Brad A. Johnson’s Best Places to Eat in Orange County 2020

The Orange County Register has begun rolling out the sixth edition of Brad A. Johnson’s guide to the Best Places to Eat. Several of South Coast Metro’s restaurants are included in the guide.

Instead of the usual ranking of Brad’s 75 favorite restaurants, this year’s Best Places to Eat is roadmap to dining well and putting food on the table during the pandemic. To that end, this year’s guide features a strong focus on takeout and delivery, ranging from family-style meals to special-occasion splurges. Brad also ranked his favorite Thai, Chinese, Italian and Japanese ramen restaurants, most of which were already adept at takeout and delivery before the entire industry had to pivot. And for those who need to get out of the house and enjoy the restaurant experience again, Brad offers a list of restaurants where you can dine safely outdoors in very 2020 fashion.


Takeout: Worth the Splurge

The Capital Grille
Nothing says celebration more than a big, fat, expensive USDA Prime steak. And the Capital Grille at South Coast Plaza now lets you enjoy their hand-cut steaks at home two different ways. One, you could let them cook it and package it to-go. Or two, they’ll sell it to you raw. I prefer the latter because nothing compares to a 22-ounce ribeye that goes straight from the grill to the table. But you are celebrating, so you don’t have to do all the work. Let the Grille take care of the chilled shrimp and crab cocktail. And maybe even the lobster bisque and bruleed cheesecake, too, if you don’t plan on getting naked afterward. Three-course meals for takeout from about $75 per person.
3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
Shrimp and crab cocktail from the takeout menu at The Capital Grille in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Hana re
Hana re, the incredible Japanese kaiseki and sushi restaurant at the Lab in Costa Mesa, began offering very limited platters and bento boxes to-go. While the price for dine-in dinner at Hana re has always exceeded $200 per person, the new takeout boxes allow anyone to enjoy truly exquisite sushi and sashimi — sweet raw shrimp, bafun uni, wild yellowtail, cherry trout, striped jack, black seabream, bluefin tuna belly, black sea bass and more — at home for as little as $50 per person. You add a bottle of sake and even a whole Kegani hairy crab from Hokkaido, and you might also quadruple the bill. But hey, it’s a special occasion. Orders must be placed at least one day in advance.
2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa


Takeout: Family Style

The Kickin’ Crab
You’ll need to stock up on PPE for this one: gloves, bibs, paper towels, maybe even some protective goggles. The restaurant will supply you with enough butcher paper to protect the dining table. Now dump a large bucketload of cajun-style crawfish, crab legs, shrimp, sausage and corn onto the center of the table and let the free-for-all begin.
1534 Adams Ave., Costa Mesa

Cajun-style seafood boil with crawfish, crab legs and shrimp from Kickin' Crab in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Taco María
When this is all over, let’s hope and pray that Taco María finds a way to keep the bodega staples alive. Because it’s going to be impossible to return to normal if we can’t just go online and order up a family pack of wood-roasted carne asada, a dozen crispy tacos and a quart of pinto beans to-go. And what of that burger that Salgado created? Taco María doesn’t serve burgers, never will, but the bodega does, and they are phenomenal: triple wagyu patties squished into brioche buns with melty, gooey Spanish blue cheese.
3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa


Paella or steak? That’s always been the burning question when dining at Vaca in Costa Mesa. And it’s the same dilemma you’ll need to resolve when ordering family-style takeout: a massive dry-aged ribeye, or a big pan of paella Valenciana. Heads, I win; tails, you lose.
695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Paella Valenciana from the takeout menu at Vaca in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Date Night, Pandemic Style

Knife Pleat
The scene: The penthouse terrace at Knife Pleat is a luxurious respite from the mall, or from life in general really. Settle into one of the feather-cushioned settees, calibrate your mind toward Champagne and envision Paris in the springtime.
What to order: Wild escargot, steak tartare, roasted duck, fig panna cotta, chocolate cremeux.
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., third floor, Costa Mesa

Chocolate hazelnut Louis XV cake at Knife Pleat in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Terrace by Mix Mix
The scene: Giant birds of paradise, fan palms, taro and lush staghorn and bird’s nest ferns create a tropical oasis on the third-floor terrace at the edge of South Coast Plaza’s Bridge of Gardens, which serves as the primary dining room for Mix Mix.
What to order: Hamachi crudo, fried zucchini blossoms, steamed mussels, grilled pork porterhouse.
3333 Bear St., third floor, Costa Mesa,

Hamachi crudo with pluots and mint at Terrace by Mix Mix in South Coast Plaza (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Water Grill
The scene: Water Grill’s sprawling patio attracts a see-and-be-seen crowd, even as the tables are now divided with plexiglass. Plus, inside, large street-side windows roll away almost like garage doors, creating a breezy, airy ambience.
What to order: Chilled lobster, grilled turbot, uni toast and ribeye steaks.
3300 Bristol St., Costa Mesa

Uni toast at Water Grill in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Best Chinese Restaurants

Din Tai Fung
Although it was founded in Taiwan in the 1950s, Californians have long considered this chain to be one of our own, and the location at South Coast Plaza is easily one of the brand’s swankiest outposts. People can’t get enough of DTF’s Shanghai-style soup dumplings called xiao long bao. The shumai dumplings are outstanding, too, as is the chicken noodle soup.
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa
714.549.3388Pork xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Top 5: Best Pizza

The naturally leavened dough combines the best traits of both Neapolitan and sourdough styles. Focus on the fennel sausage, mozzarella and pecorino with a drizzle of salsa verde.
2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa

Pizza with housemade fennel sausage and salsa verde at Folks in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

(See the full list here.)