Best of OC

Best Of 2011

Neighborhoods

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  • + Beverly Hills
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  • + Costa Mesa
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  • + Covina
  • + Culver City
  • + Cypress
  • + Dana Point
  • + Diamond Bar
  • + Downey
  • + El Segundo
  • + Encino
  • + Escondido
  • + Fallbrook
  • + Fontana
  • + Foothill Ranch
  • + Fountain Valley
  • + Fresno
  • + Fullerton
  • + Garden Grove
  • + Gardena
  • + Glendale
  • + Granada Hills
  • + Hawaiian Gardens
  • + Hermosa Beach
  • + Highland
  • + Huntington Beach
  • + Indio
  • + Irvine
  • + Julian
  • + La Canada Flintridge
  • + La Habra
  • + La Jolla
  • + La Mirada
  • + La Palma
  • + Ladera Ranch
  • + Laguna Beach
  • + Laguna Hills
  • + Laguna Niguel
  • + Lake Forest
  • + Lakewood
  • + Las Vegas
  • + Lawndale
  • + Lomita
  • + Long Beach
  • + Los Alamitos
  • + Los Angeles
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  • + Marina Del Rey
  • + Maywood
  • + Midway City
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  • + Montclair
  • + Mountain Center
  • + Mt Baldy
  • + Newport Beach
  • + North Hollywood
  • + Northridge
  • + Norwalk
  • + Oceanside
  • + Orange
  • + Out of Town
  • + Palos Verdes Peninsula
  • + Panorama City
  • + Paramount
  • + Pasadena
  • + Pioneertown
  • + Placentia
  • + Pomona
  • + Portola Hills
  • + Rancho Cucamonga
  • + Rancho Palos Verdes
  • + Rancho Santa Margarita
  • + Redlands
  • + Redondo Beach
  • + Riverside
  • + Rossmoor
  • + Rowland Heights
  • + San Bernardino
  • + San Clemente
  • + San Diego
  • + San Francisco
  • + San Juan Capistrano
  • + San Marino
  • + San Pedro
  • + Santa Ana
  • + Santa Monica
  • + Seal Beach
  • + Sherman Oaks
  • + Sierra Madre
  • + Signal Hill
  • + Silverado
  • + Solana Beach
  • + South El Monte
  • + South Gate
  • + South Pasadena
  • + Stanton
  • + Studio City
  • + Sunset Beach
  • + Temecula
  • + Torrance
  • + Trabuco Canyon
  • + Tustin
  • + Twentynine Palms
  • + Universal City
  • + Unknown
  • + Venice
  • + Villa Park
  • + Westminster
  • + Whittier
  • + Wilmington
  • + Woodland Hills
  • + Yorba Linda
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Best Of :: Food & Drink

Best Identity-Confused Cuisine
Taco Loco

Fusion can be a loaded term when it comes to cuisine, but Taco Loco wears the adjective like a badge of honor. Incorporating Californian, Southwestern and Cajun flavors into its recipes, Taco Loco delivers deliciously innovative, yet simple renditions of Mexican fare that kick the salivary glands and tame the belly. Although this little seaside joint serves up some mean mahi mahi, the fresh ingredients and loving preparation ensure that even the vegetarian options are able to hold their own. You know a place is good when kids from the LBC cruise all the way down to South County just to inhale a few blackened-mushroom tacos. In addition to serving up wholesome nosh, Taco Loco hosts a series of specials throughout the week that make sure your wallet doesn't go hungry, too. Loco Burgers, slathered in complimentary homemade guacamole, are priced from $4 to $5 on Mondays, and on Loco Tuesdays, you can get tacos for less than $2. What's more is that for two days out of the week, it's open until 2 a.m., which means you have an option to feast your face on something other than Del Taco after-hours. $$

640 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 92651
MAP
949-497-1635
Best Outdoor Dining
The Beachcomber
Kevin Lara

If your own-of-town guests are keen on experiencing quintessential Orange County, take them to the Beachcomber. Here, they'll marvel at a prototypical OC scene: brunching trophy wives toasting one another on snatching deep-pocketed sugar daddies. Oh, the view of the beach is nice, too; reservations for the summer season are booked fast. What surrounds the beachside shack eatery is a post card come to life. The food is hardly the point. But if it is true that a hot dog eaten at the Grand Canyon tastes as good as a steak, the same concept applies here. The sunsets, the idyllic beach huts and the crashing surf cresting on sand just steps from the entrance are seasonings more essential than salt. $$

15 Crystal Cove, Newport Beach, 92657
MAP
949-376-6900
Best Waterfront Dining
SOL Cocina
Edwin+Goei
%22I+trust+the+chef%22

Dropped daintily on Pacific Coast Highway above Newport Bay is SOL Cocina, an elegant establishment dedicated to bringing the flavors of Baja to Orange County. But this is cuisine with a conscience. The environmentally friendly menu boasts low-fat, healthy items, and almost everything is gluten-free. The chefs use only sustainable fish and humanely raised beef and pork—and many dishes can be made vegetarian or even vegan. Try one of their exquisitely crafted margaritas (we love the cucumber jalapeño), any of about a dozen different salsas and definitely the taco vampiro. Snag a seat at one of the copper tables on the patio for a luxurious view of the boats, docks and houses you'll never afford. We recommend going at sunset, when the water turns as gold as the tequila in your glass. $$$

251 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 92660
MAP
949-675-9800
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317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, 92648
MAP
714-374-6446
Best Culinary Experimentalist
Dave Emery
JC Vera

What haven't we said about Dave Emery that hasn't already been said? The man is an all-around crazy person—and we mean that with the utmost respect. He insists on making everything he serves at Sol Del Sur Bistro from scratch and doing it all himself, with no assistance from a sous chef or even a dishwasher. All evidence suggests he is self-taught and loves to cook just as most people like to breathe. He has working knowledge of Italian, Japanese, French and Spanish cuisines, gleaned from his travels and bolstered by the undying curiosity of a child. The menu he attempts is formidable and frenetic. When the small room he calls a restaurant is even half-full, he can be easily overwhelmed with orders. He creates a list of a dozen or so appetizers, traipsing borders and using uncommon ingredients, such as crosnes, aji amarillo and uni. His entrées are bold, complex and, at times, beguiling. As of this writing, he is serving grilled strawberries with lamb shanks braised in lavender and honey; by the time you read this, though, that dish will be history. Emery is never satisfied: He thinks of new ways to challenge himself and his customers; and he's been known to introduce a new dish one night and jettison it the next. Don't even try to convince him to edit his menu down or ask him to be less ambitious. We like our mad scientist just the way he is. $$$

31115 Rancho Viejo Rd., San Juan Capistrano, 92675
MAP
949-487-5225
Best New Restaurant
Chapter One: the modern local
Kevin Lara

Former Haven Gastropub partner Jeff Hall throws down the gauntlet with Chapter One, a challenge to not only his former colleagues, but also his neighbors at Santa Ana's burgeoning restaurant scene. The bar pours old-man drinks with equal jiggers of expertise and knowledge of the mixological arts. It's also up-to-date on the local beers. Meanwhile, chef Oge Dalken, a culinary raconteur in a city full of them, brings humor and lightness to dishes that are as fun to eat as they are to order. A beef culotte inspires other chefs to do better with bacon-wrapped steaks. And for a dessert called "Milk & Cereal," the breakfast food of our youths is deconstructed and reinterpreted: Panna cotta becomes the milk, and crispy Greek kataifi plays cereal. You have to order it to get the joke and realize that the culinary punch line is as delicious as the setup. $$

227 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, 92701
MAP
714-352-2225
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451 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, 92660
MAP
949-644-2400
Best Service In a Restaurant
Old Vine Café Critics' Pick
Old Vine Café
Kimberly Valenzuela

Old Vine is no stranger to these pages, having won Best Restaurant in 2009—and it has broadened its ambitions since then, hosting wine nights and even leading culinary tours of Italy. But the attention of brothers Mark and Brandon McDonald to the homefront hasn't suffered: You still see Brandon every morning through night, guiding customers old and new through the menu, maybe suggesting an omelet or the seasonal four-course chef's menu, and with a memory of the café's hundreds of wines that borders on That's Incredible! territory. Mark is almost as present on the floor, even though he's manning the kitchen, trading jokes with customers and making sure their experiences are always spectacular. Such attention to detail doesn't come out of economic survival or even hipster irony, but rather the McDonalds' honest-to-goodness enthusiasm for great food. They are redeeming their surname in the food industry. $$$

2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 92626
MAP
714-545-1411
Best Place to Ogle the Waitstaff
Hapa J's Critics' Pick
Hapa J's
Kevin Lara

Service with a smile is nice—but it's better if that smile is bleached white and framed by lip-gloss. The waitresses at Hapa J's are catalog-ready at all times, with effortlessly manicured nails, glossy hair and sun-kissed skin; they're what all of Orange County should look like, if everyone was an extra from, well, The O.C. But the servers here are also quick, efficient and attentive, constantly filling cups, bussing tables and asking you how you're doing, so expect to see a lot of your server (which is a good thing—more time to gawk). Best of all, the Hawaiian fusion nosh is delicious—opt for the New Spicy Poke Bowl ($5.99), in which fresh, cubed, sashimi-grade ahi tuna is topped with sesame seasoning and spicy aioli, then served alongside macaroni potato salad—and will give your mouth something to do other than babbling incoherently at your perky waitress. $$

2016 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 92672
MAP
949-276-6657
Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying
Raya

You know you're in it for a few Benjamins when you see the view from your table inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It is a soaring panorama of the Pacific Ocean to which only cruise ship passengers are usually privy. But the food is also worth the money. If not yours, then someone who's willing to admit it is a better investment in alta cocina fare than anything the Rick Baylesses and Susan Fenigers of the world have to offer. First, Richard Sandoval, the mastermind behind this and other similarly upscale restaurants, is actually from Mexico. Those who think this shouldn't matter need to taste his corn soup, which can be a revelatory slurp akin to the first time you had a perfect rib-eye or seared foie gras. The CIA-trained Mexico City native does it all, beginning with that soup. And he doesn't gussy up Mexican cuisine's indigenous ingredients like oddities just to prove he knows about them. Instead, he uses them as matter-of-fact jumping-off points for his own brand of haute cuisine that just happens to feature a Mexican flavor profile. Herewith is proof that "expensive Mexican cuisine" isn't a contradiction in terms and that huitlacoche does, indeed, work well with braised short rib. $$$$

1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, 92629
MAP
949-240-2000
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8112 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 92660
MAP
949-376-6990
Best Restaurant to Take the Kids To
Pepz Pizza

The best restaurants for kids are the kind where it doesn't matter if they run around like, well, kids. Pepz (yes, with a Z) is a throwback to pizza parlors of old, where the little ones can disappear into the small arcade in the back. On weekends, each of the branches of this OC-only mini-chain is full of sport teams and activity clubs. The pizza and salads are good fare for the family, and when the noise level gets too crazy, there's beer and wine with which the adults can drown their sorrows. $$

Multiple Locations
Best Restaurant/Art Gallery Fusion
2nd Floor
Meranda Carter
Colossal Burger

There are several art forms, and 2nd Floor rolls them into one. Primarily providers of culinary art, its walls are lined with paintings from local artists, and it often hosts live music. All of the art featured in its monthly art shows is for sale, with all profits going to the artist. Perched atop the shops of Main Street in Huntington Beach on, yes, the second floor, it serves some of the most innovative foods you'll find. The 99 percent from-scratch kitchen offers such delights as Zeppelin poppers—cream cheese-filled jalapeños wrapped in bacon, then deep fried and covered with a raspberry sauce. Its pride and joy are the Colossal Burgers, a full pound of food between two buns, with toppings ranging from onion rings to mashed potatoes. One is about the size of your head! Though each one carries a $16 price tag, there's more than enough for two, even three people to share. And every Wednesday is Classical Carnage night, featuring a group of musicians playing songs ranging from Bach to rock in the classical style, with 25 percent of the dinner sales supporting youth music programs. All of this makes 2nd Floor an exceptional example of the wonders that happen when the culinary and fine arts unite. $$$

126 Main St., Huntington Beach, 92648
MAP
714-969-9000
Best Place to Get Some Work Done
Monkey House Café
Kevin Lara

At this sprawling, family-run coffeehouse and café, the menu is your usual fare—coffee drinks, deli and grilled sandwiches, salads, soups, and pastries—though tasty and affordably priced (the delicious Funky Monkey espresso/chocolate/banana blended drink costs less than $4). But this is also an unexpected haven for those needing to get some work done on the ol' laptop. The WiFi is free, and there's an abundance of seating nooks and workspaces throughout the place—couches, tables, lounge seats, stools and bar seating. There's also a massive fake tree in the middle of the store from which toy monkeys hang—in case you need a little diversion. $$

18862 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, 92648
MAP
714-965-1135
Best Romantic Restaurant
AnQi

Though the elegant Charlie Palmer next door at South Coast Plaza is also a strong contender, around here, we like our romantic dining to offer at least a hint of what's supposed to happen after dinner. And if the dark, voluptuous embrace of AnQi doesn't feel sexy to you, check your pulse. Elizabeth An—daughter of Helene An of Crustacean fame—knows what's up: She put the word "naughty" in her menu statement, and the luxurious setting delivers on that promise, with its varying textures and grains of the wood paneling, lush fabrics, and translucent walls surrounding the "secret" dining area. Even during the brightly lit lunchtime, this some-Vietnamese-but-also-other-Asian eatery is an unabashed vamp. Maybe it's just us, but the hottest element in the whole space is the carved, solid-wood dining chairs, so lovingly formed they look like they grew into that shape. The staff are attentive and good-natured without being overly familiar and can be counted on to help you feel good about yourself. Ladies, if you wear some killer shoes, the hostesses will give you a shout-out. (They should know: They probably see a lot of fashion shows on the restaurant's runway.) And of course, the food is excellent. The signature An's Famous Garlic Noodles are deceptively simple, with a delicate, almost-haunting umami that makes them addictive. And if P.F. Chang's has ruined the lettuce wrap for you, AnQi's ssam wraps, especially the kurobuta pork belly version, will restore your faith in the power of contrasting tastes, temperatures and textures in your mouth. But please don't eat the things with a knife and fork. Really, really not sexy. $$$$

3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 92626
MAP
714-557-5679
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Best Identity-Confused Cuisine: Taco Loco

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