Edwin and Dave will chime in later with their lists; here's mine, in a particular order:
1. Tacos acorazados at Alebrije's: Out of all the regional Mexican specialties la naranja offers, this is the best: a handmade corn tortilla hosting layers of beans, rice, grilled cactus and luscious milanesa that's more burrito than taco and justifies its epic name (an acorazado is a battleship in Spanish). The taco acorazado--the specialty of Cuernavaca--can only be found at Alebrije's Grill, the Mendez vs. Westminster of Orange County taco trucks that otherwise sells a chingo of chilango cuisine. On Cubbon Street between Main and Sycamore streets, Santa Ana. No phone number.
2. Candy corn cake at The Crosby: It's no longer on the menu and will probably never return because head chef Aron Habiger switches his menu monthly, but this temporary dessert at the SanTana hipster haven represents best the transformation that the restaurant part of The Crosby experienced this year, from a hit-and-miss afterthought into a must-eat. And I only had one bite of that candy corn cake, just one bite, and its concentrated sweetness, its nearly choking goodness still makes me yearn for it--and this cold heart never yearns for anything. 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543; thisisthecrosby.com.
3.Coconut sambol at Wadiya
: Sambol is technically a condiment, but the complexity of this Sri Lankan staple can best the priciest dishes prepared at nearly all of the county's supposed high-end gems. Lime juice, onions, dried fish, coconut shavings and enough chiles to constitute a baby nuke. Bracing, fiery, sweet, fresh--once you taste it, you'll discard pepper and salt forever. Buy enough to fill a gallon jug, and you'llstill
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want more.949 S. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 635-0005; www.wadiyausa.com
4. Linguiça breakfast at Break of Dawn: I forget the name that chef Dee Nguyen used to gabacho-fy this dish--it might be Hawaiian sausage or something. I don't care: I just know I've never been able to truly examine the menu of the best breakfast spot in OC because I always order this hefty dish of perfectly grilled, juicy Portuguese sausage pared with brown rice, two over-easy eggs, a papaya salad and smear of scallion puree. Maybe one day I'll try other dishes, but I'd rather eat Paradise a couple months longer. 24351 Ave. de la Carlota, Ste. N-6, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-9418; www.breakofdawnrestaurant.com.
5. Birria at El Cabrito: Birria joints are legion in Orange County; good birria joints are few. This one is the best: served Jalisco style (meat on bones) with a salsa de aceite (dried chile seeds mixed with cooking oil) that can, in a pinch, double as napalm. You want to know why I'm an objective food critic? Because I'm admitting Jalisco beats my home state of Zacatecas in the local birria scene--this year... 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8461.