Shuji's Top Five Restaurants for 2013

Valiant Brewing's Jericho IPA at Dublin 4

I raise a glass to you, dear reader, with best wishes for a happy holiday. For this writer, the year's favorite restaurants share a common denominator: all (ok, except one) very affordable places that you ought to visit often.

5. Flippin' Pizza


I'll say it: a great New York pizza by-the-slice joint is finally in Orange County. Yeah, there have been acceptably ok versions in the past, but nothing that truly has that crisp bottom crust that snaps crisply when you fold it in half.

Flippin' makes a big deal about not using sugar or oil in their dough. Great NY style pizza is a wet, slack dough that allows it to stretch thin without using oil to cheat the effect. The yeast ferments the flour slowly instead of rushing to a sugar-fueled finish line in a couple of hours.

Most important, that dough is baked directly on the hot brick surface of the oven so it bakes hot and dark and crisp. It takes a seriously good pizza for this native New Yorker to declare Flippin' would rank top-ten in Manhattan. I'll challenge anyone who knows the real deal to say otherwise about the Mission Viejo outpost of this San Diego-based chain (are you listening, JBinOC?) Props to our own Niyaz Pirani for spotting it this August.

Flippin' Pizza. 27695 Santa Margarita Pkwy, Mission Viejo, 949-455-1200.

4. Tasty Noodle House

A ton of Taiwanese restaurants have opened in Irvine this year, and among the best is Tasty Noodle House. It happens to be my neighborhood takeout joint, so I'm there often. Even if I had to make a drive, their xiao long bao, or juicy soup dumplings, are worth the trip and the wait in line to get inside.

A line of people waiting to get in is an unreliable indicator of food quality (aka the Cheesecake Factory Fallacy), but in this case, mixing in with the Taiwanese cognoscenti waiting for the stinkiest of stinky tofu will pay off in spades.

Tasty Noodle House. 15333 Culver Dr. Ste 320 Irvine. 949-654-3770.

3. Cafe Matinee

Cafe Matinee's falafel

Hidden among other local food luminaries like El Toro Gourmet Meats and Nina's Indian Groceries is a Lebanese restaurant that I've only discovered this year. I'm only years behind Gustavo and others who've found the single best falafel served up this side of Mamoun's in Greenwich Village.

Owners Gus and Suzane grind chickpeas and favas into a coarse-textured, chunky mass that fries up into crunchy, toothy patties. Suzane claims that authentic Lebanese-style recipes use no parsley in the recipe because when fried, it causes gassiness. Theirs? You can down a large platter of their fritters by yourself if you were so inclined and manage not to feel bloated afterward. Maybe there's something to the fried parsley thing after all.

Cafe Matinee. 23532 El Toro Rd, Suite 15. Lake Forest. 949 588 7511.

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