Edwin's Top Five Restaurants of 2011

End-of-year lists like these are fun to do, but hard to write because it is always difficult to just pick five of anything, let alone restaurants in a year full of great meals. This year, I used the same measuring stick as last year: in picking my five, I asked myself this question: “Would I go back to spend my own (not the Weekly's) money?”

Here are the five in which I answered with an unequivocal “Yes!”

5. Red Table

Meranda Carter

something casual, warm and intensely personal at Louis Jocson's Red
Table. The room looks like an eccentric person's attic and the deviled
eggs, showered with
micro-granules of bacon, hits of cracked pepper and a specially
formulated spicy tomato sauce, has to be one of the best things I ate
this year. A lesser chef would've squirted Sriracha on them and call it a
day. Jocson doesn't take the easy route on other dishes either. He does
chopped nopales as a side salad for pork belly tacos, or salmon skin
tacos if he feels like it. A vegetarian dish of “scallops” almost
trumped the real thing. And for dessert, his Red Table cupcake, an ode
to Jocson's late wife and a favorite of
their young daughter, has the red velvet cake baked inside a coffee
mug and topped with a swirl of vanilla cream cheese–a dessert that is
heart-tugging, lovely in its intent, and effortlessly beautiful, just
like Red Table itself. 16821 Algonquin St. Huntington Beach, (714) 846-4700; www.redtablerestaurants.com.

4. Il Garage at Park Avenue

Edwin Goei

Garage is the spin-off to Park Avenue in Stanton and its name should be
taken literally. The “garage” is an
actual one, converted to an al fresco dining room by hoisting up the
door. There is no working kitchen; all orders are relayed to Park Ave
chefs. An ancient tractor is parked to one side. Tables covered in
red-checkered cloths are staggered in what was once a working shed. An
accordion player sits on a stool at the
periphery, playing a lilting serenade that mirrors a scene out of those
an-American-in-Italy fantasy films. It's entirely possible, as well as
completely advisable, to make an
entire meal from the list of antipasti, which reads like a guided tour
of the garden. A four count of ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms is
battered lightly from stem to stern, a crispy product of a gentle,
greaseless fry that makes you wish you had four more. For the seared
artichoke, the tight bulbs are halved, the firm hearts browned and its
vegetal soul concentrated.The best bites are just like these, and most
of those were taken out from the ground, inches from where you sit. 11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 901-4400; www.parkavedining.com.

3. Habuya Okinawan Dining

JC Vera

first Okinawan restaurant in OC also made the Best Japanese in our Best
Of Issue. It won it because there's no category for Best Okinawan. But
Okinawan cooking is markedly different from that of its kin in Tokyo.
Shredded green papaya
stuffs a crispy egg roll, and the best dessert is a fresh pineapple
sorbet that owner Mayumi Vargas commissioned a specialty ice-cream
maker to produce
just for her restaurant. Pork is the featured protein you'll see most
often. The already-falling-apart stewed daikon has the lowest dose of
it, the broth-soaked wheels sandwiching thin slices of bacon. Ra fu
te–the local variant of long-stewed pork belly known elsewhere as
kakuni–is nothing but a hunk of pig that quivers with equal parts
blubber and softly melting meat. There's Spam in a bracing bittermelon
stir fry called chanpuru and Okinawan mineral salt and lime pepper on a
slab of
smoky grilled chicken, a dish that somehow manages to trump the
addictive, crispy-skinned, deep-fried torikara, a version of Japanese
karaage. 14215 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 832-3323.

2. St. Roy Chef's Pub

Kevin Lara

You discover quickly that the menu for Vine is the menu for St. Roy. The only difference: While you dine at Vine, you eat
at St. Roy. Eating there is sort-of backstage pass to witness Vine's
beating heart, a
bar with a view of the deep fryers gurgling and sauté pans blazing.
You're often shoulder-to-shoulder with the next customer
in this claustrophobic space, saddling up at communal butcher-block
tables, trying to avoid being distracted by whatever's on TV–but
there's always something happening, something to look at, something to
smell. A riff on trout meunière is feather-light and as classy as at any
French bistro, flanked by Blue Lake beans, fingerling potatoes, wilted
frisée and tomatoes. Take in a salad such as the seared ahi and hearts
of palm, more a
staggered stack of the ingredients–including avocado, cucumber, cherry
tomato–than a standard plate of roughage. Bathed in a sunny
grilled-citrus-and-shallot vinaigrette, it's one of the best dishes
here, and makes St. Roy's one of the best reasons to drive out to OC's
southernmost city. 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 361-2079; www.stroychefspub.com.

1. Three Seventy Common

Meranda Carter

Seventy Common is new, but it's so good that Sorrento Grille, the
23-year-old Laguna Beach institution it replaced, is already a faded
memory. You're treated to dishes like the pork belly, a no-brainer of an
appetizer, but one of the better ones out there. It's as compact as a
pack of smokes, its exterior is thoroughly browned to a
bacon crunch, the interior made so soft and
homogeneous you can't tell where the fat ended and the meat began.
For one of the most popular small plates, spears of broccolini became a
raft for a sunny-side-up egg fried to lacy edges. Grated asiago showered
the yolk, the crackly, crisp prosciutto and everything else on the
plate.The best night to go is definitely on a Sunday, when the
owner/chef Ryan Adams tosses out the
regular menu and offers a rare thing for Laguna Beach: an affordable
multi-course dinner. Adams has dubbed these family-style suppers “Sunday
Socials,” and they're evocative of meals at home when everyone's at the
table and the TV's turned off. 370 Glenneyre St. Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8686; www.370common.com

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