End-of-year lists like these are fun to do, but hard to write because it is always difficult to just pick five of anything, let alone restaurants in a year full of great meals. This year, I used the same measuring stick as last year: in picking my five, I asked myself this question: "Would I go back to spend my own (not the Weekly's) money?"
Here are the five in which I answered with an unequivocal "Yes!"
5. Red Table
There's something casual, warm and intensely personal at Louis Jocson's Red Table. The room looks like an eccentric person's attic and the deviled eggs, showered with micro-granules of bacon, hits of cracked pepper and a specially formulated spicy tomato sauce, has to be one of the best things I ate this year. A lesser chef would've squirted Sriracha on them and call it a day. Jocson doesn't take the easy route on other dishes either. He does chopped nopales as a side salad for pork belly tacos, or salmon skin tacos if he feels like it. A vegetarian dish of "scallops" almost trumped the real thing. And for dessert, his Red Table cupcake, an ode to Jocson's late wife and a favorite of their young daughter, has the red velvet cake baked inside a coffee mug and topped with a swirl of vanilla cream cheese--a dessert that is heart-tugging, lovely in its intent, and effortlessly beautiful, just like Red Table itself.16821 Algonquin St. Huntington Beach, (714) 846-4700; www.redtablerestaurants.com.
4. Il Garage at Park Avenue
Il Garage is the spin-off to Park Avenue in Stanton and its name should be taken literally. The "garage" is an actual one, converted to an al fresco dining room by hoisting up the door. There is no working kitchen; all orders are relayed to Park Ave chefs. An ancient tractor is parked to one side. Tables covered in red-checkered cloths are staggered in what was once a working shed. An accordion player sits on a stool at the periphery, playing a lilting serenade that mirrors a scene out of those an-American-in-Italy fantasy films. It's entirely possible, as well as completely advisable, to make an entire meal from the list of antipasti, which reads like a guided tour of the garden. A four count of ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms is battered lightly from stem to stern, a crispy product of a gentle, greaseless fry that makes you wish you had four more. For the seared artichoke, the tight bulbs are halved, the firm hearts browned and its vegetal soul concentrated.The best bites are just like these, and most of those were taken out from the ground, inches from where you sit.11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 901-4400
3. Habuya Okinawan Dining
The first Okinawan restaurant in OC also made the Best Japanese in our Best Of Issue. It won it because there's no category for Best Okinawan. But Okinawan cooking is markedly different from that of its kin in Tokyo. Shredded green papaya stuffs a crispy egg roll, and the best dessert is a fresh pineapple sorbet that owner Mayumi Vargas commissioned a specialty ice-cream maker to produce just for her restaurant. Pork is the featured protein you'll see most often. The already-falling-apart stewed daikon has the lowest dose of it, the broth-soaked wheels sandwiching thin slices of bacon. Ra fu te--the local variant of long-stewed pork belly known elsewhere as kakuni--is nothing but a hunk of pig that quivers with equal parts blubber and softly melting meat. There's Spam in a bracing bittermelon stir fry called chanpuru and Okinawan mineral salt and lime pepper on a slab of smoky grilled chicken, a dish that somehow manages to trump the addictive, crispy-skinned, deep-fried torikara, a version of Japanese karaage.14215 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 832-3323
2. St. Roy Chef's Pub
You discover quickly that the menu for Vine is the menu for St. Roy. The only difference: While youdine
at Vine, youeat
at St. Roy. Eating there is sort-of backstage pass to witness Vine's beating heart, a bar with a view of the deep fryers gurgling and sauté pans blazing. You're often shoulder-to-shoulder with the next customer in this claustrophobic space, saddling up at communal butcher-block tables, trying to avoid being distracted by whatever's on TV--but there's always something happening, something to look at, something to smell. A riff on trout meunière is feather-light and as classy as at any French bistro, flanked by Blue Lake beans, fingerling potatoes, wilted frisée and tomatoes. Take in a salad such as the seared ahi and hearts of palm, more a staggered stack of the ingredients--including avocado, cucumber, cherry tomato--than a standard plate of roughage. Bathed in a sunny grilled-citrus-and-shallot vinaigrette, it's one of the best dishes here, and makes St. Roy's one of the best reasons to drive out to OC's southernmost city.211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 361-2079; www.stroychefspub.com
1. Three Seventy Common
Three Seventy Common is new, but it's so good that Sorrento Grille, the 23-year-old Laguna Beach institution it replaced, is already a faded memory. You're treated to dishes like the pork belly, a no-brainer of an appetizer, but one of the better ones out there. It's as compact as a pack of smokes, its exterior is thoroughly browned to a bacon crunch, the interior made so soft and homogeneous you can't tell where the fat ended and the meat began. For one of the most popular small plates, spears of broccolini became a raft for a sunny-side-up egg fried to lacy edges. Grated asiago showered the yolk, the crackly, crisp prosciutto and everything else on the plate.The best night to go is definitely on a Sunday, when the owner/chef Ryan Adams tosses out the regular menu and offers a rare thing for Laguna Beach: an affordable multi-course dinner. Adams has dubbed these family-style suppers "Sunday Socials," and they're evocative of meals at home when everyone's at the table and the TV's turned off.370 Glenneyre St. Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8686; www.370common.com.
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