The Year in Eats

Opera singers. Jousting. Jailbirds. Mimes. 1998 brought so many E-ticket theme restaurants to OC that it's hard to imagine enjoying a meal in a restaurant without them. We have places that exploit rainforests (Rainforest Cafe), prisoners (Alcatraz Brewing Company) and people's need to feel as if you like them-really like them (Tinseltown Studios). If these amusement- and merchandise-driven industries weren't enough to make me cry into my menu file, the Crystal Cathedral announced plans to build a food court complete with a Christian Capitalist's Hall of Fame. But is the future of food in OC filled with nothing but assault-and-battered onion rings and manna burgers? Not a chance. I didn't get accosted by shrieking mechanical animals, locked up in a cell or mobbed by fake paparazzi while partaking at the following places, but I ate well. So well it will become necessary to bust out the Gut-B-Gone come January. Here are some of the reasons OC foodies can breathe easy.

Mack and ReJoyce Moss, HAVE MERCY! You opened Mossville 70663 in Long Beach early this year and dazzled me time after time with your greaseless fried catfish, savory collard greens and buttery candied yams. And who can resist calling your answering machine (562-495-3100) to hear Mossville 70663 updates (“People, we got gumbo in the house tonight!”) recorded by Bobby Love.

Patti Mendez named her new restaurant Mr. Juan's in Costa Mesa for Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan. Besides being a Zapatista supporter, Mendez is a diligent preserver of Mexican tradition, using her restaurant to celebrate its magical but oft-forgotten holidays. On Jan. 6, she'll be serving the requisite rosca de Reyes (Epiphany cake) and hot chocolate to celebrate the feast of the Three Kings.

Former Prego manager Franco Vessia opened Vessia in Irvine, a svelte Italian restaurant. In the kitchen, his mom, Maria (from Bari, Italy), whips things into shape as only an Italian mother can.

If you're nursing a hangover on the weekend in South County, head over to Las Cazuelas in Lake Forest for some curative menudo and pozole. And the mole is incredible.

Like a beardless culinary Nostradamus, I predicted (years ago) famine in restaurant-poor downtown Santa Ana corresponding with the opening of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse. But the Gypsy “Den mothers” Tina Bentley and Catherine Graziano have stepped up to feed the feds. They're scheduled to open their second location at 125 N. Broadway in late February or early March.

The all-patio Ramos House Caf in San Juan Capistrano is such a keeper; a lunch there is nearly flawless unless a rain cloud turns your crab hash into crab bisque. But now you can ditch the galoshes because owner John Q. just completed an awning designed to keep you snug and dry. He also got permission (it's about time!) to do 12 wine dinners in 1999-a miracle considering the city's strict ordinances. They'll start in March and run every other week throughout the summer.

Galeos Caf and Bakery in Newport Beach made sure it's no longer a Soviet-style process to get Eastern European baked goods and Russian dishes on Mariner's Mile.

Thanks to these and many other tireless restaurateurs, we can look forward to a new year filled with small-production indie eats that are priced right.

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