Best Of :: Food & Drink
A neon sign in a window humbly beams, "Essential Thai Cuisine," and the restaurant lives up to its lofty name. Beyond satay sticks, the kitchen whips up appetizers such as a pungent larb with a minty, lemongrass-y aroma that's almost a hallucinogen. Being Anaheim and all, there are even Thai tacos! But at Essential Thai Cuisine, it's the curries that are, well . . . essential. The beef panaeng is king, with tender chunks smothered in a savory red curry. Don't skirt past the noodle dishes; instead, dial up the sweat bead-inducing heat with spicy noodles flecked with chile peppers while trying in vain to cool off by guzzling Thai beer.
We try to pass around this award every year—not only to spread the wealth, but also to acknowledge that chefs come and go and always up their game. But for probably the first time in Weekly history, we have a repeat winner. And the reason isn't because Taco María is the only restaurant to have appeared on 2014 best-restaurant lists for this paper, the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles, or because Food & Wine recognized chef Carlos Salgado as one of the country's 10 Best New Chefs earlier this year. It's because, despite getting invites from across the country from folks eager to taste the next generation of Mexican food, Salgado hasn't let fame go to his head; if he's in town, Salgado is hustling on the line alongside the rest of his crew. And who else in OC gets up before dawn every day to make masa from heirloom blue corn purchased directly from farmers in Mexico and is planning to launch a masa revolution by spreading its gospel? His aguachile? Entire restaurants have created less. Enough philosophizing—go eat!
Forget your regular, European-influenced desserts and head to Snow Station for this Taiwanese-style dessert made of ice shaved so fine that each spoonful turns into liquid as soon as it comes into contact with just the warmth of your palate. The flavors here are Asian-American chic, so expect taros and various teas and Asian fruits. If you're feeling extravagant, go for one of the premade combos that range from banana split to S'mores, but for regular weekday treats, there's nothing better than a simple green tea shaved snow topped with some condensed milk.
Despite our county being so close to Ensenada, our fish taco game is weak. But El Taco Nazo carries the torch in La Habra, where families fill the booths on weekends for crispy fish and shrimp tacos dressed just as they are south of the border. The secret? The batter! Plus, the chiles güeritos are so popular the chefs had to start doling them out from the counter to keep customers from devouring the whole tray.
Orange County's Korean District has been expanding quietly for years, but it came into its own when Kang Hodong Baekjeong opened a branch here to satisfy homesick Korean-Americans who don't want to drive to K-Town in Los Angeles. The grill at Baekjeong ("Butcher") is smaller than normal and circled by compartments containing hot kimchi, corn cheese, slowly cooking egg, and onions with peppers. And the servers must have eyes everywhere because they bustle through so quickly—replacing panchan, barley tea, beer and soju—you might not notice them.
Last year, OC's largest farmers' market was asked to move, since it was taking up too many precious parking spots near the In-N-Out on Campus Drive. Irvine Certified Farmers Market then moved down the road to Mariner's Church and spread out a little, and it's busier than ever. It's our Hollywood, our Santa Monica, a tourist attraction in its own right. Same Saturday-morning hours, same beautiful chaos. Come hungry, leave inspired.