The 10 Best Restaurants in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2018Sean Malin December 31, 2018 4 Comments
“As much as you would from a novel or a painting or an opera or movie, you can go to a restaurant and eat a meal, and look at the people around you, and smell the smells, and taste the flavors and learn something about the world.”
— Jonathan Gold
2018 was a tough year for local food. This year, His Eminence – the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angeleno critic Jonathan Gold – passed away at the unfortunate age of 57, regional publications which once offered nuanced reporting from within Southern California slid deeper into greed-driven collapse, and several of our favorite restaurants, as all restaurants eventually must, closed up shop.
But the year was not entirely grim for the gastronomically inclined. In the Santa Clarita Valley, our eating options continue to proliferate nearly as fast as the new housing developments; and our own food journalism grows along with it. It is only fitting that we raise a toast to the local businesses that pursued culinary excellence and helped to make this long, intense year a little more pleasant.
So here is our first (hopefully annual) list of Santa Clarita’s 10 best restaurants, 2018 edition. But beware: there are some caveats. Opinions are like assholes – everybody has one, including our food critic, and they usually stink. Nonetheless, we are happy for you to share yours with us in the comments, provided you remember that disagreeing does not validate mistreatment of others. After all, the glory of food is that it can be a gateway to experience and memory, distinct for each individual no matter where, what or when they are eating. Play nicely.
10. Mandarin Wong Chinese Restaurant
Where has Mandarin Wong been all our lives? Right here, as a matter-of-fact, wedged into one of many identical Lyons Avenue strip malls just down the street from its more popular competitor: Grand Panda. For years, we neglected this delicate, charming little restaurant. Or perhaps we just never knew how exceptional its spins on Americanized standards – Mongolian beef, orange chicken, egg drop soup – truly were, too distracted were we by Grand Panda’s opulence or the indulgent comforts of Valencia’s Pei Wei. Don’t make the same mistakes we did.
Address: 23758 Lyons Ave., Newhall CA 91321
9. Newhall Refinery
Praise has been justifiably heaped on Simon and Shannon Mee’s gastropub in the years since its opening, but 2018 took the Refinery to a new level. Their most successful venture was an expansion of their wine list, a competitive nod to the many wine tasting rooms now open on Newhall’s Main Street. But drinks are often only as good as their meal pairings, a challenge which the Mees have met and exceeded. The Refinery’s Craft Burger, for example, has always been a gift (despite its exorbitant price), and it takes on entirely new shades of sophistication when downed with a house-recommended glass of 2016 Belleruche Côtes du Rhône. There may not be a more sumptuous 1-2 punch in this valley.
Address: 24258 Main St., Newhall CA 91321
8. Lima Limón Peruvian Restaurant
God help those who have yet to try the rich and always perfectly seasoned Lomo Saltado at this busy Valencia stop. Unsurprisingly given its quality, the line for Lima Limón can sometimes be a source of frustration, as it is essentially the only option for Peruvian street food in the area. Unfortunately, the restaurant is also bizarrely jammed between a dojo and a gym, giving it the air of a busy massage parlor. Against these odds, Lima Limón has spent the last decade (it opened in 2008) making sure no item on its graciously small menu is misplaced: from Papa a la huancaína to stuffed avocado, it is impossible to eat poorly here.
Address: 26845 Bouquet Canyon Rd., Valencia CA 91350
7. La Villa Maria Market & Restaurant
If Lima Limón’s location has problems, consider the seven or so miniature parking spots on the south side of La Villa Maria, which also serves as a market and tortillería during the day. Maybe it is the exclusivity of its parking lot that makes any dinner at this place feel like a victory – or maybe it is the unfairly excellent (and often messily overstuffed) ceviches, the hand-burning fresh tortillas or its hall-of-fame worthy bistec picado simmered in chili-infused tomato sauce. Whatever the cause of its loveliness, we are simply grateful that La Villa Maria has not only survived the traffic-stopping construction happening two blocks up Railroad Ave., but somehow flourished amidst it.
Address: 24719 Railroad Ave., Newhall CA 91321
6. Master Inn
Few phrases are more frightening to a food critic than “Asian fusion”, a suffocating post-colonial term usually indicative of a confused kitchen. Master Inn, however, wears the phrase like a crown, finding new dimensions in traditional Sichuan-style dishes like Ma Po Tofu, a spicy, oily house specialty favored by vegetarian customers. “Asian fusion” appears to be primarily a rejoinder to those expecting standard Chinese-American lunch fare, a subtle warning that dishes like its eggplant in garlic sauce will be made tastefully pungent and aromatic, rather than left to drown in sauce-like gunk. That Master Inn offers such plates as part of its less-than-$10 lunch combos is something of a minor miracle.
Address: 27530 Newhall Ranch Rd., Suite 109, Valencia CA 91355
5. Smokehouse on Main
Things looked bad there for a moment: a major scandal, management shake-ups, an unstable kitchen. But with a new name and a local clientele starved for quality meat, Smokehouse on Main roared back to life this year with exceptional speed. It has quickly reestablished itself as Santa Clarita’s one true barbecue mecca – a restaurant tailor-made for our city’s Southern and Midwestern ex-pat population. The genius is in the sauces, an ever-growing list of flavors inspired by region. Ignore the California and Smoky Bourbon, as they’re suffocatingly sweet. Instead, head for the Georgia Mustard, or if you’re feeling feisty, apply the biting, whiplash-inducing Eastern Carolina to your flat-cut brisket – meat sweats be damned.
Address: 24255 Main St., Newhall CA 91321
4. Mom Can Cook Thai Kitchen
“IT’S REALLY COOKED BY MOM,” reads the website, and so it’s been for 15 years. In that time, Mom Can Cook established itself as a city-wide favorite, the bonafide champion in a battle between more than half a dozen Thai restaurants in the Santa Clarita Valley. Few can deny the awesome blur of flavors in the pineapple fried rice, or the crunching magnificence of the green beans (Mon’s [sic] Favorite, apparently). Then, last month, an update: “After great consideration, We [sic] have decided to retire and leave the legacy of Mom Can Cook Thai Kitchen with one of our relatives who is experienced in Thai food.” Will 2019 mean the end of MCCTK as we know it? Perhaps, but the legacy of this kitchen will be remembered by locals into perpetuity.
Address: 18358 Soledad Canyon Rd., Canyon Country CA 91387
It’s a shame that the wonderfully fresh, always inventive fish dishes served at this micro-eatery (the restaurant can barely fit 20 patrons at one time) aren’t more widely loved. DK, the Nobu-trained proprietor and namesake of this bistro, is something of a culinary eccentric. For those who don’t love his sushi, DK offers substantial bowls of ramen with hand-made kimchi, a wonderful balance of heat and salt. It’s not uncommon to see the nearby Drifter’s crowd fill the place in search of such late-night savories. Still, BistroDK is often empty, and its future remains uncertain. This is why we can’t have nice things, Santa Clarita!
Address: 18242 Soledad Canyon Rd., Canyon Country CA 91387
2. Egg Plantation
Egg Plantation’s presence on any list of Santa Clarita’s top restaurants is as predictable as the sunrise. After all, its omelets (pro-tip: #64 works best as a scramble, sweet potato fries subbed for hash browns) and specialty dishes (a peerlessly savory peanut butter French toast) make for the best breakfast anywhere in a 30-mile radius. Yet few restaurants have such a bizarre discontinuity between the quality of their name – in this case, a harkening back to the time of slavery AND a riff on the Souplantation restaurant chain – and their food. We understand that this staple of local dining is by now locked into its brand, so a change is unlikely; but we’d be happy to provide some notes to management, if asked.
Address: 24415 Walnut St., Newhall CA 91321
1. Piccola Trattoria
We miss Caruso’s deli, once housed in this family-owned-and-operated Italian restaurant, but its dissolution appears to have been a necessary evil. With expanded floor room and a home-designed menu, Piccola Trattoria has quietly become this city’s most reliably elegant dining experience. The bresaola is more flavorful than the carpaccio, and the house always recommends the mezelune di crostacei, which invokes with its crescent-shaped dumplings childhood on the islands of Mediterranea. With more than 20 years of business already under its belt, we look forward to 20 years more.
Address: 18302 Sierra Highway, Canyon Country CA 91351