All of Our O.C.’s Best 2021 Winners

Here is our annual list celebrating the best O.C. has to offer, including food, drink, fun things to see and do, places to shop, and ways to indulge.


Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Rotating Taco Trio
Every Taco Thursday, the team at El Mercado Modern Cuisine offers a special menu of three tacos featuring house-made blue and yellow corn tortillas. Highlights have included a creative take on ratatouille, one featuring bunashimeji mushrooms, and a shredded chicken taco with mole sauce, pepitas, and cilantro (3 for $10). Santa Ana, 714-338-2446

Natural Wine Bar
If you prefer natural wine to its counterpart, head to Semi Tropic Wines, a bar dedicated to natural wine. Opt to sit inside or out to try the rotating wines on tap for $11 a glass and pair with a cheese board ($30) featuring produce that’s sourced from The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Head into the bottle shop to take your favorite wine home with you. Costa Mesa, 949-520-2118

Brunch Splurge
Indulge your sweet tooth with the crispy-edge sourdough pancakes at Fable & Spirit’s recently launched brunch ($14). Topped with lemon mascarpone and blueberry compote, the pancakes only need maple syrup to be truly decadent. The surprising sourdough is a delightful contrast to the sweet fruit flavors. Newport Beach, 949-409-9913

Savory Pate
While we were waiting for a vaccine, Chef de Cuisine Arturo Castillo at Marché Modèrne was perfecting Pâté en Croûte, an intricate creation starring house pâté and morels or chanterelles all encased in a buttery, golden, and dare we say perfect crust. $38 per slice. Newport Coast, 714-434-7900

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Drinks To-Go by the Liter
Takeaway cocktails (previous page) are a pandemic innovation we hope endures, especially at Olea. The team there crushes the loosened alcohol rules with liter bottles of their dreamy craft cocktails for $56, and single drinks for $14. Just add ice. Newport Beach, 949-287-6807

Mango Desserts
The tropical stone fruit is king at Hui Lau Shan, a dessert shop originally founded in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Carabao mangoes sourced from the Philippines are showcased in sweet treats such as mango mochi, mango pudding, mango ice cream, and pomelo mango sago, to name a few. Irvine, 949-418-7989; Westminster, 657-210-4274

Vegan Mobile Cafe
Miffie’s Coffee is a coffeehouse on wheels that offers all-vegan drinks and treats, from oat milk-based lattes to signature dessert-like drinks. With sustainability in mind, owners Ross and Didi Lower source local, organic ingredients, use biodegradable serveware, and are crowdfunding to be an exclusively battery- and solar-powered truck. Throughout O.C., @miffiescoffee

Grilled Stingray Fin
For a unique appetizer, opt for Hashigo Sushi’s grilled stingray fin with spicy mayo and a wedge of lemon ($12). The thin slices are similar to a soft beef jerky and the lemon and spicy mayo offset the sweetness of the meat. Huntington Beach, 714-848-1111

Unique Acai Bowl Bases
The all-vegan Berry Brand at Union Market serves up beautifully arranged superfood bowls with unlimited combinations of rich, creamy bases and delectable toppings ($7 to $13).  Choose from traditional bases such as acai and pitaya along with signature blends like ube dream, mango, and the pastel-colored Coconut Dream. Tustin,

Mapo Tofu Tots
A spin on the traditional dish, Toast Kitchen & Bakery’s tater tot version features tofu, ground chuck, nacho cheese, fontina, roasted sesame seeds, and cilantro. The explosion of flavors will have you finishing the $8 bowl and already wanting more. Costa Mesa, 949-873-5057

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Local Hard Kombucha
Rich Elixirs offers an alcoholic version of the probiotic-rich, bubbly beverage. The hard booch is on tap at both locations, and you can grab a bottle to go. Try the refreshing pineapple hibiscus flavor; two more flavors are set to premiere this month. Costa Mesa, 949-445-0102; Tustin, 949-445-0102

Tofu Butter Masala
The delivery-only Indian Vegan Cafe sprouted up at the perfect time mid-pandemic, when diners were eager for good eats brought to their doors. Though Indian food often leans vegetarian, the many unique plant-based options here, such as the protein-centric tofu butter masala, blew us away. Irvine, 516-754-4150

Loaded Fruit Tray
If you’re heading to a birthday party, having a beach day, or just want to indulge in some delicious fruit, grab a tray from Natural that includes coconut, strawberries, cucumber, mango, kiwi, and more and comes with a side of chile and lime. Sizes vary from small to large ($17 to $54). Anaheim, 714-563-1343

Filipino Coffee Shop
Teofilo Coffee Company sources beans from the Philippines and roasts them fresh in-house. Enjoy drinks such as the Mount Milo, a Filipino-inspired mocha with cold brew and Milo chocolate powder. Fried chicken adobo with ube waffles tops a robust menu of ube eats. Grab a bag of coffee beans to brew at home. Los Alamitos, 714-715-7183

Gourmet Beach Meal
Lost Pier Café at Aliso Creek Beach isn’t your average snack shack. Of course you can get a burger, fish tacos, or chips. But why go for everyday fare when the tuna poke bowl is so delicious and fresh ($14)? The bowl is perfect for eating at a table shoreside as you watch kids frolic on the playground or in the waves. Or take it with you to have a great to-go meal away from the crowds this summer. Laguna Beach, 949-715-4210

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Loaded Dole Whips
While Hawaiian shave ice is the main specialty at Hula Girls Shave Ice, Dole Whip enthusiasts drove here during Disneyland’s closure to get a taste of the iconic vegan dessert. It comes in newfangled creations such as the lime-flavored Dole Whip inspired by Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) from “The Mandalorian.” The watermelon and coconut-pineapple flavors are also favorites. Huntington Beach, 949-295-0292

Smooth Cocktail
The Velvet Alley at Selanne Steak Tavern is elegant and light. Made with Empress 1908 gin, peach bitters, and lemon, the drink’s lavender shade makes it delicate and perfect for any occasion ($15). It goes down so easily, you’ll be tempted to indulge in many. The restaurant’s specialty cocktails change every three months to keep deliciously in season; this one will linger from the spring menu into summer. Laguna Beach, 949-715-9881

Crab Pasta
When in the mood for something truly special, try the crab tajarin at Twenty Eight Restaurant and Bar. Golden strands of pasta are generously topped with truffle crab cream, lump crab, shellfish crumbs, and a Jonah crab claw. $29. Irvine, 949-852-2828

Aquavit Cocktail
Always on the leading edge, Blinking Owl Distillery presents the 20/21 Vision, a killer post-pandemic cocktail laced with its superlative Aquavit. Try it with chef Luis Perez’s cacio e pepe pizza, blistering hot from the oven on the new, here-at-last patio. Santa Ana, 714-852-3947

Taro Boba
What distinguishes Omomo Tea Shoppe’s take on the classic bubble tea flavor is the house-made taro paste on the bottom ($4.50). The freshly pureed, creamy taro, used as a filling for many Asian desserts, pairs perfectly with milk. Two locations in Irvine, 949-861-8828, 949-418-9470

Tea to Go
Stun your fancy friends by hosting a perfect high tea. Morning Lavender Cafe preps the dainty eats to go—finger sandwiches, pastries, jam, and your choice of teas ($35)—so you can transfer the bites to your china and casually ask, “One lump or two?” Tustin, 714-486-1429

Upscale Burrito
Leave it to Taco María to elevate a humble dish to noble heights. The not-so-standard burrito is made with refried pinto beans, jasmine rice, browned butter, and ancho chile wrapped in a remarkable handmade flour tortilla, freshly charred on the grill ($12). Costa Mesa, 714-538-8444

Fresh Corn Tamales
Huchepos—sweet corn tamales, light as a feather and redolent of fresh and ground corn—are found only at Chato’s Bar & Grill. Bring your favorite vegetarian and discover why we say Sergio Ortega is a high master of masa creations ($14). Santa Ana, 714-852-3256


Katresha Pure Skin Care; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Plant-Based Skin Care
Living up to its name, Divine Face Oil from Katresha Pure Skin Care soothes and softens. Though the oil will blend in nicely any time, use it at night for a hydrated and glowing feel the next morning ($68). Flower and plant oils are hand-blended and create a lovely, restful scent, perfect for sending you off to sleep. Buy the set that includes oil, face cream, and eye cream ($168) and you’ll get a gorgeous, decorative glass bottle. Laguna Beach resident Katresha is passionate about plant-based everything. Laguna Beach, 949-637-3442

Nordstrom Life Hack
It’s time to pick up your Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack purchase that didn’t include free shipping. Rather than hassling with parking and crowds at the mall, get it from Nordstrom Local. You can also have your purchase altered and return items there as well. Feeling generous? You can drop off donations, too. Newport Beach, 949-763-2922

Curated Clean Skin care
At Pop Society, resident holistic estheticians customize products from Botnia skin care, a small-batch, organic, and plant-based line made in Sausalito. They add extra ingredients such as plant compounds, boosters, hydrosols, and plant oils during your visit depending on your needs. Costa Mesa, 714-566-5957

Dried Flower Bar
If you’re looking for a stunning dried floral bouquet, La Bodega Bottle Shop has a dried flower bar as well as arrangements starting at $15. Co-owner Giselle Granados is also a florist and can be commissioned for arrangements starting at $25. Huntington Beach, 562-357-7874

Hand-Painted Dog Portraits
Immortalize your pup with a watercolor portrait created by Brooke Dieda. Send in a few photos of your dog and in two to three weeks you’ll have a custom painting. Pricing starts at $75 for a 5-by-7-inch portrait or $125 for an 8-by-10-inch one. Dieda also offers custom illustrations, design, and calligraphy for weddings and events. Costa Mesa,

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Outdoor Vintage Market
Known for its midcentury modern furniture and decor, Inretrospect also hosts a pop-up market on the second Saturday of each month. Dozens of vendors peddle curated vintage and handmade goods, such as the ones above from Luna Reece Ceramics, and there’s food and beer for sale. Huntington Beach, 949-438-6564

Bespoke Facial
Rather than blindly choosing from a list of facials you think will work for you, OmniaPiel offers a custom facial ($169) from a registered nurse. Start with a gentle cleanser before your skin is analyzed under a light to determine the best treatment. It will also include a massage in the form of gua sha, Chinese acupressure, or European facial massage depending on your skin type. Costa Mesa, 714-716-5031

Alternative Engagement Rings
For an engagement ring that’s as unique as your future bride, try Marrow Fine, which offers a selection of engagement rings that aren’t run-of-the-mill solitaires. Choose from stones such as blue, pink, peach, and lavender sapphire, black onyx, gray diamonds, bicolor tourmaline, and more. The cuts are also atypical. Newport Beach, 949-287-5738

Designer Bike
Ride a made-to-order Louis Vuitton bicycle crafted in collaboration with Tamboite Paris, a Parisian bike maker (pricing starts at $28,900). Created in Paris, each bike features a leather seat, handlebars, and cables, with the option to add your initials to the frame or back wheel. Customers choose from five models, which can be ordered at Louis Vuitton’s South Coast Plaza location. Costa Mesa, 714-662-6907


Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Community Mural
The 7,500-square-foot mural at Orange County Educational Arts Academy was designed and installed by Brian Peterson of Faces of Santa Ana and local artist Damin Lujan. Titled the Purple Unity Project, the mural highlights the charter school’s commitment to unity, diversity, and inclusion and features portraits of historical and influential figures from Rosa Parks to Malala Yousafzai. Santa Ana, @purpleunityproject

Pop-Up Plant Swap
This monthly event held at Houseplant Nation brings local plant enthusiasts together. Participants are encouraged to bring plants they’ve fallen out of love with, have no space for, or have multiples of—as long as they are healthy and pest-free. It’s an opportunity to learn from others and bring a new and rare plant home. Huntington Beach, 714-330-1579

Free Parking Lot Concerts
Liven up your Thursdays with free drive-in concerts at The Camp. Park your car, grab some food from one of the many restaurants, pop your trunk, and enjoy tunes from bands such as Spacetime Television, Undecided Future, and Candid. Starting at 5:30 p.m., these two-hour concerts give you enough time to relax and unwind after work. Costa Mesa,

Downtown Retool
The Promenade on Forest took lemons and made lemonade during the pandemic. Forest Avenue closed to vehicles between Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street, which created a thriving, walkable area for performances, artwork, outdoor dining, and relaxing. Alcohol is permitted at the tables on raised platforms. The closure will remain for at least three more years. Laguna Beach

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Baja Wine and Beer Tasting
Alta Baja Market hosts curated tastings of Baja wine and beer on its patio. Featured wineries and craft breweries include La Cetto and Vinos Los Angeles. Online reservations are required, and the price ($25) includes a small cheese plate. Santa Ana, 714-783-2252

Mountain Bike Clinic
Learn the basics of mountain biking at this workshop hosted by Irvine Ranch Conservancy. Expert volunteers coach proper form and technique as participants navigate a series of modular structures such as dirt ramps and rock step-ups. You’ll also learn proper safety and preparedness before hitting a trail. Online registration required. Irvine,

Long-Awaited Pool Party
After years of planning, Modern Times Leisuretown opened last summer with a sparkling pool—which has been off-limits because of safety restrictions. But the massive, resort-like brewery already shines with its ample outdoor seating, vegan bar food, cafe, and an incomparable beer list. We’re counting down the days till we’re at that poolside bar! Anaheim, 714-874-4439

Comedy and Concerts at the Beach
Enjoy live music Saturdays at SeaLegs at the Beach for free. Buy food and a drink and kick back in a lounge chair while you listen to bands such as David Rosales & His Band of Scoundrels, Pato, Stephen Wesley, and more. Keep an eye out for stand-up comedy shows, which have featured Tiffany Haddish, Jeff Ross, and Bill Burr ($45). Huntington Beach,

Baby Goat Yoga
Combine a love for animals and yoga at the Goods and Goat Market’s baby goat yoga class ($35). The 45-minute class takes place Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays and involves baby goats jumping up on you while you (attempt to) move through yoga poses. Afterward, check out the Zen garden or browse the store. San Juan Capistrano, 949-212-4357

Photograph by Jessica Lawler

Coastal View Park
Badlands Park is the fairest of O.C.’s ocean-view parks. Owned and operated by the county, the natural open space offers little in the way of frills such as grass and playgrounds. What it does provide are beautiful rock formations and sweeping cliffside views of the Pacific Ocean without the need for any uphill hiking. Laguna Niguel

DIY Workshop Hub
Not only does Open Market OC feature local makers and small businesses at two locations, it also offers workshops at the Laguna Hills spot that you can take after a day of shopping. Offerings include art classes, candlemaking, chunky-blanket workshops, and more. Class prices vary. Laguna Hills, 949-485-0322 and Santa Ana

New Theater
After a dozen years performing live comedy in Orange County, ImprovCity has upgraded its digs and opened a new black box theater space in the heart of Old Town Tustin. Check out the improvisational classes and live shows (family-friendly and late-night). Tustin, 855-624-6776

Photographs courtesy of Atomic Skate Exchange

Free Roller-Skating Class
Each Saturday, Atomic Skate Exchange offers roller-skating lessons at no cost held outside of its storefront. Instructor Leo Ra James guides participants through the basics, followed by more advanced moves. The class ends with an open skate. Irvine, 949-325-8646

Needlepoint Store
Grab everything you need to make a creation at Newport Needlepoint. Once you get your things, you can sit at the large table and start working. Not sure how to get started? The staff will help you one-on-one at no cost. Newport Beach, 949-650-8022

467-Step Workout
Switch up your routine and get in some cardio at Hillcrest Park. The hilltop park near downtown Fullerton features a steep set of stairs overlooking Lions Field. The stairs are lit up at night and include three lookout decks for much-needed breaks. Fullerton

Flamenco Show
Not your run-of-the-mill Saturday night activity, the weekly “Art of Flamenco” show at Cafe Sevilla offers insight about the southern region of Spain and its traditional dance. Performers will impress you with energy, intricate footwork, and song. Dinner includes the popular paella, a salad, and a delicious lemon tart plus a glass of sangria ($89.50). Shows start at 6:30 p.m. Costa Mesa, 949-688-1555 

Pandan mochi donuts from Modo Hawaii and pandan cookies from Kaffeine Alley; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Pandan Treats

Pandan mochi donuts
Modo Hawaii, Irvine

Pandan Pina Collision with cold-pressed pandan, coconut milk, and pineapple puree
Loose Leaf Boba, Santa Ana

Jade Bliss with pandan, mung bean soy milk, coconut sago, and boba
Soy Good, Garden Grove

Panda Pandan with coconut water, sugarcane, and coconut bits
Tallgrass Drink, Garden Grove

Pandan cookies
Kaffeine Alley, Anaheim

Pandan cashew nut milk, matcha pandan latte
JuiceMi, Newport Beach

Mango sticky rice ice cream made with pandan, coconut milk, and oat milk
Stella Jean’s Ice Cream, Costa Mesa

Pandan horchata
Banh Xeo Boys, Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton

Mung bean milk tea with pandan
7 Leaves Cafe, multiple O.C. locations

Pandan waffles with coconut or durian and dessert drinks with pandan jelly
Bambu, Irvine

Pandan Vietnamese honeycomb cake
THH Sandwiches, multiple O.C. locations

Buko pandan creme caramel
Oi Asian Fusion, Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton

Buko (coconut) pandan butter and pandan cream cheese rolls
Kitchen 1726, throughout O.C.

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