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Dining is back with a vengeance, and so is this annual guide.
While the last two years of this project looked noticeably different (2020’s pandemic edition, 2021’s all-taco list), this year’s guide (the eighth in this series) returns to its original numerical ranking. And now for the first time it also includes star ratings.
After a long pandemic pause, star ratings are back, but with one big change: After years of ruminating on this, I have eliminated half stars.
It’s my job to help readers find great places to eat. It’s also my job to manage expectations. Stars help me do that.
Star ratings continue to be based on multiple visits — except on the very rare occasion when a single visit allows me to eat everything on the menu. Ratings continue to reflect my overall reaction to food, service and ambience, all of which inform our decisions about where to eat.
Ratings are not permanent. They can change as restaurants evolve. By definition, most restaurants are average, meaning one star. But sometimes an average restaurant can have noteworthy qualities, like a standout dish or a view that trumps everything else. Two-star restaurants are very good places to eat, particularly if you live in the neighborhood or not too far away — but might not be worth driving 40 miles for. Three-star restaurants, meanwhile, do make you forget about that 40-mile drive. Their cooking and hospitality are always exceptional, often the best of their genre in the region, worthy of the trek. A four-star rating is somewhat akin to achieving enlightenment. Four-star restaurants are rare. These are destinations, the sort of experiences that people plan trips around. To be clear, these don’t have to be ultra-fancy. They do not require silk cushions and crystal stemware, but comfort and professionalism are taken into account. This is where every tiny detail comes into play. They transcend the everyday.
Unfortunately, after 10 years of searching, I still haven’t found a four-star restaurant in Orange County. I’ve gotten close, but I look at restaurants here the same way I look at restaurants in Los Angeles or San Francisco, New York, London, Tokyo, Paris… I’ve enjoyed four-star experiences over the years at the likes of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Addison in San Diego, Lung King Heen in Hong Kong, Pujol in Mexico City, Il Palagio in Florence… We have nothing like that here, but it doesn’t mean we never will, so I’m not going to grade on a curve.
The good news is, we have hundreds of great places to eat, including 37 on this list with three stars, a few of which could very well be on the verge of a fourth. And make no mistake: Restaurants with the Register’s two-star rating are very good places to eat, and OC has far more of those than I can squeeze onto this list. You won’t go hungry if I can help it.
What the stars mean0 = poor, unacceptable★ = average, may have some noteworthy qualities★★ = very good, above average, a neighborhood gem★★★ = outstanding, exceptional quality, a regional standout★★★★ = transcendent, world class in every detailRatings are based on multiple visits and reflect my overall reaction to food, service and ambience, taking into account a restaurant’s unique sense of place and point of view.
When you pull off the freeway and swerve down the hill toward San Juan Capistrano’s historic core, roll down your windows. You might not see Heritage Barbecue’s thousand-gallon smokers right away, but you’ll know when you’re getting close. The seduction of 14-hour smoked brisket is palpable. Up and down Camino Capistrano, wafting through the park, all the way to Los Rios Street, you’ll catch the occasional whiff and feel its pull.
Central Texas barbecue isn’t merely a genre of cooking, it’s a way of life. A person doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to smoke brisket and ribs like the ones at Heritage. It is something that must be lived and breathed, and rare is the band of hardcore believers who come together to create something as special as this. Daniel and Brenda Castillo haven’t just changed the way San Juan Capistrano smells, they have fundamentally changed barbecue for Orange County, maybe even California at large.
What this team does is not easy. They are fanatical. The talent in the kitchen runs deep. That includes not just chefs Nick Echaore and Eric Linares but also the pit crew who keep the California white oak embers glowing at a steady 200 degrees all night while the rest of us sleep. It would have been enough, beyond the smoked meats, if the kitchen had just stuck to the basics — potato salad, corn bread, cole slaw, baked beans — but no.
They obsessively create, tweak and tinker while also constantly collaborating with neighboring businesses and other artisans. For example, FKN Bread, a new bakery across the street, makes their cornbread while OC Baking Company in Orange bakes custom-designed loaves of potato bread, delivered every morning still warm. Every day brings something new, whether it’s smoked crawfish for Mardi Gras or glazed pork belly musubi to celebrate the smokehouse’s first anniversary. But I can’t imagine going here and not eating brisket.
Yes, they serve barbecue on aluminum trays, and you’ll eat beans out of paper boats with a plastic spoon. And no, they don’t take reservations. You’ll have to stand in line, sometimes for hours if you try to eat here on a weekend. But there’s no lack of hospitality. This is, all around, the best restaurant in Orange County right now.
Don’t fear the wait. It’s worth it. Once you’ve tasted the brisket and beef ribs here, it’s hard to even think about eating what passes for barbecue elsewhere again. Plus, they do offer limited curbside pickup, but only if you want your car to smell like brisket and beans for the rest of its life. Must order: Brisket. 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, heritagecraftbbq.com (no phone) ★★★
When chef Carlos Salgado closed his casually luxurious Mexican restaurant for indoor dining (which amounts to fewer than 20 seats) during the pandemic, he didn’t simply shut the doors and pivot to an online mercado. He used that time to remodel. He installed new floors. He bought new tables and chairs. He completely revamped the patio. When dining finally returned, the overall experience had been greatly elevated. Still, vestiges of the pandemic remain. Although the restaurant’s comfort and service are more refined than ever, the chef’s prix fixe tasting menus at dinner, and lunch service entirely, remain temporarily suspended. That said, do not look at Salgado’s newly adopted à la carte menu as some sort of consolation prize. The aguachile with scallops from Baja, pink guava and cilantro blossoms is absolutely extraordinary. And the blackened head-on prawns rubbed with morita chiles are deeply soulful. The pandemic has simply reinforced Salgado’s status as one of America’s most consequential chefs of Mexican cuisine. While the restaurant’s Tuesday-night-only tacos have yet to return, everything at dinner now includes house-made heirloom blue-corn tortillas. And the dry-aged, wood-grilled ribeye comes with charred spring onions slathered with huitlacoche-infused butter and a bouquet of freshly foraged herbs. Put all of that together with a small amount of your own labor and you’ve got the world’s most exquisite carne asada taco. Must order: Aguachile. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-538-8444, tacomaria.com ★★★
The instant you step into the foyer at Marché Moderne, you can feel it. There is a distinct, immediate and unmissable joie de vivre that radiates from every corner of Florent and Amelia Marneau’s glamorous French bistro. Maybe that’s just life in Crystal Cove. Or perhaps it’s excitement generated by the flurry of activity in the open kitchen, all those white coats and copper pots, the scallops and oysters glistening on ice atop the largest silver bowl you’ve ever seen and that old-timey charcuterie slicer whose antique wheel rarely stops spinning. Everywhere you look: wine bottles and sparkling stemware. That perfume of freshly baked bread mingled with the faint smoke from roasted bone marrow. And every once in a while, when you least expect it, the ripe funk of triple-cream cheese. From classic braised short ribs with pomme puree to poached cod topped with caviar in a bath of mussels and cream, this is as French as it gets. Must order: Dessert, any and every one of them. 7862 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 714-434-7900, marchemoderne.net ★★★
A meal at Hana re is more than food. It’s a conversation without words. Chef Atsushi Yokoyama isn’t much of a talker. Working alone behind the chef’s counter, he quietly, meticulously, shyly prepares an intricate 10-course omakase for no more than 10 or 12 diners at a time. Every slice of raw fish, every placement of a garnish is done with the precision of a jeweler. It’s a journey through the different textures, temperatures and tastes of Japanese cuisine, and while the menu always includes pristine sushi and sashimi — abalone, barnacles, cod milt, barracuda, etc. — this is not a sushi bar. The menu draws inspiration from ceremonial kaiseki, which marries centuries-old techniques with nature’s ever-evolving micro seasons. The window for steaming a slice of young lingcod with cherry blossoms, for example, is very short. And there’s really nothing quite like the smaller, first-of-the-season hairy crab from Hokkaido in April. The unassuming restaurant is hidden behind The Lab in Costa Mesa in a ramshackle building with corrugated siding and one small window. The restaurant’s sign is so small that you almost need a magnifying glass to read it. Once the door is cracked open, you will be enveloped with soft jazz and warm, deferential Japanese hospitality. Don’t miss: The sashimi course is always beautiful. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-545-2800, hanaresushi.com ★★★
The second I sit down, I always ask for a bikini sandwich (Iberico ham, manchego cheese, black truffle) and a frozen gin and tonic. That buys me some time to read the menu because there’s a lot to consider. Do I want a 2-pound, 50-day-dry-aged ribeye steak cooked over the wood-burning grill? Or do I focus instead on charcuterie and paella? Or maybe just a tableful of tapas: rustic toast slathered with tomato and garlic, lamb meatballs with lemon yogurt, insanely supple cannelloni stuffed with smoked chicken, paprika-crusted prawns served with drawn butter and grilled lime… Chef Amar Santana and restaurateur Ahmed Labbate have created a unique wonderland of Spanish cuisine that also happens to be the best steakhouse in Orange County. And you won’t find a better collection of Spanish wines this side of Barcelona than Labbate’s. Must order: Paella de carne or the signature ribeye. 695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 714-463-6060, vacarestaurant.com ★★★
Chef Tony Esnault and restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi’s Knife Pleat at South Coast Plaza is easily the most elegant restaurant in Orange County. Whether seated on the patio surrounded by sunshine and butterflies or indoors among the velvet settees, linen chairs and freshly cut flowers, there’s an ease to eating here that belies the restaurant’s lofty prices. Part of that ease comes from the graceful tone set by Sarmadi herself as she glides through the dining room with perfect posture, the epitome of grace and always smiling, quick with gentle banter but never intrusive. Esnault’s cooking is artfully restrained, grounded in the classicism of Escoffier yet light and modern. It’s a style of cooking that relies not on never-before-seen flavors or sleight-of-hand techniques but on sourcing the world’s best products and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Tell me of another restaurant where, when spring peas have just arrived, the bartender makes an utterly splendid cocktail with aged rum and pea puree. I’ll wait. Meanwhile, Saturday afternoons are an event all their own. That’s when pastry chef Germain Biotteau steps into the spotlight and, in lieu of lunch, the restaurant offers afternoon tea with finger sandwiches and a procession of exquisite desserts. Must order: Escargot to start and the Louis XV chocolate dessert to finish. South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., 3rd floor, Costa Mesa, 714-266-3388, knifepleat.com ★★★
Bello is two restaurants in one, working out of the same kitchen, sharing the same bar and staff. Both are excellent although entirely different from the other. The underlying premise throughout is “Italian food the way it’s served in Italy,” which is a gentle notice not to expect chicken parmigiana or fettuccine Alfredo. Chef/owner Sandro Nardone’s house-made pastas are delightfully minimalist. So, too, the wood-fired pizzas. And the branzino aqua pazza might be the best fish you’ll find locally in an Italian restaurant. Meanwhile, the Chef’s Table at Bello is an intimate six-seat counter overlooking the kitchen where chef Zach Scherer hosts an all-inclusive 12-course tasting menu. The Chef’s Table adheres to the company credo but pushes the limits of what Italian food can mean: a single, incredible oyster floating in freshly pressed celery juice, for example, or the plumpest mussels you’ve ever seen cradled in a blanket of oxidized wine and milk powder, or a refreshing semifreddo of kumquats and strawberries… And for the wine pairings with each course, Scherer pours and explains everything himself. Must order: Acqua pazza and a white negroni. 1200 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, 949-520-7191, bellobysandronardone.com ★★★
I’ve never met George Barker, the owner of Mayfield in San Juan Capistrano, but every time I step through the door of this airy, modern, multi-level restaurant I immediately sense the young restaurateur’s presence. And sure enough there he is, delivering a plate of roasted lamb with minted peas from the kitchen, arranging flowers in the adjoining retail boutique or discussing a bottle of natural wine at the bar, always on his feet, always in motion, touching nearly every aspect of the restaurant before I’m gone. The art of hospitality is alive and well, and in times like these, that’s not insignificant. Although Mayfield has cycled through multiple chefs since opening in 2020, the kitchen has never lost focus. The pomegranate and harissa glazed pork chop is always delicious, as is the sticky chili chicken and the charred cabbage resting in strained yogurt and smothered in XO sauce. All that, plus truly great cocktails. Must order: Cabbage, trust me. But OK, also the pork chop. 31761 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 949-218-5140, mayfieldoc.com ★★★
Chef Gabbi Patrick mines her Yucatàn roots to create a modern Mexican kitchen that revolves around wood, fire and ash. At the heart of this indoor/outdoor cafe is a wood-fired grill and smoker that produce unmatched 11-hour Yucatecan-style cochinita pibil, plus tacos stuffed with pork confit and burnt chile salsa and a whole fish rubbed with achiote. Run your finger down the menu and stop when you land on the word “salbute.” Order that. You’ll be treated to a unique puffy taco, sometimes topped with smoked turkey and habaneros, other times duck. There is nothing else in California, or even in the Yucatán, quite like Chaak. Must order: Beef tartare with charred garlic salsa and smoked black-pepper aioli, and a spicy tamarind mezcal cocktail. 215 El Camino Real, Tustin, 657-699-3019, chaakkitchen.com ★★★
You know how when you don’t see someone’s kids for a year, then you finally see them again and they’re all grown up? That’s how I feel about chef Gino Choi’s 10-seat, almost-impossible-to-get-into sushi bar, which has matured dramatically in very short order. As the name indicates, you eat strictly at the whim of the chef. Expect a parade of about 20 dishes, most no larger than a bite or two, some cooked, some raw: things like seared tuna belly draped with uni cream and garlic foam, five-day-dry-aged tuna nigiri served with housemade soy sauce, a silken custard of lobster topped with trout eggs, a scallop from Hokkaido topped with osetra caviar and more. Must order: Just focus on getting in. 304 N. Main St., Santa Ana, 657-231-6008, instagram.com/omakasebygino ★★★
First item of business at this luxurious gastropub: Summon the sommelier, Ali Coyle. You’ll want to order wine, and you’ll need her guidance because most of the labels on her list ring unfamiliar to even the most prolific wine drinkers. An albarino from Uruguay? A Kerner (cross between Schiava and Riesling) from Italy’s Alto Adige near the German border? Or a petit-verdot/syrah blend from a Chilean winemaker now working in Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley? She’ll know exactly what you should drink with bucatini and clams or glazed rabbit with morel mushrooms or a hearty slab of beef from chef David Shofner’s wood-fired grill. And don’t forget to spring for a loaf of Guinness brown bread straight from the oven. Must order: Chicken confit with chorizo and Brussels sprouts. 3441 Via Lido, Newport Beach, 949-409-9913, fableandspirit.com ★★★
I wouldn’t normally order chicken in a steakhouse but consider this: the whole bird, deep-fried in duck fat, wheeled out of the kitchen on a bed of nails to be carved at the table. Then again, you could also have a three-pound, mesquite-grilled ribeye carved at the table. Celebrity Chef Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak makes a very strong case for why not to be poor. Oh, and sunset views. Must order: Butter-soaked, mesquite-grilled bone-in New York strip. 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, 949-234-3900, bourbonsteak.com ★★★
The posh Spanish restaurant on the rooftop of the 12-story Radisson Blu hotel is the best restaurant to open in Anaheim in years. Chef Edgar Beas worked in the Basque region before coming here, and it shows. He serves delicious cod throats in salsa verde made with Basque chiles, garlic and chives. He roasts scallops in their shells and splashes them with broth made from Iberico ham. You won’t see the word “paella” on the menu, but look for the section labeled “arroz bomba.” Same thing. Get the one with lobster. Must order: Pan con tomate, skate wing, Iberico ham. 1601 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, 657-439-3289, radissonbluskyrestaurantbar.com ★★★
This modern American bistro is still the best place to eat in Laguna Beach, even when chef Amar Santana is out of town filming yet another TV show. This is also still the best place in OC to drink pinot noir, thanks to co-owner Ahmed Labbate’s obsession with this fickle grape, whose range of personalities can always find a match for this kitchen’s big, bold flavors. Anyone who has ever looked down on chicken livers has obviously never tasted Santana’s, which he sears like foie gras and serves over melted leeks and date puree. Must order: Crab salad on a fried green tomato. 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, 949-715-8234, broadwaybyamarsantana.com ★★★
Chef Tin Vuong’s Little Sister is beautiful. This soaring, sultry, tropical indoor/outdoor restaurant is a breathtaking romanticization of colonial-era Vietnam. (We might now have to redraw the southern border of OC’s Little Saigon to include the Irvine Spectrum.) The pan-Asian menu reads almost identical to the chef’s much smaller LSXO in Huntington Beach: crispy Vietnamese Imperial rolls, rice porridge with Chinese donuts, Thai-inspired green papaya salad studded with grilled shrimp and beef jerky. Must order: Nem lui (lemongrass meatball skewers). 896 Spectrum Center Dr., Irvine, 949-800-8798, dinelittlesister.com ★★★
Hockey legend Teemu Selanne’s contemporary steakhouse occupies a 1930s two-story house on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, and there are several very different places to dine on the premises. Anchoring the beautifully manicured front lawn is a large covered patio with a fireplace and ocean breezes, and for much of the past two years the lawn itself has doubled as a very romantic dining area. The bar gets loud and sometimes rowdy, especially when there is any kind of sporting event on TV. The quietest, most luxurious place to dine, if you can finagle it, is the second-floor loft. Wherever you sit dictates the vibe, but the food will be good no matter: prime steaks, farmers market vegetables and hard-to-get cult cabernets. Must order: Steak. 1464 S. Coast Highway., Laguna Beach, 949-715-9881, selannesteaktavern.com ★★★
Imagine if Jekyll and Hyde were both lovable. That’s this place. For breakfast and lunch, this address identifies as Nếp Café, a French-Vietnamese coffee shop and diner serving crab toast and beef tongue fried rice, plus egg coffees and strawberry matcha lattes. By mid-afternoon, Nếp has gone to sleep, and when the clock strikes 5 Gem Dining awakens. Gem is a pan-Asian bar and grill where chef Alan Nguyen serves beet-cured amberjack; Singaporean-inspired soft-shell chili crabs; a laksa-inspired risotto (more like a porridge, really) layered with crab, shrimp and scallops; and a 48-ounce tomahawk ribeye finished in brown butter. Must order: Laksa risotto and sticky toffee pudding. 10836 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, 714-516-8121, gemdining.com ★★★
Chef Susumu Ii’s Osaka-inspired sushi restaurant is supremely elegant, as well it should be because it’s also very expensive. The menu is omakase only, but there are several themes to choose from with additional à la carte sushi available if you’re not full after eight courses, some cooked, some raw. Tailored to Japanese palates, the flavors can be intense: firefly squid, gizzard shad, crispy dried fish similar to sardines. This is not a restaurant for beginners. Requests for California-style sushi rolls will be politely declined. You will feel as if you’re dining in Japan. Don’t miss: Seared tuna toro sushi. 100 W. Coast Highway, 2nd floor, Newport Beach, 949-287-6268, sushi-ii.com ★★★
This old-school, ultra-glam steakhouse revels in gluttony and excess. Dining here isn’t just a meal, it’s an occasion. It’s a statement. The steaks are massive, even the small ones. The martinis seem bigger than life. Wine prices are through the roof but you won’t lack for choices from cult cabernets to legendary Bordeaux. You might have to skip a mortgage payment to cover the check, but there’s no denying the quality of beef that’s being served or the skill that goes into cooking it. Must order: The “chef’s cut” ribeye. 633 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, 714-546-7405, mastrosrestaurants.com ★★★
Although the Perez brothers recently sold their Mexico City-style gastrobar, they still consult on the menus. The team they assembled is still in place, and nothing has changed, really. The lamb birria quesadillas are as good as ever. So, too, the chorizo negro tacos. On Tuesday nights, they still light up the grill on the patio and make some of the best tacos al carbon imaginable with carne asada and grilled chicken. And the hand-mixed micheladas and artisanal cocktails are still best in class. Must order: Birria queka and an expert piña colada. 211 W. 2nd St., Santa Ana, 714-972-1172, lolagaspar.com ★★★
After cooking on the line at this dimly lit, red-booth steakhouse for more than 15 years, chef Robert Gomez is now running the kitchen and he’s killing it. His new hamachi crudo with orange oil and finger limes is fantastic. The grilled prime steaks and lobster tails are as good as ever. The martinis are always cold, and the service top notch. Pro tip: If you don’t want steak, ask your server for the bar menu; that’s where you’ll find one of the best burgers in town, served with outstanding hand-cut fries. Must order: Bone-in ribeye, plus corn madeleines for dessert. 3334 W. Coast Highway Newport Beach, 949-650-6505, arestaurantnb.com ★★★
I don’t think enough people fully appreciate just how great this little open-air banh mi shop is. And it’s not just the Vietnamese sandwiches, which incidentally are the best in the county. But it’s also the artisanal porridge made with roasted Jidori chicken stock and charred bok choy, the star-anise-braised pork belly, the mesquite-smoked brisket French dip sandwiches, and the grapefruit salad with candied peanuts and fried shallots. Must order: Flip a coin between porridge or a banh mi, and a Vietnamese iced coffee. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-641-5010, east-borough.com ★★★
Peerless. That’s the only way to describe chef Chana Isaresrangsan’s incredible tom yum with whole freshwater prawns (ask for it spicy). Eating Thai lemongrass soup anywhere else after this will be a massive disappointment. The same can be said for his green papaya salad. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of chopping papaya by hand, then pounding it in a mortar rather than just grating it and tossing it in a bowl the way most restaurants do. The difference is dramatic. The kitchen here does lots of things the hard way instead of taking shortcuts. This place sets the standard for so many Thai classics: kor moo yang, larb, nam tok, tamarind catfish, pad Thai, fermented pork sausage… Must order: Tom yum with freshwater prawns. 10130 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, 657-233-5859, thaiavenuegardengrove.com ★★★
Good news, bad news: The expansive tented patio, a helpful byproduct of the pandemic, is still in use and has more than tripled the capacity of this previously tiny osteria, making it much easier to get in. Sadly, though, that massively expanded space ruins the charm. On the flip side, chef Erik De Marchi’s Emilia-Romagna-inspired Italian cooking is as excellent as ever. Must order: Rigatoni cacio e pepe. 853 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, 949-715-0261, oliversosteria.com ★★★
Regulars might have noticed in 2019 that chef David Pratt had begun shifting his menu away from Italian food to explore instead a broader global offering of wood-fired cuisine. The pandemic disrupted that plan, and the kitchen reversed course, embracing pizza and pasta once again, which isn’t bad news for anyone who loves farm-to-table Italian cooking. Bonus: The wine list is so affordably priced, you would be stupid to not nab a full bottle. Must order: Orecchiette with housemade sausage. 216 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-429-1199, brickpizzeria.com ★★★
It’s not just Sol’s upscale Mexican menu that draws inspiration from Los Cabos, it’s the atmosphere, too. No other restaurant in OC embodies that luxury resort lifestyle better than this newest location of Sol in Irvine. And while the kitchen here is still very new (opened in April), it is already very good: spicy peel-and-eat shrimp, wood-grilled octopus and wagyu skirt steak, short rib barbacoa and massive slices of tres leches cake. Must order: Margaritas. 1910 Main St., Irvine, 949-975-1220, solcocina.com ★★★
The Ranch’s top two chefs departed last year, and many months later the upscale Western-themed chophouse still hasn’t anointed a new top toque. That said, little has changed. The menu still reads exactly the same: massive bone-in ribeyes, fried quail and roasted prime rib. The bar pours more than 60 wines by the glass. Must order: 40-ounce, 28-day dry-aged bone-in Delmonico steak. 1025 E. Ball Road, Anaheim, 714-817-4200, theranch.com ★★★
You won’t find a better fish anywhere than the wild Dover sole that’s very simply pan-roasted at this breezy, indoor/outdoor seafood house across the street from South Coast Plaza. Filleted tableside, the presentation of the sole is starkly minimal but the pure enjoyment that comes from such a regal fish is hard to quantify. The chilled seafood towers — shrimp, lobster, crab, scallops, clams — always turn heads. And while this is easily the best seafood restaurant in OC, do not underestimate the steaks. Must order: Clams with chorizo, any whole fish. 3300 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 949-208-7060, watergrill.com ★★★
The experimental gastropub Playground closed during the pandemic, and chef/owner Jason Quinn said at the time that it wasn’t coming back. The subtext of that declaration is now clear: The gastropub did go away but in its place has risen Detention, a far more glamorous, more comfortable and exponentially more mature restaurant with mostly the same crew in the kitchen (sans Quinn himself, day-to-day) and a new luxury cocktail lounge upfront. It feels like the adults are in charge now, and the cooking is better than ever: “Same trailer, different park,” my server explains. Must order: Dry-aged sea bass, Hokkaido milk bread. 220 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, 714-560-4444, detentiondtsa.com ★★★
Nancy Silverton’s pizzas will always be the standard by which all other pizzerias in Southern California are measured. But it’s the rest of the menu — the wood-fired meatballs and bone marrow, the caprese salad, the ribeye, the butterscotch budino, plus incredible Italian wines — that keeps pushing this artisanal pizza parlor to the top of the pack. Must order: Fennel sausage pizza. 800 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-945-1126, newportbeach.pizzeriamozza.com ★★★
Chef Danielle Kuhn’s open-air cafe feels like the sort of restaurant you might stumble upon while driving the backroads of wine country in France or Italy. Her casual, European-inspired cooking brings to mind the seemingly effortless style of Ina Garten or Martha Stewart, which always looks easier than it really is. At breakfast, you’ll fall in love with toasts. At lunch, you’ll have a new appreciation for salad and beet-cured salmon. Must order: Cavatelli with housemade sausage or chicken salad with peas. 34320 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, 949-218-8431, maisondanapoint.com ★★★
At this serene sushi parlor in downtown Laguna, chef Jordan Nakasone focuses exclusively on omakase. The chef’s in charge, and you’re in good hands. Dinner usually involves about 19 different pieces of seafood and wagyu beef in a menu that borrows ideas from kaiseki, a formal Japanese meal that showcases a range of techniques, presentations and seasonalities. Don’t miss: In spring or early summer, be on the lookout for kohada. 361 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, 949-664-3186, instagram.com/rebelomakase ★★★
Cuban jazz reverberates around the block (yes, it’s that loud) as the daiquiris and mojitos flow nonstop. Although Isla sometimes feels like a nightclub, it is first and foremost the best Cuban restaurant in Southern California. The retrospective menu gathers all the classics: tostones (smashed, fried plantains), ropa vieja (braised beef), lechon asado (slow-roasted pork), media noche (grilled ham sandwich). Must order: Bistec encebollado (grilled flap steak with onions). 30 Centerpointe Drive, La Palma, 714-735-8597, instagram.com/islacubanlatinkitchen ★★★
Korean barbecue in California isn’t typically associated with luxury, but Kyung Bok Kung isn’t typical. This elegant restaurant with dozens of private rooms is the first U.S. outpost of a fine-dining restaurant group from Seoul, and it is hands-down the best (and swankiest) Korean restaurant in Orange County. The service is superb, the beef is top-notch and the salads surprisingly pretty. You’ll want to dress up, and don’t worry: You won’t leave smelling like smoke. Tabletop grills are fueled by buckets of smokeless charcoal. Must order: The Signature Grill Course, a 12-course extravaganza capped with Wagyu. 7801 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, 714-888-4948, kyungbokkungusa.com ★★★
Chef Imran Ali Mookhi’s desi-inspired menu embraces traditions and flavors not just of India but of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. The kitchen is strictly halal, and you’ll want to focus on the charcoal-grilled meats, including beef. A heap of garlicky sirloin arrives in a cloud of smoke. Kandahari-style lamb chops are blackened with soot and scented sharply with mustard oil. Must order: Afghani-style lamb kabob. 229 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, 714-853-1081, khansaaboc.com ★★★
Chef Taiki Kuramoto operates an intimate, omakase-focused sushi bar where the 16-course dinner includes surprises like a freshly shucked oyster topped with smelt roe and quail yolk, or smoked skipjack served with a gooey chia-seed pudding and fried river crab. Don’t miss: The chef will decide what you eat, but be on the lookout for the nodoguro, or blackthroat sea perch, lightly torched and rubbed with a nub of yuzu-kosho. 18906 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, 714-941-5440, instagram.com/momoyamafv ★★★
For the past couple years, everybody’s been making a fuss about Pho 79 in Little Saigon (which earned a James Beard Award), and that’s great. But what most don’t realize is that this modern offshoot from the same family uses the same Vietnamese recipes, and the line to get in is usually much shorter, especially now that they have expanded into the adjoining space. The noodle soup is deservingly legendary. Must order: Oxtail pho, but there’s a trick to ordering: Ask for a bowl of pho without meat, plus a side of oxtail. 8031 Edinger Ave., Westminster, 714-375-3330, instagram.com/eatpho101 ★★★
With more than 200 different items, many listed only in Chinese, the menu at this vintage Beijing-inspired restaurant can be overwhelming. But don’t stress. Let owner Lili Shen take control. She’ll size you up, then tell you what to eat. If she recommends the beef-and-scallion pancake, country-style chicken and walnut shrimp, trust her. “And how about the mustard greens?” you ask. “Oh, that’s a good one. You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” she’ll say. Must order: Pan-fried dumplings. 8566 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, 714-893-3020 ★★
Dim lighting, comfy banquettes, extra-cold martinis, seafood towers, roasted bone marrow, huge steaks… Old Brea Chop House follows a timeless formula and handily delivers the best steakhouse experience in north county. Must order: Tomato and onion salad, chef’s cut Delmonico steak. 180 S. Brea Blvd., Brea, 714-592-3122, oldbreachophouse.com ★★
Chinese dining in California doesn’t get any more luxurious than this. The mood is hushed and romantic. Tables are draped with crisp white linens and set with fine china, designer wine glasses and candles. Every chair is perfectly aligned. You’ll probably want to dress for the occasion because you’re about to spend a fortune for Peking duck and gourd chicken carved tableside, plus braised lamb belly and ghost-pepper fried rice. Must order: Peking duck. 13051 Newport Ave., Tustin, 949-771-9666, changantustin.com ★★
The focal point of chef Nick Saba’s indoor/outdoor restaurant is the wood-fired oven and Santa Maria-style grill. Vaguely Neapolitan, the pizzas coming from that oven are superb, even the one topped with pineapple (don’t argue, just try it). Meanwhile, the grill is outfitted with a rotisserie, which turns out fantastic smoked-scented chickens and the occasional porchetta. Must order: Wood-roasted Chilean sea bass. 4884 Main St., Yorba Linda, 714-463-4424, terrawoodfiredkitchen.com ★★
Chef Jeoffrey Offer has created the quintessential laid-back French bistro with an emphasis on high-quality steaks, gooey onion soup and salade frisée au lardons, plus affordable French wines, great background music and zero pretense. The chef knows his way around a butcher shop. His father was a butcher in France. Must order: Dry-aged ribeye. 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-714-0662, butchershouse.com ★★
Tucked into a shoebox-sized space at The Camp, Folks has quickly become one of the best pizzerias in OC. The menu is extremely limited, or perhaps “focused” is the better word. Chef Joey Booterbaugh makes a naturally leavened dough that is thin in the center and big, puffy and crackly around the edges. The housemade fennel sausage is excellent. As is the chef’s Calabrian chile relish. Must order: Fennel sausage. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-617-4888, folkshospitality.com ★★
Restaurateur Daniel Godinez is one of the area’s best chefs of Mexican cuisine, and while most of his restaurants are very good, his runaway hit is this counter-service taqueria inside Tustin’s Mess Hall Market. The choices for tacos and burritos are mind-boggling: barbacoa, birria, ancho-rubbed wagyu steak, chicken tinga, chorizo, cochinita pibil, pork al pastor, beef stewed with ancho chiles, all served on handmade, oddly shaped, irresistible flour tortillas. Must order: Pork en salsa roja. 1705 Flight Way, Tustin, 714-941-5418, fondamoderna.com ★★
Even now that South Coast Plaza has introduced a second Chinese restaurant with a menu very similar to that of Din Tai Fung, the line for a table here can still be interminable. And for good reason. Though many have tried, nobody has ever succeeded at making better, more delicate xiao long bao, aka Shanghai-style soup dumplings. Must order: Xiao long bao, obviously, but the potstickers are also unrivaled. South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-549-3388, dintaifungusa.com ★★
If you like fish and want to discover something new, sit at the bar and order omakase. You’ll taste ishidai, kinmedaii, hobo, umeiro, tachiuo, akamutsu, tobiuo, mejina, higesori or even baby squid. Shunka offers the most varied, thrilling and always-changing selection in Orange County. Must order: Japanese butterfish, or medai, topped with garlicky red chili sauce. 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, 949-631-9854, shunkasushi.com ★★
Vine is more or less the same wine country-inspired concept as Olea in Costa Mesa, Sapphire in Laguna Beach and Ironwood in Laguna Niguel, all by the same team led by chef Jared Cook and restaurateur Russ Bendel. But this is where it all began, and this kitchen still feels like the best of the bunch. The pumpkin ravioli are always excellent, as is the chicken schnitzel and the crispy duck wings. Must order: Pan-roasted halibut with herb butter and fingerling potatoes. 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-361-2079, vinesanclemente.com ★★
Given the choice between a nice steak or a slice of meatloaf, hmm, that’s normally an easy decision. But not at chef Blake Mellgren’s casual California bistro. His grilled meatloaf is as good as a steak. So, too, the fried chicken, which if you’re lucky will come with fried green tomatoes. Must order: If you see peaches on the menu, jackpot. Also, french fries. 34094 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, 949-481-7734, eatatcrafthouse.com ★★
Chef Viet Nguyen’s intimate 14-seat temaki bar and cocktail lounge is based on a simple but revelatory premise: Good temaki (sushi hand rolls) must always be eaten within 30 seconds of when the chef hands it across the counter — while the rice is still warm, the fish still cold and the toasted nori wrapper still crisp. Try it. You’ll never look at a hand roll the same way again. Must order: Uni. 7862 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, 714-948-4287, rolhandroll.com ★★
If you want to see where the magic happens, walk around to the back of the parking lot behind the restaurant. That’s where you’ll find the mesquite grill, a dozen logs ablaze, a mound of coals bright red, smoke billowing up from the grates as beef ribs and arrachera and ribeye steaks sizzle and char. This taqueria makes incredible tacos al carbon. Must order: costilla de res. 821 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, 657-201-3043,instagram.com/tacosloscholos_(additional location in Fullerton) ★★
The velvet banquettes, the custom wallpaper, the teak wood carvings and hand-stenciled cement floors, plus truly beautiful china and serving wares: Hanuman in Costa Mesa is easily the prettiest Thai restaurant in OC. The food is delicious, even when it sometimes leans too heavily into fusion. The kitchen excels at noodles like pad Thai, pad kee mao, khao soi and Thai boat noodles. Must order: Thai-style fried chicken. 355 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 657-699-3123, hanumanthaieatery.com ★★
Formerly known as Playground 2.0, Trust is the free-standing 18-seat “culinary theater” adjacent to Detention in downtown Santa Ana. Guests buy tickets well in advance to sit at the counter overlooking the kitchen where chef Justin Werner hosts a 12-course prix-fixe dinner party, preparing dishes such as gouda with roasted beets and poached rhubarb, minimally steamed crab topped with caviar or housemade pasta with first-of-the-season ramps sauteed simply in butter, all excellent. But guests must also endure hours of the chef’s vulgar Andrew Dice Clay-style comedy act, which includes a barrage of f-bombs and lewd, suggestive comments. (I wanted to include a direct quote, but my editor wouldn’t allow it.) Cooking is hard. Comedy is even harder. Don’t miss: Chef Jesus Mejia (who rarely says a word) bakes incredibly fluffy brioche and staggeringly good kouign-amann, served straight from the oven. 300 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, trustdtsa.com (no phone) ★★
No matter the time or day, there’s always a wait for a table at this 35-seat ramen cafe, even with the “temporary” patio that’s still starting to feel permanent. It’s worth the wait. The tonkotsu ramen here is heavenly, infused with so much pork knuckle collagen that the soup is almost white, like cream. And the chashu (slow-roasted pork belly) melts on the tongue like marshmallows. Must order: Tonkotsu ramen. 2222 Michelson Drive, Irvine, 949-536-5800, hironoricraftramen.com (additional locations not rated) ★★
Years after closing the original location, chef Massimo Navarretta has resurrected Onotria inside his commercial catering kitchen, carving out a nook for 20 seats surrounded by shelves stocked with Italian wines. The menu is very limited, inspired by the farmhouse cooking of Campania: rigatoni with wild boar ragu, vegetable lasagna, agnolotti with ricotta and truffles, a very simple octopus salad… Must order: Let the chef take charge and create a surprise five-course tasting menu. 2915 Red Hill Ave., Costa Mesa, 949-735-6761, onotria.com ★★
French, Italian, Korean, Filipino… Chef Ross Pangilinan serves an eclectic menu of wildly contradictory tastes from around the world, proof that opposites can attract. Although located inside South Coast Plaza, the dining room is an alfresco tropical oasis on the third-floor terrace of the mall’s Bridge of Gardens. Must order: Steamed mussels and pizza. 3333 Bear St., 3rd floor, 657-231-6447, terracebymixmix.com ★★
This wood-fired Argentine steakhouse used to be one of the smallest restaurants in the county, with room indoors for only about eight seats, plus another 20 on the covered porch. The restaurant has more than doubled in size thanks to extended outdoor dining. The basic premise here is simple: grass-fed, wood-grilled steak. Must order: Ribeye cap, with a side of grilled okra. 1915 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-793-4044, marowoodgrill.com ★★
What started as a taco pop-up inside an old Mexican candy store ultimately eclipsed that candy store and became the hottest birrieria in the county, now with several additional locations either open or on the way. Chef Edgar Navarrete Gomez’s beef birria is outstanding, whether served as a crispy (dorado) taco or simply ladled into a bowl with tortillas on the side. Must order: Tacos dorados. 1041 W. First St., Santa Ana, 657-245-3810, instagram.com/super_birria ★★
A vintage auto garage was turned into a small pizzeria, which later annexed the lot next door and morphed into a rambling outdoor club with a stage for live music. The original chef is gone, but he left behind an incredible recipe for Japanese-inspired Neapolitan pizza dough. The oven is fueled by wood, and the pizzas are superb. So, too, are the hand-mixed Micheladas. Must order: Spicy Salame pizza with ricotta, green olives and pickled hot peppers. 2145 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa, 949-873-5853, 2145eats.com ★★
When this 30-seat Thai cafe opened several years ago, the owner hung a banner above the entrance advertising “Thai Food, by Thai People.” Translation: Don’t say spicy here if you don’t mean it. That said, if you can handle it, the spicy tom kha gai (coconut chicken soup) is one of the best you’ll find. Also very good: spicy beef salad, crab fried rice, pad Thai, pad see ew, rad nah and nam salad. Must order: Red curry fish cakes. 9872 Westminster Ave. (backside of Mall of Fortune), Garden Grove, 714-858-1693, chadathaigg.com ★★
There’s barely room inside this charcoal-fueled kushiyaki (robata) bar for 26 customers and a handful of staff. And there’s always a dozen more people waiting outside, for good reason. Oak & Coal is a powerhouse of Japanese-style grilled meat on a stick: pork belly, kurobuta sausages, Mexican wild shrimp, bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes… They’re about to double in size. They’ve taken over the space next door, which will serve as the new bar, meaning the bartender and chef will no longer have to share the same 3-foot countertop. Must order: Chicken meatball skewers with soft poached egg. 333 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, 949-287-6150, oakandcoalcm.com ★★
Before you sit down at this Argentinian grill, go look at the kitchen. Take a deep breath and appreciate the heady aroma of meat sizzling and smoldering over the fire. Look at those football-size hunks of picanha, those ribeyes as big as tennis rackets, those whole chickens strung together like Christmas garland, those racks of beef ribs the size of carry-on suitcases. That’s why you’re here. Must order: Asada al asador, the 6-hour smoked beef ribs to share. 5980 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, 714-707-3829, gauchogrill.com ★★
Much of the menu at Ciao will ring familiar: beef carpaccio, fried calamari, meatballs in tomato sauce, baked lasagna, pappardelle bolognese. But there’s a lightness to chef Pasquale Manta’s Puglia-inspired cooking that sets this place apart. The thin-crust diavola pizza is excellent. Must order: Capellini with cherry tomatoes or, if artichokes are in season, the lemony tagliolini with artichokes and parmesan. 31661 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 949-496-5002, ciaopasta.net ★★
Chef Jimmy Martinez sneaks a vanilla bean into his short ribs. He makes an incredible taco with the flavors of a classic cheeseburger. He riffs on teriyaki when he marinates skirt steak in pineapple and soy sauce. He cooks cauliflower as if it were chorizo. He makes a chile relleno with duck confit. Even his craziest ideas are usually delicious. And now he’s making doughnuts inspired by classic pan dulce. What started years ago as a tiny taco stand in Anaheim has culminated with a brand new flagship in Newport Beach, which also features a raw bar and creative ceviches. Must order: Vanilla-bean short rib tacos. 5000 Birch St., Newport Beach, 949-336-4982, pvtandt.com (additional location in Anaheim) ★★
The Chettinad cuisine of South India cannot be tamed. It is hot and spicy and wildly exciting. Start with the Nattukkoli rasam, a country-style chicken soup, but don’t leave your spoon submerged for long because it might dissolve. It’s that spicy. An easier way to begin would be the chicken 65, terrific nuggets of yogurt-marinated fried chicken. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between all the curries, and I think sometimes the cooks don’t even know, but every one I’ve tried has been delicious. Must order: Crab roast. 13882 Newport Ave., Tustin, 714-486-2116, anjapparoc.com ★★
Although chef Brittany Valles has left the building, this beautiful new restaurant that she helped launch at the swanky new Boardwalk building on Jamboree has become the hottest power lunch in Irvine’s Business Complex, a neighborhood long known as the epicenter of the OC power lunch. Mussels Rockefeller is a light, refreshing riff on a previously heavy classic. Deviled eggs come in jars, more like a parfait. The wine-braised wagyu short rib arrives under a smoke-filled cloche. And the bar makes an excellent daiquiri. Must order: Coffee-spiced ricotta doughnuts. 18555 Jamboree Road, Irvine, 949-241-7088, solsticeoc.com ★★
Don’t bother washing your hair before heading to this no-frills hole-in-the-wall Japanese barbecue joint. You’ll need a bath afterward. It’s dark, busy, cramped and incredibly smoky inside. It feels almost illegal. But the service is snappy, and they stock very high-quality meats, from salted beef tongue to fatty pork cheek. No reservations. Expect to wait at least 30 to 45 minutes for a table, even on weeknights. Must order: Cube-cut Kobe wagyu, plus a scoop of ice cream drizzled with coconut milk. 18798 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, 714-593-8393, tsuruhashirestaurant.com ★★
After more than a decade as head chef at Antonello in Costa Mesa, chef Luigi “Gino” Buonanoce now performs a one-man show in the tiny kitchen of Mazara Trattoria, a charming 40-seat cafe tucked into a run-down strip mall in Huntington Beach. The fried calamari is exactly what you’ve been craving. The beef carpaccio is shaved as thin as tracing paper while the off-menu grilled pork chop is nearly three inches thick. Must order: Rigatoni alla vodka with prosciutto. 18027 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, 714-465-4874, huntingtonbeachitalianfood.com ★★
The best restaurant in Rancho Santa Margarita is one part serious steakhouse, one part neighborhood sports bar. The bar is always packed on game days, and it’s always date night in the dining room. The steaks are USDA Prime, and the wine list runs deep. Must order: Bone-in ribeye topped with red wine butter. 22195 El Paseo, Rancho Santa Margarita 949-709-2300, hannasprimesteak.com ★★
Chef Fernando Franco makes some of the most fascinating tacos in the area, including vegetarian tacos layered with sauteed hibiscus flowers, charred jicama, fresh pea puree and sliced avocado. It’s hard to imagine better pancakes than the ones served here at Sunday brunch, drizzled with burnt piloncillo syrup. Also great: shrimp aguachile and chicken enchiladas in salsa verde. Must order: Tacos and mezcal. 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, 714-338-2446, mercadomodern.com ★★
Mario Llamas’ high-end butcher shop doubles as a deli, serving terrific sandwiches made with meats that come straight from the butcher’s case: USDA Prime steak, smoked pork ribs, freshly ground hamburger patties and house-cured charcuterie. Must order: The house-smoked pastrami is a game-changer. 1000 Bristol St. N., Newport Beach, 949-316-4318, mariosbutchershopdeli.com ★★
The comparisons with Din Tai Fung are inevitable. After all, South Coast Plaza lured this upscale dim sum restaurant from Singapore, one can assume, to alleviate pressure off Din Tai Fung (at the other end of the mall) where wait times had become unbearable. Paradise Dynasty, too, is famous for their Shanghai-style xiao long bao, which come in a rainbow of colors and flavors. They are very good (and wait times, shorter), but what’s even better is the vast array of noodles and wontons. Must order: Singapore style stir-fry noodle with shredded pork. 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-617-4630, paradisegp.com/usa ★★
Off the Hook is meant to be a tavern-style offshoot of the adjoining Original Fish Company, and they bill themselves as separate restaurants. But let’s be honest: They’re basically just one big restaurant with two very similar menus focused on delicious seafood that tastes like it all comes from the same kitchen. From the tavern: a very good lobster roll. From the original: mesquite-grilled lobster tail. From both, a substantial burger and the exact same clam chowder. Identical service and clientele throughout. Must order: Oysters. 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, 562-330-1310 (tavern), 562-594-4553 (original), originalfishcompany.com ★★
This 13-year-old gastropub in Old Towne has hit its stride. If it’s Sunday brunch, summon a bloody Mary. It’ll be one of the best you drink this year. To eat, choose between chef Craig Brady’s chorizo hash with eggs or duck confit chilaquiles. If it’s a lazy evening at the end of a hot day, chill down with a frozen rosé. You’ll feel better immediately. Must order: Beer-braised beef cheeks with mustard cavatelli. 190 S. Glassell St., Orange, 714-221-0680, havencraftkitchen.com ★★
When eating at Ngu Binh in Little Saigon, the question isn’t what to order but simply, “Large or small?” Although the menu is extensive — banh beo (rice cakes), banh bot loc (tapioca dumplings), pomelo salad, all very good — there is only one reason this restaurant stays constantly packed: bun bo Hue, the hearty Vietnamese noodle soup made with a red chili broth and amplified with cubes of jelly made from beef blood, plus meatballs, braised beef and pork knuckles. Must order: Don’t play dumb. 14092 Magnolia St., Westminster, 714-903-6000 ★★
Salvatore Faso opened Piccolino 15 years ago in a smaller, less glamorous spot nearby but moved into this freestanding building in the same lot in 2016. Aside from that, plus a brand new patio added during the pandemic, not much has changed over the years. The same waiters from day one. The same lobster agnolotti in a creamy cognac sauce. The same beguiling pappardelle with lamb ragu, raisins and ricotta. The same “secret” off-menu veal chop. The same customers sitting at the bar sipping martinis. Must order: Riccio al nero (squid ink pasta) with shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari. 28719 Los Alisos Blvd., Mission Viejo, 949-380-7261, piccolinomv.com ★★
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