Best Of :: Food & Drink
If you didn't know what to get at Tacos El Zaga, you might think a taco sampler platter is the way to go or maybe a quesadilla. If you're a little more clued-in, you'd see the enormous trompo of al pastor pork through the clear window. But look around at what your fellow diners, Latino all, are eating: suadero. This cut— so light in color—is from the navel of the steer and resembles pork belly. But one bite, dressed with some of the best salsas in the county and an expanded fixin's bar that includes ensalada de nopales, and you'll be glad you pay at the end—that way you can order more, four or six at a time. That each one costs a little more than a buck just makes it more alluring—and El Zaga's open late.
Readers’ Choice: Los Reyes del Elote Asado
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