BEHOLD! The end of the line for our 100 favorite dishes of 2013, released in conjunction with our fantabulous Best Of 2013 issue, which you can pick up in finer newstands NOW! Print out this list, match it up with the restaurants in our issue, and happy eating for the next year! Anyhoo, on to the winner...
I wasn't going to give the top prize to Taco Maria. Oh, it's not because Carlos Salgado doesn't deserve it: I've eaten everything Salgado has ever offered in Orange County, both the stuff at his old luxe lonchera and the prixe fixe menu he's currently offering at his swank OC Mix digs, and not only have I never been disappointed, I've always been stunned into gustatory silence. The cabrón is a master of food, each creation a dare to himself and his staff to up the ante, a challenge of brotherly (and sisterly) love ala the 1927 Yankees--think of this place as the Mike Trout of OC's dining scene.
But I knew that the kind words would soon swarm Taco Maria--and what do the words of a fishwrap matter, anyway, to cuisine as refined as this? The Orange County Register's Brad A. Johnson just gave him three stars, calling Taco Maria "one of the most sophisticated restaurants to open in Orange County in years." Our own Bill Esparza, writing for Los Angeles and a legendary stickler for quality, said "Modern Mexican has now arrived in the U.S." And we just called Taco Maria the Best Mexican Restaurant in OC for our annual Best Of issue.
Really, no more need from me to further praise Salgado. And then I tasted Salgado's aguachile.
Aguachile is one of my favorite meals of all time, a furious concoction of raw shrimp left to marinate in chilled lemon juice spiked with serrano salsa that leaves you with a simultaneous brain freeze and a desire for freon. Most places throw some cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions into the mix, and give you a big slop of a plate that, while delicious, is anything but elegant.
But look as Salgado's interpretation! It's as expertly put as a bento box, the cucumbers and onions now replaced by some fancy-ass tuber and an herb that I can't remember that complement the lightness of the light, sweet fish he used in place of shrimp. And that dollop of red to the right? Watermelon jam, which added a cooling sweetness I would've never expected for an aguachile.
And here's the best part: Salgado didn't dial down the salsa-lime juice part. It's every bit as puckering and spicy as the diviest SanTana sinaloense-style mariscos joint, a short, intense blast of fire and ice that still had my lips numb in the most beautiful way possible even an hour after I ate it.
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Really, everything Salgado makes is worthy of our pick as the best dish in OC right now. It's a magnificent restaurant that hasn't even reached its full potential yet, as my baseball metaphor earlier hinted at (it just started offering breakfast, and it's yet to expand into dessert despite Salgado's background as a pastry chef). But I'll go with the aguachile as the ultimate winner. It's one of the best dishes in Orange County I've tasted in a decade of reviewing, and the dish is Taco Maria and the modern-day Mexican experience in OC personified: not ashamed of tradition, but also not resting on it, pushing our herencia further into greatness. Simply put: if you haven't eaten at Taco Maria yet, you don't know OC cuisine--and you're probably a migra lover.
2. Sauteed Chicken at Cafe Hiro 3. Pizza di Salsiccia e Friarielli at Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana 4. Prime Gastro Burger at Dublin 4 No. 5a: Lamb Tenderloin at Medii Kitchen No. 5b: Apple Pie Cookie at XA Sweet & Savory Cafe 6. Charcuterie at Little Sparrow 7. Ají Verde at Inka Mama 8. Frittata at Crave 9. Pickled Egg at C4 Deli: Cure for the Common 10. Fugazza at Pasta Connection 11. Cheese & Soujouk Manakeesh at Al Wadee Bakery & Restaurant 12. Salpicon at Nancy's Pupuseria 13. Soulrito at Papa's Fish & Soul Food 14. Combination Grill Plate at Kareem's Restaurant 15. Ta Pin Lu at Pagolac 16. The Chicken at XA Sweet & Savory Cafe 17. Mashed Potatoes at Tender Greens 18. Twice-Baked Potato Purée at James Republic 19. Salmon at Tavern On The Coast 20. Omakase at Sushi Noguchi 21. Pescado Zarandeado at Mariscos Los Primos 22. Sausage Anything from Sabatino's 23. Cemita Poblana from El Camino Real Market 24. Champurrado and Pan Dulce from Las Tres Princesas 25. Grilled Watermelon Salad At XA Sweet & Savory Cafe 26. Beer Brat At LinX 27. Bloody Mary Brunch at Charlie Palmer 28. Pork Belly Slider From The Golden Truffle 29. Hot Chocolate at The Catch 30. 95% of the Menu at Confetti Italian Ice 31. Hu Tieu at Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan 32. Beef Salad (aka "The Bobby Special") at Sophy's Fine Thai & Cambodian Cuisine 33. "No Soup" Ramen at Santouka Ramen 34. Wild Mushroom Taco at Taco Asylum 35. Chivito at Puerto Madero/El Gaucho #2 36. Lamb Burger at Haven Gastropub 37. Breakfast Tacos at Chelas Mexican Grill 38. Grilled Brie With Apples And Fig Jam at Boudin SF 39. Fried Almond Shrimp Balls at Capital Seafood 40. Tulsa Potatoes At Tulsa Rib Company 41. Tiropites from Kentro Greek Kitchen 42. Pasta Salad from Crave 43. Chicken Plate at Surfin' Chicken 44. Rosemary Madeleine from Little Sparrow 45. Umeboshi Ochazuke at Kappo Suzumaru 46. Soft Tofu Soup at DooRei 47. Hitsumabushi at Sagami 48. The Fireball at Cortina's 49. Paint It Black Pie at Rebel Bite 50. Pidan Doufu at I-Tea Cafe 51. The Happy Hour Specials at Ahi Ahi Sushi Bar & Grill 52. Free Happy Hour Food at Gulliver's 53. Banh Tom at Van's Restaurant 54. Dinner at Marrakesh 55. Congee at Capital Seafood 56. Taquito Burrito at Cuca's Mexican Food 57. Clam Chowder at Billy's at the Beach 58. Volcan at Tacos Ruben y Mulitas 59. The Burger at ARC 60. Chocolate Chip Cookie at Crave 61. Lime Curd At Playground 62. Every Damn Thing at Mochi Cream 63. Most Things at Devilicious Donuts 64. Robiola Bosina at Provisions Market 65. Bite-Sized Stinky Tofu at Tofu King 66. Tacos Dorados at Tortas Ahogadas Los Primos 67. Tlacoyo at El Rincon Chilango 68. Whole Pig Roast at Haven Gastropub 69. Chingaderas at Smoqued BBQ 70. The Continuous Ramen Chronicles at The Playground 71. Shrimp & Grits at Slapfish 72. Bacon Cotton Candy at Biggy's Meat Market 73. Urban 3b at Urban Seoul 74. Waffles & Chicken from The Slummin' Gourmet & Waffles de Liege 75. Ahi Tuna Tartar at Nieuport 17 76. Chicken Wings at Hashigo Korean Kitchen 77. Brussels Sprouts Pizza at Pizzeria Mozza 78. Breakfast Sausage Hash at Thasos Greek Island Grille 79. Chocolate Doughnut with Jacobsen Sea Salt at Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee 80. Loco Moco Dog at Dogzilla 81. Fruit Tart at Le Croissant Dore 82. Daing Na Bangus (Marinated Milkfish) Silog Breakfast at Chowking 83. Strawberry Basil Lemonade at Mick's Karma Bar 84. Lemongrass Chicken Salad at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop 85. Tofu Soup at Tasty Thai 86. Take-Out Dim Sum at Capital B.B.Q. and Dim Sum Express 87. Hodo Gwaja at Cocohodo 88. Popcorn Chicken Salad at Guppy House 89. Fried Okra at Memphis Soul Cafe & Bar 90. Salted Egg With Bitter Melon & Scrambled Egg at Tasty Noodle House 91. Boysenberry Lemonade from Bautista Creek Local Produce at SOCO Farmers' Market 92. Scallop Carpaccio with Curry Oil and Yuzu Vinaigrette from Cafe Hiro 93. White Board Specials at Taco Adobe 94. Coney Dog at LinX 95. Halal Pizzas from San Giovanni Pizzas 96. Clayuda at El Fortín 97. Lunch Buffet at Dosa Express 98. The Meats at Darya in Orange 99. Panocha at Taquería Zamora 100. Bean-and-Cheese Burrito from Del Taco