It was a great year for eating, honestly it was. I had to whittle this list down from a hundred (sixty of which were in OC), and that was without having to dig too deep. Anyone who thinks OC is a wasteland of Cheesecake Factories and fast-food drive-throughs is, not to put too fine a point on it, in desperate need of reëducation.
For one of my New Year's resolutions, incidentally, I intend to try one of these tacos acorazados from Alebrije's, because if both Gustavo and Edwin rave about them, there's something to be said for them.
Also, honorable mention must go to the coconut sambal that Gustavo talked about at Wadiya. It got knocked off my list by my #5, but it is a force to be reckoned with. String hoppers (floppy, lacy patties of rice vermicelli) and coconut sambal is a meal all in its own; sprinkle some of it in Wadiya's excellent egg hoppers (crêpe bowls with an egg cooked in the bottom) and it's even better.
My list is in reverse order, saving the best for last.
5. Smoked salmon plate at Break of Dawn: This place is the finest breakfast in Orange County, bar none. It's worth the punishing drive from the Westside of L.A., it's that good. There are dozens of delicious things to eat at this little place tucked away in a strip mall ten feet off the San Diego Freeway, but while Gustavo covets the Portuguese sausage plate, my vote goes to the platter of smoked salmon. Smoked salmon worthy of Russ and Daughters (and as an East Coast transplant I don't give that laud lightly), paired with absolutely the most perfectly poached eggs I have ever had anywhere on the planet, an herbal sauce and a creamy sauce, all atop a disc of pan-fried oatmeal that contributes an essential ground to the whole dish. Anyone who can create such a dish is clearly a genius.
4. Mul naengmyon at Shik Do Rak: While Shik Do Rak advertises itself as the original home of dduk bo ssam (literally, rice cakes for wrapping) and is a barbecue restaurant through-and-through, they have some of the best naengmyon in OC. Mul naengmyon is a dish of chewy buckwheat noodles in cold broth with a hard-boiled egg, a couple of pieces of beef, a slice of Korean pear, some sliced cucumber and some pickled radish. It comes in a steel bowl, so cold there are chips of ice floating on top. You doctor the dish with the provided squeeze bottles of tangy vinegar and sinus-clearing Korean mustard (called gyeoja, in case you need to ask for it). When it's a hundred-plus in our inland cities and we're choking on smog blown out of the IE by the devil winds, a huge bowl of this is exactly what the doctor ordered.
3. Langostinos zarandeados at Mariscos Puerto Esperanza: It's been eighteen months since this gem of a seafood restaurant in a lonely, boring shopping plaza on Tustin Avenue caused waves in the local foodie community, and it's still there, still not busy, and still serving up amazing Mexican specialities. The best of these is a set of Baja spiny lobsters, split in half, placed into iron bondage and grilled over an open fire, then sauced with a finger-lickin' good sauce with chiles, orange juice and a little mayonnaise. Not the traditional sinaloense sauce for things zarandeado, but amazingly good. No beans with this one, just herbed rice and a better-than-average selection of vegetables all grilled in the same contraption.
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2. Quanda firfir at Tana: While OC might not have the row of Ethiopian eateries along Fairfax Avenue that our neighbors in LA enjoy, we have Tana Ethiopian and its single best dish: beef jerky so dry that it's actually crunchy, tossed with the sourdough pancake-like bread called injera, a tomatoey sauce, and a big spoonful of awaze, the capsaicin-delivery powder of choice in Ethiopia. As you scoop it up (with more injera, which serves as both plate and utensil), you get soft, pudding-y bites of bread, punctuated with crunchy bites of pure essence of beef. I have to have this every time I go to Tana; round it out with a vegetarian sampler and, if the party is large enough, kitfo, and I go home happy.
1. Cơm tấm bì chả đậu hũ ky lạp xưởng at Cơm Tấm Thuận Kiều: That long string of strange diacritics is Vietnamese for "oh my God, I can't believe I ate that entire plate". It's broken rice, that former staple of poverty that has turned into a delicacy. The plate is garnished with a pile of shredded pork tossed with toasted rice powder (bì), a wedge of pork, mushroom and egg pie (chả), a block of tofu skin stuffed with shrimp paste (đậu hũ ky) and a few pieces of sweet, grilled Chinese sausage (lạp xưởng). You get some vegetables, fresh and pickled, and a bowl of soup. This is the county's best hot lunch, best shared with someone due to the impressive size of the dish, and only the promise of undiscovered delights still to come keep me from going there continually.