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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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BEST PERUVIAN RESTAURANT
Centrál Costal Peruvian
Anna Driggs and Ana Montoya's Centrál Coastal Peruvian in Laguna Beach is a restaurant for a moneyed crowd who may be used to fancy French sauces, but not necessarily pollo à la brasa. The aguadito, for instance, doesn't just come out; it's assembled tableside, with the soup poured into a bowl from a carafe. And when you do finally order the pollo à la brasa, it's exquisitely butchered so it includes the Frenched breast. But the flavors are authentic, and the aji sauce—the one unshakable reminder that proclaims more loudly than anything else that, yes, this is a real Peruvian restaurant—is nuclear strength.
Readers’ Choice: Inka Mama’s Peruvian Cuisine
BEST JAPANESE RESTAURANT
After 14 years, Hiro Ohiwa continues to deftly and successfully execute his own blend of Japanese, French and Italian cuisine in Cypress. From pasta speckled with sweet oceanic pillows of sea urchin in an intense uni-cream sauce to his crisp, thick and fatty Kurobuto pork katsu with a rich deep demi-glace, each dish Ohiwa offers carries with it a soul and technique that pays tribute to his years of training in Japan and Europe. While you're at Café Hiro, don't pass on dessert. The berry panna cotta would delight even the most discerning pastry chef with its hypnotic jiggle and creamy texture. P.S.: If you're looking for a really special experience, be sure to call in advance and ask for Hiro's omakase.
Readers’ Choice: Kitayama Restaurant
BEST LATE-NIGHT DINING
The Past Memories
Whether you have the late-night munchies or are just looking to soak up a night out, food always tastes better when you know you shouldn't be eating it. So for after-hours cravings, Past Memories is the midnight party. The seafood kimchi pancake is as big as a pizza, and if you're still hungry after that, you can't go wrong with the kimchi fried rice or budaejjigae, also known as Korean army stew, to recover from a night of desmadre.
Readers’ Choice: Harbor House Café
BEST RESTAURANT AMBIANCE
Walk with care down the stairs, then open the heavy, ornate wooden door deep underground Downtown Fullerton and take refuge in the Cellar. The bar and fine-dining restaurant is equal parts ritzy and comfy. Get spendy and fancy by walking left and into the dining room; get sauced in style by stepping to the right and into cocktail master Rich Ohtsuka's lair. Whichever adventure you choose, you'll be treated to a cavernous and cool experience created by the Disney-employed masterminds behind the atmosphere of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It's dark and dank like Pirates, but the reported ghosts will make you feel as if you're right at home at the Haunted Mansion. Hurry back!
Readers’ Choice: The Cellar
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT
Din Tai Fung
After two years of winning this spot, Din Tai Fung's Costa Mesa outpost still reigns absolute when it comes to Shanghainese and Taiwanese food. Whether it's the famous juicy pork xiaolongbao, shrimp and pork wontons with spicy sauce, or golden-crisp pork chop fried rice (bonus points for saving the spicy sauce and using it on those pork chops!), its offerings are as addicting and consistent as ever. Sadly, the line and hour-plus wait each weekend are also the same.
Readers’ Choice: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
BEST KOREAN BARBECUE
Mr. BBQ does not joke around when it comes to the AYCE experience. From an encyclopedic selection of highly marbled premium cuts to more than 15 panchan options, its massive spread is only outclassed by the waitstaff's exceptional quality of service and attention to detail—often the biggest sin of Korean barbecue. Char-coated grills and empty plates are whisked away before you even have the opportunity to hail your server, and they're always there ready to bring your next order. If you choose, the staff will even cook each selection for you tableside, so you can focus on what you came for in the first place: mountains of glorious barbecued meat.
Readers’ Choice: Gen Korean BBQ House
BEST DOUGHNUT SHOP
Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee
Oh, we've tried to quit you, Sidecar. We've tried to eat healthier, but you keep tempting us back with monthly and seasonal offerings that appeal to just about all our senses. Special editions such as Concord grape, s'mores, and fig and goat cheese changed the way we viewed doughnuts, but when we really wanted an old-school treat, we headed for the sweet, perfectly airy comfort of the Madagascar vanilla twist and the muffin-like huckleberry. Further sweetening the deal is the siren song of Stumptown Coffee: The Forty Winks and Colt's Tooth blends were created just for pairing with Sidecar's doughnuts. We promise to never try to leave you again, Sidecar.
Readers’ Choice: Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee
BEST SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
The Library Gentlemen's Club
You laughed at the thought of sushi at a strip club? Hey, we're with you—the fish jokes kinda write themselves, don't they? And the owners and managers of the Library Gentlemen's Club in Westminster aren't ignorant of your jokes, either. In fact, they take pride in their top-grade meat selection, sourced multiple times per week. The sushi (rolls, nigiri, omasake—whatever your heart desires) comes reasonably priced and beautifully displayed. They even offer real wasabi, which is more than can be said about half the local sushi joints you try to impress your dates at. How's that for dinner and a show?
Readers’ Choice: King’s Fish House
BEST VEGAN RESTAURANT
Ignore the meaningless motivational psychobabble found on the company's mission statement and take its hipster crowd with a grain of salt. Instead, enjoy Gratitude for its strongest selling point: It's a vegan restaurant that doesn't use fake meat. Nothing that's reverse-engineered in a lab is used anywhere here. Instead of Tofurkey and Soyrizo, you get—wait for it—actual vegetables, grains and fruit, cooked and prepared with care and creativity. You'll eat tostadas in which mushrooms sub in for beef, crumbly samosas stuffed with yam, and Italian "meatballs" made with chopped-up eggplant formed into spheres and draped in a marinara that tastes like marinara because, well, it is marinara!
Readers’ Choice: Seabirds Kitchen
BEST HEALTHY PLACE TO EAT NEAR DISNEYLAND
Thuyen Vien Vegetarian Restaurant
Years before they decided to launch Thuyen Vien, Loan and Si, two Vietnamese immigrants, earned a reputation as superb dinner hosts with family and friends who say they were always pleasantly surprised at the couple's creative dishes that spanned every imaginable type of food. Nowadays, that enthusiasm is found daily at their restaurant, where they provide some of Southern California's best vegetarian dishes in a small but clean setting, just blocks from Disneyland. Try the Buddha's Feast: broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, onions and sautéed tofu in a broth with your choice of soy chicken, soy beef or chow mein. The lemongrass "chicken" or Thai vegetable curry are also tasty. But if you can't decide, ask the friendly owners for advice; after all, they are the ones doing all the cooking.
Harbor House Café
While most diners strive to be old-fashioned, Harbor House Café naturally is. With vintage pictures and movie memorabilia, old arcade games, and a jukebox with an impressive selection, Harbor House probably hasn't changed much since the day it opened in 1939. Boasting a journal-thick menu and open 24 hours a day, seven days per week (including all holidays), it has a comfortable, homey vibe that will make you never want to leave—and with its hours, you don't have to. Just make sure to order something more hefty than water and crackers, you know?
Readers' Choice: Harbor House Café
BEST BRUNCH SPOT
SeaLegs Wine Bar
Within what looks like a cozy, seaside cabin is a meal you will remember—even if you forget everything else. Classic dishes such as a chicken-and-waffle sandwich, eggs Benedict, sausage-and-pepper omelet, and California chilaquiles are washed down with bottomless mimosas. Your charming server will make sure your glass is never empty. And when you feel sated from chef Alexander Dale's fabulous meal, you'll stand up, letting all that Champagne go to your head, and forget all else. Go walk off that brunch at the Big Lots just a couple of doors down—or you could stroll over to the beach, just a mile away, if you're sober enough.
Readers’ Choice: TAPS Fish House & Brewery
BEST GREEK RESTAURANT
Christakis Greek Cuisine
From the blue shutters and doors to towering olive trees, Christakis Greek Cuisine is the closest you can get to the Isles without leaving the county. Whether you sit inside, surrounded by Christakis family photos, or outside, next to the peaceful fountain, you're guaranteed a Homeric experience. The hummus has plenty of garlic and just the right amount of lemon. The traditional entrées, which come with a side of rice pilaf, green beans and wedges of baked lemon potatoes, are so filling that you might not even consider dessert—but one look at the baklava will change your mind.
Readers’ Choice: The Olive Pit
For decades, the Fox Fullerton Theater stood abandoned, the promise of the movie palace returning to its former glory forever stymied by a lack of funds or forgettable tenants around it. That started changing with the debut of Dripp, which also has a location in Chino Hills. Strong coffee, great staff and a wonderful location—what else do you need in a local coffeehouse?
Readers’ Choice: Portola Coffee Lab
BEST WATERFRONT DINING
SOL Mexican Cocina
Perched on the edge of a marina in Newport Beach, SOL Mexican Cocina offers not only an extraordinary view of million-dollar yachts, but also an extensive menu of excellent coastal Mexican cuisine. Purists will enjoy the Baja-style fish or shrimp tacos, while the more adventurous might opt for the Taco Vampiro (a double-tortilla taco filled with serrano chiles, cheese and scallions) or the even-more-adventuresome Canarditas duck tacos (deep-fried duck legs served with a tequila-laced blackberry sauce). Wash it all down with a cocktail, especially anything made from the restaurant's fine selection of mezcals.
Readers’ Choice: Las Brisas
BEST ORGANIC RESTAURANT
To make up for lost flavor, many organic restaurants either go heavy on the salt or force you to, but you won't have to indulge in either sin at Active Culture. Everything is natural and packed with different flavors courtesy of homemade dressings, tasty seasonings and its signature OG Sauce. The bowls, salads and wraps are loaded with super foods and whole grains, while the smoothies, shakes and frozen yogurts are sweet and creamy, but just as healthy. Since every dish is made to order, you'll probably find yourself waiting a while, so kick back and enjoy the ocean view.
Readers’ Choice: True Food Kitchen
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Alessa Laguna Beach
With family pictures plastered on the wall and dishes named after his nonna, chef Alessandro Pirozzi sweeps customers back to his hometown of Naples. At his Alessa Laguna Beach, you'll indulge in complimentary bread and pesto before ordering from a menu featuring fresh seafood, creamy sauces and hand-made pastas all inspired by traditional family recipes. Once you're done here, make sure to visit Pirozzi's other excellent OC eateries—but this is the best of the bunch.
Readers’ Choice: Mama D’s Italian Kitchen
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BEST LOCAL CHAIN
This was chiseled together on a soggy napkin after viewing an Orange County Business Journal compilation of local restaurant chains presented in order of total revenues. Pausing at No. 4, the chiseler realized no one before or after on the list is better than In-N-Out. However, that's such an obvious choice that the chiseler trudged on, figuring a legitimate case could be made for someone slightly less worthy. Such bullshit; why deny In-N-Out its rightful place at the top? Great service, fresh ingredients and a menu that does not change (but can include "animal-style," if requested). Who does burgers better? Every time! Have you ever heard someone say, "Aw, In-N-Out, again?" Never happens.