Another year, another Best Of roundup. And here we go…
5. Baja wine at San Clemente Wine Company
A while back, the San Clemente Wine Company held a week-long tasting of Baja wines, which are almost impossible to find north of the border, despite being two hours' drive from San Clemente. They imported what they could and it sold—quickly. Kudos to them for being one of the only places in the county to fight the bureaucracy keeping those amazing Tempranillos and big bold red meritages out of our glasses.
4. Amaro at Pizzeria Ortica
Not a single drink, but an entire class of drinks: to ask for amaro at Pizzeria Ortica is to get a lesson in how Italy finishes a big meal. Bottles will start lining up on the bar, and Joel Caruso and his tirapiedi (henchmen) will start talking about them. You'll taste several, from the cloyingly sweet Averna to the mouth-puckeringly dry Novasalus. You'll learn about the history of these amari, which appear all over Italy, and if you're very lucky, you'll get to taste some of the housemade liquors.
3. Detroiter at 320 Main
The most American spirit is not bourbon, as steeped in our culture as it is. No, it's applejack, the drink we drank before whiskey had made its way onto these shores, a way to use the billions and billions of apples that grow throughout the eastern half of the country. The best way to consume applejack is with Cynar, lemon, honey syrup, and a float of IPA; in other words, a Detroiter, in the bar where it was invented.
2. Czech beers at Noble Ale Works
One of the best things about the brewers in Orange County is their willingness to improve upon mass-market beers. TAPS had a Mexican lager that was meant to mimic Negra Modelo, and Noble Ale Works has embarked upon Czech pilsners. They're relatively low in alcohol, they taste amazing, they're Czech-approved, and they serve two functions: as a gateway to craft beer for the Budweiser crowd (Budweiser was originally a Czech lager), and as a way to let people who actually like good beer have something they can bring to a party.
1. Deconstructed Old Fashioned at Anepalco
Picking the year's best cocktail is an arduous, though delicious, endeavor. There are hundreds of imaginative bartenders in Orange County who are creating new classics. There are not very many, however, who are playing with texture, and the deconstructed Old Fashioned at Anepalco is all about the texture. An Old Fashioned is spirit (usually whiskey), water, sugar, and bitters. Generally, the latter three are muddled in a glass and the whiskey is poured on top, but at Anepalco, it's backwards: the whiskey and bitters are mixed in the glass, and then it's topped with piloncillo foam spritzed with orange oil, so you sip the liquor through the foam. Somehow, bartender Cesar Cerrudo manages to make a foam that is sturdy enough to make it through to the very last sip, and the result is magical.
And now, the food:
5. Haven Gastropub
Haven Gastropub is beloved of Orange residents as a rambunctious, loud place to hang out, drink great beer and cocktails, and snack on upscale pub food. It's not the lamb burger or the spaghetti squash that puts Haven into this list, though, it's the specials. Sometimes on the menu, sometimes on the blackboard, but almost always the best option. Lately, there have been a lot of poached eggs nestled on top of crispy things (bitter greens and fried chicken skin was a real winner), which suits a tall glass of beer better than you'd expect.
Downtown Santa Ana's Playground may be as close as it's possible to get to eating as they do in Europe, where the board tells you what the chef is cooking, depending on what looked good at the market. With certain exceptions (the off-menu burger, pasta made by Hillary Quinn, Memphis-style fried chicken), the entire menu rotates essentially nightly. One night there may be a beautiful dish of pappardelle with peas; another night it might be a slab of house-made rye bread slathered with creamy cheese and then topped with smoked salmon and crispy salmon skin. Pair it with $5 beers and $10 cocktails, and it's easy to see why it's always so full.
3. Break of Dawn
Yes, this is a perennial favorite. Yes, the smoked salmon with oatmeal galette is still amazing; so is the goat chili, which will cure any hangover you could possibly stumble in with. But owner Dee Nguyen has been sneaking around hosting evening dinners, once every couple of months. He slaves publicly away at the menu; seats sell out within minutes of his announcing the date. But the food is worth the pain of securing a seat. These are marathon meals, almost too big: twelve or thirteen courses, each revolving around a theme (the next one is South America).
1 (tie). Anepalco
Anepalco has received none of the national accolade that Taco Maria has, and that's a shame, because the dining room attached to the Alo Hotel in Orange sends out food that should warrant more attention. Chef Danny Godinez has recently re-branded the restaurant and appended the tagline “Cocina de Barrio”—neighborhood cooking—but only if your neighborhood is named Condesa, or Polanco, or Roma. Dinner here works best when you give the kitchen free rein, using whatever Spanish translation of “omakase” you care to.
1 (tie). Taco Maria
How could it not be? Carlos Salgado's tiny restaurant has received plenty of national attention, both for its astoundingly amazing food and for the chef's insistence that even the basics—the tortilla, the basis on which all Mexican cooking is built—must be of the absolute highest quality. The flavor combinations are perfect; the presentation is perfect; the That you can have four courses of this caliber for $65 boggles the mind; in Mexico City, even at three times the price, securing reservations would require divine intervention.