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.

See also:

5. Memphis at the Santora

Velasco: El Jefe

Yes, I eat here at least twice a week, and plug them at every opportunity possible. But let's be honest: Memphis' greatness is sometimes forgotten now, because of all the new restaurants in downtown SanTana (and a shitload more to come). But while chef Diego Velasco could've just stubbornly stuck to what has earned him accolades and slowly fade into oblivion, 2012 saw him rise to the challenge and teach the whippersnappers a lesson. His Sunday evening family dinners see Velasco whip up all sorts of goodies, and every week seems to bring a new, one-off special: just the other day, I had a Philly cheesesteak hamburger that reeked of Pat's King of Steaks, and two days ago, I had some ahi thing crusted with some yummy stuff (I was beyond drunk at that point, but remembered how fabulous the dinner was). Add the extension of their Sunday brunch into Saturday and rumblings of pop-ups, and Memphis is like Kobe Bryant: the legend who's a bit in years but can still score 50 on you if you're not careful and will never go gentle into that good night. And to do all this while Mexican, which everyone always forgets? WHOA...201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 564-1064;

4. Al Tannour

Anaheim's Little Arabia neighborhood continues to experience its own renaissance, but the most spectacular opening was definitely Al Tannour, the county's first Iraqi restaurant. It's not just the baked-every-morning khubz, the flatbread as wide as a basketball hoop, or the rice platters, but all those Iraqi rarities that you can't even find at the legendary Olive Tree. It's everything a hole-in-the-wall should be: a bit hard to find, with initially obstinate owners who'll nevertheless take pride once you order the dishes they tell you not to order because they know what they make is special. One word: tashreeb. 2947 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 484-0900;

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