The Chuck Wagon
Best Restaurant in Orange County
610 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente
If you're looking for the best place to buy two tacos for a buck—plus free pineapple juice—then we'd give this award to Tacos el Chavito. But this title demands class, a place where you can dress up and play rich. And that place is White Horses, a stunning, cozy bistro at the bottom of Avenida Victoria, below a bed and breakfast and a short jaunt from the ocean. White Horses changes its menus every six weeks, so you can try a new meal every time, not because of free will but rather necessity. Regardless of season, however, the plates always stun: vaguely British, with hints of Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine, and always, always delivered like you're the most important person since Jesus.
Readers' Choice: Ambrosia
633 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
In every human lives a carnivore. When you decide to feed it the meat it craves, there's no better place than Mastro's. Their specialty? Steak. Beefsteak served sputtering in melted butter on a plate heated past the temperature of magma. Every slice you make will be an effortless task. The meat will offer little resistance to your knife. Order it medium-rare (why else would you eat steak), and you get a crimson core surrounded by a perimeter of pink, followed by a crust that's beautifully charred to black. Upon chewing, you'll find that it surrenders tenderly like Jell-O, a beefy, unobstructed taste of red meat worth its weight in gold.
Best New Restaurant
Old Vine Café
2937 Bristol St., Ste. A-102, Costa Mesa
Old Vine Café has been open only a couple of months, but it's already besting veterans with its affordable gourmet entrées such as Spanish omelets (stuffed with artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, shitake mushrooms, proscuitto and Manchengo cheese) and a tapas-style dinner menu that guarantees many nights of swapping. But this tiny restaurant's best specials are in the refrigerator, where boutique wines, meats and cheeses are available at Wal-Mart prices, but Trader Joe's quality.
Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying
7952 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach
As of this writing, the omakase meal at Bluefin runs $75 per person. But don't count on it staying that way, especially now that this classy sushi bar is becoming better known outside its exclusive Newport Coast neighborhood. Omakase, a meal set in six courses, is the best way to taste the creativity at work. There'll be an amuse bouche, where some items might be flecked with gold leaf; others, if in season, fresh caviar. Then slices of owner/chef Takashi Abe's freshest sashimi take form as a brisk salad course, followed by two immaculately cooked courses of seasonal ingredients. Expect these dishes to feature anything from a stuffed quail with foie gras to a whole deep-fried mackerel stuffed with pumpkin—maybe even some Kobe beef medallions, if you're lucky. But it's not over—a sushi course is next. Finally, a slice of their chocolate cake and ice cream will top off a perfect dinner that you hopefully didn't have to pay for.
Readers' Choice: Mastro's Steakhouse
Best Restaurant for Cheapskates
Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant
7971-7981 Westminster Blvd., Westminster
For cheapskates, it doesn't get better than this place. The entire menu fits on the back of their business card. And yes, with the exception of four items, everything on it is $1.99. There are three types of noodles (rice, vermicelli and egg) that swim in soups, get fried to a crisp, or jiggle in a cooling salad with tiny egg rolls and crunchy veggies. Three kinds of rice (steamed, broken and fried) are paired with grilled pork, steak, or seafood. And if you can call it splurging, spend an extra $1.25 for their most popular dish: half a Cornish game hen with the fried rice. To drink, get the fresh-squeezed orange juice or the Thai iced tea for $1.75. And no, they won't give you ice water from the tap. You have to buy it bottled for a buck each. These folks may charge $1.99 for a hot meal, but they're not dupes: They know you for the tightwad you are.
Best Romantic Restaurant
655 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
Red is the color of passion, and it's used in ample amounts in velvet and silk at Chat Noir. Dimly lit and as sultry as your date, the rooms are inspired by the Moulin Rouge as imagined by Baz Luhrmann (minus the grating presence of John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec). Snuggle over French food prepared with a Parisian flair and feed each other soufflé drizzled with warm chocolate sauce. As for the rest of the night, you're on your own.
Best Restaurant for Tolkien Geeks
2932 E. Chapman Ave., Orange
You wouldn't want to work where two of the unluckiest Disneyland "cast members" do: inside a truck with a deep fryer parked at the end of Main Street. But their sweat and toil produce one of the best (if not the only edible) treats inside the park: the corn dog. Theirs is a thick and juicy wiener, hand-dipped in cornbread batter and deep-fried to the lopsided and gnarled shape of a caveman's club. Inherently greasy and decadent, it begs for a thorough slathering of yellow mustard to cut through it all. Once you finish one, your napkins and fingers will glisten with enough oil to lube the axle of a Disneyland locomotive. All aboard!
Best Late-Night Dining
13991 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove
Norms is always great, and the Shore House Café chain will make pancakes at all hours. But for the past couple of years, ever since a cute Vietnamese girl broke our hearts but left the cheap Vietnamese sandwiches called bánh mìs in its place, we've fulfilled our midnight munchie cravings at the Lee's Sandwiches in Garden Grove. The prices at this chain (there are 11 locations in OC) have increased the past couple of years, but all that means is you'll spend $2.50 for a meal that rightfully should cost 6 bucks at least. Warning: Meals after 10 p.m. must be eaten on a parking lot curb and usually within elbow distance of loud teens. But again: $2.50!
Readers' Choice: Harbor House Cafe
Best Soul Food
Rick's Secret Spot
1030 Calle Sombra, Ste. G, San Clemente
Rick's is in the unlikeliest of spots—on the San Clemente frontier east of Interstate 5, up a winding road, toward the back of an industrial park, a cubbyhole where the scent of sauces and meats smacks your senses like the summer sun dipped in molasses. Get there early— Rick prepares his barbecue and okra in the morning, but it's usually gone come lunchtime.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Vegetarian Buffet
Gauranga's Vegetarian Buffet
Hare Krishna Temple
285 Legion St., Laguna Beach
You don't have to shave your head or drink the Krishna Kool-Aid to enjoy the dirt-cheap vegetarian feast every Sunday. Get in touch with the "source" as you meditate to instrumental music and, if you like, chant along. For just a $3 suggested donation, you'll be catered to by robed monks carrying a variety of delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. Chow down while sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the floor, but don't worry about cleanliness—monks never get sick.
Best Vegan-Friendly Restaurant
2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
Even in California today, being a vegan isn't easy. Many restaurateurs seem to think vegans are members of an esoteric religious cult who remain best ignored, not a hungry demographic deserving of at least a few centimeters of menu space. Thankfully, a handful of enlightened entrepreneurs in Orange County sate vegans' picky palates, the most satisfying and worry-free of which is Native Foods. The airy, circular bistro (located in the Camp anti-mall) boasts a scintillating array of non-dairy offerings, as well as concoctions featuring tempeh and seitan as meat substitutes. Of course, vegetables are the stars of this production, and Native Foods' are all A-list caliber. Brown rice also does yeoman's duty in many dishes, and just because the joint's vegan, it doesn't mean it's full of flavorless fare. On the contrary, the items we've sampled saturated our taste buds with hedonistic glee. Ultimately, though, Native Foods is more than just another place to fill your stomach with healthy comestibles; it's the engine driving an entire lifestyle and philosophy. Pamphlets detailing the horrors of carnivorous habits are shelved near the door, along with PETA booklets and free magazines promoting alternative, mystical world-views. The chalkboards contain stats further explicating the dangerous foolishness of a non-vegan lifestyle. You might come to Native Foods for the Scorpion Burger and by meal's end decide to live on a commune in the country. Whatever the case, inner peace and excellent digestion await you.
Best Raw Food Restaurant
Good Mood Food Café
5930 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach
Leave your expectations at the door when you enter the tiny Zen space at Good Mood Food Café. Don't let the idea of "raw" discourage you, though—what you'll find here is scrumptious, unusual and energizing. Diners can munch on vigorous salads, their own sandwich creations, or such Good Mood favorites as Ursula's Famous Nutburger (a hearty patty of mashed raw vegetables and nuts piled high, with just-ripe slices of avocado, date-carmelized onions, pickles and plenty of greens). Save room for dessert: You'll be amazed at how good an apple pie pressed into a nut "crust" can taste without an ounce of wheat, milk or eggs.
Best Japanese Restaurant
556 El Camino Real, Tustin
Being that Honda-Ya is a pub, it's not open for lunch. But come 5:30 p.m., the beer starts to flow, and it doesn't stop till 1 a.m. The best seats are in the tatami room, where you sit cross-legged on a woven mat of reeds. Start the evening by ordering one of the Big Three beers: Sapporo, Kirin or Asahi. Then order some food, which you choose from a menu designed for grazing. As Honda-Ya is a proper izakaya (a Japanese pub/restaurant), the portions are as small as tapas. Most dishes are listed by cooking method, ranging from the deep-fried, to the simmered to the grilled and the steamed. Grilled yellowtail collar, crisply fried soft-shell crab, button-cute steamed dumplings filled with fish mousse, and teriyaki chicken can be had. Although you can get sushi, why bother when you can get it anywhere? Instead, opt for the skewered kushiyaki, produced by the grill master, whose lungs are probably jet-black after years of inhaling the emissions of the binchotan, the best charcoal in the world. But the expenses (and his health sacrifices) are worth the flavor that the ribbons of smoke impart to any food cooked over it. Quail eggs threaded on a stick, for one, get a carbon-laced complexity and subtle sweetness so thrilling it's hard to believe—a flavor impossible to get from your Kingsford grill (believe me, I've tried).
Best Two-Hour Wait for Food
3033 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
Japanese barbecue places can be tricky. One wrong move, and you end up at a bland, touristy teppanyaki like Benihana, where semi-impressive food tossing is abundant, but taste isn't. A general rule of thumb: Head where the crowds are. And Anjin has crowds. The wait can be almost unbearably, dissuadingly long—as long as two hours on the weekends. The trick is to get your name on the list a good hour before you anticipate hunger pangs. Anjin's polite wait staff is forgiving; they'll take down your cell number so you can wander Bristol's shopping centers until your table's ready. Unlike Benihana, Anjin is a yakiniku restaurant, meaning you cook your own plates of thinly sliced meat on a grill placed in the center of your table. But with a variety of fragrantly flavored meats marbled with just the right amount of fat, seafood (scallops, shrimp, salmon), and a nice variety of dipping sauces, you won't mind the DIY factor of it all. In fact, it can actually be fun. (And for vegetarians, Anjin offers an admirable-sized array of delicious rice dishes, as long as you don't mind the background aroma of burning flesh.)
Best Chinese Restaurant
369 Shanghai Place
613 N. Euclid St., Anaheim
For a couple of reasons: First, the name. Maybe it signifies something in Chinese (mystic, no doubt, in accordance with the ways of Celestials), but we like it for its faithfulness to multiples of three. We also enjoy its unassuming location in a shopping plaza, which tricks you into believing it's just another Chinese restaurant and not one that specializes in Shanghainese cuisine. Most important, the food is cheap, diverse (everything from fish-head casserole to crispy-fried rice) and delicious. Whenever you go, order the Chinese fried bread, with a decadent taste that makes Krispy Kreme seem like lettuce.
Readers' Choice: Ho Sum Bistro
Best Vietnamese Restaurant
9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove
To pick one restaurant out of the hundreds lining the streets of Little Saigon is tricky. For one thing, with Vietnamese cuisine, there are subgenres. But we like Brodard because it's got a little of everything. Fried yams served with mountains of herbs. Plates of rice with grilled meats. Noodles swimming in soup or stir-fried with crab meat. But no trip is complete without their famous nem nuong rolls. Pork or shrimp, chopped lettuce, and a crunchy eggroll skin is wrapped in rice paper and served with a secret dipping sauce that has beguiled all who've tried to replicate it.
Readers' Choice: Pho 99
Best Thai Restaurant
11951 Beach Blvd., Stanton
Without so much as a plane ticket, you can eat Thai food at its most authentic, here in Orange County. The place: Thai Nakorn. Sure, there are plenty of other Thai restaurants to choose from, but none has a fan base so devoted that one patron actually offered to pay for a new restaurant when the first burned to the ground. Now resurrected in Stanton and serving scorching plates laced with Thai bird chiles like no time had passed, Thai Nakorn continues to wow. The best of the lot exists on a section labeled "Specials," where the funky, sweet, salty, hot and sour flavors of Issan cooking cut a path through your taste buds and leave you begging for mercy one moment, for more the next. The mango salad with crispy catfish, for instance, will burn a hole through your mouth and set your head ablaze, but you won't want to stop eating. Innocent shreds of the tart, tropical fruit meld with onions, chiles and crunchy crumbles of catfish the size of Grape-Nuts, making for a refreshingly bright, but unimaginably spicy ordeal for your palate. Now you know what that tall glass of iced Thai tea is for.
Best Filipino Restaurant
10964 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley
Orange County lacks the great Filipino joints our neighbors in Artesia and Cerritos take for granted. So where to go to satisfy your adobo addiction and other Pinoy pinings? Kapamilya in Fountain Valley, where the turo-turo is tasty-tasty and eight different almusals (the Filipino answer to the all-American breakfast) are served throughout the day, complete with a fresh tomato, a fried egg and enough rice to sop up its runny yolk. The longanisa, the porkiest of pork sausages, pops with sweet fat. Their tapa has lots of sugar and love, and their corned beef is salty, sloppy and wet—precisely how a Filipino mom would make it.
Best Indian Restaurant
13812 Red Hill Ave., Tustin
Dosa Place has made our Best of OC list for the past couple of years, and with good reason. It remains the county's sole restaurant to specialize in dosas: cheap, crepe-like leviathans accompanied by a spicy soup and made 17 different ways—stuffed with potatoes, melted with Cheddar cheese, crammed with ground curried goat meat, or plated hollow, in a presentation that looks like a bazooka. Don't like dosas? No matter—they also stock a traditional South Indian buffet and specialize in the tamarind-friendly dishes of Andhra Pradesh.
Best French Restaurant
3333 Bristol St., Ste. 3001, Costa Mesa
Even if it weren't in the toniest part of South Coast Plaza (above Tiffany's), Marche Moderne would still be one of the best French restaurants in the county. Impeccable service by actual Frenchmen, a gorgeous patio with potted fruit trees, and a food tour de France prepared by owner/executive chef Florent Marneau that marches through bistro staples like steak frites and steamed mussels with white wine. But he takes you to other places, too: sea urchin, harissa and rose-petal ice cream will make you forget you're in a mall.
298 E. 17th St., Ste. B, Costa Mesa
Do yourself a favor the next time you finish a meal at a fine restaurant: skip dessert. Then drive to Costa Mesa and go to Café Blanc, a pâtisserie (cakes and tarts), glâcerie (gelato and sorbetto) and confiserie (chocolates and candies) crammed in a space no larger than your average taco stand. If you eat in, they'll doll up your dessert on nice china, drizzle it with sauce, and add a complementing dollop of gelato. Tea is served in dainty cups and poured from tiny pots. Their macaroons and house-made truffles are works of art. You'll be glad you didn't waste your appetite on that other restaurant's boring crème brûlée.
Best Outdoor Dining
La Galette Creperie
612 Avenida Victoria, Ste. E, San Clemente
There's a certain magic in San Clemente's rolling, Spanish-named streets, almost all of which end up in Avenida Victoria, the basin just across the street and sand from the San Clemente Pier. Enjoy this view from La Galette Creperie—along with the requisite hot chicks, fat tourists and occasional Amtrak train—while inhaling the yummy crepes.
Readers' Choice: Las Brisas
Best Italian Restaurant
Onotria Wine Country Cuisine
2831 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
Massimo Navaretta is a fixture on the county's dining scene, and many local eaters still fondly remember his late Scampi restaurant. They're all now at his newest place: Onotria, which continues to expand its culinary horizons every month with the freshest organic produce, artisan ingredients flown in from Italy and various dining events. With all the attention placed on ensuring the highest-quality products, it's a wonder Navaretta ever gets the chance to cook, but he does: just taste the pheasant breast with golden raisins and pine nuts and find out for yourself.
Best Mexican Restaurant
Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
141 S. Glassell St., Orange
We're still waiting for a table at Gabbi's, the Old Towne Orange restaurant that hasn't had a slow night since its opening last summer. And as long as Gabbi Patrick continues to cook up a fine overview of Mexican regional favorites—Yucatecan sopes (called panuchos), fried cheese slathered in a mild green mole, 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.
Readers' Choice: Taco Mesa
Best Fusion Restaurant
10509 Valley View St., Cypress
"Fusion" is a restaurant buzzword that's fallen out of favor. But for lack of a better term, that's what we'll call chef Hiro Ohiwa's food ("French and Italian-influenced Japanese" just doesn't roll off the tongue). Seaweed meets spaghetti; uni flavors the risotto; osso bucco collapses at the touch of a fork. Entrées come with a homemade soup of the day and a brisk salad dressed in ginger and miso. Whatever you decide to classify it as, there's no debate over the word that sums it up best: Delicious.
Best Restaurant Décor
725 Baker St., Costa Mesa
Imagine hundreds of ivy plants glued to one wall of Mesa, the latest decadent restaurant to hit the Lab/Camp complex. Imagine the bar roof allowing a view of the nighttime sky and retracting during balmy eves. Imagine large, luxurious dining booths. If you can't quite imagine this, then you must visit because the Mesa owners arrogantly won't allow people to photograph their restaurant's interior. Seriously, fellas: Your design scheme is wonderful, but the face of God it ain't.
Best Service In a Restaurant
511 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim
Girls in skirts and roller skates: What more does man need to go along with his dinner? Nowadays, this pleasure can only be found at Angelo's Burgers.
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