Welcome to our annual Top 5 countdown, where our SAFII writers tell you what impressed them over the past year! Here, we have the Mexican-in-Chief's Top 5 Restaurants—enjoy, and dig in!
2016 saw the opening of a lot of important, great restaurants like Vaca, Restaurant Marin, and LSXO—none a dud, all moving OC's dining scene toward the national respect we've deserved for longer than people might expect. But what was great about this year is that you saw stalwarts double-down in the face of competition and climb even higher than their previous summits. All of this is translating into a 2017 I predict will get Orange County food more national coverage than ever.
So for this list, I'm putting into Hall of Fame status Taco Maria and Break of Dawn—no more year-end awards for ustedes, boyos (not that Carlos Salgado and Dee Nguyen will rest on those laurels, of course). And if there's a plethora of SanTana spots here, tough: a decade ago, Costa Mesa rightfully dominated our food conversations, but now SanTana is king. Where you at, Dana Point?
5. Lola Gaspar
Somewhere in our pathetic online archives is an article I once wrote stating the best thing about Lola is that they keep improving every year. Los Bros. Perez must've taken my compliment to heart, because 2016 was their best year yet, from an ever-bold Mexi-Spanish-American regular menu by chef Louie to spectacular specials (Pastrami Taco Wednesday! Prime Rib Monday! Barbecue Sunday!) that are no mere gimmicks but rather must-eats. And the guys head into 2017 with a bigger patio and bigger plans—BOOM. Not bad for a restaurant about to celebrate a decade using nothing but an electric burner as a stove, ¿que no? 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana, (714) 972-1172; www.lolagaspar.com
While Filipino food is finally, rightfully getting its spot in Southern California dining, let it be known that the only publication to have consistently reviewed Pinoy place for the past 15 years was OC Weekly. No, seriously: look it up. It's something I'm incredibly proud of. In high school, I quickly learned about the Philippines's amazing, diverse food, and it makes me so happy that others are finally realizing it. And to get a great intro, get thee to Ryan Garlitos' Irenia. A protege of Carlos Salgado, Garlitos brings perfectionist tendencies to a riotous cuisine, and makes no apologies if he presents you with fried anchovies, or a blood soup. My only complaint: MORE KARE KARE, PLEASE. 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (657) 245-3466; www.ireniarestaurant.com
3. El Picante
My beat ARE the holes-in-the-wall, and none was better this year than this michoacano beast off big, bad Standard in biggest, baddest SanTana. From my review: “Its trick is twofold: It specializes in the food of Michoacán, and most of the dishes are guisados. Stews are made every morning and kept bubbling throughout the day. Chicharrón is simmered until it's so fatty it makes pork belly seem as rich as a pencil. Huilotas (squab) come bathed in a bright tomatillo salsa; birria arrives in a bubbling bowl or dry, the better to put inside tortillas so fresh that when you bite into them, the inside of the thick beauties can scald you.” 1610 S. Standard Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 285-0642.
2. El Mercado Modern Cuisine
It remains one of the ballsiest restaurant moves I've seen: in a county where Javier's still packs them in and where you have to explain to your coworkers what a michelada is (at least they know about pan dulce now, amiright?), El Mercado not only went alta cocina but also regional, forcing eaters to try dishes that not even Rick Bayless had ever covered. Tacos orientales from Chihuahua? Tlacoyos? And there's a difference between Estado de Mexico and Ciudad de Mexico? Isn't it all just Mexico? But as Danny Godinez and his partners (who now run the spot) showed, you can not only lead gabachos to water, but you can also make them drink marigold liqueur night after night and want more. Add in OC's best cocktail program this year under Cesar Cerrudo, and Mercado is essential OC dining right now. And if you haven't been, then you must be a Trump lover #fucktrump 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; www.mercadomodern.com
1. Burritos La Palma
Behold the power of one bite that is Burritos La Palma's burrito de birria de res. It's really just three quick chomps, but in those chomps you get culture, history, wickedly savory beef and the best, flakiest, most buttery flour tortillas in Southern California—no wonder why they won for Best Taco at this year's Tacolandia, EVEN THOUGH IT'S A BURRITO. In a year where tortilla literacy made its American debut, the beauties of Albert Bañuelos will surely get widespread acclaim in 2017.
And the most scandalous thing about Burritos La Palma? It gets far more acclaim in Los Angeles than it does in OC. We gonna let LA beat us again, OC? Follow Burritos La Palma on Twitter @burritoslapalma