Photo credit: Brad A. Johnson, OC Register
OC's Best Restaurants of 2022
The Orange County Register's critic Brad A. Johnson's annual guide to the "75 Best Places to Eat" includes the following Santa Ana restaurants.
What the stars mean 0 = poor, unacceptable ★ = average, may have some noteworthy qualities ★★ = very good, above average, a neighborhood gem ★★★ = outstanding, exceptional quality, a regional standout ★★★★ = transcendent, world class in every detail Ratings are based on multiple visits and reflect my overall reaction to food, service and ambience, taking into account a restaurant’s unique sense of place and point of view.
10. Omakase by Gino
You know how when you don’t see someone’s kids for a year, then you finally see them again and they’re all grown up? That’s how I feel about chef Gino Choi’s 10-seat, almost-impossible-to-get-into sushi bar, which has matured dramatically in very short order. As the name indicates, you eat strictly at the whim of the chef. Expect a parade of about 20 dishes, most no larger than a bite or two, some cooked, some raw: things like seared tuna belly draped with uni cream and garlic foam, five-day-dry-aged tuna nigiri served with housemade soy sauce, a silken custard of lobster topped with trout eggs, a scallop from Hokkaido topped with osetra caviar and more. Must order: Just focus on getting in. 304 N. Main St., Santa Ana, 657-231-6008, instagram.com/omakasebygino ★★★
20. Lola Gaspar
Although the Perez brothers recently sold their Mexico City-style gastrobar, they still consult on the menus. The team they assembled is still in place, and nothing has changed, really. The lamb birria quesadillas are as good as ever. So, too, the chorizo negro tacos. On Tuesday nights, they still light up the grill on the patio and make some of the best tacos al carbon imaginable with carne asada and grilled chicken. And the hand-mixed micheladas and artisanal cocktails are still best in class. Must order: Birria queka and an expert piña colada. 211 W. 2nd St., Santa Ana, 714-972-1172, lolagaspar.com ★★★
The experimental gastropub Playground closed during the pandemic, and chef/owner Jason Quinn said at the time that it wasn’t coming back. The subtext of that declaration is now clear: The gastropub did go away but in its place has risen Detention, a far more glamorous, more comfortable and exponentially more mature restaurant with mostly the same crew in the kitchen (sans Quinn himself, day-to-day) and a new luxury cocktail lounge upfront. It feels like the adults are in charge now, and the cooking is better than ever: “Same trailer, different park,” my server explains. Must order: Dry-aged sea bass, Hokkaido milk bread. 220 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, 714-560-4444, detentiondtsa.com ★★★
Formerly known as Playground 2.0, Trust is the free-standing 18-seat “culinary theater” adjacent to Detention in downtown Santa Ana. Guests buy tickets well in advance to sit at the counter overlooking the kitchen where chef Justin Werner hosts a 12-course prix-fixe dinner party, preparing dishes such as gouda with roasted beets and poached rhubarb, minimally steamed crab topped with caviar or housemade pasta with first-of-the-season ramps sauteed simply in butter, all excellent. But guests must also endure hours of the chef’s vulgar Andrew Dice Clay-style comedy act, which includes a barrage of f-bombs and lewd, suggestive comments. (I wanted to include a direct quote, but my editor wouldn’t allow it.) Cooking is hard. Comedy is even harder. Don’t miss: Chef Jesus Mejia (who rarely says a word) bakes incredibly fluffy brioche and staggeringly good kouign-amann, served straight from the oven. 300 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, trustdtsa.com (no phone) ★★
57. La Super Birria
What started as a taco pop-up inside an old Mexican candy store ultimately eclipsed that candy store and became the hottest birrieria in the county, now with several additional locations either open or on the way. Chef Edgar Navarrete Gomez’s beef birria is outstanding, whether served as a crispy (dorado) taco or simply ladled into a bowl with tortillas on the side. Must order: Tacos dorados. 1041 W. First St., Santa Ana, 657-245-3810, instagram.com/super_birria ★★
69. El Mercado Modern Cuisine
Chef Fernando Franco makes some of the most fascinating tacos in the area, including vegetarian tacos layered with sauteed hibiscus flowers, charred jicama, fresh pea puree and sliced avocado. It’s hard to imagine better pancakes than the ones served here at Sunday brunch, drizzled with burnt piloncillo syrup. Also great: shrimp aguachile and chicken enchiladas in salsa verde. Must order: Tacos and mezcal. 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, 714-338-2446, mercadomodern.com ★★