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The Best Restaurants in Orange County

Forget the rations, you won't need them where we're going
Forget the rations, you won't need them where we're going
Photo by Riley Kern/OC Weekly

Orange County's is home to a lot of "little" things: Little Saigon, Little Arabia, not to mention the not-so-little Korean, Latin American, Middle American, and Robo-American communities. Out of these little places come some epic flavors and restaurants that you wouldn't be able to find anywhere else.

We complied some of the best restaurants in Orange County in this not-so-little list. Can you make it to the end? It's a journey, but Orange County's Best Restaurant is well worth it.

Best Filipino Restaurant: Sawali Grill Seven small tables, one of them covered with cookies, pastries and other Filipino desserts in plastic boxes fill Sawali Grill. Not a single white face in the place. All good signs you're going to be eating the real deal. Go to the counter and tell the woman behind the glass what you want. Served turo turo (cafeteria) style, she drops two huge scoops of rice on a plate and looks at you patiently while you try to decide. Two large barbecue pork skewers, generous with smoky, flavorful meat, not too fatty? Or kaldereta, a hearty, chunky beef stew with bell peppers, chile and other veggies? Beef mushroom overflowing with large sliced mushrooms and slices of beef reminiscent of boeuf bourguignon? The calamares is a little more of an acquired taste for a white palate, but the tender squid is cooked in its own delicious, salty ink. 3414 W. Ball Road, Ste. G, Anaheim, CA 92804, 714-995-1279

Best Late-Night Dining: Harbor House Café Everyone knows about Harbor House's encyclopedic menu, its open-all-the-time ethos, and the satisfying quality of its food, but the best part of this OC landmark is the people watching. In the afternoon, we've seen expensively dressed moms with kids in tow hand off the family's doggie bag to a man sitting on the ground who looks as if he has been living on the streets since the fall of Saigon. In the middle of the night, your fellow diners are drawn from, well, everywhere. It's almost akin to a commissary at an old movie studio at which extras from 20 different B-movies eat in costume. Or is that just 79 years of movie décor come to life? 34157 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, CA 92629, 949-496-9270

Reader's Choice: Harbor House Café

James, James, James...
James, James, James...
Photo by Amanda DeFrancis

Best New Restaurant: James Republic James Republic isn't perfect. But with every new day, it gets closer. As with any new restaurant opened in this century, the ingredients are seasonal and the menu non-permanent. One visit, the Pacific walu--a beautifully seared fish from Hawaii, with snow-white flesh as moist as the meat off a freshly steamed crab--can come with sharp goat cheese, sautéed broccolini and splotches of beet vinaigrette, but whether the sides or the fish will be around at all the next week is anyone's guess. Things are ever-changing, reinvention the only overarching theme. The staff count the days the eatery has been open on a chalkboard and on the menus, a reminder to all who work here that every evening is full of possibilities. Whatever you get--be it the Kurobota pork chop that eats like a steak, or mashed potatoes turned to froth in a jar, or a salad of grilled asparagus with crisply fried fingerling potatoes as croutons--James Republic will delight, frustrate and keep you coming back to see what's on the plate the following week and the week after that. . . . 500 E. 1st St., Long Beach, CA 90802, 562-901-0235

Reader's Choice: Little Sparrow

Best Indian Restaurant: Vishnu Come in the morning or late afternoon, and Vishnu looks like any of the other anonymous businesses in this monochromatic John Wayne-adjacent office park: unremarkable. But when the lunch hour strikes, it begins. First, you see a trickle of people, then, all of a sudden, a crowd as thick as what you'd find at a Mumbai train station at rush hour shows up. The space is probably not intended for this many people, but they swarm anyway for a lunch buffet that includes freshly made dosas, curries, two kinds of biryanis and vadas (fried morsels that crunch like falafel). Along with Harry's Deli down the road, Vishnu has secured its cult status without much advertising. Ask the people in line ahead of you, and they'll tell you they found out about the place the old-fashioned way, by word-of-mouth, through friends who took them here, saying "You need to come check out this Indian place with me." 17945 Sky Park Circle, Irvine, CA 92614, 949-752-0358

Reader's Choice: Punjabi Tandoor

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Soy Tofu
Soy Tofu

Best Korean Restaurant: Soy Tofu With a spartan amount of décor and plain copy-machine paper as placemats, Soy Tofu might at first appear to be the kind of place that cuts corners. But the more you settle in, the more you realize it focuses its efforts where it counts: on the food and the service. The kalbijim is extraordinary, an immense stew of intensely flavored, slow-cooked boulders of beef short ribs, jujubes, carrots, hazelnuts and chewy cylinders of rice cake simmered in a slowly thickening broth redolent of black pepper. The free panchan side dishes are eclectic and creative. Some nights, you see pajeon, the hot, chewy, almost-elastic Korean pancakes with veins of scallions running through them. Other nights, it's some sort of cooling potato salad. And then there's the woman who single-handedly serves the food. She's a whirlwind of warmth and kindness. She'll pinch the cheeks of adorable children, refill panchan plates without asking, and mix the dol sot bibimbap tableside, mashing the rice, meat and veggies against the hot stone pot until it sizzles to a crisp. And when she comes out with the soondubu, she'll do it gingerly while cooing, "Be careful! This is very hot!" Heed her warning, and then tuck in. Her Korean soft tofu soup is scalding, but it's also soul-affirming, just as the woman and her restaurant are. 4961 La Palma, La Palma, CA 90623, 562-924-8289

Best Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant: Au NatuRaw Order the pad Thai and be amazed not at how it's completely vegan and, not to mention, raw, but because of how it has made you forget it's either one. Dishes such as this are the charm of Au NatuRaw, a vegan restaurant that does what it does because it believes that cooking destroys all the nutritive value in food and executes it in such an effortless way that you take for granted what it can't do--such as cookies and soup. Since nothing can be heated past 118 degrees--the equivalent of a summer day in Phoenix--the cookies have to be made by blending nuts and dates together and forming chewy discs; and the cream of broccoli soup becomes an intense, savory smoothie. But it's those pad Thai noodles that will have you asking, "How'd they do this?" It features noodles made from kelp, more wiggly and jelly-like than rice noodles, but still so close to the real thing, it twirls on a fork the right way. The dish is proof that good cooking doesn't need to involve a heat source. And if you don't want to do raw? There's vegetarian/vegan options for you, too, wimplings. 206 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, CA 92701, 714-955-4774

Reader's Choice: Rutabegorz

Thai Nakorn
Thai Nakorn

Best Thai Restaurant: Thai Nakorn Even after Thai Nakorn was forced out of its original Buena Park location, then suffered a devastating fire when it moved to Garden Grove, the venerable restaurant topped our Best Of list, and this year, it does it again. There are two Thai Nakorns now--both thriving and producing the food we've always used as the benchmark at which to measure the worthiness of other Thai restaurants. It doesn't matter which one you go to, either Garden Grove or Stanton; the two kitchens are more or less in sync, as though the chefs were linked telepathically to produce the same exacting dishes. Close your eyes, put your finger anywhere on the menu, and wherever it lands, the plate will be astounding. The list of Issan dishes should be where you spend most of your time, but even the familiar staples are excellent: the sticky-sweet mee krob tickles the nostrils with orange zest; the stir-fry of watercress harbors garlic and chiles; the larb pierces with ginger. And if you've ever doubted that food can soothe the soul, try the chicken curry. Paired with rice, it's a natural antidepressant. All hail Thai Nakorn, the twin kings of OC Thai food! 11951 Beach Blvd., Stanton, CA 90680, 714-799-2031

Reader's Choice: Royal Thai Cuisine

Izakaya Ku
Izakaya Ku

Best Japanese Restaurant: Izakaya Ku Order the mackerel dish at Izakaya Ku, then stand back. The waiter comes out brandishing an acetylene torch. He flicks it on to a roaring whoosh. As he waves the blue flame over the fish, fine spatters of grease fly as though sparks while the skin begins to contract and the smoke rises. Sooner than you think, the dish is done. He pushes the smoldering plate toward you. You dig in with chopsticks, noting the surgical cuts made on the fillet, each piece with a shallow slit where you can tuck in a dab of mustard. Around you, you notice nearly everyone has ordered the mackerel, but also kushiyaki, sticks of meat flipped over and over to char-flecked perfection. Both dishes pair extremely well with a cold bottle of Asahi, and that's exactly the point. This is an izakaya, after all, the Japanese equivalent of a bar and grill, where tables teem with drunk businessmen toasting themselves loudly with sake and sipping motsunabe, a hearty camp-stove-heated stew of beef intestines simmered in a spicy miso broth. You have to be drunk yourself to attempt it, but that won't be a problem here. 18120 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, CA 92708, 714-963-3484

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Welcome to The Hobbit
Welcome to The Hobbit
Photo by Johannes Dewald

Best Steakhouse: The Hobbit The Hobbit is not actually a steakhouse, but owner/executive chef Michael Philippi prepares a beef entrée for just about every menu. And you will devour five courses before you reach the most amazing steak. The tenderness of the cut and the silkiness of its accompanying sauce will hold your attention, even as your belt screams for release. And as you lick the remaining morsels from the gold-rimmed plate, you will not feel any shame, as everyone else is doing the same thing. The satisying desire you feel is akin to that first time you realized you were in love. It's lovely and warm and breathtaking. 2932 E. Chapman Ave. Orange, CA 92869 714-997-1972

Best Old-School Food Truck: Alebrije's Any truck that serves a dish that translates as the battleship taco deserves this spot. Any truck that paints itself an Elvis Cadillac pink and did so long before the luxe-lonchera craze deserves this spot. Any truck that blasts the sinuous sonideros of SanTana's own KWIZ-FM 96.7 La Rockola from morning until night deserves this spot. Any truck that serves tortas as large as plates deserves this spot. And that's why Alebrije's wins this category year after year--because it deserves it. Santa Ana, CA 92706

Best New-Age Food Truck: The Burnt Truck "Gourmet sliders" don't always thrill us--they're usually best for scarfing down during wedding cocktail hours so we don't hit up the open bar on empty stomachs. But the ones artfully assembled by the Burnt Truck transcend miles beyond grab-and-go filler food passed around on a silver tray. The fried-chicken slider is spectacular, a comfort-food medley of buttermilk fried chicken, country gravy and garlic-potato spread. The Vietnamese pork slider, a modern take on the classic bánh mì, is a hand-held flavor bomb with marinated pork loin, pickled daikon and carrots, and garlic sauce (add a quail egg--trust us). And the Sloppy Joe is well worth the dripping, cheesy mess. What closes the deal for us is the bread--fresh, Hawaiian-style sweet rolls that leave you yearning for more than a couple of bites. You'll just have to get another sandwich. http://twitter.com/theburnttruck

Reader's Choice: Kogi Korean BBQ

Chong Qing Mei Wei
Chong Qing Mei Wei

Best Chinese Restaurant: Chong Qing Mei Wei When you see Sichuan food-lovers wiping away sweat, rubbing napkins over their noses, panting and looking generally miserable, you know they're having a damn-good meal. Chong Qing Mei Wei--the Beautiful Flavor of Chungking--is the county's most legitimate source for the addictive, mouth-numbing regional fare, with its time-honored belief that most dishes taste better when tossed with sliced serrano chiles, peppercorns and peppery oil. But it's not simply the fact that you might not feel your lips when you walk bleary-eyed out the door that makes the Irvine dive so memorable. It's that each bite is a flavor-packed thrill, a dose of sensory nirvana, whether you're digging into a plate of Sichuan fried tofu, pork spareribs, stir-fried lamb with cumin or, for the boldest of palates, fire-exploded kidney flowers. Just make sure to have plenty of bing shui (ice water) within arm's reach. 5406 Walnut Ave., Irvine, CA 92604, 949-651-8886

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The Best Restaurants in Orange County
Photo by Edwin Goei

Best Italisn Restaurant: Cucina Alessa Once one of those "hidden gems" curious diners would stumble upon if they were lucky, Cucina Alessa has become the county's titan of Italian cuisine. At the two-story Huntington Beach spot, closed-eyed moans of delight greet dishes that fuse tradition with modern-day badassery. The zucca, a butternut squash ravioli smothered in brown butter and topped with fried sage leaves, is a standard known to cause even the most proper of diners to seriously consider licking the residue off their plates. The hearty lamb pappardelle is perfectly al dente, with tender, flavorful meat. And the shrimp-and-asparagus seashell pasta with lobster cream sauce is one of those dishes you daydream about for days after consumption. Just make sure to not fill up on the complimentary fresh bread and pesto sauce--a rookie mistake, but one everyone will forgive you. 520 Main St., Huntington Beach, CA 92648, 714-969-2148

Reader's Choice: Cucina Alessa

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant: Kareem's Restaurant The longest-standing Middle Eastern restaurant in Anaheim's Little Arabia approached a crossroads that might have otherwise seen the shuttering of its doors. Mike Hawari, who had run the kitchen of Kareem's Restaurant with his wife, Nancy, since the late 1990s, passed away last year. It was the always-affable chef's wish that she continue with their culinary creations without him. Sellers came and made offers, but with a little hired help and their children pitching in long hours, the legacy continues. Visit Kareem's Restaurant today, and the falafel sandwich is still that same bite into crunchy, garbanzo-bean goodness wrapped in warm Arabic bread. The lentil soup is a rightful treasure unto itself with the right squeeze of lime freshening it up. Fatteh, as with any breakfast of champions around the world, is served all day long. Come hungry for the hearty combination grill served with succulent slices of chicken, shish kebab and kufta, a tube-shaped aromatic mix of ground beef and lamb, laid out on a bed of rice, with a round of hummus on the side, to keep your stomach satiated for the rest of the day. Wash it all down with green mint tea or Vimto while dining outside, and in that moment, the joy for cooking Mike Hawari exemplified lives on. 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, CA 92804, 714-778-6829

Reader's Choice: Zov's Bistro

Chivito from El Gaucho, our 35th favorite dish of 2013
Chivito from El Gaucho, our 35th favorite dish of 2013
Photo by Niyaz Pirani

Best Deli: El Gaucho Meat Market It's more of a butcher shop than a deli, but if you need a prime cut of meat and sandwich materials--it's prime (cue the corny trumpet sound). You'll find most of the same things you would at a Mexican market, but El Gaucho Meat Market is Argentine--precisely the reason why the meat is so good. You can get anything from a sausage to sweetbreads to marinated steaks. There's a small selection of deli meats and big wheels of cheese, plus a nice assortment of Argentine wines and south-of-the-isthmus sodas. And if you're not up to making it yourself, there's a tiny cafeteria from which you can get a sandwich made for you. 847 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92806, 714-776-6400

Reader's Choice: Claro's Italian Market

Mexi ahi from The Corner
Mexi ahi from The Corner
Photo by LP Hastings

Best Restaurant Ambiance: The Corner If the tapas-portioned American food and craft cocktails were only half as pleasing as they actually are, The Corner would still deserve kudos for having successfully replaced the gawdawful Chinese restaurant that preceded it. (Trying to remember the name brings a bout of PTSD.) Even more amazing is the remodeling job that has opened up, brightened up--and dare we day it?--hipped up a space that was as bland as the egg rolls that used to roll out here. The décor is minimalist, but that just slides your party into a casual evening of being served the one-of-a-kind creations of the chef/owner who came to Surf City from Napa Valley's famed French Laundry. And you'll love the trendy dinnerware. Thankfully, despite the much-needed re-do, the Corner retains its sneaky little bar off the main entrance, where you must sit down and order its take on an old fashioned. That'll bring you back for a nightcap after dinner. 8961 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, CA 92646, 714-968-6800

Reader's Choice: K'ya Bistro

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From the lonchera
From the lonchera

Best Mexican Restaurant: Taco Maria For the past couple of years, Carlos Salgado roamed the streets of Orange County with his Taco Maria luxe lonchera, wowing hipsters and wabs alike with his stunning takes on Mexican food. He shuttered the truck to focus on a full restaurant inside the OC Mix, and while Salgado could've just replicated the menu that won him a rabid following, he upped Taco Maria's game into the echelons of alta cocina sans the Bayless snobbery--meats still in the key of taco, but now buttressed by a menu of great sides (that huanzontle you're chewing on? It's the next kale) and the finest aguas frescas this side of a carne asada Sunday. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Reader's Choice: Avila's El Ranchito

Best Diner: Galley Café It's hard enough to find a diner in this county that has been around longer than you've been alive, but none are harder to physically locate than the Galley Café in Newport Beach. Deep down a dead-end road, you'd have no chance of stumbling upon it unless you own a yacht in the adjacent marina. An old-fashioned milkshake mixer and drugstore-style seltzer spigots stand guard over an antique ice-cream freezer. The place radiates a throwback charm circa 1957, when the café was built on a spit of land down the hill from the cattle fields that lined PCH. Breakfast items are served all day, of course. You want hand-cut fries? How about a from-scratch chili with beans that you can order on an omelet or fries? But skip right to the chicken-fried steak and cream gravy, which comes with a hamburger bun that has been flattened tortilla-thin and butter-griddled until dark and toasty. 829 Harbor Island Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92663, 949-673-4110

Reader's Choide: Harbor House Café

The Beachcomber
The Beachcomber
Photo by Kevin Lara

Best Outdoor Dining: The Beachcomber If you're going to dine outdoors in this county, go all the way and eat on the beach--sand in your toes, with the crashing din of the waves a constant dinner companion. The Beachcomber occupies an old house amid the rental cottages of Crystal Cove State Park, all of which date back to the 1930s and '40s. Park across PCH, then either walk down the hill or take the shuttle bus to the village for cocktails and the best sunset view you'll have during happy hour anywhere in the county. Unlike most restaurants on state parkland, it has a full liquor license. The restaurant is the keystone of the Ruby's Diner group, so the menu is best described as American comfort food. Ingredients and prep are far more upscale than Ruby's, with prices to match. Expect an easily accessible menu of sandwiches, entrées and salads, and get there early enough to wait for a table because this hidden restaurant is no longer a secret. 15 Crystal Cove, Newport Beach, CA 92657, 949-376-6900

Reader's Choice: Rooftop Lounge

Best Bakery: Au Cœur de Paris You shouldn't be surprised to learn the county's best French bakeries are in a cluster in Little Saigon to support a community that's as picky about their baguettes, croissants and macarons as any arrondissement in Paris. And that's the case with Au Cœur de Paris Bakery, also known as Le Versailles. It supplies crisp-crusted baguettes to many top restaurants and bánh mì shops in Little Saigon that can't bake bread as perfectly. The macarons are as ethereally crisp and flavorful as any you'll find at Ladurée in the City of Lights. And the almond croissants are an indulgent addiction, as are other flaky-pastry treats such as the savory, meatball-filled pâté chaud. 9441 Edinger Ave., Westminster, CA 92683, 714-775-8465

Reader's Choice: Blackmarket Bakery

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The Best Restaurants in Orange County
Photo by Dave Lieberman

Best Waterfront Dining: SOL Cocina Mexican food you can boat up to? No, you're not in Zihuatanejo; you're in rarefied Newport Beach, and chef Deborah Schneider's menu at SOL Cocina reflects that, with upgrades to the usual taco fare that include only-in-Mexico specialties such as tacos gobernador and tacos vampiros. Sit near the window, sip from the good tequila selection and make sure nobody makes off with your yacht.

Reader's Choice: Rooftop Lounge

Bun Cha Ca Thang Long at Vien Dong, our 47th Favorite Dish of 2012!
Bun Cha Ca Thang Long at Vien Dong, our 47th Favorite Dish of 2012!
Photo by Dave Lieberman

Best Vietnamese Restaurant: Vien Dong When Vien Dong opened its doors at the tail end of the Vietnam War in what was then a sleepy little suburb, its owners couldn't have known it would be the first flag planted in what would become a microcosm of the Southeast Asian nation itself. Decades later, the restaurant is still going strong, serving up its northern-style food, including shrimp-and-sweet-potato fritters; turmeric-rubbed, dill-spiked fish; deconstructed Hanoi-style bún; and funky, spicy periwinkle sausage. Now, with a renewed emphasis on pleasant, American-style service, it's a better place than ever to dive into non-pho Vietnamese cuisine. Obligatory history lesson: Its former owner was Tony Lam, the former Westminster councilman who was the country's first Vietnamese-American elected official. 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, CA 92843, 714-531-8253

Reader's Choice: Phans 55

Best Peruvian Restaurant: El Misti Picantería Ariquepeña Little more than a long dining hall adorned with WPA-style farmer murals, El Misti prepares the diet of Arequipa, a city of about 750,000 acclaimed for its desiccated, hearty dishes and thunderously flavored drinks. The eatery also offers Peruvian standards for the unadventurous: coconut-milk-based chupe soups, the buttery stir-fried chow meins known as tallarines and savory pollo à la brasa. All good versions, really, but why would you eat any of them when pig knuckles are but a request away? 3070 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, CA 92801, 714-995-5944

Best Seafood Restaurant: Mariscos Los Corales Forget Santa Monica Seafood or even California Fish Grill: the ultimate marine-meal empire in Orange County is Mariscos Los Corales, which can boast of two brick-and-mortar outlets and two loncheras. The most legendary of the bunch is the one parked just off SanTana's Main Street, the one that attracts everything from suited lawyers fresh from a day at the Orange County Courthouse to viejitos, cholos to men straight from a construction project. Never go by yourself: Take a hint from everyone else and go in groups, the better to enjoy the massive plates of shrimp prepared every way from flash-fried to butterflied, from crunchy tacos to the magnificent aguachile, ceviche writ large, served colder than a cubeta, and sluiced in the hottest salsa this side of a tía. 2629 Westminster Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92706, 714-554-6860

Reader's Choice: Slapfish

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Best Salvadoran Restaurant: Cuzcatalan Over the past five years, the county's Salvadoran community has migrated to Anaheim and opened Salvadoran restaurants, largely leaving SanTana to the Mexicans. The best of the bunch is Cuzcatalan, a pastel-hued wonderland that serves all the classics of the Salvi kitchen: fatty sopa de pata, masses of fried yucca, horchata with a cinnamon kick, and pupusas as thick as a terra cotta saucer from rim to base--and nearly as wide--cheesy and doughy and perfect. If you drop by in the morning, try the casamiento: black beans mixed with white rice and accompanied by scrambled eggs, a dollop of crema fresca, a block of cotija, thick tortillas and eggs over-easy, each part collectively hitting all the breakfast notes you can ever desire. 1330 S. Magnolia Ave., Anaheim, CA 92804, 714-503-5814

Best Iraqi Restaurant: Al Tannour The intra-national diversity in Anaheim's Little Arabia enclave is such that you now have restaurants specializing in the dishes of specific countries--Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan--and even regions within a particular country. But the only place so far to specialize in Iraqi food is Al Tannour, which offers the kebabs, sambouseks and pita sandwiches necessary to placate newcomers who aren't familiar with specialties dating back to the time of Ur. But ditch the tried-and-true. Look around for just a moment, and you'll notice the bread on the tables isn't pita, but rather khubz, a thick, toothsome flatbread as wide as a basketball hoop that's fluffy and crispy and made fresh every day. You'll notice entrée names that have yet to enter America's Arabic lexicon: masgouf (Iraq's national dish of fish marinated, then slow-roasted over a fire and served on rice), kousi and a wonderful fried meat pie called kobba musilia that Al Tannour always seems to run out of. The one thing it doesn't sell is sweets because that's what its next-door neighbor is famous for, so if you'll just follow us to the next blurb . . . 2947 W. Ball Road, Anaheim, CA 92804, 714-484-0900

Best Middle Eastern Bakery: Knafeh Cafe Knafeh Cafe has been the go-to spot in Little Arabia since opening earlier this year, with Middle Easterners of all ethnicities and religions flocking to the increasingly pretty strip mall in which Knafeh Cafe stands. The knafeh is what largely draws people in, made fresh every morning and displayed on a tray that empties by midmorning, gets refilled, and then empties again. But this place isn't just the sum of its namesake; it offers the expected (more styles of baklava here than you even knew existed) and the somewhat-known (the maamouls, sugar cookies stuffed with a spread of walnuts, dates or pistachios--take your pick), as well as multiple specials that skip across the Levantine, from Jordan to Syria, Lebanon to Palestine, where family members own a bakery legendary for its own knafeh. 2941 W. Ball Road, Anaheim, CA 92804, 714-442-0044

The matambre casero from Regina's
The matambre casero from Regina's

Best Argentine Restaurant: Regina Restaurant Fans of this longtime standard, regionally famous for showing nearly every possible soccer match involving any team with even one Argentinean on its squad, feared the restaurant might close after the sudden death of its beloved owner, Elías Niquias, and subsequent purchase by a Peruvian family in 2011. But the owners understood what made Regina so popular in the first place: the extensive beer and wine list, the hospitality, the gargantuan trays of meat, the scintillating chimichurri--and, of course, the soccer. Sure, they now show Peruvian fútbol as well, but you can't fault them for that! 11025 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, CA 92843, 714-638-9595

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Best Colombian Restaurant: Donde Adela For years, we openly prayed in the food section of this infernal rag that God would grant us a Colombian restaurant; after all, Colombians make up the largest section of OC's South American community, and immigrant groups tend to open restaurants as their first business, so what the hell, Jesus? He heard us: Not only are Colombian restaurants starting to pop up, but they're also great, none better than Donde Adela. Order the sobrebarriga criolla, a gargantuan plate of beans, rice, fried plantains and potatoes, as well as an epic steam-cooked flank steak presented alongside bell peppers. If you don't like the meat so juicy, you can always order it caballo-style: grilled. And then there's always the bandeja paisa, a constellation of meats: turgid chorizos, chicharrones that resemble fossils, plus eggs cooked your way. Any of those meals could double as a Norms special in a pinch, but far tastier and almost as cheap. 1707 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, CA 92868, 714-940-1701

Nem nuong cuon at Brodard, our 99th Favorite Dish of 2010
Nem nuong cuon at Brodard, our 99th Favorite Dish of 2010
Photo by Edwin Goei

Best Restaurant to Go to After A Year Away from Orange County: Brodard Orange County has the best Vietnamese food in the United States, of course, and the only reason why any other city in the country--save for San Jose--would ever say they have "good" Vietnamese food is because they've never eaten here. But why Brodard? Brodard is good across the board. Sure, there are places with better pho, better com tam, better bánh mì, but a place that has pho, bon bo hue, hu tieu, mi, com tam, even bánh-fucking-xeo on its menu? And it does them all well? Well, you've got an entire encyclopedia of Vietnamese to choose from. 9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, CA 92844, 714-530-1744

Coconut Rabbit
Coconut Rabbit
Photo by Dustin Ames

Best Thai Restaurant We Just Discovered: Coconut Rabbit Our choice for king of Thai restaurants in OC isn't in dispute. But you can't have a king without a queen, right? And what an elegant queen Coconut Rabbit makes! Though it's located in a nondescript section of nondescript Katella Avenue in nondescript Los Alamitos, the room it occupies is an elegant, intimate, carefully curated boutique of sorts that's worthy of royalty or, at least, a first date. The restaurant is owned and operated by a woman and her niece, both formally trained by Le Cordon Bleu and bringing with them a lifetime of experience cooking Thai food. You can expect a flawless pad see ew and a curry-laced pineapple fried rice, as well as stuff you'd never see at Thai Nakorn: a carpaccio of wild king salmon, sliced thin, resting atop tumbleweeds of shredded romaine hearts; corn fritter hors d'oeuvres, each served in a tiny, crispy shell; and a panna cotta that could win top honors at the Bocuse d'Or. 4280 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, CA 90720, 562-342-9999

Best Food Plaza Connected to a University: University Town Center The kids at UC Irvine have it so good nowadays. It used to be the only places to eat in University Town Center across the street from campus were two generic pizza places, a Lee's Sandwiches, Le Diplomat, a Golden Spoon, a small Japanese place, Asia Noodle Café, a Veggie Grill, Britta's Café, an In-N-Out, a Jack In the Box, a Taco Bell and Steelhead Brewery. Not a horrible selection, but much friendlier to the people who worked in the office tower than the students on campus. But then, a few years ago, something happened. A Yogurtland opened. Then a teriyaki place. Then Berkeley Dog, Blaze Pizza, Sno Flakez and Gogi, plus a whole mess more of hip restaurants. Pretty soon, the kids will have a Chipotle, a delivery sushi place and a Tender Greens. So spoiled. 4100 Campus Drive, Irvine, CA 92612, 949-720-3127

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Best Place to Eat an Obscene Amount of Food: Cham Sut Gol Sometimes, you just want to eat until you hate yourself. For times such as those, a table at Cham Sut Gol, the venerable king of Orange County gluttony, is a perfect place to pass your time, where the overindulging starts in the parking lot, which reeks of the sweet, sweet smell of burnt flesh. Apart from the plates and plates of beef and pork, the endless torrent of Korean panchan, the all-you-can-scoop case of ice cream, and the tauntingly small Korean starter soups that come with the all-you-can eat, "eat" isn't a suggestion here so much as a mandate. If you're ravenous, forget about waiting for a table inside--the restaurant has a great reception area, but you're liable to devour your dining partners because of sensory overload. 9252 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, CA 92844, 714-590-9292

The steak napoleon at Quan Minh Ky
The steak napoleon at Quan Minh Ky
Photo by Jonathan Ho

Best Place to Consume the Most Species At One Sitting: Quan Minh Ky If you're the kind of carnivore who views a large menu as a long checklist, Quan Minh Ky is the place for you. It's a (small) step up from the usual no-frills eatery in Little Saigon, but the menu reads as though it's a Noah's Ark of delicious meat. Alongside the usual chicken, beef, pork, shrimp and fish are squid, periwinkles, venison and occasionally goat; do your part to keep the population of various delicious animals in check. 9471 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, CA 92683, 714-839-8734

Best Sidewalk Dining in Long Beach: The Original Park Pantry Cafe Located at the northeast corner of Long Beach's historic Bixby Park, the Original Park Pantry Café embodies everything the locals love about their town. The staff is warm and friendly, and many of them have been here for as long as the regulars can remember. The coffee is strong and fresh, the menu is huge (as are the portions), and you can order breakfast for lunch or vice versa; on weekends, you can enjoy selections from the brunch menu, featuring a variety of crepe specials. The place is so popular that until recently, you'd have been wise to avoid the midmorning rush. But the café recently added sidewalk dining, so not only are the lines shorter, but you can enjoy your eggs in the fresh air, too. You can even bring your dog (the Pantry will provide your pooch with a bowl of water). 2104 E. Broadway, Long Beach, CA 90803, 562-434-0451

And finally, the BEST restaurant in Orange County...

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The BEST chilaquiles in Orange County
The BEST chilaquiles in Orange County
Photo by Johannes Dewald

Best Restaurant: Anepalco's Café Danny Godinez could've stayed with his original Anepalco's Café near St. Joseph's Hospital in Orange, and his legacy in Orange County restaurant history would've been secured gracias to his chilaquiles, an unthinkable concoction of Mexican, French, high-dining and street-food technique that won a fanatical following who continue to line up every weekend for brunch--and you should, too. But this wasn't good enough for Godinez; not only did he open a second Anepalco's Café in Orange, just down the street from Angels Stadium in the Ayres Hotel, but he also boldly continued his fusion experiments. Operating from the same Mex-French foundation, Godinez stuns with every breakfast, lunch or dinner, whether it's the best eggs Benedict in town or a huitlacoche burger that should become the next cronut, prime rib rubbed in an achiote sauce that flutters off the fork, or an ahi crudo pambazo that improbably, incredibly combines Mexico City grub with the finest-grade tuna this side of Sushi Wasabi. The restaurant's reputation is such that produce growers and supermarket execs eat at the new location multiple times per week, leaving bills that could pay for a month's worth of rent in South OC. Yet success has never embiggened Godinez's head--you'll almost always see him bussing tables, dressed as a working-class stiff. 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, CA 92868, 714-456-9642

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