We wrap up the waning weeks of every year with a list of our favorite restaurants. Normally, I pick a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a small menu and a narrow specialty where you can pick any random dish and come up a winner. Looking at my list for 2012, your odds are not as heavily stacked. The common theme among my winners is that each brought out a sleeper of a dish from that blew me backward like Bruce Lee's one-inch punch.
In no particular order, here are my top five that delivered a knockout blow.
5. Lucca Cafe
I've eaten brunch at Irvine's Lucca Cafe numerous times over the years. While they make a perfectly good brunch and an better dinner menu, the sleeper that sneaked up on me is the lemon curd that I ordered for the first time this spring. The tart-sweet yellow silk laid me out like Pacquiao.
At the time, it was Meyer lemon season, and the curd was a part of a quartet with a buttery berry pound cake, fresh berries, gingererd blackberry-pear marmalade and clotted cream. When I went back two weeks ago, the curd starred in a trio with house-made scones and creme fraiche. I don't care whatever else it shares billing with – if Lucca's lemon curd is on the menu, order it. 6507 Quail Hill Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 725-1773; luccacafe.com
4. Izakaya Ku
“Fermented Soybean Two Ways” ain't the sexiest way to sell a dish. Perhaps you're better off knowing this dish of natto and house-made tofu was a daily special that you may not run into unless you're a frequent visitor at this Fountain Valley restaurant.
Though there are other Japanese restaurants that cater to the expat longing for the taste of home, few others go to the lengths that this dish represents. For those raised in the eastern and northern parts of Japan where slimy-stinky natto is a breakfast staple, you're in for a soy double-feature that's topped with grated mountain yam. The slippery-slimy two-shot is what gives this dish the onomatopoetic name “neba-neba.” You can't say it without gesturing with both hands together like Mr. Burns. “Eeeexcellent….” 18120 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-3484. izakaya-ku.com.
Playground's gotten a lot of um, play on this blog. For very good reason: their high-wire daredevil menu that changes daily according to what shows up on the loading dock is an insane way to run a restaurant kitchen. And to make it crazier, each day's menu has a full dozen or more entrees, rather than a meager four or five that'd be easier to execute.
Among that assortment are mostly terrific dishes, the inevitable clunker, and on a nightly basis, one dish so fleetingly miraculous like the Wagyu ribeye lomo saltado that you'll be glad you Instagrammed it for all the world to witness. You may never see that thing on the menu ever again, but that's the deal here: unicorns and snowflakes served nightly, just not the same ones twice. 220 East Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 560-4444. playgrounddtsa.com
2. Viking Truck
What's not to love about a luxe-lonchera that slings sausages and chili? Tubesteaks sourced from Orange's own Mattern Sausages like the smoked bratwurst, topped with dark ale chili, cheddar, sour cream, spicy “Viking” ketchup all laid into a custom caraway-crusted bun as big as a Norse funeral boat.
How is this dish a sleeper when the entire menu is a Viking onslaught of meat? Ok, you're right: allow me this one restaurant with a tightly-focused menu consisting of one thing. I love this kind of menu, and so will you. thevikingtruck.com / Twitter: @TheVikingTruck
1. Ramen Jinya
As miraculous as turning water into wine, or lead into gold, turning chicken into pork is a alchemic trick that you can taste at this Costa Mesa branch of a Tokyo-based restaurant group. Bringing yet another fabulous tonkotsu ramen restaurant to a town that's already overloaded with great ramen might be foolhardy, but Jinya's version stands proudly among the best.
What's completely unique is a pork-free chicken ramen made in the same style as the pork-bone broth: as murky-white and protein-thickened as their tonkotsu soup. If you thought there's no way to replicate the fatty richness of pork soup with chicken, you'd be as mistaken and pleasantly surprised as I was with your first sip. 1450 Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 424-0377; jinya-ramenbar.com