Danny Godinez: El Rey
Danny Godinez: El Rey

Gustavo's Top 5 Restaurants of 2012!

For about the past three months, I've been telling anyone within earshot that we are truly living in blessed times, culinarily-wise, in Orange County. I've been reviewing restaurants for this infernal rag for a decade now, and never have I been more excited about the Orange County dining scene than today. Oh, our hole-in-the-wall scene was always there, but no young chef dared set up shop in Orange County outside of the MILF grounds--and there, they were stymied by the fact that coffin-dodgers and MILFs didn't care for experimentation. In other words, every new restaurant wanted to be like the Ritz (or whatever was going on at the Ritz-Carlton), and while that food has a time and place, it simply didn't interest me.

Fast-forward to the past couple of years, when an army of Young Turks (and even actual Turks!) have pushed cuisine to heights never before seen in Orange County. Sure, we're still behind our eternal big bully of a brother, Los Angeles, in many ways--as I said during a panel earlier this year with Jonathan Gold and Evan Kleiman, we always seem to be five years behind what they're doing--but we're catching up fast. In other words, we're the Mexicans to LA's uppity gabachos, so better watch out, City of PENDEJOS!

2012 was a great year for dining, but 2013 is going to be even better--and the great thing is that those in the business already feel it. And the kids who'll make my honorable mention list this time around--Taco Maria, Soho Taco, Golden Truffle, Mick's Karma Bar, Broadway by Amar Santana, the totality of the OC Mart Mix, anything involving Anaïs Tange--have big plans for the coming year which we'll detail mucho once we're allowed to talk.

But to pick a Top 5 for 2012? Easy for me--a mix of the old, new, and forthcoming.

See also:

5. Memphis at the Santora

Yes, I eat here at least twice a week, and plug them at every opportunity possible. But let's be honest: Memphis' greatness is sometimes forgotten now, because of all the new restaurants in downtown SanTana (and a shitload more to come). But while chef Diego Velasco could've just stubbornly stuck to what has earned him accolades and slowly fade into oblivion, 2012 saw him rise to the challenge and teach the whippersnappers a lesson. His Sunday evening family dinners see Velasco whip up all sorts of goodies, and every week seems to bring a new, one-off special: just the other day, I had a Philly cheesesteak hamburger that reeked of Pat's King of Steaks, and two days ago, I had some ahi thing crusted with some yummy stuff (I was beyond drunk at that point, but remembered how fabulous the dinner was). Add the extension of their Sunday brunch into Saturday and rumblings of pop-ups, and Memphis is like Kobe Bryant: the legend who's a bit in years but can still score 50 on you if you're not careful and will never go gentle into that good night. And to do all this while Mexican, which everyone always forgets? WHOA...201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 564-1064; www.memphiscafe.com.

4. Al Tannour

Anaheim's Little Arabia neighborhood continues to experience its own renaissance, but the most spectacular opening was definitely Al Tannour, the county's first Iraqi restaurant. It's not just the baked-every-morning khubz, the flatbread as wide as a basketball hoop, or the rice platters, but all those Iraqi rarities that you can't even find at the legendary Olive Tree. It's everything a hole-in-the-wall should be: a bit hard to find, with initially obstinate owners who'll nevertheless take pride once you order the dishes they tell you not to order because they know what they make is special. One word: tashreeb. 2947 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 484-0900; www.al-tannour.com.

3. Dee Nguyen's Secret Menu

El Chinito
El Chinito

We'll forever sing the praises of the Break of Dawn king, but what's most stunning about Nguyen is that most folks never get to try what he REALLY wants to cook. It bubbles up to the public occasionally, whether it's in the dinner popups Nguyen occasionally stages, or like in the homemade hot sauce he keeps at every table, which initially started as an experiment but which he now sells due to its popularity. But regulars--and not just us media freaks--know that Nguyen always trots out a treat he's working on. Just this morning, he presented regulars with slices of Canadian bacon and regular bacon that he had just cured, and surprised me with his take on shrimp and grits: grits smooth, almost like a chao, mixed in with kangaroo sausage and shrimp prepped Cajun style. That one little dish, cooked up almost as an afterthought, beat down almost any non-hole-in-the-wall meal I ate this year. Start asking for it! 24351 Avenida De La Carlota, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418; www.breakofdawnrestaurant.com.

2. Roland Rubalcava's Secret Menu

El Chingón
El Chingón

I admit it: ranking Rubalcava número 2 seems a bit high for a guy who runs a bakery in pinche Placentia and whose core client base is working-class Mexis. But the Art Institute-trained Rubalcava already makes the best flour tortillas in California, stuff that can compete with the treasures of Sonora. He comes from OC Mexican-market royalty--his tíos runs La Reina Markets, which make awesome corn tortillas of their own, and he pals around with the Gonzalezes of Northgate fame--which means the guy's been working his ass off his entire life so knows how to please the mass market yet keep mamis happy. And his Sunday secret menus are a tour de force, where Rubalcava will either trot out Mexican rarities--caldo de queso, maybe some cochinita pibil--or continue in the vein that I call Primo-Mex, where he Americanizes Mexican classics to results that would please a bunch of drunk cousins or bros come a Raiders or Dodgers game. The mind boggles at what Rubalcava can do if only he was freed to concentrate on his dishes and feed the masses--and let's just say he's thinking...and let's call this #2 ranking not only the truth, but a challenge for next year that I'm confident Rubalcava will meet. 506 W. Chapman Ave., Placentia, (714) 524-0117.

1. Anepalco's--Both of Them

Oh, those huevos divorciados...
Oh, those huevos divorciados...

The other day, a pal of mine said if I had tried the new place of "that guy whose chilaquiles you don't like."

"I stopped being pendejo, pendejo!" I replied. And it's true: I wasn't thrilled the first time I tried Danny Godinez's now-immortal chilaquiles at his tiny Anepalco's off Main Street in Orange. And they're still not my favorite dish at that original spot, as game-changing as they are--that remains the huevos divorciados you see above, the Mexico City breakfast standard refined with the wisdom of French techniques. I rarely go to eat there anymore, though, because the lines at the breakfast-brunch spot are monstrous.

But the great thing about Godinez is that while he's proud of his classical training, his dishes are as proudly Mexican as a taco acorazado. And nowhere is this more evident than at his newest Anepalco's, based in the Ayres Hotel in Orange across the street from the UCI Medical Center. Here, Godinez goes gangbusters in his experimentation, whether it's a huitlacoche hamburger or an ahi poke that he spices up with the essence of habanero, jalapeños, and chile de arbol, leading to a refreshing plate that only slightly scorches. Mix in a carefully curated selection of Baja wines, and his dishes are worthy of the Stonehill Taverns and Charlie Palmers in which he used to work--better, really--yet can also satisfy a working-class Mexi seeking to impress his wife. Conquering the sacred and the profane? Godinez isn't human; he's Superfly TNT.

Edwin put the new Anepalco's best in his review: "It's already well on its way to being the best new restaurant in OC. Heck, it's already the best restaurant in a hotel not near the ocean." I'll one-up him and say it was the best restaurant of the year, and is already in the top 10, period. And the best part? Godinez isn't done yet. Let's just say 2013 might bring him national attention, and yet another restaurant--and I've just said too much. Brunch spot at 415 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 771-2333; fancy spot at 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-9642.

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