We have been your lifeline during the pandemic, economic fallout, wildfires, protests and the election. Support us with a tax-deductible donation.

Criteria for my favorite new OC restaurant is straightforward. 

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

Subscribe to receive her column by email.

View her latest and archived work.

First and foremost, it serves an excellent meal. Takeout and/or delivery during COVID is a must. When allowed, there must be an outdoor (built-in or ad hoc) seating option. The establishment needed to initially open after March 17, 2020 — the day when Orange County announced the first lockdown/shelter in place order. I purposely waited a year after that date to make up my mind, because these eateries fought even harder to survive in an economy of struggling, yet already known dining spots. 

My alphabetical, superlative-themed rundown commences in a city best known for its historic mission.

Most Involved: Heritage Barbecue

The most pandemic-compliant destination by design, Heritage Barbecue of San Juan Capistrano is a strictly outdoor operation. Created in the style of its central Texas counterparts, Heritage’s layout involves waiting in line for an ordering window and picnic table options in its primary seating area. On the other end of the property is Capistrano Brewing, an ideal counterpart to owner/operator Danny Castillo’s spread of tender brisket and other meat-tastic eats: “Since we opened in the height of the continuing pandemic, this is all we know as far as the brick-and-mortar goes. We previously hustled as a pop-up, using social media and lots of hard work.”

Don’t ignore the thoughtful sides and desserts courtesy of chef Nick Echaore, nor the ever-changing sausage specials (Frito Pie!), or even the nap-inducing weekend brunch spread. Slow and low is the cooking tempo here, and how much consumers want to invest in Castillo’s wood-fired labor of love is left up to their appetites: “Barbecue is a comfort food, something folks really need these days.” Castillo explains.

Bonus: An online ordering, drive-up option is temporarily available for those not interested in standing around. It’ll cost folks a $100 minimum order and swift typing skills. Castillo references Heritage’s early contributions as inspiration: “We put together our OC Smoke Kitchen events, a drive-through restaurant with the help of chefs to feed out-of-work restaurant employees. The drive-up idea opened our eyes to the curbside option, and our sales jumped 30%. We would have never thought of offering it pre-COVID.”

My advice is to go during the week, as Heritage recently brought back Wednesday hours, at least 90 minutes early to ensure nothing is sold out. However, if it’s beef ribs you desire, you’re destined to be present over the weekend in San Juan Capistrano to build your dream meal.  

Best Looking: Mayfield Restaurant & Marketplace

Around the corner from Heritage, Mayfield possesses undeniable curb appeal since its August debut. Diners can browse the restaurant’s curated market teeming with thoughtful wares before contemplating a bite. High ceilings on the main level plus garage-style doors allowed Mayfield Restaurant flexible dining arrangements throughout 2020. A sleek bar counter and genial staff make all seating options comfortable ones, whether parallel to sidewalk people-watching or upstairs along Mayfield’s modest patio.

Mayfield “Rip and Dip”: Whipped Feta, Muhammara, Hummus, Brown Butter Acorn Squash, and Baba Ganoush. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Initially providing takeaway options only, it took time before the restaurant agreed to house guests. Those who want to experience the creative talent chef Jayro Martinez channels through his menu need only to book a Friday or Saturday evening, prix-fixe supper club reservation, allowing for a breadth of seasonal flavors from the kitchen’s multi-region influences of North Africa, the Middle East and Mediterranean. Per owner George Barker: “It was a fun way of introducing our food and the style of eating we like at Mayfield whilst ensuring we could meet and exceed all COVID safety measures.” 

Fried chicken spiced with za’atar alongside harissa honey? Yes! Savory baba ghanoush slathered onto focaccia? Indeed. Fully saturated yolks offset by the tang of labneh (yogurt cheese) in daytime Turkish eggs met, then exceeded expectations.

Reflecting on the last seven months, Barker expresses a roller coaster of emotions: “From a financial standpoint it has been tough. Closing for two months during the winter lockdown was extremely stressful; I care a lot about my staff, and to have to furlough them all was heartbreaking but we have pulled through together. We’ve been very fortunate to receive a lot of love and support from both our local community and the rest of Orange County who have kept us busy since we opened.”

Most Likely to Succeed: Nep Cafe 

While breakfast in Vietnamese culture is a common occurrence, the decision to celebrate the food and beverage of this morning ritual at Nep Cafe was a unique approach by Kei Concepts, the parent company that oversees Orange County brands The Alley, SUP Noodle Bar and Vox Kitchen. According to chief executive officer and executive chef Viet Nguyen, Nep Cafe was an indirect byproduct of the COVID-19 outdoor dining mandate: “We were operating Gem Dining at the time, an upscale Asian fusion, dinner service-only restaurant that was partially defined by its indoor dining ambience, and transitioning Gem Dining into a solely outdoor establishment would have taken away a lot of its soul.” 

Mango sticky rice, coffee flan, and yogurt ice cream from Nểp. Credit: Anne Marie Panoringan, VOICE OF OC

Left with only a kitchen, the team focused its energy on a pop-up concept showcasing brunch and specialty coffee barely in its planning stage. Pursuing this endeavor with the same acumen as its other businesses, Nep swiftly came together in late spring of last year, hitting all the coveted brunch notes locals have grown fond of with its culinary twist in the form of roasted bone marrow-sauced pasta and a deconstructed Banh Mi Chao filet sandwich dressed with truffle peppercorn sauce. Acquired tastes may prefer Santa Barbara uni on toast alongside soft scramble over the Crab Toast counterpart. The inclusion of a thorough beverage menu, highlighting chilled teas and frothy star cà phê trưng (egg coffee) over mimosas and cocktails proved in the cafe’s favor, as demographics ran the gamut of neighborhood families to “camera eats first” food-centric groups taking over the upgraded sidewalk surroundings.

As restrictions were lifted, Nep continued operations in the daytime, while Gem eventually reopened, resuming evening service in Fountain Valley. Nguyen attributes the restaurant’s success to a collective effort: “Unfortunate circumstances can occur at any moment that may uproot everything you know, and it’s really how you play the cards you’re dealt that’ll make or break. I had a great team working alongside me the entire way to make Nep Cafe a successful reality.”

Best Personality: Porch & Swing

Tucked away in a high-rise setting, Porch & Swing is a sweet respite from the bustle of Irvine neighborhood centers. Launching early on during OC’s sheltering in place directive, the Charleston-influenced menu had a tenuous start, according to partner Kevin Bobby: “[The] pandemic was initially scary for us as we were handed our keys April 1 during the height of the pandemic, where only takeout and delivery were allowed.”  Picking up warm biscuits and a Ride or Die salad were a couple of my earliest takeaway splurges. 

Coastal Southern cuisine in chef Justin Werner’s kitchen translates to (depending on what’s in season) line caught salmon with fava bean pureé or black tiger shrimp drizzled in nutty tahini dressing. Plates that appealed to me included roasted pork jowl coddled in creamy grits and pillows of hand-rolled gnocchi cradling walnuts and blended sunchokes. I appreciated Porch & Swing’s laundry list of meat-free plates such as burrata paired with tangerines, heirloom tomatoes in a white BBQ sauce, and the aforementioned salad finished with crispy quinoa and pickled cranberry. If you’re craving a cocktail, I would trust in the abilities of Andrew Parish’s bar team and allow them to craft a bespoke beverage.

Imperial Farms Wagyu petite filet from Porch & Swing. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

It is reasonable to expect a restaurant of Porch’s stature and coordinates to bring in more corporate clientele pre-COVID, which is what management assumed when it originally signed the lease in 2017. Currently, occupancy is far below normal in the complex due to so many individuals now working out of their homes. When asked how the past year affected business, Bobby, Werner and Parish are joined by partners Mark Cruz and Demi O’Neal, responding collectively: “The moment outdoor dining was allowed, a huge stress was lifted off of our shoulders as takeout/delivery sales were subpar. All in all, the silver lining of the pandemic for Porch & Swing is that we have been able to build a steady night crowd in a corporate area without corporate foot traffic and we look forward to the day our offices are full again.” 

Most Popular: Sapphire

The changeover of Sapphire’s ownership to a group known for San Clemente’s Vine, Ironwood in Laguna Hills, and Newport’s Olea cemented its presence in the South County dining scene. Led by president/partner Russ Bendel, supporting its newest property was an uncharted hustle as it opened in early April 2020. Luckily, the establishment included a market next door. Bendel elaborates: “We did a ton of takeout business executed from The Pantry, and noticed a huge demand for breakfast early on as a lot of people were not working and looking for reasons to get out of the house. Sapphire and The Pantry were places where people looked forward to picking up food, enjoying takeout outside and being able to interact with our team from a distance.”

Offering daily lunch and dinner, it was the addition of brunch service (a first for the group) that enabled chef Jared Cook to exceed what the restaurants were known for and have some fun. Sage-garlic sausage gravy blankets buttermilk biscuits — say that five times fast. Chicken fried steak in Sapphire’s kitchen means my favorite schnitzel and spaetzle entree teaming up with fried eggs. 

On the sweeter end of the spectrum, pursue bourbon maple syrup poured over Meyer lemon crème fraÎche waffles. Prior to the reopening of outdoor dining, the crew at Sapphire also realized another fan-favorite, per Bendel: “The craft cocktails to-go were a huge hit, and I think we were the first to bottle and sell [them] 30 minutes after the ABC announced it was legal.” 

Prime Laguna Beach real estate combined with personable service made this outpost a neighborhood hub for much of 2020: “The last year has been a test for all restaurateurs to stay focused on their core business, people and ways to innovate.” Residents responded favorably to the changes, making Sapphire a place for them to get away.

Best Location: Shorebird Restaurant

Operating a quick service concept in L.A. County (Jaybird’s) prepared Shorebird’s operating team for change, according to director of brand strategy Branen Fitzgerald: “We had a good rhythm on the CDC guidelines and immediately incorporated those best practices.” Thanks to a location in Newport Beach situated far enough from Newport Boulevard, ample indoor and outdoor dining space was an unexpected bonus: “Fortunately, the fresh air circulating from our open-door concept gave us a great advantage in offering more seating than we expected.”

Executive chef Chris Badilla’s overstuffed (a.k.a. deviled) bacon and eggs were next level, thanks to Shorebird Restaurant’s on-property smoker imparting flavor. Signature rotisserie chicken should be considered due to its limited availability, succulent over Meyer lemon and asparagus risotto. Japanese Hokkaido scallops are found in a duo of offerings: melt in your mouth nigiri and a butter-basted seafood entree. Kudos to sushi chef Tin Nguyen for including fresh, grated wasabi with our two-piece crudo. Black mussels and herby potatoes joined the other specialty dish for what a friend likened to deconstructed, New England-inspired chowder. To finish, key lime pie had an airy mouthfeel, thanks to its cheesecake consistency. Accompanied by strawberry gelato, neither component was overly sweet — an attribute often overlooked when strategizing a dessert course. 

Despite securing a calming harbor view behind Crab Cooker and envious underground parking, the restrictions in place forced dining areas such as Shorebird’s to tread lightly despite already waning crowds. Fitzgerald added: “As time continued, however, and the inconsistencies began to surface at a state level, we really saw a shift in support from our local community to stay open safely, and we couldn’t have made it this far without the people of Orange County and Newport Beach.” 

Amuse Bouches

Checking In With: Rodeo 39 Public Market

Composed of 20 food options in addition to retail and services, this massive undertaking was embraced by the city of Stanton when it went live in October of last year. With a unique variety of offerings, Rodeo 39’s coverage is ongoing, as many of the tenants evolve with updated specials. Consulting partner Jasmin Gonzalez sums up the feelings of many owners and operators: “The last year has been quite challenging to say the least. COVID shook up the entire retail and restaurant industry, and despite the uphill battle, Rodeo stayed its course and opened anyway.”  

Rodeo 39 Public Market Credit: Photo courtesy John Bare

A food hall that stands out from the rest, Rodeo commissioned artists throughout Southern California to design murals throughout, adding an inviting personality to its space. Customizing the property from the ground up also allowed the team to make full use of every square foot. Gonzalez continues: “We are truly an ‘open air’ market as well as offering the convenience of a ‘Rodeo 2 Go’ platform. Suffice it to say, the pandemic made it even more clear that we had to rely heavily on technology as well as our outdoor patio seating. We remained confident that what we built together and for the community would persevere through these tough times and so far we have.”

#StopAsianHate: Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Support Throughout OC

The theft, violence and additional acts of racism toward the AAPI community throughout the county and beyond are unacceptable. In response to the negative treatment, especially towards elders, local businesses spent last week donating hundreds of meals and proceeds by way of the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA). From Rodeo 39 businesses Primal Cuts and Banh Xeo Boys to my favorite restaurants Sapphire Laguna and Heritage BBQ, the restaurant community responded in force to show support and unity to address this concern. 

Berry Brand, specializing in superfoods and plant-based products, is giving 100% of the proceeds from its new Love Bowl to nonprofits Stop AAPI Hate and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Credit: Photo courtesy Berry Brand

While most restaurateurs and chefs completed their acts of service, a Tustin storefront within Union Market food hall at The District continues to lend a hand towards the cause. Berry Brand, specializing in superfoods and plant-based products, is giving 100% of the proceeds from its new Love Bowl to nonprofits Stop AAPI Hate and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. It features a limited-time-only mango base, coconut dream base, hemp granola, matcha chia pudding, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, unsweetened coconut, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, agave and a whole lot of kindness. Guests may order ahead on their smartphones to lessen the wait. Note: Berry Brand’s Cerritos outpost is also participating in the promotion.

In addition, Oi Asian Fusion at Rodeo 39 is donating 100% of proceeds from its trio of dessert options to OCAPICA. This promotion includes an Ube Upside Down Pie, Manila Mango (sweet mango with creamy custard), and Buko Pandan Creme Caramel. Thank you to Berry Brand and all businesses who contributed their time, money and resources for an urgent cause.

Off the Menu Food Insider App Expands Into OC

Loyalty programs are typically for a particular brand, meaning the perks a member receives are relatively limited. Now imagine a program that’s not only geared toward a range of brands, but the perks offered are exclusive to membership. This is Off the Menu (OTM), a dedicated food app for foodies seeking delicious, secret menu rewards for being a member. Based out of Los Angeles, OTM began including Orange County perks at the end of March 2021. 

A subscription to the club is $20 per month, but entitles its users to daily comped items from a selection of eateries. Every Sunday morning, 14 new restaurants (seven in OC, seven in L.A.) are rolled out with new secret menu items. Members may redeem one food item a day with their subscription, but are expected to leave a gratuity. Multiple occurrences of this lack of respect for the kitchen and waitstaff are subject to revoking one’s membership to Off the Menu. 

Current offerings for opening month include a sushi bento box from Sushi Roku Newport Beach, lobster fries from Slapfish, and a pita sandwich from The Halal Guys. Bonus: This Wednesday through Friday, a custom OTM burrito will be available to members headed to San Juan Capistrano, courtesy of Heritage Barbecue.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.

Have an opinion on this story? Join the conversation… In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join the open conversation on our Facebook page. Message us via our website form or staff page. Send us a secure news tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.