Being the (relatively) new kid on the blog, I over-thought what I should include in my top five. All I really had to do was think about the places I'd already revisited without hesitation, and the answers were right there. Also, I've interviewed all but one, and getting to know the people behind the cuisine absolutely impacted my feelings towards trying them out. My five share a passion for their craft, and it shows with every meal.
5. Burger Parlor
Joseph Mahon is a perfect example of a local boy done good. While he doesn't push his culinary pedigree on anyone, he does manage to create a winning combination of taste and textures in the universal meal we know as a burger. Mahon did his time in LA, and decided to bring his A-game to downtown Fullerton at a relaxed pop-up space known in daylight hours as Rialto Cafe. However, construction will commence next month on his very own space. Worth any traffic on the 57/91 interchange, I can't get enough of his myriad of combinations between a thoughtfully crafted bun.
Being a true non-conformist, my current crush is the O.C., with its moist turkey, sliced avocado, melty provolone, marinated carrots and crisp sprouts. I don't even require fries, but a bottled soda makes things golden. If you've timed it well, strolling the farmer's market down the street afterwards makes for an impromptu date night. Just sayin'. www.burgerparlor.com for updates on their brick and mortar.
4. Nirvana Grille
It's no secret I prefer meat over vegetable, so imagine my surprise when I visited my number four establishment and proceeded to devour my vegan dinners with gusto. When a seven vegetable dish has each component prepared a different way, that's gluten-free love right there. And one particular dessert is most definitely making an appearance in next year's top 100–house-made goat cheese maple ice cream (with seasonal fruit, like their backyard figs pictured). Lindsay Smith-Rosales also showed me their rooftop “Bliss Bar”, perfect for lingering summer nights. Did we mention they are thisclose to Pageant of the Masters? Or you can remain tucked in a cozy booth and toast your own nirvana. Nirvana Grill has locations in both Laguna Beach and Mission Viejo, www.nirvanagrille.com.
Chalk another Forker under their spell. I first fell hard for a waffle 'wich, then it was their lucious custard. The quaint corner lacked parking, restrooms or indoor seating, yet crowds line up in droves. Bruxie's al fresco scene and lone ordering window kept things simple. Then they took everything that was missing and injected it into Downtown Brea. I wanted to ding them for not allowing call-ahead orders, but instead take that as a testament for wanting to put out a quality product. The expanded menu is further North, so take your burger or pastrami craving (apologies to The Hat) and park it off Birch; the bold fold is calling your name. Bruxie has locations in Orange and Brea, www.bruxie.com.
The luxe lonchera scene has seen its share of progress, like owners acquiring additional trucks and the inclusion of brick and mortars. In the case of Andrew Gruel and Jethro Naude, they've accomplished both. Okay, the building is forthcoming, but you get the point. Trying to convince a finicky food scene that your seafood is truly fresh can be quite a challenge. Fortunately, they double as importers, so order that Major Crunchy already! The sea bream, jalapeno sauce and crisps bring new meaning to fish and chips. After winning last month's Farm to Food Truck Challenge, they also show they've got the skills to pay the bills. Andrew loves sharing stories about his favorite eats, and Jethro can make any dish sound tasty. The men have charm and knowledge, and that's all the ambiance I need–except maybe for a friend to hold my Lobsticle as I take a photo… Keep up with their restaurant's progress at www.slapfishsocal.com.
1. Paul Martin's
When asked for one of my favorite cuisines, it's New American. Classic diners may specialize in traditional comfort food, but taking those same characteristics and making them better is the best of both worlds. That's when quality trumps quantity, and you know each element had some thought put into it. Standard salmon finds new life over quinoa and bulgar wheat, and after having their juicy, free-range “brick” chicken, other poultry pales in comparison. Plus, the oenophile in me can't get over the number of offerings by the glass, or the rustic, wine country vibe. If their bar isn't your scene, find solace in their sofa-lined lounge and order the buttermilk battered calamari with one of their craft brews (mostly staff picks, and locals will be pleased with the choices). And yes, while it may be tucked in Irvine Spectrumland, they have a lock on what's been missing in that area. 31 Fortune Drive, Irvine, (949) 453-1144; www.paulmartinsamericanbistro.com.