankou chain in L.A., meaning it tastes like its made with olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. Oscar's doesn't reveal its secret, but I can tell you that the skin is crackling-crisp and the meat so moist and tender it falls off the bone, and I dream about eating it again and again.

An order of lemon chicken goes well with, say, two or three of the "bread sticks"--really, yeasty rolls that happen to be shaped like bread sticks; they're appetizingly dipped in butter and garlic. I also recommend the spinach salad, made with spinach, tomatoes, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms, red onions, sesame seeds and a nicely pungent house dressing.

If you're not a chicken lover, the best pizza is The Super, made with Muenster and mozzarella cheeses, pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, green peppers and onions. And the seasoned potatoes--baked potato wedges dipped in some kind of spiced salt--make great carbo loading for energy to walk around the mall.

Which is probably the reason you're here in the first place.

Oscar's is moderately priced. Salads are $4.95 to $19.95 (which serves 10-12.) Dinners for two, which include Greek salad, bread sticks and either ribs, chicken or pasta, are $12.50 to $20.50. Specials for one are $4.50 to $6.95.


On the Border, 13772 Jamboree Road, Irvine. (714) 508-1060. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday- Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.


Oscar's, 13786 Jamboree Road, Irvine. (714) 505-6070. Open 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. MasterCard and Visa.

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