You wouldn't know it from looking at him, but Mike Harrah owns most of downtown Santa Ana. Featured with his mug as the cover photo for a lengthy article in a recent issue of OC Metro, this man with a grizzly beard is credited by the magazine for revitalizing Santa Ana's business district. He isn't, contrary to what I first believed, a long-lost member of ZZ Top.
But along with being a real-estate developer, millionaire, and an all-around contradictory (and controversial) figure, I learned that Harrah is also a restauranteur. A few years ago, he took a derelict car dealership on First and Main and transformed it into a sprawling eatery, bar, and nightclub.
Redubbed Original Mike's and swathed with a fresh coat of paint, the building nevertheless remains exactly as it stood in 1919, the year it was built. Red brick masonry adorns one side of the structure, while on the other, windows previously boarded-up now face traffic with broad panes of glass.
I stepped inside, and was immediately transported to another time and place -- to a saloon from a bygone era and an Orange County with which I was unfamiliar. Every inch of the place seemed to ooze history, and my eyes feasted on the sumptuous surroundings long before my mouth feasted on the food.
Above us, belt-driven ceiling fans paddled the air. In the main dining room, an open kitchen gleamed with white tiles and chrome. At the bar, saddles functioned as stools. On the walls, trophy swordfish and vintage photos covered all corners. In the original showroom of the old dealership, a restored Packard sparkled, now surrounded by high tables and chairs.
While our party waited for our food, our eyes kept drifting to take in more of the gorgeous space. Our attention returned only when lunch arrived.
The Griddle Burger ($9.95) I ordered was big enough to share, which I did. Between the toasted bun, a thick patty of formidable girth was griddled to a crusty char, topped with a shiny blanket of melted cheddar. It came with the works -- chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, pickles, mayo, mustard, and red onion slivers -- and ate like all good burgers should; supremely filling and beefy.
The side of onion rings which came with the burger was of the breaded variety. I thought they were a bit too thick and heavy, but others at my table found it crunchy and addictive. The Fiesta Coleslaw -- the second side item to be included with the burger -- refreshed with julienned cabbage still garden-stiff and crisp.
You wouldn't know it from looking at it, but you're still in OC when you eat at Original Mike's.
100 South Main Street
Santa Ana, CA 92701-5220