Do you really need an intro? Nope! So here we go, a mix of my usual hole-in-the-wall beat and some smarty-art places. Exempted from this list because they're on my personal Hall of Fame (yet still kicking ass as always) are Taco Maria, Anepalco's, Break of Dawn, and SOHO Tacos–patronize them, then this list, and you'll experience OC dining at its damned best.
5. Eat Civic
As I wrote in my review, "The owners are practitioners of what I have previously deemed Primo-Mex, the kind of mashups Mexican cousins do every carne asada Sunday to show off. So not only are there gargantuan burritos (one with green chorizo!), but they'll also come with a green salsa that resembles wheatgrass juice but burns and makes you forget the bottle of Tapatío you grabbed."
That was during the spring. Ever since, they closed down a bit after a mysterious fire, then reopened with a dining room where you can BYOB–HELL YA!!! 1236 West Civic Center Dr., Santa Ana, (714) 305-7704; eatcivic.com
So Naugles isn't technically a restaurant again yet, but the effort by a Naugles fan to bring back the legendary Mexican fast-food chain from the archives of Del Taco is not only a great story (that I'll probably bring to cover-form life in March), but a delicious one. Are the meals Taco Maria-worthy? Absolutely not. But did they teach me why people get so crazy over the popups? Go to the next one, get a simple bean-and-cheese, and you tell me what's up.
3. Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan
As I wrote in my review: "Hu tieu consistently gets overlooked in conversations about Vietnamese cuisine because it seems so simple: clear pork stock and a dash of shrimp paste subsuming noodles (glass or egg), pork and fish cake. But it deserves more respect, and the multiple condiments at every table speak to the soup's spectacular essence. Pickled garlic, pickled Thai peppers, chile paste, vinegar–you toss all of that into the hu tieu, mix it up, and create a soup equal parts comfort and zing, safe and stunning. Then you find the hard-boiled quail egg among the morass, and split it in half; its float through the boiling broth liquefied the yolk inside, meaning a burst of umami spikes your grand creation. This is the dac biet at Thanh Xuan; nearly the rest of the menu is variations on this theme, including and excluding ingredients, finding the dish dry or with the broth on the side." 9191 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 890-0223.
Soba comes cold or hot–with bubbling cauldrons bobbing with vegetables, meats, rice cakes and more. My favorite of these soups is the curry, so thick you could probably stand on it if it were filling a pool. But the better option might be the cold soba, as those come in gigantic bamboo wickers that can't possibly be finished by three people in one sitting. Udon noodles are also available, and the soups come with a bona fide wooden ladle, the most beautiful spoon you'll ever use to slurp and downright Bauhaus in its functional beauty. http://www.ocweekly.com/2014-07-31/food/hole-in-the-wall-tanakaya-tustin/
1. The North Left
I'll admit it; I haven't been to the North Left as often as I used to go back when the place was the Crosby. But that's only because it's been a crazy 2014 for me, and my schedule remains out of whack. Nevertheless, when the chica and I need to take someone to a nice dinner, it's Aron Habinger's latest: no-frills, rustic, filling-yet-sophisticated grub with lovely paint thinner for drinks. But my favorite thing about this spot are the gargantuan sharing plates, presented on planks of wood. While spending over $35 for a plate might seem a bit pricey, the meal–whether a whole chicken, duck, a bunch of steak, boar medallions, or seemingly anything general manager Andy Markuson rifled down somewhere in the Sierras–easily feeds four, meaning you're really spending about $10 for one of the best lowbrow high-dining meals you've had in years. And better yet? The North Left ain't even a year old. Come back to SanTana, cabrones: It's all good here. 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543; thenorthleft.com