Charles' 5 Best Restaurants of 2013!

Wonderful, but didn't make the list!
Wonderful, but didn't make the list!

I spent most of 2013 not in California, so when Gustavo asked me to write one of these lists, I knew it wasn't going to look like everyone else's. After all, I had apparently missed some big restaurant openings in Orange County, and three months in, I still haven't caught up.

That being true, I had my share of memorable meals this year. And, while they might not be new or particularly exciting (one wasn't even in Orange County), they were important to me, and by golly you're going to hear about them.

5. Poutine at Skillet Seattle

Magical stuff, really
Magical stuff, really

Skillet in Seattle is basically the Pacific Northwest's version of The Playground. The restaurant is the successor of an iconic food truck and serves meals that could have never come out of the dinky little trailer. If you took The Playground, screwed a bunch of cast-iron skillets to the walls and added some hip-as-shit mason jars, you'd have Skillet (you'd have to make the food and cocktails worse too, but that's besides the point).

But while I contend that The Playground -- and Orange County -- does most food-related things better than Seattle, there's one dish that I find myself missing -- Skillet's poutine.

It was one of the last things I ate in the city, and it speaks to the differences between the two places. Seattle's cuisine's not bright -- there's no excitement or spice, but it is hearty. Seattle can do potatoes covered in gravy and cheese amazingly, and if you ever visit, and it's cold and it's rainy, the poutine is the perfect, Seattle-appropriate meal.

4. Taco Time at Taqueria Zamora

Dat tortilla, dos meats
Dat tortilla, dos meats

Gustavo took me to Taqueria Zamora an immemorial time ago (honestly, probably nine months ago), and since then, I've been in love. During my extended exile in the land of no burritos, I would trudge to Tacos El Asadero, the only half-decent taco vendor in Seattle, and dream of Zamora's hand-made tortillas, bountiful free beans and limitless horchata.

When my college-aged friends would ask me for recommendations in Orange County, I'd tell them about this mystical place that had tacos the size of my face.

When I finally got back? Well, for a good week, I had eaten more tacos than I had spent days back in Orange County. I'll give you one guess where all of them were from. (Give up? Taqueria Zamora.)   3. Gluttony at Cham Sut Gol Korean Barbecue

Right now, your stomach is just as hungry as your eyes
Right now, your stomach is just as hungry as your eyes

Orange County's got its share of Korean barbecue joints, and a good chunk of them get better buzz than Cham Sut Gol, but the old war horse on Garden Grove Boulevard will always have my loyalty.

Dinner at Cham is a complete experience, from the drool pools that form during the hours-long wait, the complimentary egg soup that comes with the all-you-can-eat, the sizzling grills that crunch up brisket like no other and the limitless ice cream that's simultaneously kind of cheap but oh-so wonderful.

If, for some reason, there's still room for booze in your stomach after, there's even a great Korean bar in the same plaza. The other barbecue places can keep their clever names or wider selections at gaudier prices, I'll be in line where I've always been -- Cham Sut Gol.

2. Mary's Chicken at Little Sparrow

The charcuterie, not the chicken, but plenty good
The charcuterie, not the chicken, but plenty good
Dave Lieberman

Little Sparrow is the only new big name restaurant I've been to multiple times, and I completely get the hype. The drinks are great, the food is great, the service is great, what more could you ask for?

The first time I visited was one of the most Orange County nights I've ever lived through. Post-Noches De Altares, LP, Aimee and myself trudged over to Little Sparrow after our boothing shifts, still gleeful from signing our first autographs (I still can't believe someone asked for my autograph).

I ordered the Mary's chicken, and it turned out to be some of the best chicken I've ever had. Wonderfully cooked and with the perfect accompaniment, for a few hours, I actually wanted for nothing.

1. Taco Time Part Deux at Soho Tacos

Taco time.
Taco time.
Soho Tacos

I tried my hardest not to put two taco times on this list, but having to pick between my first meal back at Taqueria Zamora and my first meal back with Soho Taco was like trying to pick which one of my shoes -- the left or the right -- is my favorite.

We've been going on and on about how wonderful Soho Taco is for years, and that reputation is well-deserved.

The meal in question? I ate nine tacos, and then Gustavo yelled at me for eating rice and beans--the perfect welcome home.

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