Best Of :: Food & Drink
At this small SanTana spot, you don't get the T&A of its elders—just sweet, young Vietnamese-American millennials doing jolts of caffeine so strong it makes cold brew about as potent as tap water. But Contra tapers down its take on café sua da in a way that makes it accessible to hipsters and offers other wonderful drinks. Start with the coffee: By this time next year, expect it to start getting attention from the Eaters and Refinery29s of the world.
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.
You won't find a better pizza than at this stylish alternative to Il Fornaio, located around the corner from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The DOP Margherita pizza, salame piccante and rapini are nice gateway plates, but the homemade tagliatelle and pappardelle pasta are truly inspirational, best served with a Friuliano or Sangiovese from the restaurant's extensive wine list. And don't forget to get a cocktail from Joel Caruso, who gets a shoutout elsewhere in this issue.
Though it has a fun bar up front with a flat-screen TV, several beers on tap and a great wine selection, the real action is on Restauration's patio out back. There, a brick pizza oven competes for space with several tables, all enclosed by a wall with planters full of vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. There's a happy-hour menu that features tapas-sized versions of some of the more popular dinner fare, but even the regular-priced dinners are worth sharing—somehow, they taste better when divvied up. On any given evening, you could find yourself sitting next to a group of elderly divas in sunhats or, say, celebrity drummer Josh Freese and his entourage.
There ain't a hell of a lot of punk bars in OC, but it so happens that Johnny's Saloon is about as good as any punk-rock bar you'll find elsewhere. The iconic Huntington Beach establishment also supports more causes than most charities, from puppies to veterans to those with huge medical bills. If you're more concerned with the booze and bar life than altruism, Johnny's offers a tremendous selection of whiskeys, brews and all the bar activities you can handle, from shuffleboard and pool to trivia and facial-hair competitions. Oh, and the music rocks, regardless of date and time.
We don't even need a reason to justify our championing this place for the fourth, fifth or sixth year in a row. Nor do we have to justify giving Johnny's Saloon this award and Best Punk-Rock Bar. You mad, haters? Then up your game.
While most of Newport Beach is a little douchey to really score an easy hookup without breaking the bank, Woody's Wharf hosts an attractive and irresponsible young crowd in a laid-back atmosphere prime for meeting a new fling. Sure, there are cheaper places to get drunk and leave with someone, but Woody's is the right mix of a (generally) good-looking club without all of the bruh-ness that generally occurs in Newps. Additionally, the back patio looks out over a handful of docked boats and the water, which is a perfect place to seal the deal. In the event you can't close with anyone in the bar, you'll be let out into the rush of the inebriated meat market that is the Peninsula at 2 a.m., when everyone is fair and game.
As with any great day-drinking location, there are enough bars within stumbling distance of one another on the Balboa Peninsula that you'll never have to spend an entire afternoon at one spot. Are you a rowdy sorority girl? Baja Sharkeez. Sea dog? Blackie's By the Sea or Balboa Saloon. Or try Cassidy's or Muldoon's—go to them all. And if you get tired of the bar scene, there's always the beach. Where better to throw on a tank top and frat it up all afternoon?