Today’s Orange County is a crossroads for cultures from around the globe. (To give you an idea, Latino residents make up over 1/3 of the population; Asian residents represent 18%. There are healthy concentrations of East Indians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. In today’s Orange County, 45% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and 30% of residents are foreign-born.) There are neighborhoods throughout the county in which one can find authentic ethnic food and experiences. OC is also home to a huge array of festivals and celebrations that offer visitors a great opportunity to experience the many cultures that make up the county’s rich cultural tapestry.
OC’s Latino Culture: The land that is now Orange County was once under Spanish, then Mexican rule, so the county’s Latino heritage is longstanding. Yorba, Peralta, Pico, Avila, Rios and Sepulveda are names of some of the county’s oldest families. Those original settlers have been followed, of course, by many more recent waves from Central and South America. By 1950, there were as many as 40 Mexican-American colonias (or communities) spread across the county. While Latino neighborhoods, restaurants and markets can still be found in many corners of the county today, the cities of San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana would be good places to look for authentic expressions of Latino culture. Libreria Martinez on Broadway in Santa Ana—part bookstore, art gallery and community gathering place—specializes in Latino literature in English and Spanish, hosts regular lectures and book signings, and is the largest seller of books in Spanish in the nation. OC Events that celebrate aspects of Latino history and culture include: Rancho Days Fiesta, Lake Forest (May), Mariachi Festival, San Juan Capistrano (June), Mexican Independence Day, Santa Ana (September), OC Film Fiesta, Santa Ana (September), New World Flamenco Festival, Irvine (Sept.), Mexican Day of the Dead Family Festival, Santa Ana (Nov.)
Exploring OC’s Vietnamese Culture: Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese community living outside of Vietnam. Many refugees resettled to the United States after the Vietnam War, entering through Camp Pendleton, just over the county’s southern border. The Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster salutes this chapter of our shared history. Covering three square miles and straddling the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove, Little Saigon is the commercial and cultural hub for Southern California’s Vietnamese community. It’s also the home of the oldest and largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the U.S. A few places to stop on your exploration might include: the Asian Garden Mall, the major shopping hub; across the street, A. Dong Supermarket for specialty items that can’t be found in regular area markets; and Catinet Plaza offers still more shops and restaurants. Upscale lunch spots include: the Grand Garden or Quan Hy. For basic fare, try the traditional Vietnamese pho, served in many restaurants in the area. The annual Tét Festival, held in February, celebrates the arrival of spring and the first day of the lunar new year. This colorful celebration treats visitors to Vietnamese dance, music, ceremonies and an array of traditional Vietnamese food. This is the official Tét Festival of Southern California.
Celebrating OC’s Asian Cultures
The Japanese arrived in Orange County as early as the 1890s and found particular success in agricultural enterprises. Visit the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum in Fullerton to learn more about their contributions to the OC agricultural story. Or drop by Irvine’s Tanaka Farms to enjoy the bounty of one of the county’s few remaining family farms. Celebrate the grace and beauty of Japanese culture at the Japan America Kite Festival, Seal Beach (Oct).
During the county’s pioneer era, OC developed a small Chinese population that worked on local construction projects, farms and ranches and ran early stores, laundries and restaurants. Small Chinatowns developed in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Orange to serve the local population, but disappeared by the 1920s and 30s. Today’s OC has a thriving Chinese population. You can enjoy Chinese music, dance traditions and culture at the Bowers Museum’s annual Chinese New Year celebration in February.
Garden Grove experienced an influx of Korean immigrants in the late 1970s and 1980s and is now home to the second largest Korean American enclave after Los Angeles. Little Seoul (located on a stretch of Garden Grove Blvd.) is the central business and cultural hub for the Korean community. The annual Korean Festival, Garden Grove (April) is a great way to discover the beauty, traditions and flavors of Korean culture.
Experiencing OC’s European Cultures: Whether they happen to share the heritage or not, when there’s good food, drink, music and dancing involved, Orange Countians delight in sampling many European cultures. OC Events that celebrate European cultures include: OC Greek Fest, Anaheim (May) held at Orange County’s oldest Byzantine Church, ScotsFest—A Scottish Festival of Celtic Entertainment and Food, Costa Mesa (May), Irish Fair & Music Festival, Irvine (June), A Taste of Greece, Irvine (June), Old World Village Oktoberfest, Huntington Beach (Sept. & Oct.) and Oktoberfest (Sept. & Oct.) in Anaheim, whose connection goes back to its founding as a German grape-growing colony.
Celebrating Middle Eastern Cultures: The Arab American Festival, Garden Grove (Sept.) celebrates the rich heritage of the Arab community while bringing together people for all ethnic and cultural backgrounds to enjoy authentic Middle Eastern food, entertainment and merchandise. The highly diverse community of Garden Grove is home to the Islamic Society of Orange County and the largest mosque west of the Mississippi. Irvine is a hub of Iranian-American cultural activity, with two Persian markets and one of the country’s largest Persian New Year’s celebrations. The Persian New Year Festival--Norooz , Irvine (March/April) and the Persian Festival of Autumn—Mehregan, Irvine (Sept.) are outdoor family events that includes arts, music poetry, live performances, dance, children’s activities and ethnic food. And the Anatolian Cultures & Food Festival, Costa Mesa (Oct.) showcases the civilizations that thrived in the Anatolian region of Turkey, dating back to the Trojans, Romans and Ottomans.
Experiencing Native American Culture: There once was a time when powwows were just for Native Americans, but now they offer a great opportunity to for others to experience Native American culture. Check out the Southern California Indian Center Powwow held annually in August at the OC Fair & Expo Center in Costa Mesa. More than 1,000 dancers from 300-plus tribes and nations gather at the West Coast's biggest powwow. If you’re looking for authentic Native American blankets, baskets, pottery or jewelry, drop by Len Wood’s Indian Territory Gallery & Museum in Laguna Beach for more historical pieces or Ortega’s Trading Post in San Juan Capistrano for more contemporary items.
Do I Hear a Ukulele? Ever since Duke Kahanamoku demonstrated surfing along the OC coast in the 1920s, Orange Countians have had a love affair with things Hawaiian. And the county has a sizeable population originally from Hawaii and other Pacific Islands. Duke’s (Huntington Beach), Billy’s at the Beach (Newport Beach) and the Royal Hawaiian (Laguna Beach) all offer Hawaiian fare and atmosphere. Don the Beachcomber (Huntington Beach) also features live music from the islands. The Irvine Barclay Theatre regularly features Hawaiian performers on its season and on its Flights & Sounds Festival during the summer at the Orange County Great Park.
A Museum that Puts It All Together: Bowers Museum, in Santa Ana, celebrates world cultures through their art. The museum has mounted major exhibitions that have toured nationally and internationally and is an international partner with the Palace Museum in Beijing, the British Museum and others. Its permanent collection encompasses more than 130,000 works representing Native American, Pre-Columbian, Asian, Pacific and African cultures and Orange County history. The Bowers Kidseum offers children the opportunity to explore many cultures through hands-on displays and activities. The museum also hosts numerous family festivals, celebrating different cultures, throughout the year.
Festivals that Put It All Together: SOKA University, in Aliso Viejo, is dedicated to furthering global peace and understanding. Check out its colorful International Festival in May. The food, music and dance of many cultures are also on display at the Orange International Street Fair, Orange (Sept.) and the Global Village Festival, Irvine (Oct.) is the largest multicultural festival in Orange County, celebrating more than 50 cultures with activities for the whole family.
OC’s Eclectic Eating Experiences: Delicious and authentic ethnic food can be found in many places in Orange County. [See OC Dining section or this website and select by type of ethnic food.] Can’t make up your mind? Drop by Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree where 20 eateries offer meals, drinks and snacks from Taiwan, Japan, China, Korea, France, Greece, Italy and the U.S. Believe it or not, the burgeoning, gourmet OC Food Truck experience is also a great way to take a crash course in OC’s amazing culinary diversity. Checking out the OC Food Truck Experience at the OC Fair & Event Center grounds on Wednesday nights (5:30-9 p.m.) or Thursday lunches (11 a.m.-2 p.m.) or the OC Foodie Fest in Anaheim (August). Last year’s event featured gourmet food truck cuisine for every taste, including Korean, Indian, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Egyptian, Mediterranean, Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, Filipino and Hawaiian.