Regular readers know I'm an unabashed champion of the one-dish specialist restaurant. So with this perspective in mind, I offer my top five new-ish restaurants with a very specific focus that knocked me out in 2010.
1. Seabirds Truck
Let's start with the fact that Seabirds serves an all-vegan menu with an appeal to anyone interested in creative, delicious food. They're on this list because it's the first vegan restaurant that this meatatarian will gleefully return to time and again.
Maybe I'm a little jaded with the idea of fusion tacos from a truck (so 2008!). As we grazed among the ho-hum usual suspects at a recent truck rally, only Seabirds pitched a knuckleball of a dish that brushed past my face and knocked me back on my heels: Jamaican jerk-seasoned jackfruit tacos.
Just as "green" mangos and papayas are shredded and treated as a vegetable in Thailand, so is the unripe flesh of the jackfruit. In Seabirds' kitchen, the shredded fruit comes out with a texture shockingly like smoked pulled pork. I'm in no danger of going vegan any time soon, but if I did, I'd start by hanging with the flock of Seabirds and learning a few things to add to my bag of cooking tricks.
2. Valhalla Table
I'm not usually prone to "Los-Angeles-has-so-many-more-and-better-restaurants" whine-envy mainly because I work there, but I felt it when I ate at the hipster lounge of sausage and beer called Wurstküche in the warehouse district of downtown L.A.
After hanging there this summer, I so wanted our own local version, only to learn that Valhalla Table opened in Costa Mesa this past January to fulfill that longing. It's a man-cave of house-made sausages with a carefully selected beer menu. The Indonesian family that owns it also owns Irvine's Layer Cake Bakery, which explains the Asian flavors intermingled with the Belgian-German menu.
Order the Asian-sounding items if you're open to big flavors and a biting heat. The hot chicken wings are sauced with a spicy sambal rather than the more typical Buffalo sauce. I tried and loved the Wild Boar Balinese sausage, with a side order of sambal balado. The sausage is heavily spiked with ginger and lemongrass as the top notes. Topped with the sambal, a chili-spiked fresh tomato concassé, that wild boar sandwich is a hand grenade of heat and flavor waiting to explode.
Pair it with a big, hoppy beer to stand up to all that spice, like the IPA from Anaheim's Noble Ale Works on tap, and all of a sudden, that drive in traffic to downtown L.A. seems all the more unnecessary. 2981 Bristol St., #B2 Costa Mesa. (714) 549-2960. www.valhallatable.com
3. Ecco / Pizza e Vino / Il Dolce / Pizzeria Ortica
These four Italian restaurants have all opened within the past two years and make a very specific, thin-crusted style of pizza from Naples. If you seat four equally talented painters around a model, you'd end up with four perspectives of the same thing, and that's how I'd describe the differences among these four restaurants' pizzas.
You might like the wetter, saucier pizzas from Ortica because it reminds you of your trip to Italy. Or you might prefer the drier, crisper specimens from Pizza e Vino. Each will have its partisans that favor one or another, but the fact that we can debate four restaurants within the confines our county is a huge step in the right direction for lovers of Pizza Napoletana.
This time next year? We might have a five-horse race if Pizzeria Mozza opens in Newport Beach by then.
Ecco, 2937 Bristol St., Ste. A103, Costa Mesa, (714) 444-3226; www.eccocm.com. Pizza e Vino 31441 Santa Margarita Pkwy., Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 713-1500; www.pizzaevino.net; Il Dolce 1902 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa. (949) 200-9107; www.ildolceoc.com. Pizzeria Ortica 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 445-4900; www.pizzeriaortica.com.
4. Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa
Vietnamese summer rolls, along with pho and banh mi, are one of the gateway dishes to Vietnamese cuisine, and they're all best eaten at a restaurant that specializes in them. My fellow Forkers listed nem nướng cuốn twice on this year's 100 Favorite Dishes list, but not from my favorite place.
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Unlike the busier kitchen at the original Brodard Restaurant a few blocks away, Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa rolls every order fresh and a la minute. That means the grilled-marked pork sausage is piping hot and the fried egg roll skin "cigarette" is crisp as can be. That kind of care separates Kanh Hoa from every Little Saigon bakery, coffee shop and supermarket that sells sorry-looking summer rolls in plastic-wrapped styro take-out trays. 9738 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 539-3710.
What's not to like about a restaurant that makes sandwiches with waffles, especially when the waffles themselves are as artfully prepared as the gourmet ingredients within? Let's not forget the real deal Wisconsin frozen custard they make. Click here to read my recent review, and here to see Christopher Victorio's photo slideshow. 292 North Glassell St., Orange, 888-927-8943. www.bruxie.com.