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A spread of barbecue and sides from Heritage BBQ in San Juan Capistrano.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Our favorite Orange County restaurants from the 101

[It’s here: The Los Angeles Times’ 101 restaurants, dishes, people and ideas that define how we eat in 2020.]

For the best Vietnamese food in Southern California, you have to make your way to Little Saigon in Orange County. But while you’re there, why not stay for fall-off-the-bone barbecue beside a historic California mission or a takeout meal from one of the most lauded Mexican restaurants in the Southland? These four restaurants from The Times’ 101 list are some of our critics’ favorites in the O.C.

[From the archives: See last year’s list of Orange County restaurants from our 101 list]

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A spread of food from Brodard.
FOUNTAIN VALLEY, CA- October 9, 2019: clockwise from top, Luna Rice Cakes with Shrimp, Jackfruit Salad, Seafood Clay Pot, Shrimp Spring Rolls and the Grilled Pork Spring Rolls from the Brodard in Fountain Valley on Wednesday, October 10, 2019. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Brodard Restaurant

Fountain Valley Vietnamese
L.A. Times’ 101 Best Restaurants
| 2020
A mainstay of Orange County’s Little Saigon since the 1990s, Brodard is credited with popularizing nem nuong cuon, sweet-salty barbecued pork spring rolls bundled with herbs and thin wonton strips, every bite crisp and bracing. It is the perfect takeout food. Equally captivating are the gold-brown rice cakes, or banh khot, each one cradling a buoyant shrimp. The deluxe broken rice plate is a gleeful, vibrant jumble of shredded pork, shrimp cakes and spongy egg meatloaf. In trying times — or any time — hunger needs sustenance, and there is succor in the form of steaming bowls of cháo cá, the buttery sole porridge dosed liberally with restorative fresh ginger and scallions. Don’t miss the jackfruit salad, a profound conflagration of chiles, lime and fish sauce that jars all the senses in precisely the right ways. For dessert, rows of house-made macarons, candy-colored and feather-light, flavored with ingredients like pistachio, durian, Earl Grey tea, coconut, chocolate, lychee and strawberry, await in the lobby bakery.
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The cheese boat from Forn Al Hara restaurant in Anaheim.
ANAHEIM, CA-May 28, 2019: The Cheese Boat from Forn Al Hara restaurant in Anaheim on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Forn Al Hara

Anaheim Middle Eastern $
L.A. Times’ 101 Best Restaurants
| 2020
Mo Alam was as prepared for the moment as a restaurateur could be: His bakery-cafe has been churning out to-go orders from Anaheim’s surrounding “Little Arabia” community for nearly 20 years. Alam specializes in manakeesh, the thin, softly golden flatbreads that Lebanon relies on for on-the-fly morning meals. Start with one spread with the dusky green, sesame-speckled mix of za’atar and olive, the most traditional option, and then branch out to nearly three dozen ingredient combinations. A manakeesh with eggs and soujouk (cured, cumin-scented beef sausage that manages to be both crumbly and lush) makes for a substantial breakfast, as does lahm bi ajeen, a version spread with spiced ground beef given the faintest tart edge from pomegranate molasses. Buy some fatayer — billowy triangular pastries filled with spinach zinged by lemon and sumac — for later. Ensconced in the nook of a shopping center that Alam partly owns, Forn Al Hara is no secret: As much as a business can safely bustle right now, this one does.
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A plate of barbecue and sides from Heritage BBQ.
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA - OCTOBER 31: Heritage BBQ on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020 in San Juan Capistrano, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Heritage BBQ

American $$$
L.A. Times’ 101 Best Restaurants
| 2020
When they opened Heritage last summer, pitmaster Daniel Castillo and his wife, Brenda, made San Juan Capistrano the latest Southern California pilgrimage site for Texas-style barbecue. Meats smoke over California white oak in twin 1,000-gallon pits on display in the restaurant’s outdoor dining space. The brisket is textbook, blackened and meandering in its textures, with a ruby, well-defined smoke ring. Props to the lush pulled pork and the mighty, weekends-only beef rib whose meat you can practically eat with a spoon. Following the example of groundbreakers like 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, Castillo weaves Mexican American flavors into the menu. Sausages may be stuffed with chorizo verde and Oaxaca cheese; borracho beans have depth from dried chiles and jalapeños; and chorizo, guajillo chiles and queso fresco detonate mac and cheese. Along with barbecue fanaticism come long lines (extra-lengthy in times of social distancing) and unpredictable hours; the Castillos close when the day’s product runs out.
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Pescadillas from Taco Maria.
COSTA MESA, CA - OCTOBER 16: Pescadillas from Taco Maria on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 in Costa Mesa, CA. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Taco Maria

Costa Mesa Mexican $$
L.A. Times’ 101 Best Restaurants
| 2020
In takeout mode, Carlos Salgado has directed his innovationist energies into Cortez the Killer, a compact but lavish burger built of three thin Wagyu beef patties robed with caramelized onions, blue cheese and date ketchup on a brioche bun. Veal jus comes on the side for baptizing the beast. Is he still selling tacos? A couple — most memorably a chewy-crisp grilled variation of pescadillas fashioned from blue corn masa, filled with sturgeon and served with a smoky, peanut-riddled salsa morita. The dinnertime tasting menus at his indoor-outdoor Costa Mesa dining room have always been communions of soul and intellect — so quell yearnings with his carryout family-style meals. Beef barbacoa or pork braised in roasted green chile may anchor the feast, and there is always the stack of Salgado’s tortillas smelling of sweet, sun-warmed fields.
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