These are not necessarily my top five restaurants in Orange County (though they're up there); these are the top five restaurants I visited for the first time in 2010. I might have visited ten times during the year or just once, but these are the five restaurants that stand out the most in my mind.
Before beginning, let's be clear: had I not visited Break of Dawn in 2009, it would be on the top of my list, as it was Gustavo's. It's been an open secret of mine for a while, though, so it doesn't count.
5. Sol del Sur
This made the list for several reasons: first, it's some of the most inventive cuisine in Orange County, and people who take risks and succeed ought to be lauded; second, I love to go to restaurants where I can't replicate the food at home. Even in my most fevered state I couldn't invent tarragon-Calvados panna cotta with chocolate soup. Finally, it's in San Juan Capistrano, and the better the food south of the Y, the better off we are as a whole county. 31115 Rancho Viejo Rd., San Juan Capistrano; 949-487-5225; soldelsurbistro.com
4. Olive Tree
Gustavo singled out Zait and Za'atar, which is a good restaurant, but I prefer to continue the paean to its Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian dishes, especially the daily specials. While kabobs are possible, you'd be selling yourself short not to try the whole fish, the fall-apart tender lamb shanks over rice imbued with seventeen spices, and everything else that comes from the hotel pans behind the counter. 512 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim; 714-535-2878; no website.
3. Cucina Alessa
There's no single dish that stands out at Cucina Alessa; homemade pastas, roasted meats and salads all are worthwhile choices at this pair of beachside Italian trattorias. It's the atmosphere that makes the place: convivial without being overwhelming, friendly without being fake and a good value besides. 6700 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach; 949-645-2148. 520 Main St., Huntington Beach; 714-969-2148; cucinaalessa.com.
2. Los Chilangos
Proving my point that the best food often comes from the least-assuming places, Los Chilangos cooks Mexico City-style, masa-based antojitos from a sterile, white-tiled room that's barely wider than a New York City pizzeria. The taste of the hand-made quesadillas, pambazos, huaraches and sopes belies the low, low price, and would easily go up against even the much-vaunted and much-missed Nina's in East L.A. 1830 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim; 714-999-5515; no website.
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1. The Lime Truck
I cannot for the life of me imagine why the two geniuses behind the Lime Truck, Jason Quinn and Daniel Shemtob, do not have a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Perhaps it's the start-up cost, or the additional staff. Whatever the reason, it's certainly not lack of skill; the food that comes out of the delivery window rivals some of the best food in Orange County. Appearances throughout Orange County; 949-292-6282; thelimetruck.com.