The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014

Well everyone, its that time of the year again. We've pondered ever so hard and have come up with a list of what we think are the best everything in Orange County. Now, for those of you who can't click over to the Best Of section of our website, or pick up a paper copy (Seriously though, they're glossy! And pretty!), I've glued together all of the best restaurants in this blog post. There's a lot of them -- from best bread to best breakfast and, well, best restaurant -- so start reading, and have a great Best Of 2014.

Best Fish and Chips Orange County 2014 - England Fish & Chips

An honest-to-Flying Spaghetti Monster chippy right in Long Beach, the kind of place where they'll fry just about anything, including spears of pineapple (something probably never envisioned in the cold, ananas-less void that is the Great Britain of yore), but you should start with two enormous pieces of fish--flaky, moist and encased in a batter that stays crunchy even when doused in vinegar. The fries? Well, if you must--but the onion rings are better.

Best Vietnamese Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Ngoc Thuy

"Rollicking good time" and "Vietnamese restaurant" don't often show up in the same sentence together, but Ngoc Thuy is the most popular quan nhau in Little Saigon for a reason. Maybe it's the beer, maybe it's the beautiful Vietnamese women sitting and chatting with you, maybe it's the karaoke that starts around 10 . . . or maybe it's that the food is miles ahead of any other Vietnamese bar in the county. Grilled razor clams, fried-fish croquettes, whole crab with garlic, grilled quail, hotpot--you can settle in for hours here and not wince too badly at the bill after they serve you a free dish of fruit.

Best Vegetables Orange County 2014 - Boldo Bol

They say the best vegetables are the ones that grow in your back yard. But if you live in an apartment or have no back yard, the best alternative is Boldo Bol, which buys the vegetables from local farmers and backyard growers throughout the county, then cooks them simply. The specific dishes vary daily based on what's been bought, but at these prices, you can afford to experiment.

Best French Fries Orange County 2014 - Marché Moderne

Of course, the best French fries are going to come from a French restaurant. Marché Moderne makes them to go with its moules-frites, but you can order them as a side dish for anything, and you should. They're fried correctly--once in warm oil to cook the potato, then in blindingly hot oil to crisp the outside--and they go wonderfully with the aioli you'll ask for on the side. The fact that they're named after another OC publication famous for its food critic's finicky taste in frites (Brad A. Johnson, the James Beard-winning food critic for the Orange County Register who obsesses about French fries in all his reviews--even for those about Mexican restaurants) just makes them that much more enjoyable.

Best Meal You Might Regret Orange County 2014 - Harry's Grill

There are few feelings better than those you get when starting an avocado cheeseburger at Harry's Grill in Sunset Beach. And there are few feelings worse than when you finish one. The burgers are stacked tall and loose, heavy and dripping, and they are brought to you on a tray. Two flimsy buns barely contain the fat patty and the weighty wedges of avocado. The tomatoes slightly lack flavor, but not juice--it's as if they exist to drip down your forearm and back onto the plate. Pair your meal with an icy, thin, yet somehow satisfying milkshake--you're going to feel heavy at the end of this meal, so you might as well. And feel free to enjoy it before or after going to the beach; it all depends on whether you like your food coma on the sand or on the couch.

Best Filipino Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Jollibee

Ask anyone actually from the Philippines where they go for a taste of home, and each one answers the same: Jollibee. We know, we know--it's fast food! But it's also actually tasty. Order the "chickenjoy" and the spaghetti, and you have a meal fit for a beloved president: crispy chicken alongside a plate of noodles smothered with an impossibly sweet sauce that hides bits of ham, sausage and ground beef, all of it topped with a yellow cheese. It's comfort food for the Pinoy soul you never knew was in you.

Best Restaurant Ambiance Orange County 2014 - Javier's

Oh, don't go to Javier's for the food--oh, God, no. But as a place to party, a restaurant to which you go with a group of friends or by yourself looking to hook up with someone while fueled by tequila, with a layout that encourages roaming halls and running off to spots for making out, nothing beats Javier's. And it doesn't matter whether you're hitting up the ritzy Crystal Cove spot or the middle-class Irvine location: Both are masters at setting the scene for OC to play up to its Real Housewives worst. Even people who despise those stereotypes can spend at least one snarky night bemoaning the spectacle of it all with other Hipster Helens. Besides, even the biggest Mexican-food purist should succumb at least once to the siren call that is multiple MILFs whispering in your ear about how their high-school-aged kids are off with their dads at soccer camp.

Best Waterfront Dining Orange County 2014 - The Galley Café

The waterfront-restaurant rule goes like this: The better the view, the worse the food. High-priced, special-occasion, lousy restaurants on nosebleed-expensive real estate keep packing in the crowds because the location guarantees it, not because the food deserves it. Then you have the Galley Café, a wallflower of a diner that makes no effort to call attention to itself beyond a newfangled website. It manages to make the rent while serving inexpensive meals because the building was paid off before you were born and has been offering food since 1957. Back then, the grassy bluffs near the newly built Jamboree Road allowed motorists an unobstructed view of the harbor below, and you would have been able to see the café's neon sign from Coast Road. The food remains just as glorious: breakfast all day, burgers loosely hand-formed from beef ground fresh every morning. The nostalgic will want that burger served open-faced as a chili size, which means it's topped by a chili with beans that is made daily with the same spice blend that has been used for 60 years.

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

Best Sausages Orange County 2014 - Gem Meats

There are many contenders for the best sausage title in Orange County, but few have been at the game longer than Gem Meats, an old-timey butcher shop that looks as though it might have been the model for Sam the Butcher's store in The Brady Bunch. A giant walk-in meat locker like the one Peter and Greg got trapped in? Check. Refrigerated meat cases filled with immaculately trimmed cuts of beef, pork and poultry? Yup. The overhead steel rail that was used to convey quartered steers from the truck to the walk-in serve as a reminder that butcher shops such as this existed in every American neighborhood through the 1960s. Remaining true to this model of American butchery, Gem grinds a small but focused selection of pork sausages that recall those days. A classic Bratwurst. A mildly spicy Italian. A garlicky Polish. About the most gourmet thing here is spicy Cajun--it doesn't need to offer a rotating selection of several dozen varieties to grab your attention because these timelessly classic sausage flavors are fine just the way they've always been.

Best Peruvian Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Inka Mama's Peruvian Cuisine

The menu at Inka Mama's represents many of Peruvian cuisine's greatest hits: tallarín, saltado, chaufa, and the many soups and braised-meat stews from that nation's culinary melting pot. It offers enough of the dishes you expect, but also wisely avoids attempting every one of the greatest hits. You'll find no wood-fired rotisserie for whole-roasted Peruvian chicken because the best places for that are restaurants that specialize in only that thing; you'll find no anticuchos for a similar reason. There will be a token ceviche or two depending on the day, but raw seafood is not the specialty here. Smartly sticking to a tighter, though still broad menu helps Inka Mama's earn the Best Peruvian title. Nearly everything it does offer is a well-executed example of the dish.

Best Indian Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Annapoorna

A restaurant that serves an Indian take on Chinese food? That mashup is common in the northeastern regions of India where Chinese immigrants settled, but it's unusual to find around here. More Indian than Chinese, dishes such as Szechuan fried noodles and chicken Manchurian are part of the regionally diverse menu at Irvine's Annapoorna restaurant. While many Indian places rarely stray from the familiar Punjabi dishes cooked in a tandoor, Annapoorna also offers dishes from the southern subcontinent. The crispy, deep-fried lentil-flour fritters called vada are savory doughnuts served with dipping sauces. Dosas are giant, crisp crepes made of lentil and rice; filled with potatoes, peas, onions, spinach or meat, they look like steroid-enhanced burritos the size of a softball bat. Come here, and you'll realize you're not in Larry Agran's Irvine anymore. . . .

Best Pie Orange County 2014 - The Empanada Maker

Picture the most delicious pie you can imagine. Is it oval in shape and small enough to be a hand-held snack? Is it filled with meat and vegetables and savory sauces? Then you should head right now to Mission Viejo's Empanada Maker. The classic Argentine combination of beef, hard-boiled eggs, olives and potatoes here battle for popularity with all-American flavors such as Philly cheesesteak and beef pot roast, along with dessert empanadas including guava y queso or cinnamon apple. But the best one might be the Mexican chile verde emapanada. The chunks of perfectly tender pork simmered in a thick-bodied, spicy salsa verde might be the best version served anywhere--and will make you wish it were sold by the quart.

Best Pie You Can Only Get In a Narrow Window Between Fourth of July and Labor Day Orange County 2014 - Jongewaard's Bake-n-Broil

Pies like your grandma made are Jongewaard's Bake-n-Broil's stock in trade year-round. During the summer, when berries and stone fruits are in season, flaky crusts filled with fresh, delicate fruit make this Long Beach institution even more special. Depending on what's available at the time, you might get thick slices of fresh strawberries glistening with a mirror glaze. It might be overfilled with whole jumbo boysenberries or fragrant wedges of yellow peaches. Not a fan of crisp, textbook-perfect pie crust? The kitchen creates a few pans of cobbler instead of pie, if that's your thing. The fresh seasonal fruit pies cost just a few dollars more than the ones on the rotating permanent menu. While the days are still long and muggy, head to Bixby Knolls and order whatever fruit-filled wonder happens to be waiting for you.

Best Taco Tuesday Orange County 2014 - Los Tacos Ricos

Taco Tuesday deals are easy to find in central and north OC. But head south of the Y, and delicious taquerías grow increasingly sparse. So discounted tacos in Lake Forest are a great reason to try handmade tortillas, house-made salsas and agua frescas at Los Tacos Ricos. Buches? Tripas? Yes, it has the real-deal bits of offal in addition to al pastor and carne asada. Cucumber is one of three agua fresca flavors made daily. Odd thing, though: All of the tacos drop to $1.50 on Tuesdays, but only at dinner, from 4 in the afternoon to closing. But on Taco Thursday, the discounted-taco deal lasts all day, except the tortillas are the machine-made variety but still very good. A Taco Day-and-a-Half? It's 50 percent better than everywhere else.

Best Sushi Orange County 2014 - Shunka

If ever there were a city that can be called a sushi mecca, it's Costa Mesa, and the latest young gun is Shunka. The itamae you want to eat from is Juro-san, a master with surgeon-like knife skills who will, piece by gorgeous piece, introduce you to ocean treats and fish species you're likely to have never eaten before, let alone knew existed. There will be akamutsu, gnomefish with a creamy flesh, its edges slightly charred and topped with a minute dollop of pungent yuzukosho. Next, it'll be sayori. Then, after that, a sultry piece of fat-jeweled salmon belly. More than any other sushi bar in the city, omakase is definitely the way to go here. And though it can run you into the hundreds for two people if you're particularly ravenous, Shunka's quality-to-price ratio is hard to beat, even in a town such as Costa Mesa. Just leave your California rolls expectations at home, along with your budget.

Best Breakfast Orange County 2014 - The Breakfast Bar

The best dish at the Breakfast Bar is from a secret family recipe, passed down through the generations, as proclaimed on the menu. But owner Pamela Beadle isn't really that secretive about it. Ask what's in it, and she'll tell you: The famous omelet casserole is made by soaking a piece of bread overnight in a mixture of egg, cheese and milk, then baking it. Somehow, knowing these facts make the dish even more mysterious. Why does it taste so light and fluffy? Resembling neither an omelet nor a casserole, it's an eggy cloud more akin to a soufflé. And why haven't all the other breakfast joints in Long Beach, a town teeming with such places, copied it? Or, heck, why isn't every joint making the Breakfast Bar's other signature dish: the unreasonable amount of crisp fries smothered in marvelously soft scrambled eggs, sausage gravy, pico de gallo and spiced sour cream? That one's called Hung Over, and it's the kind of morning-after food you'd be happy to get drunk for the night before.

Mick's, the best!
Mick's, the best!
Photo by Taylor Hamby

Best Burger Orange County 2014 - Mick's Karma Bar

We've hailed Mick's Karma Bar as OC's best burger maker many times before. Taste one, and it all makes sense. The meat is juicy, the perfect texture, beefy with a seared-in flavor. It's hugged by a good bun, served with hot fries and chased down by a mulled strawberry-and-basil lemonade--all for a price that couldn't get you an appetizer at Red Robin. Michael Schepers now has plans to open in LA--but you tasted his U.S.-trademarked Karma Burger here first.

Best Vegan Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Au Lac

One of the oldest all-vegan restaurants in the county remains the best. Au Lac's menu focuses on the Buddhist principle of maintaining a healthy lifestyle through eating a purely vegetarian diet. The chef/owner pushes his devotion to Buddhism to a monk-like vow of silence. You will have to ask his waitstaff to describe the menu, which is split between traditional Vietnamese dishes that are cooked and an equally lengthy menu of "living food," or raw vegan dishes. By not heating them, the enzymes in the vegetables, nuts, legumes and juices supposedly convey all their delicious, vital powers, as nature intended. Au Lac predates all the recent trends and brings a delicious Vietnamese sensibility the new kids don't have.

Best Secret-Recipe Item Orange County 2014 - JACKshrimp

Not even the waitstaff at JACKshrimp knows what goes into the famous Cajun sauce. It's a combination of spices and butter and jumbo shell-on gulf shrimp--that much we can guess . . . maybe. Served steaming in a heaping bowl of garnet-colored richness, alongside slices of warm crusty bread for dipping, the secret-recipe JACKshrimp (or the shrimpless appetizer version, simply called JACKsauce) will quickly become one of those dishes you just can't help but order every time you visit Newps. You can even get the aromatic broth spooned over a plate of vermicelli, shrimp and chicken in the dish called JACKpasta. Whatever is actually in it, we dream about JACKshrimp at night.

Best Ice Cream Orange County 2014 - Strickland's

The sole California outpost of the Ohio-based chain is no stranger to this list or lists such as this. Its space-aged mixers output fresh-churned ice cream sculpted into Van Gogh-like spires and tastes like the halfway point between soft serve and Häagen-Dazs with a little crack mixed in. But why does it make our list year after year? Because Strickland's constantly introduces new flavors that make every visit akin to opening a Christmas present. The red velvet is the perfect distillation of ice cream and cake. The Thai iced tea ice cream is an instant classic. And there are seasonal flavors such as Peppermint Bark during Christmas, spiced pumpkin for Thanksgiving and something green on St. Patrick's Day. Ever the experimentalists, the staff even tried bacon ice cream once for the hell of it.

Best Korean Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Zoomak Asian Bistro

In between the skewers of barbecued meat, the savory kimchi-flavored pancakes and the dried roasted squid you tear apart with your fingers, you should be toasting your tablemates with Hite or, better still, shots of the sweet rocket fuel that is Chamisul. Then, before the alcohol takes effect and the sizzling plate of corn cheese solidifies, order the Mini-Oden Bar, a boiling hotpot of various fish-cake skewers and broth. Share it with the friends you brought with you. (Pro tip: Don't go to Korean bars such as this alone.) Sip some soup, then more Chamisul, but try to avoid getting blinded by the laser lights or deafened by the K-pop when the place becomes nightclub loud after 9 p.m.

Best Korean Barbecue Orange County 2014 - All That Barbecue

The last time you ate this much and this well you were at another all-you-can-eat barbecue, probably Gen Korean BBQ House in Tustin. See, All That Barbecue is cut from the same cow. It sets an agreeable admission price for an amusement park of meat that you cook yourself on a smoky tabletop grill. All around you are like-minded souls with $20 to spare and plenty of time before the doctor starts warning them about the dangers of overconsumption and high cholesterol. And here's the best part: All That Barbecue cuts down the work of cooking your own food. Some of the items are pre-seared, such as an already-grilled-to-rare flap-tail steak. And as any professional Korean barbecue overeater knows, the less time that elapses between the last and next mouthful of meat, the better.

Best New Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Provenance

You can't fake sincerity, and Cathy Pavlos' second restaurant has it in spades. The servers here actually give a damn, and its food is what a granny would cook on a Thomas Kinkade country cottage stove with a garden out back. In fact, there is a garden here. And on the menu, in a section called "What's In the Garden Now," there are a half-dozen thoughtful side dishes made from veggies plucked from those plant beds you see from your seat. Try a salad of dewy leaves from a homegrown head of heirloom lettuce. Definitely order the house-smoked trout, a meant-for-sharing whole fish splayed open and frosted with a lemon cream that's eaten as though a dip with toast. It's great, and it comes with the head still attached--because what more sincere way is there to serve a fish?

Best Japanese Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Mitsuwa Marketplace

The following is based on the opinion of a young Japanese man who has only resided in the United States (Costa Mesa, specifically) for a couple of years. Asked to name the best Japanese restaurant in OC, he replied there are no good ones, at least none that he has found, even though he and his friends have tried many all over the county. There are some good Japanese restaurants around Torrance, he advised. (Wonder if they'll leave for Texas with Toyota?) The more the chap talked, the more homesick he got, explaining Japanese food is much tastier, cheaper and readily available back home--24 hours a day and right outside your front door. When he wants to recapture that back-home feeling, he goes to Mitsuwa Marketplace, where he can pick and choose from the various counters offering udon, ramen, sushi, tempura, teishoku and much, much more, even freshly baked goods. He manages to create his own unique plates that have come the closest to reminding him of you-know-where.

Taco, taco, taco!
Taco, taco, taco!
Photo by The Mexican

Best Taco Orange County 2014 - Alebrijes Grill

As everyone knows, the best place to get a taco is not from a stand, restaurant or store, but rather a truck. (As long as it's not moving.) Alebrijes Grill's truck is more like a giant pink van-like vehicle. Though it's most famous for its taco acorazado (the battleship taco, made with milanesa), you should also go for the carne asada taco; you'll find yourself so blown away that you'll come back for the silkier tripe and lengua. The lining of a cow's stomach (multiple stomachs?) is deep-fried to a crunchy deliciousness. The tongue is so tender and juicy and full of flavor you may stop ordering anything else. Costing a little more than a buck each, these tacos make for a cheap yet filling lunch when you've only got a fiver in your pocket. And don't forget the free extras including pickled veggies and salsas, especially the creamy, dreamy habanero-and-avocado blend. That just about covers all the food groups, right, Mrs. Obama?

Best Seafood Restaurant Orange County 2014 - TAPS Fish House & Brewery

Sometimes, you want a white wine that's not too complex, fresh greens and a nice piece of fish in a quiet little corner. TAPS is not for you people, especially during the Sunday Jazz Brunch Extravaganza, during which the plates and pint glasses clank to the music and you'll have to have vats of the brewmaster's latest creations (Russian Imperial Stout, anyone?). Screw the greens! Start off slurping every oyster in the 21-seat oyster bar. Follow that with an appetizer plate of imported cheeses to share. Then get in the serving line so you can pile a mile of jambalaya; spicy shrimp; Angus beef; cracked crab claws; and made-to-order waffles, omelets and pastas on your platter. (Screw the sharing!) As a chaser, might we recommend homemade biscuits drowning in thick gravy? For dessert, escape the indoor noise pollution for outdoor air pollution, courtesy of the cigar-friendly patio's smoke. Lap it up along with the imaginary cheers as though you're a Latin American dictator. After all, you have conquered ordinary seafood dining, you have sampled just about every known taste, and you really, really need a nap.

Best Wings Orange County 2014 - Crazy Chi Mac

This Korean family-owned joint specializes in fried chicken, and indeed, the fried chicken is so outstanding you'll believe Colonel Sanders really had no idea what he was doing. The same care and craftsmanship is applied to Crazy Chi Mac's chicken wings. The crispy outer shell is soaked in your flavor of choice--range from original to habanero, from barbecued (K-style, natch) to sweet and sour--and the puffy meat inside is tender and juicy. There's a range of spiciness as well, but just know regular spicy is not very spicy and hot spicy is not very hot. No, my friend, you want the "911" version if you want your tongue to qualify for Obamacare.

Best Barbecue Orange County 2014 - Robert Earl's BBQ

It may be kind of far from most of Orange County, but the inclusion of Robert Earl's BBQ in Long Beach on this list is necessary because of one thing: It's the best damn Texas-style barbecue you can get in a less-than-hundred-mile radius (possibly even more, honestly). The brisket is the main draw, cooked for hours in a backyard setup, which rests permanently behind the building. The smoke pierces so far into the meat that you may not realize a smoke ring even exists. The ribs--both pork and beef--are also great, especially when you peel the meat off the bone and dip it into the sauce that you can and should get on the side. But protein aside, what holds the food together is the stellar sides you get with each meal. Surprise: They're vegetarian, but the mac and cheese (Earl's wife's recipe) is full of love, the greens are tender and savory, the beans spot-on, and everything else just perfect. Heck, you don't even need napkins--that's what the slices of white bread are for.

Best Pizza Orange County 2014 - Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza

It's been a while since anyone opened an honest-to-goodness pizza parlor such as Craftsman. No, we don't mean like Pizzeria Mozza, which is a restaurant, nor Pieology, which is a pizza shop. No, we mean like Shakey's in its heyday, the kind of place to which your Little League coach would take you to celebrate a win or soothe a loss. Either way, you're getting pizza and soda, maybe hot wings and, yes, something fried. And the pizza? It's great. Simple, not traditionally Italian as it is just good Italian-American. There's a bread-like integrity to the dough, something to really chew on. Pick up a slice, and you feel the grit of the soot from the cornmeal dust they use to ease the hand-molded dough into the red-hot ovens. And when you bite into it, you realize these pizzas are platforms of melted cheese that are just slightly less substantial than a Chicago deep dish.

Best Steakhouse Orange County 2014 - Chianina

Chianina is not unlike every other top-shelf steakhouse you've been to. The sides, such as a classic creamed spinach, are served à la carte and cost nearly $10 each. But this windowless Long Beach ode to cattle serves Piedmontese beef steaks, which come from an Italian breed of cow that are the bovine version of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson--thick-necked, rippled with muscles, and lauded for their leanness. In fact, these cattle are so low in their BMI, they're supposed to be healthier for you. The meat is taut but not tough. It doesn't melt in your mouth, but it's a pleasurable experience, with a concentrated yet clean beefiness that comes from the muscle rather than the fat. Eventually, Chianina will serve meat from cows it's raising in Iowa--yes, raising, which means there's probably a very muscular teenage steer grazing in the Midwest right now who's earmarked for your nearly $200 future Porterhouse.

Best Chinese Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Tasty Garden

The defining specialty of a Hong Kong-style café such as Tasty Garden is that it doesn't have one. You can slurp on turtle soup, eat a Caesar salad, then twirl a forkful of spaghetti before chasing it with kung pao chicken or a club sandwich. Plus, it's open late, which makes Tasty Garden the Chinese equivalent of an all-night American diner--a place to get coffee along with something greasy before you turn in for the night. Everything is well-prepared, but it's best to order a Chinese dish and avoid some of the lost-in-translation weirdness of the faux-Western ones. Definitely get the clams showered with near-pulverized bits of fried garlic that stick to the shells--and then your teeth. And then there's Tasty Garden's signature item: the Hong Kong-style waffles, a fresh-off-the-iron honeycomb of golden bubbles with the combined eggy interior of a madeleine, the crispy skin of a cake cone and the soul of a Nilla wafer--the best dessert from a restaurant, Chinese or otherwise.

Best Cupcakes Orange County 2014 - Hapa Cupcakes

Never eat and drive--it's too dangerous, and it's illegal. What? Just kidding. Hapa Cupcakes infuses the alcohol into their luscious treats prior to cooking, so the potent part burns off. The point isn't to get drunk--just a little titillated. The cupcake names say it all: Gonna Get Lucky Tonight finds Valrhona chocolate (ooh, la, la, how French!), whiskey and Hapa's luscious cream cheese frosting--don't know how lucky you'll be getting tonight, but anyone eating this dreamboat cake is truly fortunate. When you wake up the next day, solo or otherwise, you can devour the Will You Remember Me In the Morning? If you would like a less salacious cake, either for a child or the child within, a birthday-cake-inspired one goes straight for your nostalgia bone with yellow cake, chocolate frosting smack-dab between dark and milk chocolate, and a few festive confetti-colored sprinkles on top.

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

Best Bakery Orange County 2014 - Ellie's Table At North Beach

If you simply order a butter croissant and a cappuccino at Ellie's Table At North Beach, the bakery gods would still smile upon your infinite wisdom. But this bakery's croissant is a gateway pastry to a world of savory and sweet treats you'll love to consume on the premises and take with you to eat throughout the day. The impeccable croissant becomes a full breakfast when filled with sausage, eggs and Cheddar or caramelized onions, mushrooms and brie. If you are having a yen for something more Italian than French, have an espresso Italiano tirámisù cupcake or any of the crostadas--peach or strawberry rhubarb are both molto, molto bene. Don't forget to take advantage of the lunch special of two palm sandwiches with a side salad (get one with Peppadews!) for $6.95; it's a steal and damn delicious!

Best Pancake Orange County 2014 - Stacks Pancake House

There are so many mind-blowing choices at this eternally packed cubby hole that Stacks marks the best-selling menu items in each category with a yellow thumbs-up to guide overwhelmed customers. Doesn't matter: It's all good. Old stoners can be seen eating the Captain Crunch Peanut Butter French toast, but that is certainly not why Stacks earns Best Pancake of 2014. The flapjacks are just right in texture, fluffiness and flavor. The buttermilk with maple syrup is basic, but scrumptious. The Mac'nut Banana is the pancake Stacks has tagged with the thumbs-up icon; the nuttiness is subtle, the banana is right at home, and the pancake somehow retains its airy fluff. Order a side of Kalua pork, and you've got your perfect Aloha moment.

Best Local Mini-Chain Orange County 2014 - Rita's Italian Ice

There seems to be a new Rita's Italian Ice location opening every other week, and that's fine by us. Its namesake treat tastes as though it's made in a kitchen, not a chemistry lab like snow-cones, and never more than 36 hours old. It also offers no-sugar versions (sweetened with Splenda) for those who must avoid the white stuff. But by far, the best thing Rita's offers is frozen custard. It comes in vanilla, chocolate, coffee, strawberry and orange cream, which, of course, brings to mind the best orange 50-50 bar you've ever had from the ice cream truck that drove down your childhood street, the one with the creepy driver who made all the parents a little uneasy.

Best Thai Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Coconut Rabbit

Chef Nok has decades of experience cooking for her family and is Cordon Bleu-trained. Her niece, your server, is a Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef as well. Together, they prepare and serve meals fit for royalty, the family and anyone lucky enough to sit down at one of Coconut Rabbit's lovely tables. There are even strong up-country flavors of the Mekong lurking in the jungle soup, a mysterious and pungent broth loaded with vegetables--try it, if you dare. Bring as big a party of people as you can in order to taste as many dishes as possible. Besides, that's Thai style: You order enough so the abundant leftovers can be eaten for breakfast the next day. Good luck with that!

Best Vegetarian Restaurant Orange County 2014 - The Wheel of Life

This Thai/Vietnamese restaurant offers vegetarian versions of some of your favorite dishes, with the meat substitute made from the owners' special recipe. The "vege beef" in the prik king sizzles on your tongue, and the spicy crispy chicken lives up to its name. But what keeps us coming back are the pillowy steam buns and addictive pan-fried spinach buns. The slightly sweet, crunchy outside yields to a center of delightfully spiced steamed spinach. And no meal is complete without a small bowl of homemade ice cream (green tea or the heavenly coconut) served with an eggroll filled with mashed bananas. It's the manna late-night cravings are made of.

Best Deep-Fried Delicacy Orange County 2014 - 2nd Floor

Fans of freak-fusion and the deep-fried are pretty spoiled during the summer months, when the OC Fair comes to town. But where to turn once your deep-fried Jack Daniels and Totally Fried Bacon-Wrapped Pickles pack it in until next July? Lucky for you (and unlucky for your internal organs), 2nd Floor in Huntington Beach is there all year long, serving the best deep-fried delicacy this side of Fairview. The rock & roll art gallery-cum-restaurant's Zeppelin Poppers take shrimp, wrap it in bacon (natch), and stuff it into a giant jalapeño along with cream cheese before deep-frying the sucker. The poppers are served with a house-made raspberry chipotle sauce drizzled atop and on the side for dipping--and it's this pairing of a lightly sweet sauce with the salty snack that creates a harmonious union worthy of--yep--Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Best Frozen Yogurt Orange County 2014 - Active Culture

We all like to pretend frozen yogurt is healthy, but the yogurt at Active Culture really is. Its yogurt features plenty more live cultures (the stuff that makes frozen yogurt a healthier choice than ice cream) than mainstream brands. The toppings bar includes health food such as flaxseed, hemp granola and carob chips, and the yogurt flavors are marked for gluten and dairy. Stop rolling your eyes, gentle readers: The yogurt is seriously good. It's best when topped with fresh fruit, but fret not if you're a gummy bears-and-sprinkles type: Active Culture still delivers the saccharine goods. The Laguna Beach location offers more culture than the yogurt: It overlooks a beautiful swath of blue ocean and connects to the Laguna Festival of the Art's Permanent Collection. But the San Clemente spot is no slouch; it's in San Clemente, after all, God's little jarhead paradise.

Best Vietnamese Iced Coffee Orange County 2014 - Pho Saigon Pearl

Too often, a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee (ca fe sua da) lacks proper balance between strong coffee and creamy sweetened condensed milk. The problem either originates with the coffee, brewed to the point it's bitter and acidic, or with the condensed milk, poured so liberally the coffee may as well not be there. The iced coffee at Pho Saigon Pearl in Irvine, however, is the Goldilocks glass. The restaurant, one of the best Vietnamese joints in South County, starts with rich, dark-roast coffee that is remarkably non-bitter and combines it with enough condensed milk to achieve a silky mouthfeel. A hint of unidentified spice furthers the depth of flavor--the owner calls it a secret ingredient. It may be liquid crack because it's hard to not finish the glass before any food hits the table. It's a shame because the cool, silky beverage is the perfect contrast for slurping down hot noodles.

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

Best Hot Dog Orange County 2014 - The Viking Truck

A good sausage is hard to find--and that's why we'd chase the Viking Truck all over the county. In operation for just a few years, the Viking Truck handcrafts its dogs, mixing the flavors of traditional European sausages with American barbecue. The result is big and bold: Nestled inside massive toasted buns are sausages packed with flavor, a perfectly crisp snap yielding to a juicy mix of meat and spices. The Loki is a must-try, topped with a spicy pepper mix, bacon, smoked Cheddar, brown mustard, Sriracha and its own special Viking ketchup. Another favorite is the Thunder Dog, a massive beast covered in ale-laced black bean chili, smoked Cheddar, sour cream and more Viking ketchup. These hot dogs are so gut-bustingly over-the-top, you'll feel like raiding and pillaging--but maybe after a brief nap.

Best Soul Food Orange County 2014 - Papa's Fish and Soul Food

The plume of smoke rising from Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim serves as a signal that the Reverend Jonathan Jenkins is hard at work barbecuing and blessing OC with some much-needed soul. Enter his Papa's Fish and Soul Food restaurant and be treated to Southern-born delights, especially from Louisiana, a true rarity 'round these parts. All week long, ribs and chicken come plucked off the grill and are slathered in tangy barbecue sauce; weekends bring soupy gumbo and jambalaya. "Ain't nothing like fresh grease," the Rev will say when boxing up fried catfish with Cajun seasoned fries and spicy hush puppies to go. Jenkins keeps the vibes right, too, playing a mixture of soul and oldie classics while patrons dine. It's as rapper Lupe Fiasco rhymed: "They gave us scraps, some of it old/We cooked it up and called it 'soul'/It's good now." At Papa's in Anaheim, it's real good!

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Medii Kitchen

Perched in Anaheim Hills, far from Little Arabia, Medii Kitchen's Middle Eastern food is worthy of a spot off Brookhurst. Before taking on a main course, start with the sides. Dip the pita chips into the hummus, baba ghanoush and muhamara trio. Then move on to the fire-grilled quail, its tender meat seasoned with Syrian pepper and marinated with a citrus twist. It's the perfect warm-up for the chicken, lamb and beef kebabs served on skewers with a shapely mound of buttery rice. Wash all the Arabic entrées down with a beer or glass of wine from the selection at the bar.

Best Burrito Orange County 2014 - Pepe's Finest Mexican Food

In a time when burritos are often overstuffed, less is more at Pepe's. The mini-chain, with locations in Brea, Fullerton and Anaheim, serves up simplicity that still leaves your panza overstuffed. Hit the drive-thru for the quick assemblage of a green chile pork burrito. Unwrap the white paper it comes in and tear into that first flour-tortilla-ripping bite! Juicy chunks of pork bathed in green chile never make for sogginess, only pure bliss. Feeling hungrier? Add in rice and beans, but stand-alone burritos for breakfast or lunch will leave appetites satiated for hours on end. Dusk will fall. Thoughts of dinner will arise, but the power of Pepe's renders all other meals of the day unnecessary.

Best Greek Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Kentro Greek Kitchen

You don't get a Zorba the Greek experience at Kentro. No smashed plates. No loud, hairy waiters pouring ouzo down your gullet. In fact, you don't even get waiters. You order at the counter, and then try to find an empty seat in the 72-capacity joint--no easy feat at peak times. It offers three Greek beers, nine Greek wines, Greek coffee and, of course, Greek food, from a wild assortment of flatbreads and ridiculously tasty desserts such as baklava to a to-die-for beet salad, lamb pizza, moussaka and all other kinds of stuff for carnivores, omnivores and herbivores--and there's always Kentro fries, which are served with most entrées or can be ordered for a mere $5. Don't be surprised when the Kentro brand expands to other cities in Orange County and beyond--it's that good.

Best Doughnuts Orange County 2014 - The Donuttery

The Donuttery seems as humble as a place that serves up its baker's dozen in a pink box. Where the Huntington Beach dive distances itself is in its concoctions. Take the crème brûlée doughnut, initially nonchalant in its boring beige appearance. But the doughnut is topped with a gleaming layer of caramel ready to crackle into life; custard lurks inside, tastefully approximating its French dessert inspiration. And then there's the peanut butter and jelly doughnut; spread with smooth peanut butter, then sprinkled with nuts, it beckons like a jar of extra-crunchy Jif. The rest of the racks are stacked with apple fritters, maple bacon bars, vegan doughnuts, doughnut holes and more mouth-watering offerings. Take it from Hamlet: Get thee to the Donuttery!

Best Deli Orange County 2014 - Il Barone Bottega

This is where you go to find out how tomatoes really taste. The sandwiches at Il Barone Bottega are an alternating pattern of thick and thin, lumps and sheets--lumps of mozzarella, sheets of prosciutto, thick tomatoes and thin bread. Tireless chef Franco Barone, who left his longtime position at Antonello's to open his own place, prepares everything you'll eat. This includes the wild boar truffle sausage hanging in the back room, a dizzyingly good pairing of tough meat and deep truffle. The duck sausage is seasoned to perfection, with every spice complimenting that muted flavor so specific to duck. But don't eat too much during lunch; save some room in your gut for dinner at Il Barone next door.

Best Place to Get Drunk at Brunch Orange County 2014 - Natraj's Indian Bistro

Day drinking and heavy Indian meals often end in naps--it makes sense to combine the two. At least that's the idea with Sunday Brunch at Natraj's Indian Bistro. Built on the bones of an old Bruxie in Rancho Santa Margarita, the bistro offers a full Indian buffet starting at 11 a.m. Besides being one of the only spots in Orange County to serve egg curry, Natraj's is notable for its liberal refills. It's safe to say your mimosa will never dip below half-full--the servers are that attentive. And with an outdoor seating area that both capitalizes on the Southern California sun and makes you feel as if you're far, far away from a master-planned city, the staff carefully protect your buzz. The experience will happily end in one of the greatest naps ever.

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

Best Pho Orange County 2014 - Pho Dakao

In the world of pho, you fall on two sides: beef or chicken (fish pho, while delicious, is an afterthought). And while beef pho is technically more robust, few things are more comforting than a bowl of the chicken. And if you take those parameters, the bowls offered by Pho Dakao are downright matronly: made with fowl sourced from nearby Dakao Poultry, with schmaltz used instead of Knorr for the broth, resulting in a bowl as yellow as Campbell's but without the artificial bullshit. Throw in some jalapeños and Sriracha, dunk each plump chicken slice in Dakao's secret sauce, and you have a pho even a Midwestern momma would love.

Best Sunday Brunch Orange County 2014 - Gourmet Cafe & Pie Co.

The best berry cream cheese pancakes ever? Absolutely. And the banana pecan pancake is pretty out of this world, too. But the best French toast on the planet? Quite possibly. Thick, buttery slices of bread coated in vanilla-scented egg batter and deep-fried to excellence. Try the French toast sandwich, which comes with two eggs (any way) and bacon or sausage. Or indulge your sweet tooth with the French toast finale, which is topped with smooth cream cheese and tart boysenberry jam. Or you can choose from something on the savory side, maybe Polish sausage and eggs or the Country Mess (a heaping wonder of potatoes and cheese, all smothered in gravy). The Gourmet Cafe & Pie Co.'s breakfast service lasts well into the afternoon, but if you're an early bird, it's open at 7 a.m.--very convenient if you're still going from Saturday night.

Best Mexican Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Taco Maria

Can a restaurant simultaneously hold the title of Best Restaurant and Best Mexican Restaurant in one year? If you're Taco Maria, damn straight. What's most amazing about this Costa Mesa stunner is that as fancy paisa as it is, chef/owner Carlos Salgado has always made sure to never lose sight of the place's Mexican roots, so much so that the emerald Aztec calendar hanging on the wall of the kitchen functions more as a mandate than a decoration. Salgado's creations can be enjoyed by fresas in Guadalajara or chuntis three days removed from Apatzingan, and they always skip among regional traditions: Oaxacan mole and green pozole from Guerrero; Sinaloan aguachile and chilaquiles; indigenous and Lebanese. All of it, of course, comes with impeccable service, presentation and price. And for the whiners who insist on chips and salsa as an appetizer: Salgado's version is so surprising it'll shut you up for good.

Best Old-School Food Truck Orange County 2014 - Ruben's Tacos y Mulitas

Protected from downtown SanTana's gentrification by a Pep Boys, this lonchera sets up shop every evening after spending the day in the barrio. The crowds form almost immediately: workers and cholos, immigrants and pochos, even the stray hipster who tires of the DTSA scene and looks for real culture. Everyone lines up for an encyclopedic menu that skips from tacos to tortas to specialties from Cuernavaca (picaditas, which are sopes on steroids), Mexico City (gargantuan pambazos) and even Guadalajara in the form of tacos dorados topped with pickled red onions. Best of all is the guy who goes from eater to eater in search of a couple of bucks so he can caterwaul corridos from an out-of-tune guitar. Give him some cash, ask for "El Ojo de Vidrio" and enjoy Mexican OC at its finest.

Best Old-School Food Truck Orange County 2014 - Ruben's Tacos y Mulitas

Protected from downtown SanTana's gentrification by a Pep Boys, this lonchera sets up shop every evening after spending the day in the barrio. The crowds form almost immediately: workers and cholos, immigrants and pochos, even the stray hipster who tires of the DTSA scene and looks for real culture. Everyone lines up for an encyclopedic menu that skips from tacos to tortas to specialties from Cuernavaca (picaditas, which are sopes on steroids), Mexico City (gargantuan pambazos) and even Guadalajara in the form of tacos dorados topped with pickled red onions. Best of all is the guy who goes from eater to eater in search of a couple of bucks so he can caterwaul corridos from an out-of-tune guitar. Give him some cash, ask for "El Ojo de Vidrio" and enjoy Mexican OC at its finest.

Best Luxe Lonchera Orange County 2014 - Bakery Truck

Luxe loncheras hawking souped-up versions of burgers, tacos and fries continue to rumble through OC, but how often do you come across a truck with perfectly executed cream puffs? The Bakery Truck, run by Morsels Bakery Co., proves that even complex French pastries can come from trucks. All of the cream puffs consist of choux pastry dough, pastry cream and whipped cream, finished off with your choice of toppings. The caramel pecan puff channels pecan pie, with salted caramel, nutty richness from the pecans and a vanilla-tinged whipped cream. Similarly, the banana Nutella puff recalls the flavors of banana cream pie, with the custard, vanilla whipped topping and banana slices forming a textural meld. And at $5 a pop, the puffs are reasonably priced for food-truck fare.

Best Use of Avocado Orange County 2014 - à la minute

While Americans are accustomed to eating avocado as a savory meal due to its association with salads and Mexican food, the fruit is used as a dessert in Vietnam and Indonesia. So don't be put off by the avocado ice cream at Old Towne Orange's new liquid nitrogen ice cream joint. The avocado taste is aptly subtle, but the vanilla bean and honey mixed in add the right amount of sweetness to remind you that you're eating dessert. Made using a liquid nitrogen process, the ice cream's texture is exponentially creamier and softer than the regular churned kind. Served in either your choice of cup or cone, portion sizes are bountiful and make for a solidly refreshing treat.

Best California Burrito Orange County 2014 - Alvaro's Mexican Food

Beef, cheese, sour cream, salsa, French fries and guacamole--San Diego's legendary California burrito ain't exactly healthy, and no one cares. This meal hits the spot in a way few others can, feeding mind, body and soul with its melty, savory comfort. The California burrito is one of the best offerings by Alvaro's Mexican Food, and while you can find a decent California burrito at any of the -berto's around here, the crispy flour tortilla, grilled carne asada and soft fries that unite in every bite in the Alvaro's version deserve their place in the sol.

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

Best Diner Orange County 2014 - Rooster Cafe

What springs to mind when you hear the word rooster is the break of dawn, the wee hours of the morning when most people begin their daily grind during the workweek--which is also when Rooster Cafe opens its doors. Which is perfect if you're up bright and early at 7 a.m. Luckily, if you're not, you can still order breakfast any time until it closes at 3 p.m. Your best bet is the amazing breakfast burrito (our Best Burrito for 2012), but other bites at Rooster Cafe are equally yummy and will hold you over for most of the day. Don't expect Mel's Diner--but you can still pull up a stool for service at the counter and let the meal speak for itself.

Best Late-Night Dining Orange County 2014 - Harbor House Cafe

As far as ingredients for a great late-night dining experience go--greasy-spoon drunken munchies, strong and bottomless coffee, an atmosphere just kitschy and cozy enough--Harbor House has mastered it all. It helps that it's one of the only establishments in sleepy Sunset Beach open 24 hours a day. The diner is enjoyed by all odd-hour eaters from the crowd kicked out after last call at Turk's or Mother's to daybreak surf rats to the kids who sneak onto the beach after the 10 p.m. curfew. The all-wood interior and floor-to-ceiling memorabilia make for a campy atmosphere that Denny's just can't deliver, and the menu goes on for days with all the foods that sound great at 2 a.m.: Mexican, breakfast, dessert and stuff that tastes just like what Mom used to make (unless your mom's cooking sucks). And yes, breakfast is served all day because, as any night owl will tell ya, never trust a diner that stops serving breakfast at 11 a.m.

Best Vegan Dessert Orange County 2014 - Paradis

With a bright-blue sign in its front window that reads, "Vegan Flavors Available," Paradis is a beacon of tasty hope for the dairy-intolerant. The company's ice cream is homemade every day, and among the many decadent flavors are several strictly vegan options: choices can include everything from cantaloupe to forest berry to champagne sorbet. Made with fresh seasonal fruit and pure water, they are all sinfully sweet, silky in texture--and low-fat, to boot! Splurge for a Love Box, Paradis' version of the doggie bag, and take home multiple scoops to indulge in later.

Best Halal Chinese Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Nomad Asian Bistro

If you were lucky enough to dine at Jamilla Garden in Tustin before it closed a few years ago, you will want to make the trek to Long Beach's Marketplace on Pacific Coast Highway. Tucked behind the United Artists Theater and a Twisted Kilt is the best Islamic Chinese food you'll find in Southern California. The reason: Nomad is owned by Linda Campillo, and her mom, Jamilla Ma--the Jamilla of Jamilla Garden--is the head chef. The menu is all halal, so no pork or alcohol, and many of the items are inspired by the family's ethnic Hui roots, so there is a distinctly Middle Eastern influence, none more obvious than the freshly baked sesame flatbread. All the food is fresh and handmade, including the noodles.

Best Fish Taco Orange County 2014 - Bear Flag Fish Co.

What Bear Flag Fish Co. started is now swiftly becoming standard: a fish market that offers fresh seafood by the pound behind the counter, as well as a quick-order kitchen that cooks and slices those slabs of sea bounty into sandwiches, salads and--of course--tacos. Some things have changed since Bear Flag's founding in 2007: There's a sushi bar, and alcohol is now on the menu (check out the Pabst Blue Ribbon Special on Mondays). Speaking of daily specials, fish tacos go for $2 on (Taco) Tuesdays; all tacos are freshly grilled--you can ask for yours panko-style--and are served with Tommy sauce, pico de gallo and cabbage--old-school style. There's also an abundance of exotic bottled hot sauces available in case the Tapatío-like Tommy sauce is too mild for your taste.

Best Fish and Chips Orange County 2014 - England Fish & Chips

An honest-to-Flying Spaghetti Monster chippy right in Long Beach, the kind of place where they'll fry just about anything, including spears of pineapple (something probably never envisioned in the cold, ananas-less void that is the Great Britain of yore), but you should start with two enormous pieces of fish--flaky, moist and encased in a batter that stays crunchy even when doused in vinegar. The fries? Well, if you must--but the onion rings are better.

Best Outdoor Dining Orange County 2014 - Rose Canyon Cantina & Grill

It's a pity OC has a real lack of luscious, outdoor beer gardens. However, a good attempt is at Rose Canyon Cantina & Grill. The sprawling deck is hidden away in Trabuco Canyon and snuggled by shady oaks, so much so you might just drive right past it. Here, patrons drink margaritas instead of beer--and Rose Canyon makes a great one (so long as you have nothing against Patrón). During the day, the wraparound patio gives a gorgeous view of the hills, but we prefer it after dark; as the sun sinks, the canyons get draped in blues and the oaks enclose you in twinkling lights.

Best Spanish Restaurant That Doubles as a Nightclub Orange County 2014 - TAPAS

Remember that Arrested Development episode in which Tobias is working at Swallows in Reno, the family-style restaurant by day and anything-goes pan-sexual bazaar by night? TAPAS in Newport Beach is sort of like that, but with fine Spanish food instead of malts and a kicking house-music scene instead of the leather pony. Focus, its Tuesday-night alter ego, manages to pull some great talent, as well as a slew of resident DJs including Nonfiction and Wobs. The dance floor is ample, the outdoor taco grill is more than ample, and the cosmos ($3.50 before 10 p.m.) are affordably--yep!--ample. You'd never guess that, mere hours ago, servers were passing 12-inch Toro Skewers and massive, steaming plates of paella.

The Best Restaurants in Orange County, 2014
Photo by Rickett & Sones

Best Bagels Orange County 2014 - Shirley's Bagels

A bagel has to be pretty shitty to be considered a bad bagel, yet Orange County notoriously lacks many good ones--which makes Shirley's Bagels that much more valuable. Its doughy treats are just the right thickness and taste freshly baked no matter when you visit or which of its three locations you choose. The staff is inviting and helpful, giving the place more of a mom-and-pop feel. And it's so hard to go wrong with something smothered in cream cheese. Plus, the specialties here go beyond (un)glorified turkey sandwiches; try the everything bagel topped with whipped cream cheese and avocado slices, then sprinkled with lemon pepper. You'll never want a plain bagel again.

Best Place to Ogle the Waitstaff Orange County 2014 - The North Left

If you're looking to see half-naked chicks, move along--the Tilted Kilt is just a Google search away. If you want to dine in the presence of real beautiful people, then visit the North Left, and see it as a mere bonus on top of the choice culinary experience. Sure, they're all hipsters--but as much shit as the wait staff get, there's something sexy about a good beard in a button-down and hip chicks with tattoos. You can roll your eyes as much as you want; we'd bring them all home. But the best thing about North Left's staff isn't just their bone structure and sleek dress--it's that they're made even hotter by the conversation. True, North Left was already working with a great staff from the Crosby, and they did pull in much of the best help from around downtown SanTana, but you can never have too much of a good thing.

Best Dessert Orange County 2014 - Playground

Jason Quinn's attitude may get as much attention as his food, but who cares! We'd rather bow down to the work of art that is Playground's sticky toffee pudding. The fluffy sponge cake is baked with organic eggs and dried figs and arrives at your table under a molten layer of toffee pudding. Upon your first bite, the feeling can only be described as . . . earth-shattering? Mind-boggling? Rip-roaring? The kind of happiness that only comes with 10 puppies? The combination of earthy fruitcake, rich toffee and fresh whipped cream is incredible--so incredible the kitchen often runs out of it. So, if you're planning dinner at Playground, maybe it's best to have dessert first.

Best Italian Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Rufino's Ristorante Italiano

In a dreary strip mall parking lot on Euclid Street in deepest, darkest Anacrime, behind dark and almost uninviting shades, there is magnificent, home-cooked Italian food. Rufino's Ristorante Italiano packs a ton in a little space, and it's no wonder--it's been around since 1967. Slide into a black leather booth, peruse the affordable menu and choose from a dizzying array. After you order, sip on wine and enjoy the complimentary garlic breadsticks that are so good you'll want to pay for them. And don't worry about cleaning your plate--the huge portions taste even better the next day.

Best Breakfast Burrito Orange County 2014 - Athenian Burgers #3

We've been raving about the breakfast burritos here for nearly a decade, and this Buena Park dive is finally getting national recognition. In ESPN's Burrito Bracket, which seeks to identify the best burrito in the United States via a combination of data-mining and experts that includes our resident Mexican, Athenian Burgers #3 was placed in the Group of Death, alongside Hall of Famers Al and Bea's, La Azteca Tortilleria, and Manny's El Tepeyac. But rather than fold in the face of Mariana Trench-style pressure, critic Anna Maria Barry Jester gave it 94 of a possible 100 points, losing out on the crown by just two points. "My only complaint," Barry Jester wrote, "was that I couldn't put the burrito down."

Best Ribs Orange County 2014 - Taquería Zamora

Ribs don't usually get a shout-out in hipster obsessions over Mexican food, but costillas (pork ribs) are a much-beloved item of a proper paisa combo plate. For the costillas en salsa verde at Taquería Zamora, meaty sticks get bathed in their sprite, spicy green sauce alongside creamy refried beans and unassuming rice. Don't bother with a fork or knife: either gnaw on them like one-half of the room, or chop off the meat and place them in Zamora's corn tortillas for impromptu tacos as the other half does.

Best Untraditional Exotic Burger Orange County 2014 - Umami

The calories in Umami's ahi tuna burger are bizarro nega-calories, calories you actually feel lighter for having eaten. Attribute this to the neat little salad of pickled ginger and daikon sprouts assembled atop the thick slab of tuna, which is hand-chopped and dusted with wasabi flakes--and somehow couples the soft marble of fish with the drip of a rare steak. It sits on a layer of crushed avocado, completing Umami's equivalent of a tuna roll. Afterward comes a refreshed, contented feeling that belongs in the realm of juice cleanses and Bikram sessions.

Best Boba Orange County 2014 - OC Poultry and Rotisserie Market

Anaheim's OC Poultry and Rotisserie Market makes a fine bánh mì, but its tapioca is also up to par. The slush is airy and refreshing, the rare boba drink that can be enjoyed without boba. Also working in the drink's favor is that the flavors actually taste like the fruit they're based on. The watermelon is smooth and cooling instead of a zany sugar rush; the honeydew has an obscure sweetness. Sure, the market can't compete with the sheer variety of Cha for Tea or Lollicup--but it goes deep instead of wide, and the motion is all in its ocean . . . or something.

The wonderful, wonderful spread at Taco Maria
The wonderful, wonderful spread at Taco Maria
Photo by Elenor Segura

Best Candy Shop Orange County 2014 - Powell's Sweet Shoppe

Entering Powell's Sweet Shoppe is like walking into a bag of Skittles. There's the rainbow array of jelly bean dispensers and the barrels of salt water taffy. The Gene Wilder-starring Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory runs on a loop in the back, next to a wall of retro Pez dispensers. The front of the shop is primarily devoted to novelty: ironic lunch boxes, ironic bandages, ironic sodas. And the gelato bar is better than ones at most gelato places. Yet you won't get a sugar headache because Powell's is the Pixar of candy shops: operating on different levels for different ages and pleasing to all. Remember: If you leave without a handful of salt water taffy, you were never really there.

Best Acai Bowl Orange County 2014 - Nekter Juice Bar

Ground zero of the Orange County cleanse craze, Nekter Juice Bar is where both hipsters and housewives sit down to break bowls (not bread--too many carbs). The juice is fine, with a freshness that only dudes with beards can deliver. But don't overlook the Acai Tropical Bowl. It easily oversteps the low standards set by others simply by not being frozen. Instead, Nekter serves a smooth, almost-milky consistency topped with thick-chopped bananas and sweet pineapples. The hempseed granola is evenly distributed, allowing for a light crunch in every bite.

Best Restaurant Orange County 2014 - Taco Maria

Each time Carlos Salgado takes on a new challenge, he has not only succeeded--but he has raised a bar that everyone futilely tries to grasp as he goes on to the next stupendous height. When the Orange native returned home from years in San Francisco to open a taco truck, Salgado quickly dominated OC's luxe lonchera scene with nuanced, delicious tacos and burritos. When Salgado evolved from that into a brick-and-motor, he immediately wowed with a four-course prix fixe menu that challenged everyone's idea of what a Mexican restaurant should be. When Salgado finally worked out the opening-day kinks to offer his vision of alta cocina--locally sourced meats and veggies centered on the seasons, but with flavors that maintained Mexican food's wab essence--it immediately called out all of OC's usual fine-dining suspects for their simplicity. And then Salgado offered this H-bomb: aguachile, a seafood dish from the cantina scene transformed into something simultaneously as delicate as papel picado yet as menacing as a Cadetes de Linares accordion riff. Salgado isn't done yet: Taco Maria recently introduced brunch, and the new No. 2 is Roland Rubalcava, giving Taco Maria the best 1-2 punch since Muhammad Ali's jab-and-cross.

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