10 Most Memorable Restaurants of 2012

"I was pleasantly surprised by Isola Pizza Bar where pizzas are thin and delicious. Wines are from the owner's family vineyard and everything they serve is cooked in the oven they imported straight from Italy."

a farewell to 2012 with a year-end round-up



This year has flown by and now we are at my last post of 2012. Like last year, I end with a run-down of my 10 most memorable restaurants/meals of the last 12 months. On my list are two San Diego restaurants and another, which has made my list two years in a row. Thank you to all my readers who have come along for the ride and I hope you will continue to journey with me as we embark into the new year.

I start my “best of” with a casual spot close to home. Mick’s Karma Bar is a small space offering up burgers, and they only have five on the menu. You can choose from a beef, turkey or veggie pattie with a bunch of different toppings, but that’s it. There is also a fish taco on the menu. Order the strawberry basil lemonade as well, it’s seriously addicting! Michael Schepers, owner of Mick’s keeps everything simple, but it is always absolutely delicious!

I’m a huge fan of Lucca Cafe and its chef Cathy Pavlos. Chef Cathy is the warmest, most hospitable woman I know and her passion for food shines through in her wonderful dishes featuring seasonal produce and using the simplest of ingredients at its prime. I love the Sunday Suppers usually held monthly and features an eating debauchery shared family style.

Last year, I featured Anepalco’s Cafe on my year end list. This year, Anepalco’s Cafe opened its second location at Ayres Inn in Orange and there was never a doubt they would make it onto the list this year. Chef Danny Godinez has taken his breakfast and lunch menu to a whole new level by offering dinner at the new location. His dishes reflect his Mexican roots with his experiences in traditional French cuisine. The result is using French techniques and marrying them with bold Mexican flavors. You’ll have to taste it to believe it.

When Mokkoji Shabu Shabu opened this year, I must say my son and I visited so often that when I received my credit card statement, I was shocked at how many of the charges were from there. Chef/owner Tommy Kim, an alumni of the St Regis Hotel uses his fine dining experiences to create an experience like no other. This is THE best shabu places in Orange County. Once you’ve tasted the difference, and experienced the extra mile they go to make your meal delightful, you won’t go elsewhere.

One of the biggest surprises this year has been a little place in San Diego which offers some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a while. Cafe 21 has an incredible breakfast/lunch menu with fantastic pancakes and even better egg dishes. However, their dinner menu also blew me away with fresh, great quality produce, superb proteins leaning towards a Mediterranean feel. Cafe 21 has become a favorite of mine in southern California and they deserve every bit of success they’re receiving!

On the topic of San Diego, I was pleasantly surprised by Isola Pizza Bar where the pizzas are thin and delicious. Wines are from the owner’s family vineyard and everything they serve is cooked in the oven they imported straight from Italy, including the shrimp dish pictured below.

best shrimp


The Ranch seems to be one of those places where my friends and I go to celebrate something special. Early this year, I celebrated a friend’s birthday here during restaurant week. Then, last month, I celebrated my birthday here with 11 of my friends for dinner. It was a fun-filled evening with delicious food and wine. I returned for a wine dinner a few nights later and that was an absolutely stunning pairing of food and wines. The Ranch remains one of my favorites in Orange County.

This year, The Landmark in Corona del Mar was renovated into a chic, trendy space with new owners and a new chef worthy of praise. Chef Travis Flood, a native San Diegan comes with an impressive resume including Fifth Floor in San Francisco, working under Laurent Gris. The menu is true fine dining style paired with comfort food kicked up a notch or two. Definitely worth a visit.

My new favorite sushi place is Shunka, a little place in a non-descript mall in Costa Mesa. The restaurant serves up beautiful sushi using best quality fish, some of which are imported from Japan. I highly recommend sitting at the sushi bar and ordering omakase and let the chef take you on an incredible ride. Unfortunately I haven’t written up a blog post about Shunka, but this is my go-to place whenever I’m hankering for some top quality sushi close to home!

Last but not least, this fantastic fine dining establishment recently got a new chef and a new seasonal menu. The hand-made pastas are created in house and definitely worth ordering. They blew me away as I haven’t had anything like this since my trip to New York in the fall. Andrea Ristorante offers spectacular views and if you get there at the right time, you can watch the sunset over the Pacific.

Well, that’s it! Thanks to all of you who have followed my blog this year. I love all the comments you leave and appreciate your support and enthusiasm! See you all in 2013 and I hope to bring you more tasty places to visit in the new year!


Vincent Di Nino