Welcome to our annual Top 5 countdown, where our SAFII writers tell you what impressed them over the past year! Here, we have food critic Edwin Goei's Top 5 Restaurants—enjoy, and dig in!
5. Wok N Tandoor
The Indian street food called chaat isn't quite a meal or a snack, but at Wok N Tandoor, it can be as intricate as fancy French hors d'oeuvres or resemble what an Asian fusion food truck might have concocted. And though you could still order a chicken tikka masala, which is as good or better than what's in most Indian joints, when you're in a restaurant that offers a galaxy of chaat not seen anywhere else in OC, why settle for the tried and true? 1948 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 782-7770; wokntandoor.com.
Short of being adopted, you won't feel more doted upon by someone's Korean mom than at Mountain. About five minutes after the server flicks on the gas on your tabletop stove to simmer the seafood hot pot you ordered, she comes back with scissors to snip the crab into smaller pieces and the squid into rings. When she notices you're done with the hot pot, she returns to make fried rice for you tableside with what remains of the broth. It must be noted that each table at Mountain is equipped with a paging system that issues a pinging sound to summon a server, but you'll hardly need it. Mountain's women are your surrogate aunties who want nothing more than to see you well-fed and happy. 7446 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, (714) 228-9793.
In bringing Santa Maria barbecue to OC, former Weekling Alicia Whitney imported two essential things from the region: cords of the native California red oak that fuels the specially designed grills and the 'cue masters who know how to use them. The formula has allowed SeaSalt to produce the exact kind of barbecue that the Central Coast is famous for. Everything licked by the leaping flames of SeaSalt's open fire pits is wondrous. The sweet oak smoke permeates the pork chops, the multitude of steaks, even the veggies such as the grilled cauliflower. SeaSalt also offers an encyclopedia of gourmet finishing salts for free, but you'll hardly need it. Trust the SeaSalt's barbecue experts and the wood fires they stoke to turn meat into magic. 21214 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 804-5545; www.seasaltwoodfiregrill.com.
2. Mai's Kitchen
Mai's Kitchen is, to my knowledge, the only restaurant in Orange County that specializes in Vietnamese family-style home cooking. These are meals that consist of a soup, a protein and a vegetable dish, all of which is served with a communal pot of rice, just as a typical Vietnamese mother would cook for her household any night of the week. So skip the entire menu of noodles and apps, and flip to the last page titled “Family Dinner.” This is where the good stuff is. As of this writing, is priced at $21.99 for a two-person meal, $41.99 for a four. For the two-person deal, you choose a soup, a protein and a vegetable dish from a list, of which not a single word is in English. 9039 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 101, Westminster, (714) 898-9889.
1. El Mercado
When you eat at El Mercado you get not only the cuisine of Mexico as most Americans have never had it, but also a lesson in the country's diverse geography. I am not kidding about the geography lesson, by the way. Order the chicken mole and get an actual map of Mexico drawn on your plate, its coastline and borders traced in avocado purée, the land mass and terrain filled in with paint-thick smears of sauce and protein. Apart from the Instagram-ready presentation, the mole is one for the ages, smoky on top of earthy, a flavor distillation of all the chiles and spices that went into it. You'll use every grain from the plate of rice it came with to scrape up each drop of sauce, speck of cheese and leaf of cilantro. And this dish is just the beginning because this isn't just the best Mexican restaurant in downtown Santa Ana; This is the best restaurant in SanTana, period. 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; www.mercadomodern.com.