Best Of :: Food & Drink
The best bar in Orange County isn't even really a bar; it's a restaurant with an absolutely astounding bar program. When Playground opened in the Fiesta Marketplace (now called the East End), it was renowned for its beer selection, which was always $5 per pour; how strong the beer was determined the pour size. Years later, it's still $5 per pour, there's a small but extremely well-curated wine list, and now it's added a full spirits program to the mix, with extremely talented bartenders who create innovative cocktails that nearly always work. But as with everything Playground, the cocktail and beer menus change on a whim, so order a second round while you can.
Readers’ Choice: Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
We figured Taco Maria had a nice two-year run as the county's best restaurant, that chef Carlos Salgado wouldn't mind if we spread the love elsewhere, that there were a bunch of other OC spots worthy of the crown. And there are—more than at any point in OC's dining history, actually. But we are a paper of truth, no matter how inconvenient, and the truth is Salgado's place remains epochs ahead of nearly everyone else: He's a chile de árbol in a sea of bell peppers. It's not just that Salgado was a James Beard Award semifinalist this year, or that he's increasingly getting called to cook in the motherland alongside such Mexican culinary giants as Javier Plascencia and Enrique Olvera, or that they're doing pop-ups with him at Taco Maria. It's not even how his staff is as precise as a phalanx of neurosurgeons, from setting cutlery to refilling your glass with water. It's all about his food—sustainable, delicious, forward-thinking and paisa AF. What won him this award was a late-summer addition of a shrimp quesadilla served alongside a squash blossom and a green salsa—available at nearly any lonchera in OC, but nowhere near as astounding, and yet regal enough to deserve its own booth on the fourth floor of South Coast Plaza. And, being the good general that Salgado is, credit for Taco Maria's great run also goes to his No. 2, Roland Rubalcava, the best right-hand man since William Tecumseh Sherman.
Readers’ Choice: The RANCH Restaurant & Saloon
The original Anepalco is still the place for a quick breakfast or brunch of fine French-Mex cuisine. But it's at Anepalco inside the ALO Hotel where chef Danny Godinez is able to oversee the philosophy that's the subhead to the restaurant's name: cocina del barrio. Food of the people that's as futuristic as that Mayan spaceman glyph. We've long raved about Godinez's postmodern chilaquiles, but everything here is a stunner: deconstructed tortilla soup, huitlacoche ice cream and the pan-Latin #borrachoproblems of head bartender Cesar Cerrudo. It's a goddamn shame that Anepalco doesn't get more regional or national love—but in the meanwhile, it'll just be our beautiful secret.
Readers’ Choice: Avila’s El Ranchito
Pizzeria Ortica has always attracted eaters for its great pizzas, but the entrance of Joel Caruso and his man Friday, Aristotle Alstaetter, transformed the place into Orange County's ultimate booze factory. Caruso is a Caravaggio of cocktails, each sip detailed, dramatic, dark, thoughtful and brilliant. Alstaetter, meanwhile, is already at top-rate bartender status with creations more playful, lighter, yet just as genius—let's call him Pizzeria Ortica's Rossini. Are we done with the Italian metaphors? No. Together, the two are the young DeNiro and Pacino of OC bartending, wowing with every appearance.
Readers’ Choice: SOCIAL Costa Mesa
Despite Filipinos representing the largest Asian population in California, their cuisine has historically been resigned to cater to only Filipinos. Ryan Garlitos' Irenia aims to change that. Whether you're new to Filipino food or you grew up with it, Garlitos' interpretations of classic Pinoy dishes, such as adobo and ginisang monggo, will make you fall in love with it for the first time or the millionth. This is Filipino food for the widest possible audience that's never dumbed down or whitewashed. And for dessert, pastry chef Ashley Guzman shines with her modern spins on sweets such as a deconstructed calamansi pie and halo-halo, which are some of the best desserts in OC, Filipino or otherwise.
Not only is Kelly's Korner Tavern the epitome of a neighborhood bar—stumble up McCormack Lane for a minute, and you're in the middle of a nice suburban tract—serving some of the best bar food around (and suds FOR DAYS), but the Placentia favorite also has enough flat-screens to illuminate the Carlsbad Caverns. Nearly all of them are set to different games, ensuring that on any given night this fall, you saw the Angels losing, the Dodgers winning, the Lakers struggling, the Galaxy hustling, the Ducks underachieving, the Kings rebuilding and Sportscenter morons braying—and that's just one wall.
Readers’ Choice: Tilted Kilt
You've seen Green Girl's epic ads in our dead-tree edition, marveled at how the Westminster institution is to hot bartenders what Nick Saban is to national championships. Ogle away—then go visit in the flesh, and you'll realize Green Girl is more than just #chichischrist and #nalgamedios. The servers are friendly, the beers top-notch, and the food fine. But it's the no-attitude atmosphere that will make a regular out of you. Now, keep looking at that Green Girl ad—we'll wait. . . .
Readers’ Choice: Green Girl Saloon
If the likes of Kyochon and BonChon sparked the Korean fried chicken Renaissance with birds double-fried so the skins are fully rendered and as crisp as a Lay's potato chip, then Krave's chicken wings have taken the chicken-fry arts to Sistine Chapel levels. Its mastery of the technique produces chicken that has an air gap between meat and skin. It doesn't much matter what flavor of sauce you choose: The crust forms a hollow, crunchy, candy-like shell you could rap with a spoon—the missing link between Peking duck and crème brûlée.
Boba shops are synonymous with milk teas, and Zero Express has those on its menu. But it also has a selection of traditional Mexican drinks: horchata with coffee or with matcha, as well as a "watermelon slush" that tastes just like an agua fresca. There's even a small snack menu of popcorn chicken and Cajun and regular fries. And, of course, you can add boba to all your drinks.
Readers’ Choice: Lollicup
The best restaurant in South Coast Plaza is a great place to visit any time, but date night makes the bistro that much more natural. You see it every evening, as men wear buffed shoes and women wear pencil dresses bought just for a time like this. The energy in the room is that of charged joy, not just for the magnificent meals of Florent Marneau, but also for the fun to follow for all—a flute of Veuve Clicquot to l'amour!
Readers’ Choice: Anaheim Packing District
Yvone Goetz's restaurant is old-school French, the kind of place you typically save for that promotion or milestone anniversary. But its remarkable Crush Hour makes a weekly visit to the restaurant a must. For prices that won't get you a burger elsewhere, Goetz puts out the most thoughtful and elaborate happy hour food in Orange County. Don't expect Buffalo wings or plain sliders. Instead, feast on the casual cassoulet that's his pork belly lollipops on white beans or the honest-to-goodness steak-and-potatoes meal in his beef tenderloin bites. On top of that, there are substantial discounts on the wine.
Readers’ Choice: Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen
The Indian street food called chaat isn't quite a meal or a snack, but at Wok N Tandoor, it can be as intricate as fancy French hors d'oeuvres or resemble what an Asian fusion food truck might have concocted. And though you could still order a chicken tikka masala, which is as good or better than what's in most Indian joints, when you're in a restaurant that offers a galaxy of chaat not seen anywhere else in OC, why settle for the tried and true?
Readers’ Choice: Tandoor Cuisine of India