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San Clemente Journal

Off the Eaten Path

Jun 10, 2016 09:59AM ● By Jim Kempton

Poche Kitchen

by Jim Kempton 

Do you love discovering a new eatery? Sometimes the ones you can’t see from the highway are the ones worth seeking out. 

If we are what we eat, I'm fast, cheap and easy. 
My frequented favorites require plenty of parking, good prices and nothing that takes too long to come out of the kitchen. More than likely the places are going to have an ethnic flavor and an eclectic mix of customers. In my picks listed below each of the owners or chefs have all three. Owing to their virtues, these places tend not to be found on the main drag - they’re hiding in plain sight, just behind a place we pass everyday, or in a spot we never bother to check. But frequently they turn out to be the little gems we end up liking best.
Here are a few of my favorite fast cheap and easy spots off the beaten path that may not be known to everyone:

Poche Kitchen 
Tucked between a thrift store and a tattoo shop, Poche Burger & Kitchen is a find. This bar & grill stashed away at the DMV center in Shorecliffs makes excellent burgers - a Kobe beef, a Portobello mushroom or a bacon avocado burger (coupled with the bleu cheese garlic fries that come with them) are certifiably epic. We all know the amazing burgers at the Riders Club; well let me be the first to say these guys are in that ballpark - and sometimes hitting it over the fence. Open for breakfast and lunch try the eggs and truffle hash for a pleasant brunch surprise. Little additions like balsamic vinegar-glazed Brussels sprouts or panko-crusted green beans add variety to the innovative flavors found here. Chef Hooman Mofidi got his chops at the Institute for Culinary Education and it shows in every dish. You can also sit outside which on the weekends when the DMV is closed is a pleasant surprise just a block from the beach. Good bar drinks keep a loyal and frequent local tavern crowd happy and a home-made mango or raspberry lemonade to top of a great burger or a late breakfast make this spot one worth a repeat visit. 

Kawamata Seafood


If you like your seafood fresh, your prices low and your sauces Asian, you are in for a treat here. You couldn’t get a more out of the way location than the west side of Avenida Estrella - down a ways on the opposite side of the street from the new Sprouts center. But that hasn’t stopped seafood aficionados from making the trek to this totally unpretentious little spot - which is a huge hit with the local clients too. Hapa J’s is known for the’ go to’ spot when it comes to the surf crowd and Hawaiian style fare but Kawamata is a different take with a real ethnic flair. Yusuke Kawamata is a Japanese surfer and world traveler who makes one of the best poke bowls this side of Osaka - which is where he hails from. There is Ahi, Octopus and Salmon; plenty of good sauce along with seaweed salad and other authentic fare. You are bound to meet someone who has driven a distance because it’s their favorite spot too. It’s a walk up cash only venue, but the few little umbrella tables out front make the place feel like the neighborhood hot spot that it is. 

El Jefe

 El Jefe

Almost unseen from El Camino Real, right behind Auto Zone across from Rite Aid, this little spot reminds anyone of a dozen places in Mexico. The unpretentious exterior with the flickering neon beer signs, the assorted interior décor, and the mix of local neighborhood folks, surfers, savvy visitors and Latino workers, all provide more of a south-of-the-border feel than your average Mexican restaurant. It takes casual to a whole new down home level - but the service and food quality remains high. Everybody seems to like the tacos - a debate always ensues about whether it’s the chicken, carnitas, carne asada or potato that is the best. The Fish & Chips is the secret deal though - in fact the fish, shrimp or scallops - any seafood combo is both a less than expected price and a more than expected value. Owner Juan Gomez presides over this mom & pop taqueria that offers just about anything a busy Baja eatery would serve including a fine fish and shrimp soup. Beer and wine is available too. There is one lament: almost everyone seems to long for a good frothy tequila margarita to wash down the good grub.