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Best Places to Eat, Coast-Style

Who doesn't love a list, especially when it's restaurant critic Brad A. Johnson's 75 favorite restaurants in Orange County.

Who doesn’t love a list, especially when it’s restaurant critic Brad A. Johnson’s 75 favorite restaurants in Orange County.
        He created his list in numerical order, naturally, but we wondered how the best restaurants were clustered in destinations our readers frequent.
        Because isn’t that how we really decide where to dine?

***

Restaurant critic Brad A. Johnson’s culinary excursions to his favorite dining spots stretch from San Clemente to Brea, with Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Costa Mesa claiming the most restaurants on his top 75 list. Costa Mesa, in fact, is home to the top four, two at the burgeoning culinary center, SoCo.

        Lest you wonder why a worthy favorite is not on his list, here’s a note from Johnson:
“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, which I might do 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 cheeseburger. 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.”

        So dive in, dine out and let the arguments about the best restaurants in Orange County continue.

        :: For the full list and stories of all 75 restaurants in numerical order, complete with contact information, visit ocregister.com/go/eat.  


Laguna Beach


Three Seventy Common #12
Chef Ryan Adams has a way of turning the mundane into the extraordinary. A grilled cheese sandwich becomes an unlikely star, served one bite at a time. Poutine becomes not merely a heap of fries smothered in a glop of short rib chili but a strangely refined culinary masterpiece. Meatloaf encased in a crisp layer of bacon awakens as an individual work of art. And the fried chicken? It’s so insanely good, they can only offer it occasionally.


Driftwood Kitchen #25
The cocktails. The view. The wine. And, most important, the food. Driftwood Kitchen is the total package. It feels like the restaurant we’ve all been waiting for but never realized we were missing until someone finally opened it: a great, chef-driven, open-air dining room that dangles over the beach and doesn’t cost a fortune for the experience. Chef Rainer Schwarz makes it look easy, turning out baked-to-order Parker House rolls and beautiful charcuterie boards. The buttermilk-fried soft-shell crabs are as good as you’ll find on the West Coast. And the halibut is stunning, served atop a fricassee of summer corn and fava beans. Rising-star pastry chef Rene Baez seals the deal with sticky-toffee pudding and a tongue-in-cheek riff on carrot cake.


Watermarc #33
The windows are usually flung open to let in the ocean breeze. The air is fortified with animated conversation and laughter, punctuated with the chorus of cocktails being shaken, the pop of a wine cork, a Harley roaring past the front door. Waiters weave through the crowded dining room, up and down the wooden stairs with armfuls of crab cakes and oysters and blood-orange martinis. The menu is divided into two sections: small plates and the more traditional, substantially larger appetizers and entrees. 


MaroWood Grill #36
This Argentine steakhouse accommodates only about eight diners inside, plus another 20 squeezed onto an outside deck. The basic premise here is simple, uncomplicated, grass-fed, wood-grilled steak. The best of the bunch is the sirloin steak, a regulation baseball-size hunk of beef perfectly cooked over smoldering mesquite embers. The wood-fired grill also produces an incredible burger, a thick, half-pound patty of freshly ground beef loaded up with Nueske’s bacon and cheddar.


Studio #43
Every meal at the Montage’s signature cliffside restaurant begins with a delightful amuse-bouche, which might be a miniature “taco” filled with caviar and crème fraîche, for example, or a grape-size ball of goat cheese into which a small syringe of honey has been inserted. Waiters clad in tailored black suits weave between tables in what feels like a highly choreographed ballet. A choice of bottled water is complimentary. Bread comes with three types of butter. Every meal ends with an array of bite-size candies and pastries. Studio has the potential to be the best restaurant in Orange County. It is certainly one of the most expensive.


Broadway by Amar Santana #44
Broadway gracefully merges the soul of fine dining with the casual spirit of a gastropub. The kitchen is on display in the center of the restaurant, and some of the best seats in the house are the six stools at the chef’s counter, directly in front of the action where flames lick up from the grill, steam billows from pots, pans clank against the stove as chefs in black jackets maneuver among the fire and sharp knives. Chef Amar Santana likes big flavors, whether it’s the pungency of chorizo in a pot of steamed mussels or citrus miso dressing served over raw hamachi. On any given day there might be as many as 30 wines being poured by the glass. And if you like pinot noir, this is heaven.


Newport Beach

Basilic Restaurant #9
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.


Pizzeria Mozza #10
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.


Juliette #14
Three things to keep in mind about Juliette, a charming American bistro with an adjacent wine boutique. One: The burger rocks. Two: If it’s on the menu at dinner, you seriously must order the braised pork shank. Three: The wines are very modestly priced, making it essential to order a bottle. Beyond that, save plenty of room for dessert. Pastry chef Erica Choi’s star is rising. She usually serves something in a jar, and this is what you will want to zero in on. It might be a citrus coup, in which the jar is filled with blood orange sorbet, orange segments and whipped mascarpone, like a Creamsicle on steroids.  


The Cannery #17
Located on the water’s edge in Newport Harbor, The Cannery is a seafood restaurant where chef Nick Weber takes full advantage of a wood-burning grill. He slow-poaches abalone, sous-vide style, so that it becomes remarkably tender, then finishes it over oak charcoal before folding it into a velvety sea-urchin bisque along with light, creamy gnocchi and lumps of sweet potato. Octopus, too, benefits from the fire.
A tangle of tentacles in varying shapes and sizes delivers a powerful escabeche-style blast of sinus-clearing vinegar and tongue-numbing chili. The bouillabaisse, the crab cakes, the tuna tartare, grilled swordfish … all excellent.


Pirozzi #26
Authentic Neapolitan pizza emerges from a massive wood-fired oven at the heart of Pirozzi, the latest and best Italian restaurant yet from chef Alessandro Pirozzi, where a cozy, street-side patio overlooks PCH. Wild Caledonian prawns are as beautiful as they are delicious. The bistecca Fiorentina comes pretty close to what you might find in Florence.


A Restaurant #30
A Restaurant — I’m not being generic; that’s what it’s called — bills itself as the oldest continually operating restaurant in Orange County, and it’s gone through lots of changes since its inception in the 1920s. These days, it is more or less a steakhouse, with a really great square-cut New York strip, plus one heck of a burger, which comes with textbook-perfect french fries. People-watching in the bar here is priceless.


Andrea at Pelican Hill #32
Fittingly, amid the monumental Tuscan architecture of Pelican Hill, the resort’s signature restaurant is Italian. Andrea is gloriously old-fashioned and grand, with soaring indoor palms and oversized clamshell booths. The tables are covered with ultra-fine linens and heavy sterling silverware. Tables are spaced far apart, providing an unparalleled sense of privacy. All the pastas are made in-house in a special, temperature-controlled pasta room, and chef Marco Criscuolo’s bucatini carbonara is a revelation. Risotto is finished tableside inside a massive wheel of Parmesan cheese. Desserts are truly exquisite, worthy of a special-occasion splurge.


Bandera #48
It’s always a toss-up for me between sister restaurants Bandera and Houston’s. The two are practically identical. Both have the same super-attentive service. Both kitchens make terrific prime ribs, great destination burgers with hand-cut fries, and wood-fired rotisserie chickens. The kicker for me is Bandera’s skillet cornbread, which is maybe the best cornbread on the planet.


Sapori Ristorante #52
Ask for a table on the patio, near the fireplace, surrounded by manicured greenery. And if that doesn’t work out, the indoor dining room is just as charming. Either way, you’ll want to order the linguine with clams and the off-menu veal chop, which pairs amazingly with a sexy Gattinara from Nebbiolo. This is one of the best Italian restaurants in OC.


Fig & Olive #63
At lunchtime, this is a truly magical place. The dining room is bright and airy, with olive trees lining the room. The patio is relaxing and luxurious. Soft jazz, Adele and John Legend waft gracefully over the elegant din of easy conversation. The chicken paillard is light and delicious. The beef tartare, perfection. It’s important to know, however, that this place has two distinct personalities. Once the sun goes down, the velvet rope goes up, and a DJ starts spinning loud techno music. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Il Barone Ristorante #66
Il Barone is a good reminder of why the Italian-American classics became classics in the first place. The spaghetti carbonara is exactly what you hope it will be: rich and creamy with egg, parmesan and pig fat. The veal Milanese is excellent. Chef/owner Franco Barone’s cooking is solid and precise, steeped in tradition and clearly weighted with heart and experience. His wife, Donatella, will greet you at the door with a hug. The dining room barely accommodates 50 people squeezed together like Italian sardines.


Costa Mesa

Taco Maria #1
Restaurant of the Year. Don’t let the ironic name fool you. Taco Maria in SoCo 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.


Arc #2
With a kitchen entirely fueled by wood, chef Noah Blom looks to the past to show us the future at Arc in SoCo. 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.


Shunka #3
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. The best I’ve found in Orange County is Shunka, where the chalkboard menu routinely announces ishi dai, kin mei, ho-bo, umeiro, akamutsu, tobiuo, mejina, higesori … fish that rarely make it to U.S. sushi bars – all flown in daily (except on Sundays) from Japan. Shunka also serves fresh, live octopus; most sushi bars serve only cooked. Watch for the tachinuwo, which is a long ribbon fish that looks like an eel but has the face and tail of a fish; it’s served with the skin on, lightly torched but still raw underneath.


Marché Moderne #4
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 in South Coast Plaza 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.


Shuck Oyster Bar #19

I can’t think of a better way to spend a lazy afternoon than to cozy up to a bar and eat oysters, one at a time, freshly shucked by a bartender who himself is in no hurry. The only urgency, of course, is to not let the oysters sit for more than a few seconds after they’ve been shucked, since that’s when they taste their very best. This place is good for that.


East Borough #20
This Vietnamese sandwich shop makes one of the best, most authentic banh mi sandwiches in Orange County. I think theirs are actually better than anything available in Little Saigon. The French baguettes are crispy and fresh. The grilled pork filling is top-quality. And they don’t hold back on the jalapeños. They make an iced jasmine tea that is addictive. The restaurant is tiny, with only a few tables, all of it outdoors under an awning with no air conditioning.


Onotria #22
There’s a slight echo and a laid-back breeziness to this Italian restaurant that’ll make you feel like you’re in a converted barn at an agriturismo on a rural road in Italy, where you dine on porchetta that’s been slowly roasting all afternoon on the charcoal grill. The octopus and artichoke salad is superb, as are most of the pastas. If you’re in the mood to splurge, there are two true standouts: the whole-roasted fish and a grotesquely large and perfect ribeye steak, both of which are carved tableside.


Mastro’s Steakhouse #23
This place is everything a great steakhouse is supposed to be: grand, masculine, aggressive, exclusive, celebratory … Dining here isn’t just a meal, it’s an occasion. Although you can’t dine here without taking a serious hit to your wallet, you will eat some of the finest USDA Prime beef available. Warning: If you have to go to the restroom, bring a pocketful of singles for the bathroom attendants, who put on their best face and pretend to enjoy handing you a towel. Care for a mint? Cologne? I usually try to hold it until I get home. Did I mention the steak?


Rance’s Chicago Pizza #39
Chicago-style pizza is a sport unlike any other. One slice is practically a meal. Two slices borders on competitive eating. Beware: This ultra-deep dish pizza takes at least 45 minutes to cook. Don’t wait until you get to the restaurant to order. Call first and get the ball rolling, then head to the restaurant. Once there, you will still have ample time to enjoy a couple of beers and a salad before the pizza is finally done. It’s worth the wait.


Hamamori #49
Hamamori is the nicest Japanese restaurant in Orange County, an oasis amid the bustle of South Coast Plaza. James Hamamori is as comfortable making classic nigiri sushi as he is riffing on new-style sashimi and California rolls. He’s not afraid to splash a piece of bluefin tuna with balsamic vinegar and blue cheese or to pair grilled octopus with shaved parmesan and arugula sprouts. This isn’t merely a sushi bar, though. The menu covers a lot of territory, from rice bowls with freshwater eel or fried pork cutlets to udon hot pots with tempura prawns.  


Pueblo #46
I don’t know why Spanish cuisine hasn’t already become hugely popular in Southern California, but for some inexplicable reason it’s a style of cooking and rich culinary culture that has mostly evaded us until now. Fittingly for a tapas bar, Pueblo is tiny. Tables are packed together rather closely. Your elbows aren’t exactly bumping your neighbors’ ribs while you eat, but almost. Chef Michael Campbell riffs on all the Spanish classics: queso fundido, lamb meatballs, paella, bacalao, pan con tomate… And for brunch he serves his papas bravas (fried potatoes) with shredded beef short rib and a fried egg.


Ramen Yamadaya #50
Sometimes I just want a big steaming bowl of noodle soup, and I can’t think of anything better than the spicy tonkotsu ramen at Yamadaya. Other ramen joints might make better fried chicken (karaage), if that’s your thing. Other ramen joints might have better service. Hospitality is not their thing. But when it comes to the ramen itself? This is it: heady and fragrant with simmered pork fat. The noodles are appropriately springy, with just the right resistance between your teeth. The chashu pork is plentiful, so there’s always a great last bite in the bottom of the bowl.


Din Tai Fung South Coast Plaza #62
This Taiwanese dumpling chain has spawned lots of imitators that try to replicate Din Tai Fung’s famous Shanghai-style xiao long bao, also known as soup dumplings. Others come close, but these are still the ones to beat. They don’t take reservations, and the wait for a table can stretch for hours. Good thing it’s in the mall.


Filomena’s Italian Kitchen #70
Chef Linda English makes fresh pasta every day, including a ravioli that changes almost nightly. The handmade fettuccine is excellent, especially when tossed with a hearty bolognese. I also like the spaghetti and meatballs with Sunday sauce. Sunday sauce is essentially a marinara into which the drippings from the meatballs and other roasted meats are collected, creating a boldly flavored tomato sauce that pairs well with just about any of the pastas. The pepperoni pizza packs a spicy punch.


Manpuku #73
Don’t even think about showing up to this elegant Japanese barbecue spot on the weekend without a reservation. It’s always packed, and the waiting list generally starts at a minimum of 90 minutes, if they allow a waiting list at all. One of the reasons it’s so hard to get in is because this place is really small, with only a dozen tables, four of which are tatami-style. The hospitality is warm and genuine. I typically order the Kobe beef set menu because the meat is so rich and fatty it’s almost impossible to overcook, which is important when you’re cooking it yourself at the table.


Huntington Beach

Ritter’s #41
Ritter’s was the first restaurant to bring steam-kettle cooking to Orange County, and they make some of the most authentic New Orleans gumbo that you’re likely to find outside of Louisiana. They’ll ask you how spicy you want it, on a scale of 1 to 10. Ten will send smoke out of your ears; even 7 is not for amateurs. The steamed clams are great, too, simmered with garlic, butter and lemon. And this just in: After nearly two years, they have finally obtained their license to sell beer! Also in Santa Ana.


Solita Tacos & Margaritas #58
This place lives up to its name. The margaritas are superb, whether frozen or on the rocks. You won’t lack for choices when it comes to tequila. And the shredded beef tacos are rich and heady. Notice the mesquite-fired grill, then order the chicken that’s cooking on top of it.


25 Degrees #64
Great burgers. Great wines by the glass. Great onion rings. All around, this is a little burger bar with a sultry boudoir vibe. It might help to spend a week or two stretching your mouth before attempting to eat the Western-style burger. It’s huge.


La Choza Mexican Restaurant #67
Just inside the entrance, there’s a display kitchen the size of a broom closet where a woman stands and makes fresh tortillas all day. As soon as she sees you walk through the front door, she counts how many diners are in your party and immediately starts making your tortillas, which will be served momentarily, still steaming, with a pat of softened butter to spread over the top. But what I like even more are the crispy tacos filled with beef and finely shredded yellow cheese.


South County

Brick #5
This San Clemente spot 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.


El Campeon #15
El Campeon in San Juan Capistrano is a restaurant, bakery, butcher shop and grocery store rolled into one. And they make some of the best pork al pastor around. This is not the type of barbecue pork that’s sliced from a slowly rotating spit, but rather the kind that’s chopped and marinated, then cooked on a flat-top griddle. It is rich and fatty and intensely flavored with chili sauce.


Wineworks for Everyone and Dublin 4 #18
The constantly changing wine list always offers a fresh discovery for even the geekiest of wine geeks. But this place in Mission Viejo isn’t merely a wine bar. The kitchen has serious chops and pulls double-duty with Dublin 4, the owner’s Irish gastropub next door. On the Wineworks side, chef David Shofner cooks butter-poached lobster, cabernet-braised short ribs and pistachio-crusted halibut, while on the other he deftly serves fish ’n’ chips and ale-braised bangers and mash.


EnoSteak, The Ritz-Carlton #21
EnoSteak is one of the best-kept secrets in OC, but even though no one knows about it, a reservation here is always difficult because the place is tiny. With fewer than 40 seats, tucked into what used to be the wine cellar at the Ritz-Carlton, Eno defies the classic steakhouse stereotype. The experience is intimate and romantic. Nobody comes here to see and be seen but for precisely the opposite. Most important, the beef and the wine are consistently superb.


Stonehill Tavern, St. Regis Resort #29
Hint: It’s not really a tavern. Celebrity chef Michael Mina’s glamorous “tavern” serves earnest yet whimsical American cuisine. If you’re lucky, your meal will begin with an amuse-bouche of mushroom cappuccino and a little biscuit served straight from the oven. And if you opt for the chef’s tasting menu, you might brace for an assortment of canapes that delivers an immensely gratifying shotgun blast of nuance and texture, ranging, for example, from an intensely salty, almost gelatinously fatty curl of Spanish ham to a tiny kebab of sour-lime-soaked pear and seared tuna. And that’s just the first course. Mina’s timeless classics are available, too, like his quintessential tuna tartare and the always popular lobster pot pie.


Waterman’s Harbor #53
Waterman’s Harbor overlooks the marina in Dana Point. The windows are pushed open to give the entire space a breezy seaside vibe. Yachts and fishing boats putter delicately through the channel. Waiters rush up and down the stairs ferrying armloads of fish ’n’ chips and freshly shucked oysters. The shrimp cocktail reminds me of Acapulco-style ceviche. Even more it reminds me of those little jars of shrimp cocktail that you can buy at the grocery store, filled with slightly sweet tomato sauce and dozens of tiny shrimp — delicious.


BLK Burgrz #54
I’m a bit embarrassed to be including a restaurant on this list that serves a deep-fried burger, but look beyond that indiscretion and focus instead on the build-your-own sizzling burger. Build it like this: brioche bun, mayo, 3/4 pound ground wagyu beef, cheddar cheese, fresh jalapeños, red onion, tomato, shredded lettuce. Boom. One astoundingly good burger, guaranteed in Ladera Ranch. The french fries are perfection.


Vine #56
The bar scene sometimes gets rambunctious but the adjoining dining room is always low-key and quiet in this San Clemente spot. The schnitzel is fantastic. So is the bone marrow. The burger is huge and spicy, slathered with arbol chili aioli and roasted serranos. And the wine list offers some great discoveries that won’t break the bank.


Ramos House Café #61
The Ramos House is a wooden prairie-style cabin in San Juan Capistrano that dates to 1881. The kitchen is indoors, but the dining room is entirely outside. Tables are draped with burlap and the silverware is rolled with old-fashioned dish towels. It’s the perfect spot for brunch, and it’s always brunchtime here. Look at all those mimosas. Start with the Scotch quail eggs and the basil-cured lox. For dessert, get the beignets.


Irvine

Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan #8
In a predominantly Asian shopping center filled with restaurants, you’ll notice that Chong Qing Mei Wei stands out. Most tenants are no-frills at best, but this place sits decorated with chandeliers and tablecloths. Szechuan cuisine is famously spicy, and many dishes — 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. If you can’t handle spice, steer toward the garlicky braised eggplant or the cold pork belly.


Wei Shian Noodles #38
Two things keep me coming back to this Szechuan noodle shop: the cold spicy pork and the dan dan noodles. The pork is served cold, which at first I thought might be odd, but it’s not. Thin slices of pork luxuriate in an aromatic, glistening, oily sauce made from chilies and garlic. Dan dan noodles are a classic Szechuan dish that have been translated into various regional dialects. This is the best you’ll find in OC. Stir it up really good before digging in.


Urban Seoul #69

Urban Seoul didn’t invent the Korean taco, but it’s certainly perfected it. The menu effortlessly spins together a delicious mash-up of Mexican and Korean cuisines. Chicken katsu torta swaps the Mexican-style fried chicken patty of a cemita poblana with the panko-crusted cutlet of Seoul’s ubiquitous katsu shops.


Santa Ana

Little Sparrow #7
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 in downtown Santa Ana 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.


Tito’s La Especial #28

Tacos al vapor aren’t like other tacos. They start out like regular tacos, but after they’re assembled, they go into a pressure steamer. They emerge tasting more like tamales than tacos — and they are awesome. The corn tortillas absorb all the juices and the grease from the beef, becoming soft and tender and intensely fragrant. They’re so flavorful and perfect that they don’t even need salsa. You will never look at a taco the same again.


Sushi Murasaki #31

The counter at this under-the-radar sushi spot is reserved strictly for diners requesting omakase, or chef’s choice. Seconds after you sit down, the succession of small plates begins: halibut fin topped with a single drop of red pepper relish; sea bass brushed with shishito oil … I could go on and on about the omakase, about the yellowtail, the shad, the yellow clam, the live sea eel, the way each meal settles into an easy, relaxed groove. The plates arrive at a simple, unhurried pace so that there’s precisely enough time between each dish to contemplate what has just happened and simultaneously enjoy the company you’re with.


The North Left #47

When The Crosby nightclub came crashing down, chef Ryan Adams saw a kitchen that was already steeped in raw talent but needed some adult supervision. The dining room got a good scrubbing, the kitchen got in line, and the name changed to The North Left. Everything feels different now: grown-up, well-behaved, organized and earnestly focused on being taken seriously as a restaurant. The cooking is an evolution of what Adams started in Laguna at Three Seventy Common: a dose of the familiar with a pinch of the unexpected. At lunchtime, the kitchen focuses on a few sandwiches and salads. But come dinnertime, they let loose: prosciutto and biscuits, ribeye tartare, duck confit, grilled octopus.


Playground #51

Chef Jason Quinn leads a creative kitchen team hell-bent on making everything from scratch at Santa Ana’s most ambitious gastropub. They huddle every morning to figure out what’s fresh that day, then brainstorm a game plan for that night’s menu. Part of the fun of dining at Playground is not knowing what to expect. I’ve enjoyed beef tartare that challenged everything I believed to be true about beef tartare. I’ve had brilliant Chinese bao stuffed with lamb curry. I’ve eaten better pasta here than at most Italian restaurants. And some of the best dishes are the vegetables, so don’t overlook those.


The Boiling Crab #55
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much heat can you handle? Are you sure? I’m usually a seven, but at the Boiling Crab I’m a wimpy six. When they say hot, they really mean hot. Heck, the crawfish here are probably spicier than anything you’ll ever find in New Orleans, which is where this seafood joint draws its inspiration. They’ll tone it down if you wish. Warning: You’re about to get so dirty that you’ll need a decontamination bath afterward. Additional locations in Garden Grove.


Lola Gaspar #72
Lola Gaspar is one of downtown Santa Ana’s early adapters, a sometimes-wild-and-crazy gastropub where the kitchen channels mostly pan-Latino flavors. Mussels are steamed in a deliciously spicy miso broth that merges the flavors of ramen and pozole. The burger is made with decadently fatty beef and a lavishly buttered and toasted bun. The fries are outstanding.


Central and North County
6. Brodard, Garden Grove
11. The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon, Anaheim
13. El Farolito, Placentia
16. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, Brea
24. Garlic & Chives, Garden Grove
27. Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen, Brea
34. Tan Cang Newport Seafood, Garden Grove
35. Napa Rose, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, Anaheim
37. Carnitas Los Reyes, Orange
40. Hue Oi, Fountain Valley
42. Adya, Anaheim
45. Medii Kitchen, Anaheim
57. Rice Paper, Garden Grove
59. Quan Hop, Westminster
60. Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen, Orange
65. Sushi Noguchi, Yorba Linda
68. Super Juicy Dumplings, Brea
71. El Cantarito Restaurant, Placentia
74. Lillie’s Q, Brea
75. Linx, Orange


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