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Gustavo's Top 5 Restaurants of 2012!

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Danny Godinez: El Rey

For about the past three months, I've been telling anyone within earshot that we are truly living in blessed times, culinarily-wise, in Orange County. I've been reviewing restaurants for this infernal rag for a decade now, and never have I been more excited about the Orange County dining scene than today. Oh, our hole-in-the-wall scene was always there, but no young chef dared set up shop in Orange County outside of the MILF grounds--and there, they were stymied by the fact that coffin-dodgers and MILFs didn't care for experimentation. In other words, every new restaurant wanted to be like the Ritz (or whatever was going on at the Ritz-Carlton), and while that food has a time and place, it simply didn't interest me.

Fast-forward to the past couple of years, when an army of Young Turks (and even actual Turks!) have pushed cuisine to heights never before seen in Orange County. Sure, we're still behind our eternal big bully of a brother, Los Angeles, in many ways--as I said during a panel earlier this year with Jonathan Gold and Evan Kleiman, we always seem to be five years behind what they're doing--but we're catching up fast. In other words, we're the Mexicans to LA's uppity gabachos, so better watch out, City of PENDEJOS!

2012 was a great year for dining, but 2013 is going to be even better--and the great thing is that those in the business already feel it. And the kids who'll make my honorable mention list this time around--Taco Maria, Soho Taco, Golden Truffle, Mick's Karma Bar, Broadway by Amar Santana, the totality of the OC Mart Mix, anything involving Anaïs Tange--have big plans for the coming year which we'll detail mucho once we're allowed to talk.

But to pick a Top 5 for 2012? Easy for me--a mix of the old, new, and forthcoming.
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No. 1, or: OUR FAVORITE DISH IN 2012: Taquiza by Soho Taco

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Photo courtesy of Soho Taco
FIERCE!

It's almost been a year since I became editor of this infernal rag, and one of the first things I righted on this ship was the food situation. A newspaper staff is a hungry staff, and a newspaper staff is infamously picky in what they want to eat. We now get donuts weekly for our staff meetings, usually from Oh Those Donuts in Costa Mesa, donuts chosen according to the tastes of everyone, and I treat the Weeklings to a full lunch every month, alternating between Pizza D'Oro in Costa Mesa and Soho Taco.

And while we love to stuff our face with Pizza D'Oro's old-skool pies, the staff literally counts down the days until Soho comes to our offices, sets up their grill in our parking lot, and gives us the taquiza treatment.
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PART ONE: OC Weekly Best Of Readers Poll 2012: The Good, the Bad, and the WTF?

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The best food photo we've EVER run!

Today is the release of our annual Best Of issue, our fantabulous guide to all things wonderful about this infernal land. For the purposes of ustedes, you only care about the food section, and you can peruse it here. But what's always interesting to us is the Readers Poll: will our faithful fans be better than those of the Orange County Register, or will we pull our hair out again because ustedes voted pinche Javier's as the county's best Mexican restaurant?

Following is what our readers picked, along with my commentary. And the survey says...
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No. 2: The Asparagus (or Equivalent Stalky Green) With Fried Egg, Prosciutto & Asiago At Three Seventy Common

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Edwin Goei

Have you gone for the Sunday Socials at Three Seventy Common yet? If you haven't, you should; but if you're still unsure about whether you can commit to the ever-changing prix fixe before you've actually tried something here, just go on any other day of the week and order the dish you see above.

This is the asparagus, fried egg, prosciutto, asiago and breadcrumbs. Yes, it's described exactly like that on the menu. It has no fanciful title or name (they save those for the drinks). They do this on purpose. The rest of the food menu is also nothing but a list of ingredients. Since they really do seem to cook with what's seasonal, it makes sense not to commit to a permanent name for a dish. Doing that would set the expectation it'll be the same the next time when it almost never isn't.

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No. 3: Enfrijoladas Choriceras at Potzol den Cano

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Dave Lieberman

My top dish in the last 12 months is from a restaurant owned by people from a Mexican state most non-Mexicans have never heard of. This dish alone makes me want to head for the Tijuana airport, get on a plane, and explore Querétaro to see whether everyone in the state can cook like this, or if the Cano family is outstanding even amongst the brash and accomplished dueñas of market fondas.
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No. 4: Spontané Menu at Marché Moderne

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South Coast Plaza typically isn't a haven for bargain hunters, but for several years the prix-fixe lunch at Florent and Amelia Marneau's Marche Moderne has had one of the best lunch specials in the county.

Dinner for two at Marche can easily top $100, but like Rachael Ray taught us on $40 a Day, expensive restaurants are always cheaper at lunch. Here, Florent sends out fresh bread, salad, choice of entree and desert for $20.
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No. 5: Banana Pudding At Merely Sweets

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Anne Marie Panoringan

A year ago, we sat down to interview sweet baker Diane Yoon. Soft-spoken, but knowledgeable in her craft, she launched Merely Sweets with her brother and fellow classmate from the French Culinary Institute. Supplying fancy morsels to Brea Downtown is their specialty.

Instead of macarons and cupcakes, we gravitate towards some of her lesser known treats. Our favorite of the moment is her indulgent banana pudding. Looking back on our review of her fruity dessert, here's what we had to say,


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No. 6: Anything By Taco Maria

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Kings of the calle

I have been known to wait outside Taco Maria for 20 minutes, desperate to be the first in line before the masses come. I've been known to drunkenly tweet that if you don't know Taco Maria, you don't know Mexican food, and fight with people over said sentiments. I've plugged Taco Maria God-knows-how-many times, had them with me in an NPR segment, crowed about them to anyone within earshot.

"What should we get?" is the inevitable question.

"EVERYTHING," is my inevitable answer.
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No. 7: Venison Filet Mignon at Mare Culinary Lounge

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LP Hastings
Mare is supposed to be known for its seafood. But you should know by now that Alessandro Pirozzi of Cucina Alessa fame has the golden touch, even with game meats, as it turns out.

The venison filet mignon he serves at his newest restaurant, two cubes the size of a baseball sitting on opposite sides of an oblong plate, was red meat epitomized: the outside burnished close to char, the inside a sinew-free crimson soft enough to be cut into by the dullest spatula.



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No. 8: Pot Pie Purse at the Crosby

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Aside from La Palma Chicken Pie Shop and a handful of chain restaurants (Claim Jumper, KFC, Marie Callender's), there just aren't enough places doing pot pie anymore. And if they are, it's certainly almost never beef pot pie.

Comfort food in the wrong hands can be too much of a good thing--over-portioned, with too much fat, butter and oil, but at the Crosby, Chef Aron Habinger is able to bring a refined touch to killer classics. He smokes his burgers ('nuff said); the sweet potato fries are so perfect they must include some undiscovered element from the Periodic Table; and now he's gussied-up the pot pie with that same eye for all things flavorful and filling.
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