Another year of eating and boozin', another year of OC's dining scene getting more recognition nationwide. Per previous years, I'm excluding the winner of of our Best Restaurant Award (because Taco Maria is the best restaurant in the land) and 320 Main, as they remain tops of anything boozy. But the following list is a great way to acquaint yourself with the state of OC eating. To an even better 2016!
First, the booze:
5. Anything by Aristotle Alstaetter
I'm beyond proud of Alstaetter, the right-hand man to Joel Caruso at best-bar-in-OC-right-now Pizzeria Ortica. I remember when he was but a humble waiter at the late, great Memphis at the Santora, serving as the seventh-string bartender and learning along the way from multiple mentors. He was unassuming then, unassuming now, but I marked him for great things—and he's achieving them at Ortica, and then some. And if someone already swooped in a stole Alstaetter in the five minutes since I started writing this article? You've got the Bartender to Watch for 2016.
4. Anything by Jefferson Van Billiard
Speaking of former Memphis at the Santora who went big, this guy. We (not me) named him Best New Bartender in 2012, I named him my favorite barteneder that year as well, and he dominated the downtown SanTana drinking scene until the restaurant's untimely demise early last year. Van Billiard then dropped off the OC map for a bit, no doubt affected by the wanderlust that claims too many of our finest (I'm looking at you, Aron!) but made a triumphant return at Lola Gaspar. To more Blood and Sands and Hanky Pankys!
3. War and Peace at Chapter One: The Modern Bistro
My go-to drink right now is the War and Peace—lest I repeat what I just wrote a couple of weeks ago, read the review yourself.
2. Some Blackberry-and-Sherry Punch by Gabrielle Dion
But lest you think OC drinking is one giant sausage party, don't forget OC Bartender's Cabinet board member Gabrielle Dion. Nowadays spending most of her time at her excellent booze shop, The Mixing Glass, Dion doesn't publicly make drinks as much as she used to—which only means you need to pay attention to her shop's calendar. Her monthly lectures at The OC Mix on a particular spirt sell out quickly, and she usually pitches in during the Costa Mesa shopping center's many society gatherings with a cocktail booth. It's during one of them that I had a punch that she later replicated for a workshop on sherry: tart, with a hefty bottom. It was like drinking an icy pie, and I'm not ashamed to say I got fourths and fifths—designated driver, cabrones! Anyhoo, may 2016 bring more Dion moonlights—and in the meanwhile, get to The Mixing Glass.
1. Anything by Joel Anthony Caruso
Right now, OC is Caruso's booze-soaked oyster. We (not me) named him Best Bartender this year, and that was before he undoubtedly hiked up the Apennines to find yet another obscure amaro for his collection. And, given Alstaetter is his barback, Pizzeria Ortica can boast of the finest one-two punch since Joe Montana and Steve Young. Haven't been to Pizzeria Ortica yet? Then you don't know good booze.
Now, the food:
5. LIttle Arabia Lebanese Bakery & Cuisine
It took me awhile to review this spot, but that just means I enjoyed it to myself before the hordes came. Their sphihas are one of the best lunch deals in Orange County, their sambouseks have become a mini-obsession of mine, and they’re planning to expand their menu into more Levantine classics. Little Arabia: You do your namesake enclave proud. Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery & Cuisine, 638 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 833-5760; littlearabiarestaurant.yolasite.com. Instagram: @little_arabia.
4. El Camino Café
In a region where Taco Maria is king, Taqueria Zamora is chingón, but the gabas thinks Javier’s is the best place in town, El Camino Café has boldly staked the middle ground. The cooks here can wow any alta cocina fans yet satiate the residents of this aspirational town and paisas. Better yet? If these folks ever get around to making dinner, it just might be the key to making Old Towne Tustin finally alive beyond The Swinging Door and Honda Ya. Please do that, El Camino Cafe! 195 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 573-5898; Instagram: @elcaminocafe
3. KTCHN DTSA
From the review: "And lest you think Barron is all fancy paisa, he makes chilaquiles that are already among my top five in the county: crispy, saucy, amazing. Did I mention chilaquiles are the one dish I'm most biased against, given my mom makes the best on Earth? Move over, mami; there's a new master in town." Most exciting thing about KTCHN DTSA? The more successful it becomes, the more apt Barron is to open for dinner. OC diners: DO IT DO IT DO IT! 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 418-5010. Instagram.com: @ktchndtsa
I agree with Dave: Anepalco—which we've previously named the best restaurant in OC—is the most unappreciated restaurants in OC. It's an understandably bizarre statement considering his two locations never lack for crowds, yet he's never gotten laurels by anyone other than ourselves. Whatever: The great thing about chef-owner Danny Godinez is that he never rests on crowds or Yelpers, always pushing his crew to get better, more innovative. So when will LA notice? Better yet, FUCK LA—let's keep Anepalco our secret. 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-9642. Instagram: @anepalco
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1. Break of Dawn
But if Anepalco is the most underrated restaurant in OC, the most underrated chef BY FAR is Dee Nguyen of Break of Dawn. He's still killing it with breakfast and brunch, of course, but his pop-up menus are already things of legend. But Dee ain't some twee chef, or someone who pretends to be hard even though they're as soft as the Orange County Register's food coverage: this is a guy who nearly built his restaurant from the ground up, who uses the bounty of his garden to inform his food, and is a gearhead who can talk carburetors the way other, nameless restauranteurs will rave about a cutting knife—but he can, too, then tell you where in Little Saigon or SanTana to buy the cheaper, better alternative. 24291 Avenida De La Carlota Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418. Instagram: @deeofbod