Dave's Top 5 Restaurants of 2011

It's that time of year again, when we sift through the dozens and dozens and dozens of frankly awesome meals we've had this year, look back, and attempt to pick five (or, in my case, six) that stood out the most. Edwin always says that his chief criterion would be whether he'd spend his own money at a place; for me, I need to want to spend my own money multiple times.

It's a difficult choice, and I'm sure to piss someone off either through omission or through the order I put them in, and someone is guaranteed to be annoyed that food trucks are not technically restaurants; if you're offended, please, try to pick up the broken shards of your life and move past some random food blogger's end-of-year list.


5. (TIE) Taco Maria and Soho Taco

I was hesitant about this. Two luxe loncheras launched late this year: both different, both great, but they tend to travel together. How can I choose between quesadillas de tuétano (bone marrow), amazing pumpkin tacos, and almond horchata on the one hand, and the best vegetable tacos, so-tender-it-melts barbacoa, and that red crack cocaine known as chile de aceite on the other? I can't. Both get a spot. Find Taco Maria via their tweets at @TacoMaria; find the Soho Taco truck via their tweets at @SohoTaco, or hire them to cater a party.

4. Vien Dong

It isn't new; it isn't unknown; every single non-Vietnamese who's ever been to Little Saigon has eaten here. So why is it #4? Because they cook every single thing absolutely right. The bún chả Hà Nội is addictive; they're one of the only places left that drips their cà phê sữa đá through a phin to order; they have wonderful spring rolls; the bánh tôm cổ ngư (yam and shrimp fritters) are an unexpected pleasure, and of course, the entire restaurant smells of their speciality: chả cá Thăng Long, fish rubbed with turmeric, then grilled in a cast-iron pan over what must be a blast furnace with dill and onion… and a bunch of the menu is 30% off. 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; (714) 531-8253.
3. Sushi Noguchi

Sometimes it's the late arrivals that stick out most in my memory, but there's no denying that Hiro Noguchi knows how to select and cut fish–and cut and grill mushrooms, and barely sear wagyu beef, and steam monkfish liver… Who knew there'd be a place in Yorba Linda that would make me willing to brave the vagaries of the 91 freeway? 18507 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 777-6789; www.sushinoguchi.com.

2. Sol del Sur

Late last year, I put out a call for help in South County, and frequent commenter
1000steps stepped up (okay, sorry) and sent me to Sol del Sur in San
Juan Capistrano. It's run by a guy who's travelled a lot and who knows
how to cook; it's pretty much strictly a family affair, and the menu
changes as ingredient availability comes and goes. Some of the menu is bizarre-sounding, but it works; even if Szechwan pepper meringue doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, nothing is worse than “very good” here. 31115 Rancho Viejo Rd., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 487-5225; www.soldelsurbistro.com.

1. Playground

Whatever was going to replace Mariscos Tampico in the Fiesta Marketplace East End Promenade was going to have to be good in order to get a pass from those who cry “gentrification!” Playground is it. They're still working out how they want service to happen (this week, they started taking reservations on a limited basis), but it doesn't distract from the food. Is there any point in describing the food, given that 90% of it will be replaced on the menu by the time you visit? Sure, burger, fries and beer are great, which is the essential point of a gastropub, but that's missing the point; they love to play with food. Tonight they have a take on casunziei all'ampezzano, the beet ravioli of the Italian Alps, and their version of Singaporean chili crab; tomorrow it may–and probably will–be completely different. 220 E. 4th St., Santa Ana; (714) 560-4444; www.playgrounddtsa.com.

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