Thursday, August 29, 2013

Southern Cooking in OC's Most Southern City

Iva Lee's 
555 N. El Camino Real 
San Clemente, CA 92672

If there could be one kind of food genre that I think is missing from the OC restaurant scene, it would be Southern/Cajun. Yes, I know there are already a small smattering of these kinds of restaurants here. Memphis, Jack Shrimp and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen come to mind immediately. I want a place where you can get the real thing, an etouffee, a great gumbo, and a jambalaya that will blow the roof off when I eat it. I have never been to New Orleans, but I have seen lots of TV shows showcasing the food from there. It all looks amazing, and I hope that someday we will have Cajun places like that here. I had some hope when I heard about a place in San Clemente, called Iva Lee's.

Iva Lee's has been around since 2002, and comes to us from the husband and wife duo, Lisa and Eric Wagoner. Lisa has quite the resume. She worked at Splashes at the Surf and Sand Resort, then opened her own restaurant at the age of 24, the critically acclaimed, Ramos House Cafe in San Juan Capistrano. During her time at Ramos House, they won numerous awards, and were even named best Orange County restaurant. Of course all this leads to the question of who is Iva Lee? Iva Lee was Lisa's grandmother, a woman from the south, who fed her family southern meals and classic dishes from New Orleans. This restaurant is a homage to Iva Lee. Let's see if they do her proud.

We got to Iva Lee's at about 7PM on a recent Saturday night. We luckily had reservations, as this place was packed. They even had a wedding reception going on in the backroom of the restaurant. The restaurant is a little on the dark side, and each place setting is decorated with a string of red beads draped across a napkin. I liked this subtle nod towards New Orleans, and even saw a couple of customers wearing their beads proudly. They did not even have to flash anyone to get their beads. The waitress's outfits were described by Katie as being "a southern Gothic look, with their lace red corsets. I would describe these as some of the best waitress outfits, outside of the Tilted Kilt. They have music most nights here, starting at about 7 to 7:30 depending on the day. The night we were here they had a band preforming zydeco music, which helped lend to the ambiance of the restaurant. All of this ambiance was great, but lets see if they have the food to back it up.

Before we get to our order, we were presented with this bread basket. This one included two types of bread, a sourdough mini loaf, and the not to be missed cornbread muffins. I am not too much of a cornbread guy, because most of the time cornbread is too dry and crumbly. This was not the case here. The cornbread was moist and sweet, while the outer shell of it had a nice crunch. I'm a little ashamed to say that we ate three baskets of this bread, but we would probably do it again on future visits to Iva Lee's.

The menu at Iva Lee's had a 3 For 30 promotion on it, so we took full advantage of this offer. Three course meal for $30. For her first pick, Katie selected the Bourbon French Onion Soup ($7 on the regular menu). Katie was pretty pleased with this soup, calling it, "one of the best I have had".  It came out of the kitchen scalding hot. Once it cooled down, we could see that the cheese was plentiful, but did not overpower the sweetness of the onions. It was also not as salty as other french onion soups tend to be. I was grateful when she offered me a few bites of this, what a giver.

Since Katie went with the soup, I tried the Pear Salad ($7). I usually call salads with fruit in them, "Mom salads", because every Mom I know, including mine, love salads with fruit included in them. Along with the pear, this salad also contained crumbled blue cheese, Creole pecans, mixed greens, and a maple vinaigrette. I really liked the different flavors and textures that were thrown together in this salad. Even though the dressing had maple in it, it was tangy. The pecans were candied, while the blue cheese added a pungent, but pleasant flavor. The greens were very fresh, and the pear added sweetness and crunch. You might as well get me a Mother's Day card in May, because I really liked this Mom salad.

I was a little surprised by Katie's selection on the 3 for 30 menu, when she went with the fish option, the Cajun Seared Red Snapper ($19.50). This snapper was served over some summer vegetables, and whipped potatoes. The menu said they were supposed to be sweet potatoes, but they did not taste like them, and definitely did not look like sweet potatoes. Nonetheless, Katie was pretty happy with her dinner. The fish was cooked perfectly, tender and flaky, while the seasoning used here added a little bite to the fish, but in a nice way. The veggies were good, and paired nicely with the fish.

Nothing really says New Orleans more to me than Jambalaya ($19.50). This version contained Andouille sausage, rock shrimp, bay scallops, summer vegetables, and rice. I always like my jambalaya's with rice over noodles. The shrimp and scallops were really on the small side in this dish. The rice was very moist, and the sausage was a highlight for me here. I cranked up the heat by adding some of the hot sauce that was provided on the table, and it made this jambalaya come alive a bit. I know they have to make this for the masses, so they do not get docked by having this come out mellower than I like. When this came out, I thought the serving size was a little on the puny side, but this really filled me up quick.

Dessert time, and I bet from the picture above, you can tell that this was Katie's choice. The Strawberry Shortcake ($7) came with a nice toasted marshmallow meringue on top of it. The strawberries were fresh, but not overly sweet. Katie also made no mention of the shortcake underneath this, so I can assume it got a little lost here.

Now this is more my speed, chocolate is a much more suitable dessert in my book. This Flourless Chocolate Cake ($7) was joined on the plate with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and port soaked cherries. This take on a black forest cake was actually better than I had expected. The chocolate portion of this was very rich, but the tartness of the cherries helped to cut it a bit. I love ice cream, and am never going to say no to it, but it kind of seemed unnecessary with this dessert. Yes, I still ate it though, I am not that crazy to pass up ice cream.

I left Iva Lee's pretty happy. I really thought most of the items we tried were very good. They really had what I imagined the New Orleans/Southern vibe to be. I kind of wished that their menu was even more Cajun or Southern than it is now. I mean they do not even have pecan pie on their dessert menu, and the regular menu is devoid of hush puppies, fried chicken, and okra. What is on the menu was all very solid, and worthy of a return trip. On those return trips I would like to try one of their Hurricanes or maybe even a Mint Julep. The service on this particular Saturday night was very good. Our server Allison did a great job getting us everything we had ordered, making sure we were fine, and keeping things moving along at a relaxed clip. I hope other restaurateurs will come to Iva Lee's, and see how busy they are, and feel the need to open up Southern/Creole style restaurants in OC. For now though, I am happy that we have Iva Lee's.

Out of five stars, (not because I am getting lazy, but because in 1977 Orange County had a team in the International Volleyball Association, also known as the IVA, and they were called the Orange County Stars), five being best to zero being worst, Iva Lee's gets 3.5 stars.

For more information on Iva Lee's, go to their website here:

Iva Lee's on Urbanspoon


  1. It would be nice to be able to see the gluten free menu

  2. Anonymous - I found a copy of their menu online, and it denotes the items that they have that are gluten free. See it here: Thanks for reading the blog.