This is a new exercise for me, but one I’ll likely continue as (or if) my interest in food and dining continues to grow. These are all dishes I ate for the first time while dining out in 2018.
10. Chilaquiles – Anepalco, Orange, CA
The famed dish from the famous Mexican brunch bar lives up to its reputation. These chilaquiles are packed into a large sort of hockey puck–fried tortillas not so much as stacked, but melded together and surrounded by specked chile sauce. The whole thing seems completely unnecessary but is absolutely perfect.
9. King steam dumplings with pork & vegetables – Myung In Dumplings, Buena Park, CA
Myung In’s Buena Park location is one of many, originating in Koreatown and famous for a Parts Unknown episode where Anthony Bourdain declares it one of the best Korean style dumplings he’s ever had. That was argument enough for me and a couple of work trips were set, their wang dumplings are ground pork stuffed into large pillows of dough–don’t underestimate my use of the word pillow here. It’s delicious and immensely satisfying to bite into this ball of fluff, finding your way into savory ground pork, wetted by soy sauce. To cap off the experience, these are eaten by hand–maybe the most perfect finger food ever.
8. Al pastor mulita – Ponchos Tacos, Fullerton, CA
Two factors contribute to this dish making the list: 1. Poncho’s newly opened up in a convenient spot on my way home from work, offering $1 tacos in its first week, and 2. This is the first mulita I’ve ever had. Mulitas are a cross-pollination of a taco and a quesadilla, coming together to make a chilled out version of a quesadilla, with all the grittiness of a taco. Poncho’s features a rotating spit of al pastor at all times and handmakes their tortillas. Their mulitas hit the pleasure centers that are evoked by melted cheese oozing out of a warm tortilla without losing the integrity of the ingredients–pork, onions, guacamole, cilantro. It’s a neat little dish that condenses buffet eating into one essential order.
7. Turnip curry – Kabab Hut, Rocklin, CA
After initially ordering all meat dishes at Guddu Haider’s one-man show in Rocklin, Haider began recommending various vegetable dishes to add. Eager to try (and eager to please), having recently tried out a couple of turnip recipes in my own kitchen and wanting to maintain an in-season ethos, I went with the turnip curry, an item not even on the menu. Kabab Hut gets a lot of buzz for its fish curry, which came out sizzling and was excellent, but the last minute addition is what stuck with me the most. It was like a sweet and creamy version of baba ganoush, with all the complex spices that come from a curry. A few weeks later I attempted my own version, it was nothing like I consumed here–how could it be–but it was pretty good.
6. Peach donuts – Donut Man, Glendora, CA
Donut Man’s stuffed fruit donuts are the perfect encapsulation of what California donuts can be, stuffing fresh fruits into an extra large (and excellent) glazed donut, until adding another slice would collapse the whole thing. I’ve been trying to have one of Donut Man’s peach donuts for years, but each year the hyper-seasonal offering has been so limited I’ve been timed out of it. This year I made sure to keep tabs on peach season and was able to snag one, boy did it live up to the hype.
5. Birria burritos – Burritos La Palma, Santa Ana, CA
For Anna and I’s birthday this year we did a taco sampling of North Orange County, hitting up three taco spots across one afternoon. Burritos La Palma had the unfortunate placement of being the last spot on the list, when their packed mini burritos seemed least appetizing. The quality still managed to stand out and I later went back to sample their famed birria burrito. This is the heartiest burrito you may ever eat–stuffed with birria, a Mexican stew, which makes sense. It sort of neglects Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat balance principle in favor of putting a warm, satisfying feeling in your stomach.
4. Pho with bone-in braised ribs – Sup Noodle Bar, Buena Park, CA
I sampled a couple of the classic pho spots in Little Saigon this year and really enjoyed them, but it was Sup Noodle Bar’s fusion-y pan-Asian food that captured me most. Featuring a broth that simmers for 10+ hours and braised ribs served on the bone, protruding from the bowl like a trophy honoring you for ordering so well (this resulted in the best Foodstagram I took all year, see above). These sorts of fusion-y hip spots can feel pretty gimmicky, but Sup transcends this with really great food.
3. Jackfruit Tacos – Todo Verde, Los Angeles, CA
One of the most flavorful tacos I’ve ever had comes from this vegan pop-up, in which chef Jocelyn Ramirez creates the Mexican staples she grew up with using all vegan ingredients. It’s perhaps a glimpse into the future, in which vegan and vegetarian fare transitions from fringe health stores into the multicultural landscape that makes up California, offering up flavorful and sustainable replacements. If these tacos are any indication, there’s a lot of exciting stuff yet to come.
2. Al pastor/Fish tacos – Taqueria El Zamorano – Santa Ana, CA – The winner of the birthday taco extravaganza, El Zamorano rises above by packing the most flavor in what are pretty simple and straightforward tacos. The al pastor is juicy, featuring pineapple bits that make it my go-to taco order and the fish taco is perfectly battered and fried, topped with cabbage and a creamy mayo sauce as the Lord intended.
1. Negi Shio premium tongue – Manpuku BBQ, Costa Mesa, CA
A cook-it-yourself Japanese BBQ spot that offers premium tongue as its specialty. The Negi Shio comes with large chunks of salt and onions spread across its exterior and has its own portion of the menu that serves as an instructional guide to best prepare it over the grill. After studying fervently, my wife and I dove in, grilling to an imperfect medium rare before biting into the layers of savory umami and coarse salt. The beauty of the rock salt sitting there–like a mountain in the distance–trying to figure out how to prepare it, and then watching the fat render as the meat browned was my favorite experience in eating out this year.