I used to throw this list together; I picked my favorite restaurants and dashed off the paragraphs in just a few minutes. Apparently, though, some of you are foolish enough to give a damn what I think about food.
I'll be frank; I'm jaded. I'm tired of the food hype machine, every PR person's wet dream, tantalizing me with menu descriptions that far outshine the dish they describe. I'm tired of my iPhone's photo roll being full of photographs of mediocre food I took on the off chance I might need it later. I've eaten dozens of disappointing meals this year. I've eaten meals where the chef obviously didn't taste the dish; I've eaten hundreds of thousands of calories in search of something that inspired me enough to write about it.
Here are the top five restaurants in our publication area (our list for Baja California will come out soon). I look forward to the moments in 2014 where I send an excited text message to a foodie colleague in Las Vegas, taunting him that it isn't available there.
5. Aleppo's Kitchen
I was so taken with Aleppo's that I wrote an online sidebar the same day Gustavo published his This Hole-In-The-Wall Life review. The hallmark of a vibrant cultural community is the existence of food specialists, and that's exactly what this hidden gem is: a specialist in kibbeh, the meat-and-bulgur pies of the Levant. It isn't just that, though they're excellent; they also don't pull any punches with flavors. Things with za'atar are like a sesame-scented throat punch; when they use pomegranate, the intense sourness can permeate your dreams.
4. Broadway by Amar Santana
The shiny-new has rubbed off of Broadway; it's been around for long enough to become a locals' standby. The departure of the screaming Yelpies (“first to review! first to review!”) hasn't affected the quality one bit. They still have some of the best fries in Orange County, and while the plates are still ridiculously oversized for the tiny tables, it's what's on the plates that counts. If you really want a fun dinner, sit at the kitchen counter and watch everything from a fryer to an immersion circulator be employed to get you your dinner. And if they have octopus–order it, no matter the preparation.
3. Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana
I have Matthew Robold, Sunday night bartender at 320 Main and local tiki demigod, to thank for the fact that I find myself driving all the way into Fullerton when I want pizza. There's no other pizza like it in OC. The crust is always perfect, the salt just right (even when combining olives and anchovies), and the sauces excellent. It's exactly–exactly–like eating pizza in Italy, unsliced personal pie and all. Fullertonians seem to have taken to it, too, because it's perpetually full; my last visit was lengthy, because I was behind a party of 25 and another party of 10.
2. Little Sparrow
The first time I went to Little Sparrow, I ate bar food. I wanted the cocktails–which is its own list we're going to get to next week–and wasn't particularly picky about what I ate to soak up the brown, bitter and stirred concoctions I usually order. Then I went with my daughter, and was engaged in external conversation when I heard from next to me, “Daddy, you have GOT to try this salmon. It's the BEST. SALMON. EVER.” Then I was blown away by charcuterie, and most recently by the only frisée aux lardons worth eating west of the Norman coast. It's that good.
1. Taco María
Why is a former lonchera number one, you ask? Because we didn't have alta cocina here in Orange County before. Antojitos, no matter how good, are not alta cocina; menus that are reinventions of white people's visions of Jaliscan food, circa 1970, are not alta cocina. It's the little inventions, like geoduck with sourgrass flowers and lemon, or pipián-enrobed pumpkin tamales that are somehow imbued with pumpkin without actually having a layer of scrintchy pumpkin purée in the middle, that shine here. Chef Carlos Salgado needs to spread his wings from the tried-and-true (ye gods, how I love that steak) just a little bit–though he's limited by kitchen and storage space in a small restaurant–because the little variations from the reinvented truck menu are contributing to the best food available in Orange County.