I'm going to do my list a little different than my esteemed colleagues. This year, I'm not going to list them in a countdown order; I'm going to do mine alphabetically. Why? Well because it was hard enough to narrow down the hundreds of restaurants I've eaten at this past year down to five; but most of all, I want you to visit and try ALL the one's I've narrowed it down to.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the five best restaurants of the year.
Though it's located in a nondescript section of nondescript Katella Avenue in nondescript Los Alamitos, the room it occupies is an elegant, intimate, carefully curated boutique of sorts that's worthy of royalty or, at least, a first date. The restaurant is owned and operated by a woman and her niece, both formally trained by Le Cordon Bleu and bringing with them a lifetime of experience cooking Thai food. You can expect a flawless pad see ew and a curry-laced pineapple fried rice, as well as stuff you'd never see at Thai Nakorn: a carpaccio of wild king salmon, sliced thin, resting atop tumbleweeds of shredded romaine hearts; corn fritter hors d'oeuvres, each served in a tiny, crispy shell; and a panna cotta that could win top honors at the Bocuse d'Or.
James Republic has such lovable quirks as using jars for just about every appetizer and dessert, and recycling its old menus as doilies. And because what they cook changes daily, they've got a lot of old menus to go through. Named after chef Dean James Max--the empire-building, James Beard-nominated chef responsible for other high-achieving restaurants--the place counts the time since it opened, with its days printed atop the menus and scrawled on a chalkboard near the kitchen. How a dish reads one day will be different than the days before or after. Get the potato puree, which will be served in a jar you wished you had longer fingers to squeegee, and then finish with the warm, sticky toffee bread pudding, which is actually served on a plate.
Sit at the counter, and you'll see Chef Ritter of his namesake restaurant, tend to a row of 12 stainless-steel, steam-powered kettles that look like a series of exposed plumbing. As though a priest blessing his congregants with holy water, he flicks minced garlic into each kettle with tongs, then squirts in some oil; he deposits a pre-measured amount of raw seafood into one, chicken in another, sauteing them. Next, he ladles in prepared simmering sauces from a big container. Seconds later, the stews begin to bubble, the whole thing roiling, sputtering like an evil witch's brew. The smells are intoxicating. After a few minutes, a clean bowl is set underneath, and with a quick pull on a lever, the whole thing pivots, pouring out the orders of jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo and seafood pasta. Eat them hot and fresh, and then tell your friends you've just discovered the best Cajun restaurant in OC.
Taco Maria is the finest fine-dining Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa right now. A local boy who eventually became the pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Commis in Oakland, chef and owner Carlos Salgado returned to OC a few years ago to sling tacos and burritos out of a lonchera he named after his mom, Maria. But the truck, as great as it was, turned out to be just warm-up to this brick-and-mortar. At the new restaurant, also called Taco Maria, Salgado has traded tacos for the sophisticated Mexican of alta cocina. A meal here will come at a leisurely two-hour pace, each course served with its own set of utensils. This is the food Salgado was destined to cook. Even in interviews he gave back when he was at Commis, the ex-pastry chef admits desserts wasn't his true calling--he spoke with longing of going back to "dealing with open fire and salt." Now with a small crew and working in a kitchen in full view of his customers at the OC Mix, you can see Salgado is where he was always meant to be. He prepares only eight dishes, each of them thoughtful and flawless, served four per person for about $40-$50. The thing to do, of course, is to bring a friend, have them order the other four dishes, and then share each one.
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When he opened Xa Sweet & Savory Café, Shawn Xa served only chicken. And on these perfectly cooked, juice-bursting, tender, breast-meat fillets--a protein usually not apt to being all of the above--he'd shake a flurry of your chosen spice, be it the Japanese togarashi or herbes de Provence. Then he jettisoned the spices for sauces--intensely fruity, savory and complex ones that can be painted on your protein of choice, turning them into something greater than what the less-than-$9-with-two-sides-included price tag would require. But Xa's true calling is cookies; this is where he turns on his mad-scientist brain full bore. His greatest creation thus far has been an apple-pie cookie, with real apples where you'd expect chocolate chips and a coat of crunchy cinnamon sugar on top. There's also a cookie with bacon and chocolate chips, another that tastes exactly like tiramisu, and a sticky-chewy wonder with melted marshmallows that's reminiscent of rocky road. One time, he let loose and attempted a cookie that encapsulated his restaurant's "sweet and savory" ethos: a Spam-and-roasted-garlic cookie. What will this cookie Willy Wonka think of next? The best part is finding out.