And I'll end our year-end write-up of lists with this! If it skews a bit toward the Latino side, it's because that's where some of the most exciting cooking was happening in Orange County this year. Enjoy!
5. Colombian Cuisine at Mitze's Kountry Kitchen
One of my culinary Moby Dicks was the lack of Colombian grub in Orange County--this, despite census figures showing that Colombians represented the largest number of South Americans in la naranja last decade (although I think Bolivians now are on top). This Laguna Hills half-restaurant opened late 2010, but roared to prominence this year, as the Macia family not only reintroduced Colombian food to OC after a 20-year disappearance, but did it magnificently--creamy licuados made from fruits I had never of, imposing bowls of soup, and the legendary bandeja paisa, a dish as vast as the Amazon, as imposing as the Andes, and as luscious as a Colombian chica. 25381 Alicia Pkwy., #C, Laguna Hills, (949) 768-6499.
4. Anepalco's Cafe
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Anepalco's has been around for a couple of years, of course, but chef-owner Danny Godinez stepped it up last year beyond his amazing Spanish-style tortillas and postmodern chilaquiles. He introduced takes on Mexico City-style food (huevos divorciados, 21s-century chile en nogada), exhibiting the same sense of flair he picked up while working at the Ritz-Carlton and introduced a Sunday brunch that immediately became a must-visit for the hipster set and even other chefs--I saw il capo di tutti capi Dee Nguyen there once, talking to Danny, and was about to make the introduction before Dee glared at me as if I was some fool asking for Tabasco. And 2012 will only bring more riches--and that's all I can say right now...415 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 771-2333.
3. Dat Thanh
Everyone raves about their nem nuong cuon, and they should. What I can't get over is owner Hai Nguyen's com tam dishes, the pillows of broken rice, buttery and fluffy, upon which the owners throw on immaculately grilled meats. But really, it's those barbecue spring rolls. Here's some overwrought print for you: "The freshly ground, just-grilled pork sausage; crispy veggies; pliant rice paper; and delightful surprise of a nub of egg-roll shell inside the mass coalesces into one of Orange County's great snacks--add the multihued, peanut-based dipping sauce that takes six hours to make and the four-for-six-bucks price, and these nem nuong cuons push into the realm of a mandatory OC experience à la Crystal Cove and the Mission." 10032 Mcfadden Ave. Westminster, (714) 650-0910.
2. The Crosby
I named them the best restaurant in OC for this year's Best Of issue, and I stand by that title--but I'm knocking them down a notch as a kindly regaño. Chef Aron Habiger hasn't been exhibiting the same balls-out experimenting as of recent that characterized most of his 2011 right up until the holidays--but that's only because he's up to...something. Still: Habiger is crazy-scary great, and just wait for what he has in store for 2012--wait, I said too much...400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543.
1. Taco María/Soho Taco
Like Dave, I gotta put these two guys together, since they're two side of the same coin and broders at heart. Soho made it onto this list last year in the second slot with only a catering cart. They went public this year with a lonchera, and while the kinks are still being worked out (gotta invest in a better iPad haha), the food stepped it up even further under the guidance of chef Gabriel Zambrano--handmade tortillas, thick and comforting, a vicious salsa de aceite, and promises of even more to come in 2012. Plus? They cater weddings--AWESOME.
The Soho guys are relative vets; Taco María, on the other hand, was a relative latecomer to our scene, debuting only in September. But in four months, chef Carlos Salgado made me proud to be a naranjero anew and reminded me of the joys of food journalism: an Orange native who went off to the Bay Area, worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, and came back to heal his native land like Galahad curing the pinche Fisher King. He's what alta cocina Mexican should be: unpretentious, simultaneous comforting and bold (that almond horchata, man...), receptive to criticism (I'm glad to say their salsa now does burn, instead of the tomato dribble Salgado previously concocted), and full of promise. If Salgado ever gets a restaurant, I predict he just might be OC's first breakout Latino chef--and the first guy to get national recognition while staying here (sorry, Roy Choi) since, um, ever.
Oh, and Break of Dawn, my número one last year? In my Hall of Fame, so they're disqualified from these lists. So is Soho from now on. The rest of ustedes: have at it!