No. 1, Or: THE BEST DISH IN OC RIGHT NOW: Everything at Taco Maria

BEHOLD! The end of the line for our 100 favorite dishes of 2013, released in conjunction with our fantabulous Best Of 2013 issue, which you can pick up in finer newstands NOW! Print out this list, match it up with the restaurants in our issue, and happy eating for the next year! Anyhoo, on to the winner…

I wasn't going to give the top prize to Taco Maria. Oh, it's not because Carlos Salgado doesn't deserve it: I've eaten everything Salgado has ever offered in Orange County, both the stuff at his old luxe lonchera and the prixe fixe menu he's currently offering at his swank OC Mix digs, and not only have I never been disappointed, I've always been stunned into gustatory silence. The cabrón is a master of food, each creation a dare to himself and his staff to up the ante, a challenge of brotherly (and sisterly) love ala the 1927 Yankees–think of this place as the Mike Trout of OC's dining scene.

But I knew that the kind words would soon swarm Taco Maria–and what do the words of a fishwrap matter, anyway, to cuisine as refined as this? The Orange County Register's Brad A. Johnson just gave him three stars, calling Taco Maria “one of the most sophisticated restaurants to open in Orange County in years.” Our own Bill Esparza, writing for Los Angeles and a legendary stickler for quality, said “Modern Mexican has now arrived in the U.S.” And we just called Taco Maria the Best Mexican Restaurant in OC for our annual Best Of issue.

Really, no more need from me to further praise Salgado. And then I tasted Salgado's aguachile.


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Aguachile is one of my favorite meals of all time, a furious concoction of raw shrimp left to marinate in chilled lemon juice spiked with serrano salsa that leaves you with a simultaneous brain freeze and a desire for freon. Most places throw some cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions into the mix, and give you a big slop of a plate that, while delicious, is anything but elegant.

But look as Salgado's interpretation! It's as expertly put as a bento box, the cucumbers and onions now replaced by some fancy-ass tuber and an herb that I can't remember that complement the lightness of the light, sweet fish he used in place of shrimp. And that dollop of red to the right? Watermelon jam, which added a cooling sweetness I would've never expected for an aguachile.

And here's the best part: Salgado didn't dial down the salsa-lime juice part. It's every bit as puckering and spicy as the diviest SanTana sinaloense-style mariscos joint, a short, intense blast of fire and ice that still had my lips numb in the most beautiful way possible even an hour after I ate it.

Really, everything Salgado makes is worthy of our pick as the best dish in OC right now. It's a magnificent restaurant that hasn't even reached its full potential yet, as my baseball metaphor earlier hinted at (it just started offering breakfast, and it's yet to expand into dessert despite Salgado's background as a pastry chef). But I'll go with the aguachile as the ultimate winner. It's one of the best dishes in Orange County I've tasted in a decade of reviewing, and the dish is Taco Maria and the modern-day Mexican experience in OC personified: not ashamed of tradition, but also not resting on it, pushing our herencia further into greatness. Simply put: if you haven't eaten at Taco Maria yet, you don't know OC cuisine–and you're probably a migra lover.

The list:

2. Sauteed Chicken at Cafe Hiro
3. Pizza di Salsiccia e Friarielli at Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana
4. Prime Gastro Burger at Dublin 4
No. 5a: Lamb Tenderloin at Medii Kitchen
No. 5b: Apple Pie Cookie at XA Sweet N Savory Cafe
6. Charcuterie at Little Sparrow
7. Ají Verde at Inka Mama
8. Frittata at Crave
9. Pickled Egg at C4 Deli: Cure for the Common
10. Fugazza at Pasta Connection
11. Cheese N Soujouk Manakeesh at Al Wadee Bakery N Restaurant
12. Salpicon at Nancy's Pupuseria
13. Soulrito at Papa's Fish N Soul Food
14. Combination Grill Plate at Kareem's Restaurant
15. Ta Pin Lu at Pagolac
16. The Chicken at XA Sweet N Savory Cafe
17. Mashed Potatoes at Tender Greens
18. Twice-Baked Potato Purée at James Republic
19. Salmon at Tavern On The Coast
20. Omakase at Sushi Noguchi
21. Pescado Zarandeado at Mariscos Los Primos
22. Sausage Anything from Sabatino's
23. Cemita Poblana from El Camino Real Market
24. Champurrado and Pan Dulce from Las Tres Princesas
25. Grilled Watermelon Salad At XA Sweet N Savory Cafe
26. Beer Brat At LinX
27. Bloody Mary Brunch at Charlie Palmer
28. Pork Belly Slider From The Golden Truffle
29. Hot Chocolate at The Catch
30. 95% of the Menu at Confetti Italian Ice
31. Hu Tieu at Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan
32. Beef Salad (aka “The Bobby Special”) at Sophy's Fine Thai N Cambodian Cuisine
33. “No Soup” Ramen at Santouka Ramen
34. Wild Mushroom Taco at Taco Asylum
35. Chivito at Puerto Madero/El Gaucho #2
36. Lamb Burger at Haven Gastropub
37. Breakfast Tacos at Chelas Mexican Grill
38. Grilled Brie With Apples And Fig Jam at Boudin SF
39. Fried Almond Shrimp Balls at Capital Seafood
40. Tulsa Potatoes At Tulsa Rib Company
41. Tiropites from Kentro Greek Kitchen
42. Pasta Salad from Crave
43. Chicken Plate at Surfin' Chicken
44. Rosemary Madeleine from Little Sparrow
45. Umeboshi Ochazuke at Kappo Suzumaru
46. Soft Tofu Soup at DooRei
47. Hitsumabushi at Sagami
48. The Fireball at Cortina's
49. Paint It Black Pie at Rebel Bite
50. Pidan Doufu at I-Tea Cafe
51. The Happy Hour Specials at Ahi Ahi Sushi Bar N Grill
52. Free Happy Hour Food at Gulliver's
53. Banh Tom at Van's Restaurant
54. Dinner at Marrakesh
55. Congee at Capital Seafood
56. Taquito Burrito at Cuca's Mexican Food
57. Clam Chowder at Billy's at the Beach
58. Volcan at Tacos Ruben y Mulitas
59. The Burger at ARC
60. Chocolate Chip Cookie at Crave
61. Lime Curd At Playground
62. Every Damn Thing at Mochi Cream
63. Most Things at Devilicious Donuts
64. Robiola Bosina at Provisions Market
65. Bite-Sized Stinky Tofu at Tofu King
66. Tacos Dorados at Tortas Ahogadas Los Primos
67. Tlacoyo at El Rincon Chilango
68. Whole Pig Roast at Haven Gastropub
69. Chingaderas at Smoqued BBQ
70. The Continuous Ramen Chronicles at The Playground
71. Shrimp N Grits at Slapfish
72. Bacon Cotton Candy at Biggy's Meat Market
73. Urban 3b at Urban Seoul
74. Waffles N Chicken from The Slummin' Gourmet N Waffles de Liege
75. Ahi Tuna Tartar at Nieuport 17
76. Chicken Wings at Hashigo Korean Kitchen
77. Brussels Sprouts Pizza at Pizzeria Mozza
78. Breakfast Sausage Hash at Thasos Greek Island Grille
79. Chocolate Doughnut with Jacobsen Sea Salt at Sidecar Doughnuts N Coffee
80. Loco Moco Dog at Dogzilla
81. Fruit Tart at Le Croissant Dore
82. Daing Na Bangus (Marinated Milkfish) Silog Breakfast at Chowking
83. Strawberry Basil Lemonade at Mick's Karma Bar
84. Lemongrass Chicken Salad at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop
85. Tofu Soup at Tasty Thai
86. Take-Out Dim Sum at Capital B.B.Q. and Dim Sum Express
87. Hodo Gwaja at Cocohodo
88. Popcorn Chicken Salad at Guppy House
89. Fried Okra at Memphis Soul Cafe N Bar
90. Salted Egg With Bitter Melon N Scrambled Egg at Tasty Noodle House
91. Boysenberry Lemonade from Bautista Creek Local Produce at SOCO Farmers' Market
92. Scallop Carpaccio with Curry Oil and Yuzu Vinaigrette from Cafe Hiro
93. White Board Specials at Taco Adobe
94. Coney Dog at LinX
95. Halal Pizzas from San Giovanni Pizzas
96. Clayuda at El Fortín
97. Lunch Buffet at Dosa Express
98. The Meats at Darya in Orange
99. Panocha at Taquería Zamora
100. Bean-and-Cheese Burrito from Del Taco

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