Compiling a list of 75 favorite restaurants always sounds easy until the number-crunching begins. Suddenly 75 feels short. Good restaurants get trimmed. Not all cuisines are covered. But when I set out to write this story, it was never my aim to create a culinary Noah’s Ark.
When explaining this story, it probably helps to clarify what it is not. This is not an ordered ranking of the county’s most celebrated chefs, sorted according to their restaurant’s star status. That’s a different story completely that I might write someday. Rather, this is a collection of the restaurants where I most frequently find myself wanting to eat. Sometimes what I really want to eat is a two-fisted, greasy, egg-soaked cheese- burger. Other days, I crave tacos. But I also like to get dressed up and dine like a grown-up, with caviar, Champagne and wafer-thin mints. This list covers all of that and more.
Some of these places are classics. Some are brand new. A few will require you to be on your best behavior. Others require you to eat with your hands, and you might need a show- er afterward.
For now, I’m listing only the Top 10 here. For the full list, head over to the OC Register, where the web team has created a more interactive page. I hope you find this list helpful. I hope it gives you a few ideas about where to eat next.
1. Taco Maria
Don’t let the ironic name fool you. Taco Maria is not a taqueria. Rather, this is a serious fine dining restaurant, but with a decidedly casual vibe. The best way to experience the full-sensory ride of Taco Maria is to sit at the counter, order the tasting menu and watch the kitchen crew in action up-close. 3313 Hyland Avenue, Costa Mesa, 714-538-8444
With a kitchen entirely fueled by wood, chef Noah Blom looks to the past to show us the future. He employs the fiery hearth and a big spoonful of duck fat to transform potatoes into a luxury good. He transforms a few mushrooms and a free-range egg into a smoke-scented epiphany. The steaks, the tacos, the burger… it all might sound familiar, but rest assured, nobody else is cooking food like this. 3321 Hyland Avenue, Costa Mesa, 949-500-5561, arcrestaurant.com
3. Shunka Sushi
I never judge a sushi restaurant by its rolls, which are mostly a California invention. I’m more of a purist. I live for the fish. I’m always looking for the places that go beyond tuna, salmon and snapper. The best I’ve found in Orange County is Shunka Sushi, where the chalkboard menu routinely announces things like ishi dai, kin mei, ho-bo, umeiro, tachinuwo, akamutsu, tobiuo, mejina, higesori… fish that rarely make it to sushi bars in America — all of it flown in daily (except on Sundays) from Japan. They also serve fresh, live octopus; most sushi bars serve only cooked octopus. And watch for the tachinuwo, which is a long ribbon fish that looks like an eel but has the face and tail of a fish, which is served with the skin on, lightly torched but still raw underneath. 369 E. 17th Street, Costa Mesa, 949-631-9854
4. Marche Moderne
Chefs Florent and Amelia Marneau blend the joie de vivre of Paris with the casual, laid-back lifestyle of Orange County. The service is both charming and professional, and the globally influenced French cuisine is always meticulously crafted. The overall experience of dining here always feels special, whether you’re taking a break from shopping to enjoy a slice of ham and a perfect baguette or whether you’ve made this your destination for an anniversary celebration with the world’s finest caviar, foie gras and Champagne. South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St, 3rd floor, Costa Mesa. 714-434-7900
This isn’t your typical pizza joint. Yes, the pizza is outstanding, made the old-fashioned way in a wood-fired oven. Nobody makes a better Margherita pie than chef David Pratt. The Italian wines are great, too. But to get a better sense of what Brick is all about, order the chitarra spaghetti carbonara. The pasta is rolled into sheets and cut into fine, square-edged strands, which is then tossed with slow-cooked pork that’s been braised in its own fat until it falls apart to the touch. Oh, and that pork? Yesterday it was a whole pig. 216 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-429-1199, brickpizzeria.com
Expect to wait in line at this large dining hall. Most people, including you, are here to eat the nem nuong cuon, which are a type of spring roll made with grilled pork sausage and crispy wonton strips wrapped in rice paper. The sausage is slightly sweet and mildly garlicky, but if you want more of a kick, there’s a jar of unpeeled garlic cloves and tongue-melting bird’s eye chilies on the table. They sell other types of spring rolls, but when I’ve tried to order those, the waiter looks and me and says, emphatically, “You don’t want that one. You want nem nuong cuon.” He taps the picture that’s on the front cover of the menu. “This one,” he says, pointing to the one I always get. 9892 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, 714-530-1744, brodard.net
7. Little Sparrow
Little Sparrow is more chameleon than bird. It’s a youthful American cafe with an old European soul. It didn’t take long for Little Sparrow to become the best restaurant in a neighborhood already known for great dining and drinking, thanks to chef Eric Samaniego, who stuffs agnolotti with duck confit agnolotti and matches beef short rib with kimchi. And it would be stupid to dine here and not have dessert. 300 N. Main Street, Santa Ana, 714-265-7640
8. Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan
In a predominantly Asian shopping center filled with restaurants, you’ll notice from a distance that Chong Qing Mei Wei stands out from its neighbors. Most tenants are no-frills at best, but then there’s this place decorated with chandeliers and white tablecloths, and everyone inside is dressed just a little fancier. Szechuan cuisine is famously spicy, and many dishes here — the cumin lamb, the stir-fried squid, the cold spicy chicken, the beef dry pot — contain far more chilies than anything else. All of it is excellent. But if you can’t handle spice, steer toward the garlicky braised eggplant or the cold pork belly. 5406 Walnut Avenue, Irvine, 949-651-8886
A virtual time-machine to another era somewhere high in the French Alps, Basilic keeps it classic yet continues to feel fresh even when serving something as simple as a slice of raclette cheese. The rack of lamb is always superb, as is the apple tarte Tatin. 217 Marine Avenue, Balboa Island, 949-673-0570
10. Pizzeria Mozza
Celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton reset the bar for Italian cuisine in Orange County when they launched this spinoff of their L.A. original. The pizzas are superb, but if you’ve never eaten here, you should know that the crust is unlike any other, borrowing its crunchy character and pungent flavor from the sourdough that Silverton made famous at La Brea Bakery. The caprese salad is extraordinary, made with roasted tomatoes on the vine. The Italian wine list is filled with spectacular amarone, sagrantino and aglianico. 800 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-945-1126
Check out the full list of 75 Favorites at the OC Register. Meanwhile, here’s a handy map of the restaurants on this list: