For this list I had to whittle down a list of many worthy places. The criteria I used was simple: "Which of these 50+ restaurants I ate at this year would I most likely return and become a regular."
This was the answer:
5. Big Catch Seafood
The Big Catch Seafood in Long Beach is the kind of place where long communal butcher-block tables are covered in paper and forks and knives are supplied but hardly used. Yes, it's another in the new breed of seafood restaurant that eschews high prices for value and accessibility. But it's even more than this. The Big Catch is a true innovator of the genre. Look at its Cajun-fried rice, which isn't some lazy rendition, but a real, honest-to-goodness wok-tossed masterpiece of breathtaking skill that manages to merge everything that's good about Chinese fried rice with the flavor and soul of jambalaya. There's a little egg, some scallions, bell peppers, plump shrimp, and pieces of squid and sausage between paprika-tinged rice grains that remain separate but never dry or oily. And with the rest of its menu, the Big Catch makes the hard task of cooking seafood look easy. And the rest of the menu is great, too! 150 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 491-4600 www.thebigcatchseafood.com
The focal point of Provenance, Cathy Pavlos' second restaurant, is its garden, with raised planters and a wall of potted herbs. If it functions like the lobster tanks in a seafood joint, convincing customers that what they're about to eat will be fresh, fresh, fresh, that's exactly the point. A section on the menu is dedicated to what you can actually order from it. Titled "What's In the Garden Now," it's an impressive list of about a half-dozen elaborate side dishes that start with things invariably plucked from those plant beds. Provenance's customers skew to the Lawrence Welk generation -- the parents and grandparents of those who power lunch at Fleming's or come out of Bloomingdale's with shopping bags by the armful. One of Provenance's best entrées is the New Zealand sole "on the Plancha," and it's all about how fast it can be delivered from the broiler to your mouth, served rocket-hot with nothing more than a lemon wedge, a curl of crispy prosciutto, potatoes pressed against something metal to get a nice sear and spinach. 2531 Eastbluff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 718-0477; www.provenanceoc.com
3. Boathouse Collective
Garlands of lightbulbs crisscross overhead. And on long communal picnic tables, groups of people will eat, drink, take selfies and sing "Happy Birthday" in an asphalt courtyard with potted trees and an herb garden. If a joyous summer-night wedding banquet were ever to be held at a Home Depot Garden Center, it would probably look something like this. The chef is Mathieu Royer, once a cook at Pizzeria Ortica, Hinoki and the Bird, and Morimoto, now inventor of dishes that demonstrate the Japanese virtue of artistic restraint. His grilled swordfish is a lone hunk of snowy moistness floating atop a Thai coconut curry with waves of potatoes sliced long and thin. A Zen-garden arrangement of crisp-skinned roasted fingerlings is further proof, a side dish found on the vegetarian side of the menu, where a halved purple potato leans on the humps of the yellows as it gazes into a puddle of lemon aioli, contemplating the meaning of life. 1640 Pomona Ave, Costa Mesa, (949) 646-3176; www.boathousecollective.com
As good as the bentos are, and as tempting as the imported Japanese cuts of sashimi and nigiri look, Jinbei's scattershot menu is best explored by trying the items you'll need the waitress to translate. There are actually three menus, but the legal-sized scroll titled "JINBEI's Daily Recommendation" has all the interesting stuff. Here you'll find tiny, raw, slimy, crunchy, gelatinous octopus chopped to worm-sized pieces and slicked with a bracing wasabi marinade. Here you'll ask what a "koika to pumpkin no taitan" is and find out it's a simple braised dish of sublimely tender squid with boiled kabocha squash. But even the things that need no translation are great. There re ruddy deep-fried chicken wings singing of their sake marinade; delicately fried pumpkin croquettes; and a towering salmon skin salad that, when torched on order, fills the restaurant with a barbecued-fish aroma. 3915 Portola Pkwy., Irvine, (714) 544-2800
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As with Pieology and so many others these days, PokiNometry is built on the Chipotle model. To order here is to get in a queue behind a sneeze guard from where you direct at least three assembly-line employees in how to build your meal. You start with the base, which can be either salad greens, a handful of store-bought tortilla-chip rounds, seasoned sushi rice or plain brown rice. To this, you add layers of flavor and raw fish sauced in a combination of ponzu, sesame oil and as much chile oil as you can handle. What you taste in these poki bowls will be familiar, as though you've had these exact combos of components before, perhaps as a rainbow roll. But it hooks you because there's a sushi-grade level of freshness, a creaminess to the fish and a pleasant burning sensation that comes with the sauce used to dress the meal. You also get the feeling the people behind the concept mastered the mysterious alchemy of sushi long before they opened this place. They even figured out that brown rice works extraordinarily well with these ingredients, in this order and dabbed with the nuclear-powered hot sauce called "Dynamite." 184 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, (657) 208-3488; www.pokinometry.com