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Workers in white coats and chefs hats make dumplings behind glass.
Chefs at work inside Paradise Dynasty at South Coast Plaza
Wonho Frank Lee

Orange County's 16 Hottest Restaurants, Summer 2021

From buzzy Vietnamese to underground barbecue and beyond

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Chefs at work inside Paradise Dynasty at South Coast Plaza
| Wonho Frank Lee

After more than 15 months of openings, closings, and general pandemic uncertainty, there’s absolutely no denying that Orange County’s dining scene is back. If anything, the area’s massive dining ecosystem never fully went away, owing in part to more lax public health guidelines and, currently, no indoor mask mandate or other restrictions in place. These days dining out in cities like Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Santa Ana, and San Juan Capistrano can give diners a sense of pre-pandemic times, with packed bars and booked-out weekend restaurants throughout the county.

The renewed dining energy in Orange County has been palpable for months, as new restaurants open constantly and press for their own place within the restaurant community. As a result, this hottest new restaurant list for Orange County is entirely new — the last time this map was updated was in 2019 — and is meant to be reflective of some of the biggest and most consequential openings of the past two years. Here now, are some of the hottest restaurants in Orange County right now, presented geographically.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; the latest data about the delta variant indicates that it may pose a low-to-moderate risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen

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229 E Commonwealth Ave Unit A
Fullerton, CA 92832
(714) 853-1081
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Orange County’s Indian scene is no slouch, thanks to players like Khan Saab, the so-called Desi craft kitchen known for offering staples like pani puri, biryani, and curries, plus a variety of steaks and other surprises.

Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton, California
Indian food from Khan Saab
Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen website

2. Smoke Queen Barbecue

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Winnie Yee-Lakhani is the Orange County smoke queen, an underground barbecue force making a name for herself and her county using only her ingenuity and an offset smoker. Find the Smoke Queen’s brisket baos, ribs, and more on Instagram for weekly preorder scheduling.

An overhead shot of a tin of barbecue with brisket, ribs, sides, and more.
Smoked meats from the Smoke Queen
Wonho Frank Lee

3. Rodeo 39 Public Market

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12885 Beach Blvd
Stanton, CA 90680

The Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton is a testament to pandemic perseverance. The do-it-all food hall opened in late 2020 and now features nearly two dozen food vendors, from Bearded Tang Brewery to Kra Z Kai’s BBQ, with plenty of fried chicken sandwiches, cocktails, pho, and dessert options thrown into the mix as well.

4. Blinking Owl Distillery

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802 E Washington Ave
Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 852-3947
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Orange County’s first craft distillery managed to revamp completely during the pandemic, opening a kitchen inside its Santa Ana space in order to continue to offer on-site drinking and sales. Now diners can enjoy pizzas and more while sipping on strong drinks made on-site by owners Brian and Robin Christenson.

5. Nep Cafe

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10836 Warner Ave
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 516-8121
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For pure volume, it’s hard to find a busier restaurant than Nep Cafe in Fountain Valley right now. This Vietnamese-leaning all-day option does unique takes on banh mi, grilled pork jowl, noodles, and a whole lot more. For something decadent, consider the bone marrow pasta.

6. Knife Pleat

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3333 S Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 266-3388
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For elegant French dining it’s all about Knife Pleat right now. The South Coast Plaza spot from chef Tony Esnault and partner Yassmin Sarmadi is “perfectly tailored” to “Orange County’s needs,” said then-LA Times co-critic Patricia Escárcega in 2019.

7. Paradise Dynasty

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3333 Bristol St Suite A
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 617-4630
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Fans are already running to South Coast Plaza for a taste of Paradise Dynasty (and downstairs sister project Le Shrimp Ramen). The airy upstairs room is home to this Singaporean chain’s classic dumplings and bao creations, all made by hand from a glassed-in corner of the kitchen.

Paradise Dynasty’s multi-colored soup dumplings in a tray.
Paradise Dynasty dumplings
Paradise Dynasty [official]

8. Tim Ho Wan

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2700 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606
(262) 888-8828
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For Hong Kong dim sum with a famous name, there’s no better weekend destination than Tim Ho Wan in Irvine. The franchising group has expanded, in part because of its international Michelin star acclaim, to more than a dozen countries, with each restaurant offering page after page of dim sum basics.

Tim Ho Wan steamed bun with meat inside.
Tim Ho Wan
Wonho Frank Lee

9. Porch & Swing

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2010 Main St Suite 170
Irvine, CA 92614
(888) 573-4407
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As the name implies, Irvine’s newer Porch & Swing is all about living the slow Southern life, with a focus on the lowcountry cuisine of the Carolinas, chef Andrew Parish’s birthplace.

10. Veg'D

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280 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 760-4026
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Noted vegan chef Matthew Kenney hit Costa Mesa with Veg’d earlier this year, converting a former Del Taco into a drive-thru destination for casual plant-based snacks like breakfast sandwiches, burgers, and bowls. 

The Veg’d plant bowl with grilled vegetables, avocado, toasted almonds, and dressing in Costa Mesa, California.
A bowl from Veg’d
Courtesy of Matthew Kenney Cuisine

11. Rye Goods

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3418 Via Lido
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 432-5550
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For morning buns, big loaves of crusty bread, and pastry of all sorts, get to Rye Goods at Lido Marina Village as soon as possible. This former underground bread operation has gone legit, and now fans are lining up on weekends for a taste.

A split loaf of dark brown bread on slate.
Bread from Rye Goods
Rye Goods

12. Fable & Spirit

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3441 Via Lido
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 409-9913
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One of Newport Beach’s newest hits is Fable & Spirit, the Michelin-level dinner and brunch spot that leans into Irish, Italian, and California flavors. There’s Guinness brown bread to start, alongside fish and chips, wood-fired pizzettas, and lots of vegetables and salads — plus cocktails and wine, naturally.

13. CdM Restaurant

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2325 East Coast Hwy
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625
(949) 287-6600
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While not the outright newest restaurant on this list, CdM still deserves inclusion for opening just before the start of the pandemic — and for staying afloat throughout it. Now the mellow Corona Del Mar hangout is happier than ever, with clusters of friends and date-night couples sliding into plush booths for an evening bite.

14. Sapphire

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1200 S Coast Hwy Suite 101
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 715-9888
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Longtime Orange County operator Russ Bendel (Ironwood, Olea) has taken the reins of the closing Sapphire to create something similar, but also new. As with his other spots, expect a broad collection of offbeat favorites, from housemade meatballs done with duck to Cornish game hen coq au vin. Red meat eaters can try the large bone-in ribeye, a veritable value at under $50.

15. Heritage Barbecue

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31721 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

The one-year-old Heritage Barbecue has cemented itself as a big (and busy) player on the Orange County food scene. The Texas-style barbecue setup isn’t confined by the usual rules about how to serve brisket and ribs. Instead the Castillo family is playing by its own rules, and everyone is paying attention.

Two Texas-style barbecue smokers sit under a roofted-in sunny area.
Smokers at Heritage Barbecue
Wonho Frank Lee

16. Mayfield

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31761 Camino Capistrano Suite 5-6
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
(949) 218-5140
Visit Website

Part restaurant, part market, and all style, San Juan Capistrano’s new Mayfield is perhaps the most notable new restaurant on this list. From the fluffy grilled focaccia served with varying dips to the natural wine to the cauliflower shawarma, this place can do no wrong.

Octopus with pomegranate molasses glaze at Mayfield, San Juan Capistrano.
Octopus from Mayfield
Farley Elliott

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1. Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen

229 E Commonwealth Ave Unit A, Fullerton, CA 92832
Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton, California
Indian food from Khan Saab
Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen website

Orange County’s Indian scene is no slouch, thanks to players like Khan Saab, the so-called Desi craft kitchen known for offering staples like pani puri, biryani, and curries, plus a variety of steaks and other surprises.

229 E Commonwealth Ave Unit A
Fullerton, CA 92832

2. Smoke Queen Barbecue

Anaheim, CA
An overhead shot of a tin of barbecue with brisket, ribs, sides, and more.
Smoked meats from the Smoke Queen
Wonho Frank Lee

Winnie Yee-Lakhani is the Orange County smoke queen, an underground barbecue force making a name for herself and her county using only her ingenuity and an offset smoker. Find the Smoke Queen’s brisket baos, ribs, and more on Instagram for weekly preorder scheduling.

3. Rodeo 39 Public Market

12885 Beach Blvd, Stanton, CA 90680

The Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton is a testament to pandemic perseverance. The do-it-all food hall opened in late 2020 and now features nearly two dozen food vendors, from Bearded Tang Brewery to Kra Z Kai’s BBQ, with plenty of fried chicken sandwiches, cocktails, pho, and dessert options thrown into the mix as well.

12885 Beach Blvd
Stanton, CA 90680

4. Blinking Owl Distillery

802 E Washington Ave, Santa Ana, CA 92701

Orange County’s first craft distillery managed to revamp completely during the pandemic, opening a kitchen inside its Santa Ana space in order to continue to offer on-site drinking and sales. Now diners can enjoy pizzas and more while sipping on strong drinks made on-site by owners Brian and Robin Christenson.

802 E Washington Ave
Santa Ana, CA 92701

5. Nep Cafe

10836 Warner Ave, Fountain Valley, CA 92708

For pure volume, it’s hard to find a busier restaurant than Nep Cafe in Fountain Valley right now. This Vietnamese-leaning all-day option does unique takes on banh mi, grilled pork jowl, noodles, and a whole lot more. For something decadent, consider the bone marrow pasta.

10836 Warner Ave
Fountain Valley, CA 92708

6. Knife Pleat

3333 S Bristol St, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

For elegant French dining it’s all about Knife Pleat right now. The South Coast Plaza spot from chef Tony Esnault and partner Yassmin Sarmadi is “perfectly tailored” to “Orange County’s needs,” said then-LA Times co-critic Patricia Escárcega in 2019.

3333 S Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

7. Paradise Dynasty

3333 Bristol St Suite A, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Paradise Dynasty’s multi-colored soup dumplings in a tray.
Paradise Dynasty dumplings
Paradise Dynasty [official]

Fans are already running to South Coast Plaza for a taste of Paradise Dynasty (and downstairs sister project Le Shrimp Ramen). The airy upstairs room is home to this Singaporean chain’s classic dumplings and bao creations, all made by hand from a glassed-in corner of the kitchen.

3333 Bristol St Suite A
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

8. Tim Ho Wan

2700 Alton Pkwy, Irvine, CA 92606
Tim Ho Wan steamed bun with meat inside.
Tim Ho Wan
Wonho Frank Lee

For Hong Kong dim sum with a famous name, there’s no better weekend destination than Tim Ho Wan in Irvine. The franchising group has expanded, in part because of its international Michelin star acclaim, to more than a dozen countries, with each restaurant offering page after page of dim sum basics.

2700 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606

9. Porch & Swing

2010 Main St Suite 170, Irvine, CA 92614

As the name implies, Irvine’s newer Porch & Swing is all about living the slow Southern life, with a focus on the lowcountry cuisine of the Carolinas, chef Andrew Parish’s birthplace.

2010 Main St Suite 170
Irvine, CA 92614

10. Veg'D

280 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
The Veg’d plant bowl with grilled vegetables, avocado, toasted almonds, and dressing in Costa Mesa, California.
A bowl from Veg’d
Courtesy of Matthew Kenney Cuisine

Noted vegan chef Matthew Kenney hit Costa Mesa with Veg’d earlier this year, converting a former Del Taco into a drive-thru destination for casual plant-based snacks like breakfast sandwiches, burgers, and bowls. 

280 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

11. Rye Goods

3418 Via Lido, Newport Beach, CA 92663
A split loaf of dark brown bread on slate.
Bread from Rye Goods
Rye Goods

For morning buns, big loaves of crusty bread, and pastry of all sorts, get to Rye Goods at Lido Marina Village as soon as possible. This former underground bread operation has gone legit, and now fans are lining up on weekends for a taste.

3418 Via Lido
Newport Beach, CA 92663

12. Fable & Spirit

3441 Via Lido, Newport Beach, CA 92663

One of Newport Beach’s newest hits is Fable & Spirit, the Michelin-level dinner and brunch spot that leans into Irish, Italian, and California flavors. There’s Guinness brown bread to start, alongside fish and chips, wood-fired pizzettas, and lots of vegetables and salads — plus cocktails and wine, naturally.

3441 Via Lido
Newport Beach, CA 92663

13. CdM Restaurant

2325 East Coast Hwy, Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

While not the outright newest restaurant on this list, CdM still deserves inclusion for opening just before the start of the pandemic — and for staying afloat throughout it. Now the mellow Corona Del Mar hangout is happier than ever, with clusters of friends and date-night couples sliding into plush booths for an evening bite.

2325 East Coast Hwy
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

14. Sapphire

1200 S Coast Hwy Suite 101, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Longtime Orange County operator Russ Bendel (Ironwood, Olea) has taken the reins of the closing Sapphire to create something similar, but also new. As with his other spots, expect a broad collection of offbeat favorites, from housemade meatballs done with duck to Cornish game hen coq au vin. Red meat eaters can try the large bone-in ribeye, a veritable value at under $50.

1200 S Coast Hwy Suite 101
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

15. Heritage Barbecue

31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Two Texas-style barbecue smokers sit under a roofted-in sunny area.
Smokers at Heritage Barbecue
Wonho Frank Lee

The one-year-old Heritage Barbecue has cemented itself as a big (and busy) player on the Orange County food scene. The Texas-style barbecue setup isn’t confined by the usual rules about how to serve brisket and ribs. Instead the Castillo family is playing by its own rules, and everyone is paying attention.

31721 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Related Maps

16. Mayfield

31761 Camino Capistrano Suite 5-6, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Octopus with pomegranate molasses glaze at Mayfield, San Juan Capistrano.
Octopus from Mayfield
Farley Elliott

Part restaurant, part market, and all style, San Juan Capistrano’s new Mayfield is perhaps the most notable new restaurant on this list. From the fluffy grilled focaccia served with varying dips to the natural wine to the cauliflower shawarma, this place can do no wrong.

31761 Camino Capistrano Suite 5-6
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Related Maps