It's the time of year again when I select a short list of five favorite restaurants. I love places with a tiny menu, tightly focused on producing one thing or variations on the thing at which they excel. Often, that specialist is an ethnic hole-in-the wall, but this year, I've also chosen two somewhat more upscale restaurants that excel at their particular brand of obsession.
Is it a cliché to say Newport Beach Pizzeria Mozza was the year's most-anticipated restaurant opening in Orange County? As soon as we heard the rumors that Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich were taking over the old Dolce Restaurant space, we
kept tabs on their progress. The old building on Coast Highway was torn down; a new one constructed. A year passed with no sign of life despite everything looking complete. Then suddenly in September, theTweets went up that the doors are open NOW
, and we rushed down to make it to dinner on day one.
Were the pizzas that made them famous just as delicious as the Los Angeles location? The fork-tender meatball appetizer? The ricotta-filled fried squash blossoms? The butterscotch budino dessert? Of course. Plan accordingly and reserve weeks ahead of time. 800 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 945-1126. pizzeriamozza.com
4. 101 Noodle Express
This Alhambra-based Taiwanese restaurant opened two new locations in 2011: in Irvine's Chinatown, and in Culver City, with some service and menu hiccups during the rollout. Even by abrupt Chinese waiter standards, the service at Irvine's 101 Noodle Express was notably indifferent and frustrating at first. They've improved staff attitude and expanded the menu, but the things to get here remain the famous beef roll.
It's a Taiwanese take on a burrito, though some restaurants call this a roast beef "sandwich." A freshly-griddled, thin wheat pancake wraps slices of anise-stewed beef and long-simmered, gelatinous beef tendon, and the works is smeared lightly with black bean paste and packed with cilantro. Heathens that we are, we've been known to kill off an entire jar of their green condiment made of jalapeno, onion, and pickled Chinese vegetables with our meal. If you don't see some of this condiment on your table, be sure to ask for some.
Perhaps they should have named themselves 101 Beef Roll Express, because the noodle dishes here pale in comparison to those rolls. If you take friends, you can taste-test the versions made by neighbors Chef Chen and Liang's Kitchen, but I will bias you with the opinion that 101's version are the best in Orange County. 5408 Walnut Ave. Irvine, (949) 654-8542.
3. Hapa J's
We don't have any shortage of Hawaiian fast-food restaurants in the county--you know, the quick-serve places that make gargantuan plates of rice piled with a mound of meat so heavy it could anchor a small boat. Though you'll find that style of heavy eating in Hawaii, you'll also find a more thoughtful approach to cooking that honors the produce grown on Hawaii's rich volcanic soil and the incomparably fresh seafood that's pulled from the ocean. It's this style of Hawaiian food you'll find at San Clemente's Hapa J's.
Only a handful of local restaurants make poke worth a damn. The mostly-raw seafood dish falls somewhere between sashimi and ceviche in its treatment with an acidic marinade. There's three versions of ahi poke at Hapa J's, but the one to get is the octopus appetizer called Spicy Miso Tako Poke.
If the only octopus you've ever eaten was in the form of sushi and chewed like slabs of pink pencil eraser, then you've never encountered a chef that cares enough to apply the right techniques to cook the tricky protein. The dirty secret is that many middle-of-the-road sushi restaurants buy pre-cooked, frozen octopus to avoid the laborious process of salting and blanching their own raw octopus to perfection.
Hapa J's perfectly tender slices of octopus, marinated in a spicy sauce comes out in a portion that's almost big enough for an entree, and reveals the level of skill the kitchen puts into other dishes as well. They have both the sophistication of the high-dollar Roy's Restaurant, and the humble, local soul of the roadside shrimp trucks on the North Shore. We'd call that a perfect Hawaiian fusion. 2016 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 276-6657; hapajs.com
2. Slater's 50/50
We love our burgers here at the Weekly, and each of your Stick A Fork In It bloggers has a few we hold close to our hearts, and we're not talking about our arteriosclerosis, either.
One of my favorite burgers of the year was at Slater's 50/50, the local burger specialist that opened two new locations in Huntington Beach and San Diego in 2011. While they're known for their namesake patty made of 50% bacon and 50% beef, the appeal of ground, soft-cooked bacon is lost on me. Other, more flavorful choices like Thanksgiving Burger call to me. That's a turkey burger served with house-made cranberry sauce, stuffing, sauced with gravy and a sage mayonnaise. Most turkey burgers come out dry, flavorless and disappointing, but this one's easily the best version I've ever tried.
Anne Marie and Dave loved their Peanut Butter and Jealousy Burger, but my favorite is that one that reminds me of my favorite holiday. 6362 E. Santa Ana Canyon Rd., Anaheim Hills, (714) 685-1103; also at 8082 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 594-5730; slaters5050.com
1. Tacos & Carnitas Sahuayo
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Yes, the pig snout is my favorite of the photos I snapped this year. But the shock and excitement of seeing the disembodied snout stewing in the steam pans equalled my enthusiam for how well prepared it is at my favorite discovery of the year, a tiny taqueria with roots in the city of Sahuayo, Michoacán.
Unlike every other Mexican restaurant that cooks menudo and pozole on the weekends, this joint stews trompa and oreja, pig snouts and pig ears. Gustavo, Dave and I scouted this place one night based on rumors of its existence before it actually opened for business. When it opened, your Weeklings trumpeted the the story because those two specialties exceeded our expectations of how delicious the nasty bits of pork can taste when treated with honor and love. 165 W. Pomona St., Santa Ana.