2006 was the year of the Culinary Apocalypse, as the media reported calamity after calamity on the food front. Overfished seas. E. coli outbreaks. Trans fats proliferation. A battle between In-N-Out's heirs for control of the Irvine-based chain. The pullout of most Krispy Kreme franchises from Orange County. Iraqi soldiers celebrating the transfer of an Iraqi province to their hands by chomping off the heads of live frogs and rabbits. But there is still much to celebrate about food locally, as the year saw the openings of many great restaurants. Here, then, is our first-ever Top Five New Restaurants list, along with a couple of other honors.
NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
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The entres are stupidly named. The portions could be larger. And the Mohawk on executive chef Troy Furuta is so desperately-seeking-1980, but hits closer to 2002. Still, the food at AIRE GLOBAL CUISINE stuns us every time we visit. Furuta's fusion twists and turns around a menu that's part Asian, part Latino, part American (and all delish) hold the promise of better things to come. He changes the menu every couple of months or so, so run over there now, while the seared ahi and albacore tacos—an octet lightly fried, then drizzled with a sauce straight from God's teat—are available. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-7099; www.aireglobal.com.
TOP FOUR RUNNERS-UP (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
After years of not hosting any Malaysian restaurants, Orange County can now boast two: one in the bowels of Little Saigon and TROPIKA, a large, sleek restaurant unfortunately hidden behind Zov's Bistro. Tropika offers all the classics of this peninsular cuisine—Indian-influenced flatbreads, coconut-cured meats from Indonesia and super-sweet beverages favored by Southeast Asians—all presented in an environment acceptable enough for the Rivieracrowd. 17460 E. 17th St., Tustin, (714) 505-9908; www.tropika.com.
We're still waiting for a table at GABBI'S MEXICAN KITCHEN, the Old Towne Orange restaurant that opened in August and hasn't had a slow night since. And as long as Gabbi Parker continues to cook up a fine overview of Mexican regional favorites—Yucatecan sopes (called panuchos), quesadillas filled with pineapple and mangoes, and the hottest salsa around—the wait will still be an hour minimum. Our advice: call ahead. And be prepared to eat some of the best Mexican food not served from a roach coach. 141 S. Glassell, Orange, (714) 633-3038; www.gabbimex.com. We were only able to afford dinner at STONEHILL TAVERN once, and that was thanks to the Weekly's mighty food stipend. But the memory of that dinner remains—a gorgeous dining room ensconced in the St. Regis Resort, with the small creations of Michael Mina erupting inside our mouths like a miniature Mount St. Helen of taste. If any of you visit Stonehill in the near future, e-mail me—I'll try to smell your fingertips through your message. One Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, (949) 234-3318. While the Middle East (and now the Horn of Africa!) continues to slip into 12th Imam territory, stuff yourself into ignorant bliss with the sesame bread at MAS' ISLAMIC CHINESE RESTAURANT. A heavy circle of layered dough speckled with seeds and scallions, this bread is the signature meal of owner Jamillah Ma, the auntie behind all of Orange County's Islamic Chinese restaurants. Thanks, auntie! 601 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim, (714) 446-9553.BIGGEST DECEPTIONThe omakase (chef's choice) at BLUEFIN BY ABE is one of the best you'll ever enjoy and can range from salmon roe topped with gold truffle to sweet shrimp soaked in a peppercorn sauce. But nothing else at this much-hyped restaurant—toasted in Riviera, The Orange County Register, and even the Los Angeles Times—is worth the long drive to Newport Coast. The menu is too small, and what's there lacks imagination and isn't that flavorful—we remember ordering a soup consisting of a small teapot stuffed with seafood bits that tasted exactly like miso. But do go at least once for the omakase—it'll cost you a minimum of $75 but be worth the rest of the disappointments. 7952 E. Coast Hwy., Newport Coast, (949) 715-7373; www.bluefinbyabe.com.MOST COURAGEOUS OWNERMirna Burciaga risked her 18-year-old Salvadoran restaurant, EL CHINACO, when she publicly spoke out against Costa Mesa mayor Allan Mansoor's proposal to turn his police officers into migra. Mansoor's supporters retaliated by picketing El Chinaco with signs accusing Burciaga of supporting criminals. The Salvadoran native and proud American citizen responded by selling "Minuteman Tacos" (stuffed with chicken) for a dollar and unsuccessfully running for Mansoor's seat on the Costa Mesa City Council. Burciaga remains at her restaurant, patting out some of the best pupusas in the county and plotting social justice. 560 W. 19th St. #D, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8632.BEST REVELATIONAt first visit, TACO ADOBE tastes like any other middle-of-the-road Mexican restaurant—not quite a hole-in-the-wall, but not quite Talo, either. But visit after visit this year revealed the best pound-for-pound dining experience in Orange County. Owner Patricio Dillon and chef Marcos Zuniga invent daily specials (ask them for the enchiladas Arizona, three tortillas stuffed with cheese, chorizo and shrimp) and even dabble in pastas once in a while. With plans to expand next year near the Orange Circle, expect more from the duo—and an expanded breakfast menu! 1319 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-2411. $