Another year-end list? Already? Well, fortunately, it's been a fat and happy year. Thank you, Orange County.
5. Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana
A repeat member of this list, Orange County's best pizza still sits in the middle of downtown Fullerton, waiting to beguile passersby with the smell of wood-fired, real Neapolitan pizza. If you haven't tried their quattro stagioni pizza, go right now and order it–and see if you don't think the ricotta portion is the best part. Or order sausage and broccoli rabe, where it's the saltiness of the cheese that cuts the bitterness of the vegetable.
4. La Parolaccia
The first time I went to La Parolaccia, it was in Claremont, and it was the closest I'd come in a very long time to a true Italian lunch, with a very good beet-and-citrus salad followed by a baked pasta dish, wine and coffee. Then I went to the Long Beach sister and found fewer cream sauces and more osteria cooking as I remember it from Italy. This is an overlooked gem, especially at lunch.
Yes, Muelle made both the top drinks and the top restaurants list; just the tiradito alone would have done it, but they do a fantastic job with both comida criolla–native Peruvian food–and comida chifa–Chinese-Peruvian food, including lomo saltado and arroz chaufa. Add to this the good drinks and friendly service, and you've got a fantastic Peruvian restaurant hiding out off the 405.
2. The North Left
When the Crosby closed, we all mourned; but when the North Left opened in its stead, it was like Aron Habiger had been cooped up. Suddenly, the bar food turned into real small plates–and, unusually for this country, at small-plate prices. Garbanzos with mint and chile; sweet and cheesy cauliflower; classic Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts. Sit at the bar with friends, get a little raucous, and nosh your dinner.
1. Taco Maria
Taco Maria could be located in Mexico City's tony Polanco district; it could be near la Minerva in Guadalajara. But it isn't; it's an alta cocina restaurant, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the United States, located in a corner of the OC Mix in Costa Mesa. Traditional ingredients such as huauzontle, guajes and pápalo get married to perfectly-cooked main dishes. That you can have four courses for $52 ought to make reservations the hardest ticket in town to get.