It’s been a great year for Orange County foodies.
We have Lobster Fries, Spaghetti Pizza and Churro Loops; Top Chefs in the kitchen and new openings at such a rapid pace it’s hard to keep up. There’s been a lot of delicious dishes to try, and while I couldn’t get to them all, I did manage to enjoy my fair share of awesome plates.
Here’s the 20 best things I ate and drank this year!
20. Dilis at Irenia in Downtown Santa Ana
No starter was more addictive this year than these pop-able, crunchy anchovies from Chef Ryan Garlitos’ kitchen. Think Lay’s Salt & Vinegar chips … with a dash of fried fish. With Filipino food hitting the mainstream in 2016, it doesn’t take a fearless palate—just an adventurous one—to benefit from the aggressive, funky flavors of one of Asia’s most culinarily-underrepresented countries. If you haven’t been to Irenia yet, go tonight.
19. Sunday Brunch Buffet at TAPS in Irvine
The finest buffets in Vegas have nothing on TAPS all-you-can-eat bonanza, which boasts raw and cooked seafood, a charcuterie station, BBQ, hand-carved meats, breakfast staples and a full menu of specialty breakfast entrees included in the price of admission. We went for my birthday; the start of a new annual tradition.
18. Mustache Ice Tea at Milk Box at Union Market Mission Viejo & Tustin (Coming Soon)
The fine folks at Milk Box treat tea-making like true art it is. No powdered stuff, just high-quality leaf teas of various origins, served from a food-hall stall boasting a framed picture of Notorious B.I.G. My kinda place. And the Mustache Ice Tea is my kinda drink, made with their perfectly-brewed, never-bitter black tea and an inch-thick cap of dense almond cream.
Sip without a straw and you’ll be rocking the namesake mustache, Movember or not.
17. Loaded Pork Fries at Leadbelly’s BBQ
Leadbelly’s Loaded Pork Fries are no understatement—teeming with pulled pork, pork belly AND bacon, globs of gooey cheese and a mountain of forever-crunchy fries that comes together as a gluttonous dish far greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a scene in the Simpsons where Homer tells Lisa there’s no possible way the same “wonderful, magical” animal could give us bacon, ham and pork chops. Here’s the kind of dish that nearly proves the point.
16. Chilaquiles Arrachera at Anepalco
Chef Daniel Godinez is one of the best Mexican chefs IN. THE. COUNTRY. Forget the “French-Mexican” label that’s shackled him for far too long here in O.C.; he’s been fine-dining Mex far longer than the movement has been popular, and he’s been stretching those boundaries even further with his dinner menus at Anepalco in Orange and El Mercado in Santa Ana.
Newbies and veterans alike should never skip the Chilaquiles Arrachera. A complex salsa roja sets the stage for softened chips, grilled skirt steak, gushing egg yolk and epazote DUST. An other-worldy take on the simplest of Earthly delights.
15. Tha Mystery of Chessboxin’ by Chef Linh Nguyen
Chef Linh Nguyen (The Crosby, The North Left, Foodbeast) cut a Wu-Tang Clan pop-up with Chefs Aron Habinger and Ashley Guzman for Mesa’s Chefs Table in August that was pure triumph. There were turnt up Tokyo turnips, the aptly named “Ooh Baby I Like It Raw” hamachi plate, and “Tha Mystery of Chessboxin'”—a drop-dead-delicious Korean BBQ-style 6-min Scotch egg with bulgogi sauce, kimchi puree, shiso and furikake. “Tha mystery,” he said frenetically, “is how’d the egg get inside?!”
FALSE, Linh. The real mystery is, where has this been all my life?
14. Born to Hula Punch at The Blind Pig in Rancho Santa Margarita
The cocktail that started my obsession this year—a light, sweet take on the 50-50 bar if it had to layover in Kahului. It’s made with rye whiskey, amaro meletti, vanilla simple syrup, lemon, clarified milk and orange oils; packed with a punch but sweet enough to not matter. My drink of choice after dinner at Pizza e Vino across the plaza.
13. Pastrami Taco at Lola Gaspar
Props to OC Weekly Mexican-In-Chief Gustavo Arellano for the tip on this one. Introduced to us during a Walking Food Tour of Downtown Santa Ana by Gustavo when Alta Baja Market had its’ grand opening, the Pastrami Taco at Lola Gaspar is one of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten in Orange County. Fatty, peppery slivers of pastrami; a creamy slaw that I’d welcome on a Reuben; and, the finishing touch, chicharron from Carnitas Uruapan on 5th Street. Wednesdays only.
12. Anaheim Craft Beer
I’ve spent a lot of time this year enjoying the beer coming out of this great brewing city. Standouts include my favorite everyday beer of the year, “Wolf Pup” at Golden Road Brewing for it’s mild hoppiness and total drinkability (head brewer Victor Novak above); the nitro “Calf Life,” a full-bodied, complex milk stout at Bottle Logic Brewing; and “Poop Goes The Weasel,” an unbelievably delicious brew made by Evan Price of Noble Ale Works using civet coffee. There were only six gallons made for a special beer dinner at Grits Fullerton and I would have drank them all if they would have let me.
11. Jerk Chicken Fries at The Beach Barrel
Jerk Chicken isn’t something you come across often in Orange County, but Jared Jones at The Beach Barrel is using a jerk sauce imported from Jamaica to make spicy, shredded chicken thighs for an incredible sandwich AND these bad boys—the Jerk Chicken Fries. Just fries, cheese, chicken and cilantro, but … and stay with me here … when you add a pool of their housemade ranch, the spiced meat and cool, creamy sauce come together to create a flavor you won’t find anywhere else in O.C.
10. Cheese Steak Fries at Mix Mix
Mix Mix, helmed by Chef Ross Pangilinan formerly of Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge, isn’t a Filipino restaurant like I’ve heard some say—they’re serving an eclectic mix (mix) of fresh, globally-inspired fare. At brunch, try the beautiful Tuna Poke Toast and the Soft Egg Raviolo, but do not skip the Cheese Steak Fries.
The portion is just right, and the preparation perfect. Crisp Belgian-style frites get covered with a gooey dollop of house Cheez Whiz and oxtail braised until it’s so soft it nearly disappears the moment it touches your tongue. American comfort food doesn’t get much better than this.
9. Ham & Cheese Crepe at Break of Dawn
BoD is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to brunchy delights. You can’t go wrong with the Pork Belly & Tempura Eggs, Sausage & Rice, side of bacon … I could write a Top 20 on BoD dishes alone. The one that had me this year was Chef Dee Nguyen’s Ham & Cheese Crepe, with house-cured ham, Swiss cheese, crawfish fried eggs, basil pistou and “etouffee” (in quotes because Dee says it’s not classic in preparation and you “have to respect the O.G.”).
The flavors hit you like Julia Child going upside your head in a French Quarter brawl.
8. Pita Chip Nachos at Zov’s
They’re really on the menu as “Pulled Chicken Nachos,” but I’d argue that the housemade pita chips deserve top billing, as they provide the foundation for pulled tahini chicken, 3 cheese sauce, pico de gallo, avocado, feta cheese and aleppo pepper. It’s a brilliant mashup from Golden Foodie Awards 2016 Chef of the Year Zov Karamardian, and it exemplifies the type of fusion and flavor she’s always been known for.
Share them with friends … if you must.
7. Banh Khot at Asian Garden Mall
Little Saigon’s Asian Garden Mall hosts a night market in the summer and I’m sad for all the years I missed out on this wonderful event. You can enjoy all manner of foods grilled and on a stick (pork, squid and lobster are standouts), plus you’ll find an array of potentially unfamiliar Vietnamese goodies to enjoy as well.
My favorite is the banh khot, little egg batter pancakes with 1 shrimp and some foliage cooked right in. You wrap it up in a leaf of lettuce, dip it in nuoc cham and pop it in your mouth. My first bite was nearly a religious experience. Not kidding.
6. Croque Madame at Rendez Vouz in Corona del Mar
Sitting on the patio at this mellow French cafe on the CdM stretch of Pacific Coast Highway feels like escaping to Paris for an hour. It’s run by a French family, too, and they’re making pastries, crepes and other specialities worthy of all of your adulation and all of your money.
The highlight is the Croque Madame—what I call the “Croque Gah’Damn”—because it’s better than any I had in France. What sets it apart is their béchamel, a thick layer of over-peppered spackle that’s a standout among the saucy egg yolk, salty ham, and buttery fresh bread.
5. Falafel Taco at Falasophy
It sounds simple … throw falafels in a taco and call it a day, but Falasophy’s Rashad Moumney philosophized at length about the mysterious ways of the taco AND the falafel before crafting this Med-Mex masterpiece. His falafels are already some of the crispiest-crunchiest, but, when wrapped in an El Metate flour tortilla and piled high with cilantro-garlic crema, pickled red cabbage, pineapple-pickled jalapeno and avocado, something inexplicably magical happens.
A taco OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano recently called “more authentic than Frida Khalo!”
4. Cheese Burrito at Naugles
It’s not a quesadilla … it’s a Godsend. When Christian Ziebarth & Co. resurrected Naugles after trademark Wrestlemania™ with Del Taco, they not only brought back a beloved brand, but a bunch of stuff you couldn’t get for nearly two decades. Joking aside, it’s REALLY not a quesadilla, it’s a whole lot of cheese mixed with Naugles original red or green sauce, wrapped up like a burrito and steamed ’til gooey. It’s flavorful and soul-satisfying. And for you crazy Instagrammers, know that the #CheesePulls run strong with this one.
3. Burritos La Palma Food Truck/Burritos La Palma Tortillas & Breakfast Tacos at Alta Baja Market
Burritos La Palma is so good they beat like 100 others (more?) to take the crown at this year’s Tacolandia in Los Angeles. They’re the Top Dish in Orange County per OC Weekly. Their spicy birria and tomato salsa are always consistent, and the burritos (actually tacos, experts say) have a balanced ratio between filling and tortilla size. They also happen to make the best flour tortilla you can find locally, possibly on Earth.
Get the tortillas in the fridge at 4th Street Market’s Alta Baja Market in Downtown Santa Ana.
Delilah Snell’s curated mercado celebrates the American Southwest and Mexico with all kinds of exclusive goodies (shout out to the green bottle of Poblano Hot Sauce). BLP tortillas are smaller than the rest, made with only a handful of ingredients and perfectly pliant in seconds off the comal.
You can also stop by for weekend brunch with craft micheladas and breakfast tacos made with those tortillas, Gonestraw farms eggs and Electric City Butcher chorizo (Praise Hands Emoji).
2. YNK at the Irvine Marriott
Ellis Adams Group brought mixologist/mad scientist Ravin Buzzell to Orange County from Florida and we’re all the better for it. With support from the Group, he’s the driving force behind YNK, or “You’ll Never Know,” a bar hidden behind the hotel lobby restaurant at the Irvine Marriott. It’s a tiny spot with a killer lounge vibe (as much of the reason as the drinks that YNK ranks No. 2 on my list).
The menu and decor change seasonally based on locales. New Orleans, South America and Asia have been explored so far. Here, Buzzell, our tour guide, is turning out some of the best globally-inspired drinks poured anywhere in O.C. right now. Ask for the Applewood Smoked Cardamom Old Fashioned, Same Same or Ramos Gin Fizz. Those are my favorites, but really, not a single one will disappoint, and I’ve had a lot of them.
Props to Rich Manning of Gayot for introducing me.
Abalone Panna Cotta at Anchor Hitch
& Thai Balls by Chef Cody Storts
I kept going back and forth between these two dishes before realizing a tie was the answer. Both sent my taste buds on an unexpected journey, one by land and one by sea.
The Abalone Panna Cotta is one of Chef Michael Pham’s signature dishes at seafood hotspot Anchor Hitch in Mission Viejo. The dish features Hokkaido scallop, abalone, geoduck, Santa Barbara uni, ikura and puffed rice plated on a thin, creamy layer of abalone-infused panna cotta. It’s meant to be eaten in four sublime bites. It tastes overwhelmingly of the ocean, transporting the diner directly to the coast without ever leaving the Kaleidoscope Shopping Center.
Thai Balls by Chef Cody Storts is similarly tongue-twisting, pairing fried pork cutlet with pancake balls, powdered sugar … raw shallot, jalapeno, cilantro and fish sauce-maple syrup. The complexity of flavors and textures—and how shockingly delicious it all is together—is a testament to kind of insane ideas Storts dreams up and executes on a constant basis. It shouldn’t work, but of course it does.
Named one of the Top Dishes in 2016 by Nancy Luna of the Orange County Register; Find it at Grits Fullerton and Tempo Urban Kitchen.