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Anne Marie’s Favorite New Restaurants of 2023

Our food columnist looks back on a delicious year.


Pepperoni Pizza from Truly Pizza in Dana Point. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC
 

Time seems to have sped up as the year progressed. Blink and it was spring. Summer felt more brutal than usual, but not as brutal as when it finally was chilly and I had to wear socks around the house.


Every couple of months I would pause to think about the places I dined at and debate whether I would recommend them as a favorite. Four restaurants kept their consistency on my return visits; a fifth was tougher to determine. Here are my five favorites in no particular order.


Truly Pizza, Dana Point

My preference for pizza has changed drastically over the last three years. Growing up, my family did a Round Table/Pizza Hut/Little Cesar’s rotation. When I tried deep dish in college that would become my favorite for decades; I would get into arguments with people over Chicago-style. Then during my tenure at Voice of OC, I found myself salivating over Detroit-style slices. Over the summer I was introduced to the square fare at Truly Pizza.


To say that Truly impressed me is an understatement. Garlic pull-apart bread covered in Romano was so piping hot out of the oven, I nearly burned my fingertips. A Spagnola salad brought together notes of zodiac pears, speck and Manchego dressed in quince for a harmonious bite. The Dana Point Wedge is modernized with shaved egg, local dates and candied pecans. Even the seemingly simple soft serve (offered with a most curious, shovel-like spoon) is something special. I have yet to try a sandwich there but everything I tried I would come back for without hesitation. 


The smoky vodka square pizza from Truly Pizza. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC
 

And then there’s the pizza. Truly solicits both a round and a square option. Initially I was all about the corners and perfect triangle slices. Neither Chicago nor Detroit, it’s in a class all its own. Chef Chris Decker would explain the three-day cold ferment process of the dough (that helps with digestion) and how certain toppings on a square wouldn’t necessarily make sense on a crispier, round counterpart – aka “American Artisan.” Try the Crispy Pepperoni for a classic done well. 


As for square styles, spinach and artichoke with lemon zest is the most indulgent veggie pizza I’ve encountered. Smoky Vodka squares include pistachio lemon pesto with marinated tomatoes and stracciatella (the kind of cheese dreams are made of); Mamma Mia pizza includes hot and sweet pickled peppers soothed by baked ricotta plus both fresh and aged whole milk mozzarella. Stop reading and just go already. 24402 Del Prado, (949) 218-8220


From Calico Fish House, PHOTO 1: Lobster. PHOTO 2: Deviled eggs. PHOTO 3: Cioppino. Photos by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC


Calico Fish House, Huntington Beach

Whenever we were in the mood to drive along PCH, we’d head to Fish Camp, the former tenant, for casual seafood at the border of Huntington and Sunset Beach. When the space was taken over by Chef Andrew Gruel (best known for founding Slapfish until leaving the brand last year), I knew he had more in mind in addition to sustainable seafood. Crafting a selection of personal and crowd favorites from over 20 years of industry experience, Calico Fish House has a well-executed menu that appears to evolve with each visit.


From signature clam chowder to classic raw bar, lobster meatballs to braised short ribs, Calico possesses a pretty diverse menu. Gruel’s love of sandwiches also means the burger and BLT are not to be quickly dismissed. I tend to bounce around the options after noshing on an order of warm rolls with lobster butter. Bougie lobster deviled eggs and a spicy Maine lobster dip with chips fried in-house are two sharable favorites.


Calico’s remodeled space now includes a small bar for counter service, convenient for solo dining. The property’s prime selling points are the large, dedicated parking lot plus an ample patio for scenic views and larger groups. Family-friendly dining is a welcome bonus. 16600 Pacific Coast Highway; (562) 357-4012; www.calico-restaurant.com.


From Nep Cafe, PHOTO 1: Banh mi chao (sizzling rice plate). PHOTO 2: Avocado toast. From Kin Izakaya, PHOTO 3: Loco moco. PHOTO 4: Beef sukiyaki. Photos by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC


Nep Cafe/Kin Izakaya (Combo Restaurant Space), Irvine

What happens when a 10,000 square foot restaurant pad surrounded by Tesla chargers in Irvine becomes available? Go ask Kei Concepts, the restaurant group interpreting modern Asian cuisine through popular concepts such as Sup Noodle Bar, Rol Hand Roll Bar and Ini Ristorante. The group took a single space and occupied it with a pair of proven concepts (who remembers the two-story Clubhouse at South Coast Plaza before it was divided into The Capital Grille and Seasons 52?): Nep’s Vietnamese brunch and Kin Izakaya’s Japanese cuisine for the bar crowd.


Elevating my favorite meal of the day, Nep Cafe expanded its menu over the last three years to include salads, dumplings and Szechuan spicy noodles; I prefer a filet mignon banh mi chao (sizzling rice plate). As for the drink menu, Nep’s listings are nearly as comprehensive as the food choices – I typically drift toward the non-coffee beverages for iced teas such as a cheese foam mango green tea.


Kin’s shareable menu allows diners to sample from the approximately 24 hot and cold small plates. Yakitori, noodles and composed rice dishes like a hearty loco moco bowl round out the items. You can go in so many directions depending on your appetite. The circular bar gives old school, Elephant Bar vibes, but its bartenders are congenial as well as creative with cocktails.14346 Culver Drive, (949) 527-6372.


The Farmer's Feast for Two - Taste the Farm plate from Campesino Cafe in San Juan Capistrano. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Campesino Cafe, San Juan Capistrano

Located at The Ecology Center, Campesino Cafe is a literal farm-to-table establishment built in an incredible educational setting. It is the culmination of farmers tending to crops day in and day out alongside a kitchen that fully respects the ingredients it is given to create clean, unprocessed meals for breakfast and lunch. 


The Farmers Feast for Two covers the breadth of the menu plating beans, sauces, salad and tamales. Afterwards, head back to the ordering area for more of your favorite(s). A fridge of chilled drinks including yerba mate and jamaica agua fresca served in repurposed glass jars offset the earthy cuisine. In warmer months, I thoroughly ate a fresh butter lettuce salad with green goddess dressing. On the sweeter side, an upcycled almond pudding fits the bill. 


If you aren’t a member of the clean plate club, I highly recommend bringing your own takeaway container as Campesino does not provide one. Please note that the cafe kitchen has specific days of operation. 32701 Alipaz St.; (949) 443-4223.


Asian truffle fried rice from Ever After in Irvine. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Ever After Tearoom and Eatery, Irvine

I admit that the allure of a pretty interior initially brought me to Ever After. But as I studied the menu at one of the ordering kiosks, it became apparent that this place had much more to offer besides drinks and fried snacks. Noodle soups, oatmeal porridges, large format entrees, even flavored snow cakes (think shaved ice). My favorite dish so far is an Asian truffle fried rice with chicken, ginger sauce and organic brown and black grains. On my next visit I want to try the katsu-like pork chop entree.


Drink-wise, Ever After’s 30-plus listings were a little overwhelming. The establishment incorporates organic ingredients in all of its beverages. Diners can choose between hot matcha lattes, fruity and natural teas, milk teas and something called a milk frosty topped with cheese foam. Oh, and I can’t forget the “must be 21 to order” sangria options.  


The kiosk ordering method appears out of place within the context of the quaint space. However I realize there could be so many reasons for this – labor cost, distancing, accurate/accountable customer ordering, etc. Its accessibility to the freeway and pup-friendly vibe makes Ever After even more appealing. Learning that a percentage of profits go to an animal shelter “So our furry friends can live happily ever after” means I will be back.  10890 Culver Drive; (949) 818-5670.


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