People's palettes might have evolved this past decade to the point at which a slab of duck bacon on top of a farm-raised ostrich patty is considered divine. But when it comes to the kind of burger we crave, give us the no-frills, charbroiled taste of a TK Burger any day. It's basically the ideal homemade burger served at the perfect afternoon cookout, right down to the cheap paper plates they're served on. Some may chalk it up to nostalgia for a homegrown chain that has been around for about 25 years—and maybe that's true. Whether you believe OC has gotten better or worse with each passing decade, there's no arguing this burger sells you a slice of classic, West Coast Americana with every bite.
Readers’ Choice: Hopdoddy Burger Bar
It's All About The Cake
Though these award-winning bakers specialize in custom cakes of intricate beauty, the shelf cupcakes available at any time are impressive to look at before devouring. The majestic truffle-dipped offering stands tall, with a volcano of mousse atop a chocolate or vanilla cake. That the airy mousse is covered by a truffle shell, for which we recommend a spoon to break through for a sweetly intense bite. There are buttercream classics aplenty—no spoon needed—to augment the intricate “Hello” line of minis, all of which have an open mouth containing various fillings—Boston cream pie, for one—making them look like decadent and edible Pac-Mans.
Readers’ Choice: Sprinkles Cupcakes
Beach Harbor Pizza
Tangy-spicy sauce, handmade sourdough crust so good you could eat it plain, with mozzarella from Wisconsin that stretches with your slice as you pull it away from the pie. Perfect for purists. Beach Harbor Pizza's named pizzas include the Salt Creek, boasting clams in honor of the location, and the Chupacabras, which thrills with chorizo, onions, jalapeños and pepperoni. Eat on the patio for people-watching or inside for flat-screen viewing. Or get your order to-go: Mention the takeout-only coupon (which is substantial—and you don't even have to print it or show it on your smartphone), then chow down on a bench or near Baby Beach.
Readers’ Choice: Massimo’s Pizza
BEST FISH TACO
What could possibly be so good about the fish tacos at Señor Baja that people would fight their way toward Corona on the 91 freeway to eat them? Start with the batter—darker and crispier than anyone else's, but somehow still light and non-bready. The fish, which is seasoned well, is then tucked into tortillas with just the right amount of cabbage and crema. It needs more kick, though, so douse it with the spicy chile de árbol sauce and some lime juice, and try to imagine being on the malecón in Ensenada.
Readers’ Choice: Bear Flag Fish Co.
C'est Si Bon Bakery
This is the place with handwritten signs keeping you posted on when the next fresh batch of baguettes will come out of the oven. But better eat a sandwich before you leave or you'll nosh your entire baguette in the car and arrive home with a long, empty bag. Then you'll be craving a second loaf, buttered this time, preferably by a Parisian man in his loft who's just pushed a mask and snorkel off his face and onto his head because he's done chopping onions. Oh, wait. That's Diva, the wondrous 1981 French thriller that is as good as the baguettes C'est Si Bon has been making since 1979.
Readers’ Choice: Boudin Bakery
Burritos La Palma
This Zacatecas-style food truck won the Best Traditional Taco award at this year's Tacolandia festival in LA, even though what it served was technically a burrito. But its signature dish is a burrito Orange County has never seen outside of a wedding held at the Laborers Local 652 hall in SanTana. It's small, for starters, so you have to eat at least three before you get full. And it's stuffed with birria de res, shredded beef in a consome that miraculously doesn't make the tortilla soggy. And the tortilla: handmade by Alberto Bañuelos from a family recipe, it's the best flour tortilla in Southern California. All together, it's a transformational burrito that will make you see the cylindrical god in the same way Thomas looked at Jesus after getting proved wrong.
Readers’ Choice: Chronic Tacos
Stefano's Golden Baked Hams
The biggest surprise in Yorba Linda—and now Laguna Hills—is the huge punch of flavor in the panini at Stefano's Golden Baked Hams. While ham is certainly the focus, with a good Cubano and a great, simple ham and Swiss, there are two dozen to choose from, including a panini take on an East Coast-style sub (grinder, hero, hoagie, whatever). Don't miss the tri-tip panini; it's a full meal by itself!
Readers’ Choice: Philly’s Best
BEST ICE CREAM
Paletería La Flor De Michocán
Cool off from global warming with handmade paletas from Paletería la Flor de Michoacán. La Flor's Mexi-style popsicles are all-natural and cover nearly every edible fruit of Latin America Pachamama created. The guayaba one is like biting into a fresh aromatic guava, but if you're looking for something on the milky side, try one of the paletas de crema, such as the paleta de arroz—rice gone 100.
Readers’ Choice: Creamistry
BEST FRENCH FRIES
Kentro Greek Kitchen
What makes these hot, crispy French fries so special is the butter made from kefalotiri, a salty-sharp Greek hard cheese. The sheep's- or goat's-milk cheese is blended with butter, salt, pepper and garlic, then tossed with a heap of fried potatoes and finished with a sprinkling of oregano. Addictive is an understatement when it comes to these—you've been warned.
Readers’ Choice: Five Guys Burgers and Fries
BEST HOT DOG/BRATS
An all-beef Vienna frank topped with all the fixings on a freshly steamed poppy-seed bun—add a dash of celery salt and snap into the perfect bite, with a mouthful of every topping. That's Portillo's Chicago dog in all its glory. Now can the Cubs finally win their World Series already?
Readers’ Choice: Wursthaus
If you haven't tried the taco acorozado (which means “battleship” in habla) at Alebrije's—a thick, handmade corn tortilla covered in rice, milanesa, cactus, avocado, cotija cheese and lettuce that we've plugged in Best Of almost yearly for a decade—then we thereby ban you to a Rick Bayless restaurant FOR LIFE.
Readers’ Choice: Taco Asylum
BEST JUICE/SMOOTHIE SHOP
Growl Juice Pub
Although Growl Juice Pub doesn't make your drink in front of you, the juice from this pressed juicery is pretty bomb—especially if you're into drinking out of glass, as opposed to plastic. You can buy freshly made almond milk, smoothies and juice in a growler, too. Even though this place looks as if it would work well on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, the friendly staff, glass bottles and wonderful juice makes the trendiness worth it.
Readers’ Choice: Juice it Up!
Robert Earl's BBQ
Depending on which flavor he's looking to achieve, Robert Earl will use hickory or pecan wood to pit-smoke his meats low and slow. And, for $20, Earl's two-meat combo is the way to go, with two medium sides (mac and greens all the way) and white bread. We're talking ribs here, so make sure to get his signature pork ribs and rib tips, and don't eat for a week before and after.
Readers’ Choice: Tulsa Rib Co.
Here, the beef is never overdone; the brisket is tender, with that thin layer of buttery fat present on every slice. The noodles are always cooked to perfection, the broth is intoxicating, and the kitchen never skimps on meat. But more than all that, you come to Pho 79 for the xí quách uôi bò (side order of oxtail). When it arrives, it's swimming in a combination of fragrant broth and liquefied marrow, the hunk of tail so delicate and meltingly tender that a nudge of a chopstick is enough to separate meat and bone. Add in a bowl of soup with noodles, and it's a complete beefy indulgence. Just make sure to arrive early because the oxtail is limited and the parking is always a headache.
Readers’ Choice: Pho 79
Hand-crafted-daily artisanal pies are now a reality at the Orange Circle thanks to the people at Pie Hole; this is mother-and-son team Becky Grasley and Matthew Heffner's only outpost outside LA County. On top of a stable roster that includes the famous maple custard, Earl Grey tea, Mexican chocolate, and mac and cheese, the shop also offers a handful of seasonal pies, such as this fall's Mom's Apple Crumble and Moe's Pumpkin Pie. Whether you're in the mood for something sweet or savory, the crust that accompanies each slice is rich and buttery. There are even special options for those of you who cringe at the mere thought of gluten.
Readers’ Choice: Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
Founded in 1988 in Japan by Hitoshi Hatanaka, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is one of Orange County's OG ramen shops, located inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace of Costa Mesa. At Santouka, the tokusen toroniku ramen is king: seven pieces of superbly tender roasted pork cheek paired with a powerfully rich tonkotsu broth that you can flavor with salt, soy sauce, miso or spicy miso—or not at all. Throw in a soy-marinated egg or perhaps a bowl of rice with natto and green onion if you're feeling adventurous. But whichever you choose, don't lose that ramen ticket. If you do, you'll be sad and caca out luck; Santouka takes its ticket system Soup Nazi-seriously.
Readers’ Choice: Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen
H2O Poke & Grill
Three things distinguish the best poke bowl shops from the mediocre: price, turnover and toppings. H2O Poke & Grill excels on all three. With one low set price for a standard bowl (with three scoops of fish), it doesn't nickel and dime you for the essentials. The constant queue of people ensures the fish is constantly cycled out and always fresh. And while more flash-in-the-pan poke shops offer crumbled Hot Cheetos, they're nothing more than gimmicks. Instead, H2O's array of free toppings, such as Mandarin oranges and mango, actually, you know, complements the seafood.
Readers’ Choice: North Shore Poke
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This Mexican panadería makes awesome pan dulces, tortas and breakfast burritos. But its secret weapon is bagels—and we're not just talking about the obvious jalapeño one. Whether everything, onion, plain or poppy seed, Spigas' bagels are the bread at its zenith: dense without being dry, springy without being soft, and so absorbent you can top it with broth and it won't get soggy. Order a bunch to go, or get a chorizo-and-egg bagel sandwich that'll have you saying, “¡Oy, güey!”
Readers’ Choice: Shirley’s Bagels
BEST UNTRADITIONAL BURGER
Once upon a time, three stupid reporters tried to eat the hottest burger ever made. It was called the Fifty Alarm Burger, and it featured some sadistic combination of ghost chile pepper-infused bacon, jalapeño and habanero chiles, and pepper jack chese. The only way to survive the experience, apparently, was to order a couple of tall glasses of milk, but two of the stupid reporters ordered beer and paid dearly for their mistake. That burger, let's be frank, was terrible. Not so Slater's Flamin' Hot burger. This carne asade fire beef patty is served on a brioche bun and is decked out with nothing worse than pepper jack cheese, roasted green chiles, jalapeños, and a chipotle adobo mayo. It's hot but delectable, and for all those lactose-intolerant alcoholics, rest assured: It goes down great with a double IPA.
Readers’ Choice: Slater’s 50/50
Flappy Jack's Pancake House Restaurant If it seems Flappy Jack's has stood next to the 55 freeway for decades, you're kinda right. The building used to host a Spire's or Carrows or Spoons or some type of crappy chain that's now long gone that you always ignored on your mad dash to the 91. Flappy Jack's is also a chain, but it's just the second location for a Glendora restaurant that has long attracted eaters not only for its Route 66 spot, but also for some of the fluffiest pancakes in Southern California. The tradition continues in Orange: 14 pancake offerings, from savory to sweet to even gluten-free, all amazing.
Readers’ Choice: The Original Pancake House
Hiro Noguchi is a true artist whose chosen medium happens to be raw fish such as translucent Japanese icefish and golden-eye snapper with shocks of brilliant, strawberry-pink skin. Every dinner plate he crafts is a canvas splashed with the colors and textures of the sea. When you are served his masterpiece—a sashimi platter teeming with flowers and leaves that he takes several minutes sculpting, decorating and tweezing, as though it were ikebana—you can't help taking a few pictures, even if the snapshots never seem to do it justice.
Readers’ Choice: Matsu Japanese Restaurant
Henry's Bar & Grill
As with everything else at Henry's, the wings go above and beyond the low bar set by regular pub food. One bite into a savory, sizable wing will trigger your primal instincts until you're gnawing your food as though you were an extra from Night of the Living Dead. Sure, they don't come in multiple flavors like at popular chains; there's just one finger-lickin'-good Buffalo-sauce flavor, which tingles your lips with its subtle spiciness. Not too spicy for those with a low tolerance for hotness, just a slight burning sensation that will leave you gasping for a little air—but it burns so good.
Readers’ Choice: Buffalo Wild Wings
BEST ACAI BOWLS
Bowl of Heaven
In the era of açai bowls, it's surprisingly hard to find blends that aren't too icy or bowls with enough toppings. Bowl of Heaven's versions are the complete opposite: thick, creamy and filled with all kinds of fixings. The bottom of each handcrafted bowl is lined with hemp-seed granola, and then packed with a smooth blend of exotic super fruits. On top of the blend sits even more granola and slices of various types of fruits, all doused in honey. How can something so sweet and addicting be so healthy?
Readers’ Choice: Juice It Up!
BEST FROZEN YOGURT
Menchie's Frozen Yogurt
Yes, the name “Menchie's” isn't that appealing, but what it lacks in name, it makes up for in flavors and toppings. Zesty lemon meringue will make you pucker up; spiced gingerbread cookie tastes like Christmas. But the smooth fro-yo isn't even the best part. The topping bar outshines its competitors with fruits from apples to lychee and an impressive selection of candies, cookies and mini cakes. With $5 Fridays, happy hours and almost twice as many flavors than Yogurtland, Menchie's really delivers—and with a name completely unrelated to yogurt, it has to.
Readers’ Choice: Yogurtland
The Waffle Affair
Instead of serving up plain, buttermilk waffles soaked in syrup and covered in too much butter, the Waffle Affair offers 21 made-to-order creations. With sweet and savory types (each complete with a warm, crispy outside and an even hotter, gooey inside), this spot is great for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whether you choose Madagascar vanilla bean, maple-bacon glazed or prosciutto di Parma and Gruyère cheese waffles, butter and syrup are hardly necessary—but, of course, always welcome.
Readers’ Choice: Bruxie
BEST BREAKFAST BURRITO
Nick's Laguna Beach
At $12, this isn't the cheapest breakfast burrito around, but besides the fact that Nick's isn't exactly a greasy spoon, it'll probably take two meals to consume. As with any great breakfast burritto, El Jefe has all the basics—scrambled eggs, jack cheese and hash browns—but the combination of fresh avocado, cilantro, pico de gallo and house salsa gives it just the right amount of spice. The key to this masterpiece is the smoked bacon, which is so good you might want to ask for it on the side. El Jefe will turn you into an instant burrito snob.
Readers’ Choice: Sancho’s Tacos
Broadway by Amar Santana
While Vaca is rightfully getting all the meat love right now for Amar Santana, his best meat is still at Broadway, with his grilled, marinated prime skirt steak. Everything must be done to the liking of the head chef, lest the dish be sent back for touch-ups. When ready, the skirt steak arrives topped with roasted fingerling potatoes. Caramelized onion jus and chimichurri pool around the steak waiting to be dipped into. From there on, every tender bite will have you vowing to never watch Top Chef again.
Readers’ Choice: Mastro’s Steakhouse
BEST SECRET DISH
You could frequent this Baja-style restaurant for a hundred Mexi brunches on the patio—with its view of nothing but bougainvillea, ocean and sky—and not know of the Cove Chicken's existence because it's only offered after 5 p.m. When Coyote Grill opened more than 25 years ago, the locals in laid-back South Laguna Beach happily switched loyalty from the locale's previous restaurant. But legend has it that as the tequila flowed, they'd sometimes whine about missing a special dish: the Southern fried chicken, which had been served at the Cove since 1968. So onto the menu went the deliciously homey fried chicken with mashed potatoes and grilled squash, offered along with fajitas, in-season local lobster and fish tacos. Tequila-lovers appreciate Coyote Grill's selection of añejos, reposados and silvers, as all pair nicely with the chicken. Or so the legend goes.
Readers’ Choice: In-N-Out
Cynthia Rebolledo covers anything and everything food, culture and spirits.