I raise a glass to you, dear reader, with best wishes for a happy holiday. For this writer, the year's favorite restaurants share a common denominator: all (ok, except one) very affordable places that you ought to visit often.
5. Flippin' Pizza
I'll say it: a great New York pizza by-the-slice joint is finally in Orange County. Yeah, there have been acceptably ok versions in the past, but nothing that truly has that crisp bottom crust that snaps crisply when you fold it in half.
Flippin' makes a big deal about not using sugar or oil in their dough. Great NY style pizza is a wet, slack dough that allows it to stretch thin without using oil to cheat the effect. The yeast ferments the flour slowly instead of rushing to a sugar-fueled finish line in a couple of hours.
Most important, that dough is baked directly on the hot brick surface of the oven so it bakes hot and dark and crisp. It takes a seriously good pizza for this native New Yorker to declare Flippin' would rank top-ten in Manhattan. I'll challenge anyone who knows the real deal to say otherwise about the Mission Viejo outpost of this San Diego-based chain (are you listening, JBinOC?) Props to our own Niyaz Pirani for spotting it this August.
Flippin' Pizza. 27695 Santa Margarita Pkwy, Mission Viejo, 949-455-1200. flippipizza.com
4. Tasty Noodle House
A ton of Taiwanese restaurants have opened in Irvine this year, and among the best is Tasty Noodle House. It happens to be my neighborhood takeout joint, so I'm there often. Even if I had to make a drive, their xiao long bao, or juicy soup dumplings, are worth the trip and the wait in line to get inside.
A line of people waiting to get in is an unreliable indicator of food quality (aka the Cheesecake Factory Fallacy), but in this case, mixing in with the Taiwanese cognoscenti waiting for the stinkiest of stinky tofu will pay off in spades.
Tasty Noodle House. 15333 Culver Dr. Ste 320 Irvine. 949-654-3770.
3. Cafe Matinee
Hidden among other local food luminaries like El Toro Gourmet Meats and Nina's Indian Groceries is a Lebanese restaurant that I've only discovered this year. I'm only years behind Gustavo and others who've found the single best falafel served up this side of Mamoun's in Greenwich Village.
Owners Gus and Suzane grind chickpeas and favas into a coarse-textured, chunky mass that fries up into crunchy, toothy patties. Suzane claims that authentic Lebanese-style recipes use no parsley in the recipe because when fried, it causes gassiness. Theirs? You can down a large platter of their fritters by yourself if you were so inclined and manage not to feel bloated afterward. Maybe there's something to the fried parsley thing after all.
Cafe Matinee. 23532 El Toro Rd, Suite 15. Lake Forest. 949 588 7511. lebanesecafe.net
2. Dublin 4.
So every now and then, I'll play big spender and head to Dublin 4. It's named after the postal code for the Beverly Hills of Dublin, so you should know it's not inexpensive. You'll know where your money's gone with the Prime Gastro Burger, the fish and chips, and the shepherds pie.
Owners Darren and Jean Coyle curate an excellent beer and wine selection, but you'd expect that since they also own Wineworks for Everyone right next door. The two businesses share a common kitchen, but have separate menus. It's an impressive feat of multitasking if the food were mediocre, but what comes out of that shared kitchen is nothing less than phenomenal.
Dublin 4. 426342 Oso Pkwy. Mission Viejo. 949-582-0026
1. Little Sparrow Cafe
What's not to love about killer craft cocktails combined with Euro favorites like house made charcuterie, beef tartare, and solidly American fare like biscuits and cream gravy?
I'm admittedly a late to discover downtown Santa Ana's upscale diner / cocktail bar, Little Sparrow. But that's just as well, since this place has only been picking up momentum since their May 2013 opening, and my first experience left me convinced it's not just the best new restaurant of the year, but one of the best, period.
Seriously great house-cured gravlax? Braised short rib Benedict with an onsen egg poached in the shell? Aww, yeah. Night owls will love that Little Sparrow won the Weekly's Best Cocktail Lounge of 2013 award, but early birds will appreciate that the kitchen staff serves a brunch that equals the bartenders' strong offerings.
Little Sparrow Cafe. 300 N Main St, Santa Ana 714-265-7640. littlesparrowcafe.com