The Best Restaurants in Orange County of 2016
Not shown: caviar and champagne
Luke McGarry/OC Weekly
Micah Wright/OC Weekly
We figured Taco Maria had a nice two-year run as the county's best restaurant, that chef Carlos Salgado wouldn't mind if we spread the love elsewhere, that there were a bunch of other OC spots worthy of the crown. And there are—more than at any point in OC's dining history, actually. But we are a paper of truth, no matter how inconvenient, and the truth is Salgado's place remains epochs ahead of nearly everyone else: He's a chile de árbol in a sea of bell peppers. It's not just that Salgado was a James Beard Award semifinalist this year, or that he's increasingly getting called to cook in the motherland alongside such Mexican culinary giants as Javier Plascencia and Enrique Olvera, or that they're doing pop-ups with him at Taco Maria. It's not even how his staff is as precise as a phalanx of neurosurgeons, from setting cutlery to refilling your glass with water. It's all about his food—sustainable, delicious, forward-thinking and paisa AF. What won him this award was a late-summer addition of a shrimp quesadilla served alongside a squash blossom and a green salsa—available at nearly any lonchera in OC, but nowhere near as astounding, and yet regal enough to deserve its own booth on the fourth floor of South Coast Plaza. And, being the good general that Salgado is, credit for Taco Maria's great run also goes to his No. 2, Roland Rubalcava, the best right-hand man since William Tecumseh Sherman.
Readers' Choice: The RANCH Restaurant & Saloon
Cynthia Rebolledo/OC Weekly
BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
The original Anepalco is still the place for a quick breakfast or brunch of fine French-Mex cuisine. But it's at Anepalco inside the ALO Hotel where chef Danny Godinez is able to oversee the philosophy that's the subhead to the restaurant's name: cocina del barrio. Food of the people that's as futuristic as that Mayan spaceman glyph. We've long raved about Godinez's postmodern chilaquiles, but everything here is a stunner: deconstructed tortilla soup, huitlacoche ice cream and the pan-Latin #borrachoproblems of head bartender Cesar Cerrudo. It's a goddamn shame that Anepalco doesn't get more regional or national love—but in the meanwhile, it'll just be our beautiful secret.
Readers’ Choice: Avila’s El Ranchito
Brian Feinzimer/OC Weekly
BEST FILIPINO RESTAURANT
Despite Filipinos representing the largest Asian population in California, their cuisine has historically been resigned to cater to only Filipinos. Ryan Garlitos' Irenia aims to change that. Whether you're new to Filipino food or you grew up with it, Garlitos' interpretations of classic Pinoy dishes, such as adobo and ginisang monggo, will make you fall in love with it for the first time or the millionth. This is Filipino food for the widest possible audience that's never dumbed down or whitewashed. And for dessert, pastry chef Ashley Guzman shines with her modern spins on sweets such as a deconstructed calamansi pie and halo-halo, which are some of the best desserts in OC, Filipino or otherwise.
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BEST PLACE FOR DATE NIGHT
The best restaurant in South Coast Plaza is a great place to visit any time, but date night makes the bistro that much more natural. You see it every evening, as men wear buffed shoes and women wear pencil dresses bought just for a time like this. The energy in the room is that of charged joy, not just for the magnificent meals of Florent Marneau, but also for the fun to follow for all—a flute of Veuve Clicquot to l'amour!
Readers’ Choice: Anaheim Packing District
BEST HAPPY HOUR
The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar
Yvone Goetz's restaurant is old-school French, the kind of place you typically save for that promotion or milestone anniversary. But its remarkable Crush Hour makes a weekly visit to the restaurant a must. For prices that won't get you a burger elsewhere, Goetz puts out the most thoughtful and elaborate happy hour food in Orange County. Don't expect Buffalo wings or plain sliders. Instead, feast on the casual cassoulet that's his pork belly lollipops on white beans or the honest-to-goodness steak-and-potatoes meal in his beef tenderloin bites. On top of that, there are substantial discounts on the wine.
Readers’ Choice: Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen
Wok N Tandoor's Szechuan fries
Edwin Goei/OC Weekly
BEST INDIAN RESTAURANT
Wok N Tandoor
The Indian street food called chaat isn't quite a meal or a snack, but at Wok N Tandoor, it can be as intricate as fancy French hors d'oeuvres or resemble what an Asian fusion food truck might have concocted. And though you could still order a chicken tikka masala, which is as good or better than what's in most Indian joints, when you're in a restaurant that offers a galaxy of chaat not seen anywhere else in OC, why settle for the tried and true?
Readers’ Choice: Tandoor Cuisine of India
BEST THAI RESTAURANT
Sumran Thai Cuisine
Located on the outskirts of Little Saigon, Sumran Thai Cuisine has streamlined its Thai-ness to appeal to a hipster crowd, with sleek lines and even a bar. But its core flavors are spectacular, making it one of the more underrated Thai joints in OC. You'll see furious plates of green papaya salad, all about the funk of shrimp paste and the blinding hell of peppers. The E-San sausages, paired with peanuts and ginger, reminds of chorizo, while the tower of fried enoki mushrooms looks and tastes like chicharrón slivers.
Readers’ Choice: Phuket Thai
BEST KOREAN RESTAURANT
Short of being adopted, you won't feel more doted upon by someone's Korean mom than at Mountain. About five minutes after the server flicks on the gas on your tabletop stove to simmer the seafood hot pot you ordered, she comes back with scissors to snip the crab into smaller pieces and the squid into rings. When she notices you're done with the hot pot, she returns to make fried rice for you tableside with what remains of the broth. It must be noted that each table at Mountain is equipped with a paging system that issues a pinging sound to summon a server, but you'll hardly need it. Mountain's women are your surrogate aunties who want nothing more than to see you well-fed and happy.
Readers’ Choice: Urban Seoul
SeaSalt Woodfire Grill
Brian Feinzimer/OC Weekly
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
SeaSalt Woodfire Grill
In bringing Santa Maria barbecue to OC, former Weekling Alicia Whitney imported two essential things from the region: cords of the native California red oak that fuels the specially designed grills and the 'cue masters who know how to use them. The formula has allowed SeaSalt to produce the exact kind of barbecue that the Central Coast is famous for. Everything licked by the leaping flames of SeaSalt's open fire pits is wondrous. The sweet oak smoke permeates the pork chops, the multitude of steaks, even the veggies such as the grilled cauliflower. SeaSalt also offers an encyclopedia of gourmet finishing salts for free, but you'll hardly need it. Trust the SeaSalt's barbecue experts and the wood fires they stoke to turn meat into magic.
Readers’ Choice: Vaca
Break of Dawn
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BEST BREAKFAST SPOT
Break of Dawn
Break of Dawn, which just celebrated 10 years in business, is a labor of love in the truest sense of the word. The story of Dee Nguyen and his son Berlin is well-known, and the crowds keep packing the joint, especially on weekends, for cuisine that could only happen in Orange County: breakfast food, filtered through Mexican and Vietnamese lenses, and plated with the care of a high-end temple of gastronomy. No, you won't get bacon, eggs and hash browns here, but once you read the menu, you won't want to.
Readers’ Choice: Plums Café & Catering
BEST DOG-FRIENDLY RESTAURANT
The Brea restaurant is doggie heaven, and not just because it's a cascade of 'cue. Waiters will automatically bring out a bowl of water for thirsty pooches on the patio and ask owners if they can give their pup a pig's ear to chew on. Hell, most OC restaurants don't treat humans this well.
Readers’ Choice: Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar
Burritos La Palma
BEST FOOD TRUCK
Burritos La Palma
There's a reason why Burritos La Palma has become such a sensation in Los Angeles and is just starting to crack the OC market. It combines the best of the old-school—the food is Mexican, specifically the delicacies of the city of Jerez, Zacatecas—with the luxe lonchera sensibilities of great social media, savvy marketing and a gleaming lonchera. More important, husband-and-wife team Alberto and Lauren Bañuelos are OC natives and some of the humblest yet fun-loving people this side of Catholic Worker.
Readers’ Choice: Kogi Korean BBQ
BEST OLD-SCHOOL FOOD TRUCK
Tacos El Zaga
If you didn't know what to get at Tacos El Zaga, you might think a taco sampler platter is the way to go or maybe a quesadilla. If you're a little more clued-in, you'd see the enormous trompo of al pastor pork through the clear window. But look around at what your fellow diners, Latino all, are eating: suadero. This cut— so light in color—is from the navel of the steer and resembles pork belly. But one bite, dressed with some of the best salsas in the county and an expanded fixin's bar that includes ensalada de nopales, and you'll be glad you pay at the end—that way you can order more, four or six at a time. That each one costs a little more than a buck just makes it more alluring—and El Zaga's open late.
Readers’ Choice: Los Reyes del Elote Asado
BEST VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT
Orange County's best Vietnamese restaurant isn't even in Little Saigon; it's in Garden Grove's ever-expanding Korean District. It doesn't serve much beyond pho and a couple of appetizers, but that doesn't stop the lines from forming. The broth is without par; you have your choice of thick or thin noodles (the thick are much more satisfying); the beef is, puns aside, a cut above; and even the service is several notches above your typical beef-noodle palace. The prices are a bit higher, but it's worth it.
Readers’ Choice: Garlic & Chives
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BEST MIDDLE EASTERN RESTAURANT
ahara Falafel is one of the oldest Middle Eastern eateries in Anaheim's Little Arabia. The secret to its longevity lies in the mesmerizing rotation of the restaurant's spits: Succulent chunks of beef and chicken shawarma are shaved from them and served on platters or in sandwiches with a side of delicious garlic sauce. The hole-in-the-wall's namesake offers a lemony flavor not found in other falafels around town. Sahara Falafel has also gotten into the sweets game with trays of baklava and a Palestinian affection confection called Lovers' Dessert. Its walls are painted with awesome portraits of the Sahara Dessert, adding a nice ambience. The doors stay open until 2 a.m., perfect for late-night shawarma cravings!
Readers’ Choice: The Halal Guys
Big B's BBQ
Big B's might seem a bit of a misnomer for the tiny but mighty Fullerton hole-in-the-wall. It's not much save for a few tables inside and a big picnic bench outside. But Big B's earned its name over the past 30 years by packing a big punch when it comes to barbecue. Slabs of ribs come slathered in tangy, biting barbecue sauce. The homemade potato salad tops the list of superb sides on the menu. Big B's is also big on sandwiches: Good things come in threes, and the pulled pork slider trio is perfection down to the pickles served on the side. The owners also own Brian's Sports Bar next door, so you can head over and get your meal served through a tiny window while catching a game. Across the way from Cal State Fullerton, Big B's is a hella titan!
Readers’ Choice: Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Q
Amanda DeFrancis/OC Weekly
Cortina's Italian Market & Delicatessen
Not even a fire a couple of years ago could keep down the legendary Cortina's, which has provided OC with Italian cheeses, meats, cookies, sodas and nearly everything else since 1963. And every morning at 4 a.m., you can get your hands on some freshly made specialty breads from Sal from Queens—no, seriously, that's his name.
Readers’ Choice: Katella Deli
John Gilhooley/OC Weekly
This tiny panadería is a treat for multiple senses, from the first inhale of freshly baked goods to the warmth of the oven vibrating on your skin—and then comes the taste of the actual pan dulces. For nearly 20 years, folks from all over Southern California have visited Tlaxcala for its special-occasion trés leches cakes, while working-class mamís have fed their brood with their crumbly cookies, creamy conchas, cuernitos, buttery muffins and other types of pan dulce served fresh on a daily basis—and no doubt those children will be bringing their future offspring here years from now.
Readers’ Choice: Blackmarket Bakery
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BEST CAJUN CUISINE
Bourbon Street Bar & Grill
Sink your bones into a dark booth in this downtown Fullerton joint, then sink your teeth into the best shrimp and grits this side of Texas. (The white Cheddar cooked into the dish is what puts it into the heavenly category.) Or go with the voodoo shrimp, their buttery broth keeping the crustaceans moist and soaking into the bed of dirty rice. Or get comfortable with a giant helping of jambalaya, with its perfectly cooked seafood and andouille sausage. Whatever you choose, it all tastes better with a Hurricane or Black Magic martini. No need to book a trip to New Orleans when you can get the food here, and a well-liquored crowd awaits just outside the door.
Kevin Lara/OC Weekly
BEST OUTDOOR DINING
The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove
Set in a 1940s bungalow-style restaurant, the Beachcomber offers one of Orange County's best ocean views and dining experiences. It has a great wine list and an excellent mixologist who specializes in bloody Marys. The menu offers a fine variety, with an emphasis on seafood. It's a killer brunch spot, as well as a great place to go on a date and watch the sunset.
Readers’ Choice: Tanner’s
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