Monday, December 30, 2019

Edwin Goei's Top 10 New Restaurants of 2019

Around this time of year, I usually produce a Top 5 list for OC Weekly, the paper where I filed my weekly reviews for the past twelve and a half years. In fact, my editor Cynthia Rebolledo and I were starting our plans for it in November. But then, as you know, OC Weekly was shuttered by its owner the day before Thanksgiving.

So this year, I’m not going to do a Top 5. Instead, I’m doing a Top 10. Herewith is the list of 2019’s best new restaurants, according to me.

10. Woodfire Kabob Restaurant

Woodfire Kabob’s koobidehs are the girthiest in the county. A typical serving comes in two foot-long lengths. If you dangled both upright and end-to-end, it would stand as tall as Verne Troyer. Only the lightest pressure of your fork is required; it’s so soft it melts. The chicken version—tinted orange from turmeric and saffron—weeps juice when you bite into it. But it’s when you smoosh the molten roasted tomatoes to make an impromptu rice-moistening sauce and squeeze lime over the char-kissed meat, singed onion and blackened green pepper that you begin to grasp how these basic ingredients has resulted in something miraculous.

24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1055, Laguna Hills, (949) 220-0000;

9. F & H Shack 

The man who single-handedly takes your order, makes everything on the menu, and then serves your food, does it alone. If he wasn’t doing it at F&H Shack, he’d be doing so from a street cart in Manhattan. And there would be lines down the block for his falafels, hummus and foul, the only three dishes he sells. Each is available as a plate or a sandwich, and all are vegan without even trying. Everything is so well-made it wouldn’t occur to you that just one guy is responsible--this guy.

512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste 8, Anaheim, (714) 860-4266;

8. Kyung Bok Kung

Kyung Bok Kung is one of the few places (if not the only one) in the county to offer han-jeongsik, a blowout feast originally designed for royalty in imperial Korea. The defining characteristic of the meal is an overwhelming spread served all at once. At Kyung Bok Kung, your table will be blanketed with about 15 different dishes, with no expense spared on presentation. Expect rock sculptures and sizzling plates. There will be rich porridge, gurgling soups, bright salads, savory pancakes, perfectly sliced sashimi, rippling barbecue meats, and whole fish. And that’s not counting the sides and sauces. By the end, you’ll think to yourself, “How am I going to finish all this?” Also: “My Instagram followers are going to be so jealous!”

7801 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 888-4948,

7. Délice Breton

When you encounter the cloudlike structure of the omelet at Délice Breton, you will taste the effort taken into its making. Done in the same way it’s been done for ages in Saint-Malo, creating this omelet requires decades of know-how and tons of elbow grease. The result is an omelet so fluffy, it’s hard to overstate. As you cut in, the fork will pass through it as though it’s shampoo foam. It isn’t just light and airy, but creamy too, especially in the middle, where it takes on the texture of cheese fondue. It’s also huge—a bloated crescent that could double as a travel pillow. And since it’s served with a salad, it’s more lunch than breakfast. After having the omelet, order what’s possibly the best crepes in the county. You won’t find one that’s more delicate, eggy, and buttery. And in the banana-and-chocolate version, Délice Breton's resident crepe chef shows how an OG master does it. Instead of just slicing the banana, she mashes it into a paste that’s spread underneath the crepe so that every bite has equal portions of pancake, fruit and chocolate sauce.

31451 Rancho Viejo Rd., Ste. 103, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 503-1577;

6. La Super Birria

Even though the owners finally changed the sign outside from Dulceria Caracol to La Super Birria, you still walk in feeling as though you’ve discovered El Dorado in the jungle. The golden treasure you find at La Super Birria is the birria de res itself, a spicy, brick-red stew of beef so tender it verges on collapse. And where it isn’t falling apart, there are just enough bits of fat left behind to make you shudder with delight. The fact that it’s the kind of home-style bowl of food an abuelita would make is confirmed by the actual abuelitas tending to the huge stew pot in the kitchen. These ladies also hand-make the tortillas you eat on the side--which are the thickest, best specimens in a town with a lot of tortillas. Soft but also chewy, light but also hearty, they possess a pure corn flavor and are as perfect an accompaniment to the birria de res as oyster crackers are to clam chowder.

1041 W. First St, Santa Ana, (657) 245-3810

5. Banana Leaf Kitchen

In every part of Banana Leaf Kitchen’s name, there’s truth in advertising. As it’s first and foremost a takeout joint designed for GrubHub orders, the Huntington Beach eatery’s kitchen takes up nearly 80 percent of the floor space. There are no public restrooms, and all the food is packed in to-go containers, so they’re ready for pick up by customers who aren’t staying very long. You could opt to dine-in, but you’d be doing so inside a small waiting area equipped with six chairs. This dining room—if you can call it that—is too cramped to bring even the tiniest nuclear family and too casual for dates unless you’re already past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship. But if your sweetheart is originally from a Southeast Asian country where banana trees grow like weeds, bring them anyway. They’ll be impressed that Banana Leaf Kitchen serves every dish on top of a strip of banana leaf, just like how it’s done on the streets of Indonesia, Thailand and Laos. To a Southeast Asian expat, this subtle touch makes a huge difference. And when you do decide to dine in, you’re offered a free plate of hot rice mounded over a leaf strip. The heat releases the leaf’s aroma, and as it wafts up to your nostrils, you’ll swear the rice tastes better than any you’ve ever had. But even if the banana leaf weren’t there, rice is essential to everything you consume here. The chicken stir-fried with holy basil, the Lao sausage, heck, everything on the menu just wouldn’t be the same without rice as Huntington Beach’s take-out scene wouldn’t be the same without this place.

19092 Beach Blvd., Ste. V, Huntington Beach, (714) 377-6614;

4. Hole in the Wall Burger

Hole in the Wall Burger's burger combo, which come with fries and a drink retails for less than $10 before tax. By comparison, you’d already hit that mark by ordering a basic burger at any of the recently overhyped burger vendors located inside any number of food halls. But Hole In the Wall Burger is not competing with those, nor does it seem interested in attracting the same kind of customer. It will remind you instead of Huntington Beach’s TK Burgers and San Clemente’s Riders Club. Like them, it’s old-school--a no-frills burger stand that sells food at a fair price. In fact, Hole In the Wall Burger is currently invisible to Instagram’s so-called “influencers.” It recalls the lessons from that Parks and Recreation episode in which Ron Swanson’s rudimentary beef burger triumphs over Chris Traeger’s froufrou ground-turkey sandwich. This burger, like that episode, proves that when it comes to hamburgers, it’s the basics that count. Ground from chuck and never frozen, Hole In the Wall’s beef patty is formless and has more in common with French steak tartare than a Big Mac. Its texture is as soft as the bun. And when you come face-to-face with it, you don’t eat it; rather, you embark on a torrid love affair. Things quickly get hot, steamy, messy and juicy. Once you finish and bask in the afterglow, you need a few napkins to wipe yourself off.

25262 Jeronimo Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 328-9049

3. Il Palco

This Italian restaurant set atop the highest floor at the Source in Buena Park is very service-oriented--the kind of establishment where your water glass is a chalice and the servers offer to refill your soda before you think to ask. But even if you subtract the attentive waiters, Il Palco would still be the classiest restaurant in this M.C. Escher-eque mall. A jazz-piano soundtrack echoes in the white-marbled space. String lights dangle above the smaller of the two outdoor patios, and the larger one has a railing that separates you from a four-story drop. You will also notice that Il Palco is Korean-owned. You'll see mostly Korean customers here. But aside from the very subtle Korean touches, the restaurant can compete against any trattoria this side of the Atlantic. The Bolognese is flawless and the pizzas are incredible. Made with the same dough as the pita-like bread that’s offered as soon as you sit down, the crust is unimaginably tender. It’s as though it was made of down feathers and clouds rather than flour and water. For appetizers, start with the deep-fried octopus. If there’s more than four in your party, order two. It’s that good. The skin is blistered and crispy while the meat is soft like a moist piece of turkey breast. Is it Italian? Korean? A hybrid? Who cares? A great dish such as this transcends any and all nationalities.

6980 Beach Blvd., Ste. H-304, Buena Park, (714) 690-1430;

2. Gram’s Kitchen

You wouldn’t think of finding much of a nightlife in La Palma, let alone in a mini-mall where a printing shop, a dry cleaner and a State Farm agent close up before sundown. But as you approach Gram’s Kitchen after dark, you hear not only signs of life, but also boisterous live music pouring from the open doors. The place feels as if it were teleported from New Orleans’ Bourbon Street itself. A jazz-and-blues band rocks the house on the weekends, and the food rivals anything produced by Emeril Lagasse and the late Paul Prudhomme. The red beans and rice, a soul-food dish that’s a meal unto itself, gets topped with an oar-sized slab of succulent fried catfish cocooned in cornmeal. In the shrimp and grits, the heat of the cayenne travels from your face toward your legs, which, because of the music, will be eager to get out on the dance floor. Reservations are recommended on the weekends, especially if “The Art of Sax” is playing.

12 Centerpointe Dr., Ste. 106, La Palma, (657) 255-4036;

1. Gem Dining

Gem Dining is already a game-changer in Little Saigon. As word spreads that it’s the new restaurant by the Vox geniuses, prime-time reservations are impossible to snag if you don’t plan weeks in advance. The head chef is a chiseled Asian dude with a shaved head who looks as if he could go toe-to-toe with John Wick. No one in his entire kitchen crew is older than 30. They all talk and operate like second- and third-generation Asians who revere the cooking traditions of their parents but also worship at the altar of David Chang and Roy Choi. Although most of its customers are Vietnamese, Gem Dining isn’t interested in rehashing things you can get on Bolsa Street. Instead the menu catapults you to the rest of Asia, covering the uncovered, taking risks and betting that you're up for a little adventure. There’s even a roving cart that offers oysters, dim sum-style. This is a modern take on Asian food the chefs themselves want to eat. And if you happen to be from one of the countries to which they pay special homage, like Indonesia and Malaysia, you’re in for a treat. The nasi goreng and laksa is so spot on, someone on the team must have gotten a hold of their grandma's recipe book and followed it word-for-word.

10836 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 516-8121;


At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this list and all of your reviews this year!

At 5:11 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

And thank you for the comment! Sorry for the delay in this response. I was experiencing some technical difficulties!


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