Did you miss me? 

You probably didn’t even notice, but in case you were wondering why I’ve been so quiet lately, it’s because I took a brief break from my weekly columns to focus on my annual guide to the 75 Best Places to Eat, which I’m happy to announce returns next month. 

This will be the eighth edition of this guide. The last two were very different: a pandemic edition in 2020 and an all-taco edition in 2021. But this year it’s back in the original format with a list of the 75 best restaurants in Orange County. It publishes June 2 online, June 3 in print for subscribers only. 

More from Brad A. Johnson

The 50 Best Places to Eat Tacos, 2021
The Best Places to Eat, 2020 Pandemic Edition
The 75 Best Places to Eat, 2019
The 75 Best Places to Eat, 2018

What I’ve been up to: I’ve been dining nonstop, desperately trying to make up for all the time lost during the pandemic. I anonymously revisited all the restaurants previously included as well as dozens of others from newcomers to classics. I always start with a massive list that has to be whittled down to just 75. It’s an impossible mission, and the research is exhaustive.  

Good news: I made my deadline. Everything is now in production, and I can’t wait for you to see it. 

Until then, here’s a sneak peek at a few of the things mentioned in the guide that I can’t stop thinking about. Spoiler alert: These restaurants made the list. 

Steamed mussels in a sauce of oxidized wine and milk powder at The Chef’s Table at Bello (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Mussels at The Chef’s Table at Bello

In case you haven’t heard, chef Sandro Nardone’s modern Italian restaurant Bello recently launched The Chef’s Table, which is a six-seat tasting-menu experience at the counter overlooking the kitchen, where chef Zach Scherer creates a unique 12-course menu that changes every week. On my visit, he served some truly incredible mussels. They were enormous. They were from British Columbia. Each mussel (the meat, not the shell) was as big as a pecan. He served these in a sauce of oxidized wine and milk powder, and I can’t remember when I’ve ever enjoyed a mussel more than this. 1200 Bison Ave., Newport Beach, 949-520-7191, bellobysandronardone.com

Nam tok, grilled beef with toasted rice powder, chili powder, lime and fresh herbs at Thai Avenue in Garden Grove (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Nam tok at Thai Avenue

Thai Avenue was the guide’s Restaurant of the Year in 2020, and it’s still my favorite Thai restaurant in Orange County. I’ve written several times about their utterly peerless tom yum with freshwater prawns. But the dish I’ve been obsessing over lately is their nam tok, which is a spicy salad of beef tossed with toasted rice powder, chili powder, birds-eye chili and fresh herbs. It’s one of the things I constantly crave when I’m off-duty. 10130 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, 657-233-5859, thaiavenuegardengrove.com

Beef tartare with charred garlic salsa and smoked black pepper aioli at Chaak in Tustin (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Beef tartare at Chaak

The kitchen had just put this new item on the menu when I dined recently at chef Gabbi Patrick’s wood-fired, Yucatàn-inspired Chaak in Tustin. I’ve eaten a million variations of beef tartare over the years, but I’ve never had anything quite like this. Very good steak was hand-chopped and tossed with a salsa of charred garlic (and I mean really charred, blackened). Served alongside was a smoked black-pepper aioli and fried taro strips. When you fold all of this together, it is remarkable. I’ve never had anything quite like it before. 215 El Camino Real, Tustin, 657-699-3019, chaakkitchen.com

Roasted chicken salad with peas and frisee at Maison in Dana Point (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Chicken salad with peas at Maison

This salad caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. At chef Danielle Kuhn’s breezy, laid-back breakfast/lunch cafe in Dana Point, she makes lots of salads. On the day of my visit she made a salad with hand-pulled roasted chicken, fresh peas, herbs and greens. Nothing fancy, but I literally couldn’t put my fork down. 34320 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, 949-218-8431, maisondanapoint.com

Cocktail with rum and spring peas at Knife Pleat in Costa Mesa (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Pea cocktail at Knife Pleat

As long as we’re talking about peas and surprises, here’s another. You might not get a chance to taste this one because it was a daily special, very limited, inspired by a batch of first-of-the-season peas that had just arrived in chef Tony Esnault’s kitchen at Knife Pleat, the fancy French restaurant at South Coast Plaza. The bartender had gotten a taste of the peas and thought they were unusually sweet and floral, so he pilfered a few handfuls from the kitchen and turned them into a sweet-pea puree, which he then blended with rum. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But this was honestly one of most refreshing cocktails I’ve had in a long time. 3333 Bristol St., 3rd floor, Costa Mesa, 714-266-3388, knifepleat.com

Tonkotsu ramen with pork chashu at HiroNori in Irvine (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Tonkotsu ramen at HiroNori

This is not a new discovery. But every time I check in on the original HiroNori in Irvine, I’m reminded anew that their velvety tonkotsu broth is unrivaled. So, too, the chashu pork served on top. It’s no wonder this place always has a waiting list of at least 30 minutes, sometimes an hour or more. We’ve got tons of great ramen in OC, but this bowl of tonkotsu with chashu pork is still the one to beat. 2222 Michelson Drive, Irvine, 949-536-5800, hironoricraftramen.com 

Mark your calendars. There’s a lot packed into this year’s guide.

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