Best Of :: Food & Drink
Albert Bañuelos' burritos are small and slender, no bigger than a New York-style egg roll. There's no bulk from rice, guacamole or sour cream. Instead it's laser-focused on two things: the tortilla and the meat. The flour tortillas are from a secret family recipe and, quite frankly, are the best ever constructed by a mortal man not from Sonora. On the inside, it chews like the doughy part of a buttery croissant, but on the outside, it's as delicate as a crepe. Most important, these tortillas aren't dry or mealy. And when they're wrapped around Bañuelos' wet fillings, they create a burrito that has no equal.
410 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (657) 266-0575; www.burritoslapalma.net.
Readers' Choice: El Pollo Norteño
The kind, middle-aged women at Mhat offer home-style dishes—comforting soups and stews and things that warm you from the inside out. Their signature dish is dahk galbi, a stew that morphs into at least three other dishes as you eat it. What begins as a soup of dark-meat chicken swimming in a gochujang-tinted broth with sliced potatoes, cabbage, chewy rice cakes, hard-boiled eggs and perilla leaves transforms as you eat it. The soup reduces and thickens into a spicy glaze that coats everything. And when you're nearly finished, one of the women will add rice to the dregs and stir-fry it to make a risotto-like dish. You leave with a distended tummy and a feeling as though you've been fed and coddled by a Korean mom.
8412 Moody St., La Palma, (714) 252-5033.
Readers' Choice: Hashigo Korean Kitchen
We tried to give this award to someone else—we really did. But when we recently visited, we got a surprise: chumiles, a sort of stinkbug. Our guest looked at it and gagged, then actually ate it. Served as an appetizer, it was a small bowl filled with glistening balls. The chumiles had the crunch of corn nuts and the flavor of beef; dressed with salt, lime and pequín powder, this dish alone beats every restaurant in Orange County for originality, sustainability, execution and flavor. That most diners will probably eschew it only shows how backward we remain as a dining county—and how light-years ahead of everyone else Carlos Salgado and his Taco María remain. Better luck next year, OC restaurants who want to become the best in the land, because you'll need it to topple el rey.
3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444; www.tacomaria.com.
Readers' Choice: THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon
You'll never regard Costco's chicken the same way again after you see what Hendrix is able to do with an oversized Ronco rotisserie. It produces chicken so juicy and a porchetta so sumptuous it becomes a stinging rebuke of every dry chicken and pork chop you've ever had. But the best thing that comes out of that rotating contraption is actually the lamb. Brought out sliced on a warmed dish, it's served above a pool of chicken jus and alongside tiny potatoes roasted by the meat drippings. It's easily OC's best lamb outside Anaheim's Little Arabia.
32431 Street of the Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel, (949) 248-1912; hendrixoc.com.
His 17-course pop-up dinners are the stuff of legend and sell out within hours of being announced; South County housewives ditch their Pilates class for a chance at Nguyen's cast-iron desserts and tempura Scotch eggs. Friends and family indulge in his homemade mead or tepache, while everyone can take home a bottle of his Viet-Mex hot sauce, equal parts tangy and chingón. Instagram followers get daily lessons of Nguyen's foraging adventures in the Orange County wilderness. And the Break of Dawn owner has a heart: When Hurricane Harvey wrecked Houston, Nguyen immediately announced a fundraiser, with all funds going to a legit nonprofit that will spend the money to feed folks immediately. All humans should aspire to be like Nguyen, and all chefs should try to pal up with him to learn even a little bit. And Nguyen? He just does him.
Break of Dawn, 24291 Avenida de la Carlota, Ste. P-4, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418; breakofdawnrestaurant.com.
If you've eaten at a better sausage sandwich restaurant than Wursthaus, you were probably at LA's Wurstküche, the original hipster sausage-sandwich joint that inspired this place and others of its kin. Even if Wursthaus is the "Blurred Lines" to Wurstküche's "Got to Give It Up," it gets the details right. The beer collection is good. The sausages are juicy and full of snap. The pretzel buns are hearty, and the sauerkraut crisp and fresh. This is imitation at its most flattering and delicious.
305 E. Fourth St., Ste. 106, Santa Ana, (714) 760-4333; wursthausdtsa.com.
Readers' Choice: Portillo's
Brent Omeste is the taquero behind Centro Collective, the dueling taco-and-pizza shop in Lake Forest he opened this year with partner Chad Urata. Omeste makes all kinds of tacos, from a chicken with crispy wisps of meat easily mistaken for carnitas to a vegetarian with a fried-cheese disc enveloping squash blossoms, mushrooms and zucchini that even a carnivore would love. But his masterpiece might be the beer-battered fish he cradles inside a soft tortilla with a caesar-dressed slaw. But you shouldn't stop at the tacos. Have a few of Urata's pizzas, too. When you're lucky enough to be in a restaurant that honors two of the most assimilated ethnic foods in America under one roof but isn't a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell, be sure to have everything.
24531 Trabuco Rd., stes. E-F, Lake Forest, (949) 305-5224; www.centrocollective.com.
Readers' Choice: California Fish Grill
Started 40 years ago in Glendale, Porto's has since become not only the quintessential immigrant success story, but also a Southern California institution. The cheese rolls are always ethereal and crisp; the potato balls, soft and fragrant of cumin. But the real reason everyone waits in line at the Buena Park location (or heck, every branch) is because of how low its prices are. Where else can you get a birthday cake that serves a dozen people for less than $25 that actually tastes good? In fact, Porto's has become so prevalent and beloved for those cakes that it would be strange to encounter a birthday party without one. And it's for this reason that Porto's may be the best bakery of our generation.
7640 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 367-2030; www.portosbakery.com.
Readers' Choice: Porto's Bakery & Cafe
The Chinese Malaysian place Khim and Soon Teoh opened in Anaheim isn't the only restaurant to serve Malaysian food in the county. It's actually the second. But Seasons Kitchen USA might just be the only one that matters. The char siu that tops the oil-dressed noodle is pork candy. The traditional Malaysian desserts are sublime. And though you've always been able to get nasi lemak at OC's other Malaysian restaurant, Seasons Kitchen's version is better by a thousand miles. The nasi, the fragrant rice enriched with coconut cream and pandan, is scrumptious—a satisfying meal on its own. But surrounded by satellites of sides such as ikan bilis (fried anchovies with peanuts), slices of cucumber, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, sambal, and a potato-and-chicken curry, the Teohs' nasi lemak runs laps around the competition—even if there really is just the one.
641 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 829-4213; seasonskitchenusa.com.
When you come to the realization that smoothies from the national chains are too expensive, too artificial-tasting and too loaded with calories, go to Cancun Juice and get yourself an agua fresca. You'll quickly discover these are the drinks you actually wanted when you thought you wanted a smoothie. Best of all, a Cancun Juice agua fresca will cost you almost half the price and half the calories. Then there's flavor. Without sherbet or yogurt, every agua fresca tastes like the fruit from whence it came. The watermelon agua fresca tastes like watermelons, and the strawberry agua fresca tastes, well, like strawberries! The only thing added is water and sugar. And isn't that the whole point? If you still want smoothies, Cancun Juice does those, too, but you can bet it'll still taste better and cost less than those made by the chain that rhymes with "samba shoes."
Various locations; cancunjuice.net.
Readers' Choice: Juice It Up!
Through his many restaurants, Alessandro Pirozzi has proven he knows how to create the perfect Italian eatery. For Salerno, he revamped an old red-sauce joint and transformed it into something that's simultaneously modern and classic. No, you can't get pizza (there's simply no room in the microscopic kitchen for a proper oven), but you can—for the first time in a Pirozzi-branded place—customize your meat entrée and sauce from a variety that includes elk and ostrich. Since pasta is the main draw, everything from squid-ink-tinted noodles to ravioli stuffed with rabbit can be had. With the three other Pirozzi restaurants and now Salerno, you never need to do the Never Ending Pasta Bowl® at Olive Garden.
220 Beach St., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2600; salernolb.com.
Readers' Choice: Roma D' Italia
As the Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong chain expands and gets more popular, you might discover the quality of the service starting to lag behind the quality of the meats. Thanks to the hordes of customers who line up for hours to eat its unparalleled Korean barbecue at reasonable prices, the servers at the Buena Park location and now the Irvine spot seem programmed to rush you through your meal to get the next set of customers to take your place. But you endure it because Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong's meats are top-notch, and those grills with the built-in side troughs are a work of genius. As the fat melts, it cascades and accumulates into a well of beaten egg, turning it into the world's best breakfast scramble. And when you do get around to eating the pork, you notice the jowls gushing juice and the slabs of pork belly rippling with scrumptious fat—every morsel as sweet as the service staff is sour.
14160 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 559-9678; also at 5171 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 739-9678; www.678us.com.
Readers' Choice: GEN Korean BBQ House