Foodies Conquer Orange County
How we've gone from fast-food haven to cuisine heaven
To understand how Orange County’s dining scene has evolved over the past 20 years, we must first peek at our chain-littered past.
And, there’s no better place to start than the Irvine Spectrum Center. The Moroccan-themed mall, the vision of billionaire developer Donald Bren, was designed as place for suburbanites to wine, dine and take in a movie.
In 1995, that meant diners could choose to eat plain Jane burgers at Champps Americana sports bar, share orange chicken at P.F. Chang’s or a grab a scoop of Cherry Garcia at Ben & Jerry’s. Of those chains, only P.F. Chang’s has survived a foodie revolution at the mall.
Today, the Spectrum is still home to a few national food brands – Johnny Rockets, California Pizza Kitchen and Chipotle Mexican Grill. But many of its biggest draws are carefully curated regional restaurants: TLT Food, Cucina Enoteca, Capital Seafood, Tender Greens, Paul Martin’s American Grill, LYFE Kitchen and Umami Burger.
Like other Orange County developers, the Irvine Co. is converting its high-profile retail centers into culinary hubs geared for Food Network-educated gourmands. These food-obsessed consumers are changing the footprints of our malls, and in turn, elevating our once ho-hum food reputation. With consumers able to buy everything from laptops to bed sheets in cyberspace, retail centers are using restaurants as anchor tenants.
Why? Eating out is the one social-economic experience the internet can’t duplicate. Yes, you can get doorstep delivery with DoorDash, Postmates and now UberEATS (launched in July in Irvine, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa).
But, the gig economy cannot bring restaurant hospitality and a refined dining experience to your coffee table. (Let’s face it; many of us eat takeout on the sofa.)
That is a lesson retail developers are learning coast to coast but especially in Orange County, where outdoor malls and lifestyle centers dominate our year-round sunshine-driven lifestyle.
At the heart of the evolution is South Coast Collection. The Costa Mesa retail enclave has given birth to some of the county’s most innovative concepts – from food-by-fire restaurant Arc to craft coffee specialist Portola Coffee Lab. Inspired by the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the 300,000-square-foot commercial space is an expansive open-air home decor and food destination. Early on, its biggest draw was Portola, where baristas in lab coats extract coffee from freshly roasted beans using siphons.
Starbucks-leery java lovers came in droves, attracted to Portola’s science-driven brewing methods. Coffeehouses are normally a neighborhood business, so what Portola was doing was unheard of in Orange County.
Most people don’t jump on a freeway or make a 10-mile detour on the way to work for coffee. That’s why Starbucks can get away with two or three cafes in one square mile. But as Portola earned social media buzz for its avant-garde approach, it became a regional coffee sensation. Java lovers yearning for a jolt of their brews came from miles away.
Portola put SoCo on the map; and SoCo, in turn, spurred malls like Irvine Spectrum to rethink their tenant mix – focusing on food, then fashion.
Portola, inside SoCo’s OC Mix food hall, also gave way to other incubator concepts – Iron Press (craft beer and waffle sandwiches) and Shuck Oyster Bar. The popularity of the OC Mix, a tight-knit culinary hub, has triggered copycat food halls: 4th Street Market in Santa Ana, Anaheim Packing House, Union Market Tustin, Union Market Mission Viejo, the recently opened Lot 579 in Huntington Beach and Trade (coming soon) in Irvine.
Portola set the stage for SoCo’s biggest star: Carlos Salgado. The founder of the refined-dining restaurant Taco Maria has become one of the most honored chefs in Orange County. This year, the former taco truck owner was a James Beard Award semifinalist. In 2015, he was named one of the 10 best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine magazine.
Though he gained much of his culinary skills training at two Michelin-honored restaurants in the Bay Area, Salgado chose to make his mark at home – in Orange County. He grew up working at his family’s La Siesta, a small Mexican eatery tucked in an industrial area of Orange. Despite being the clumsiest employee in the kitchen, Salgado was enamored of his mother’s classic Mexican American menu.
During the peak of the food truck craze, Salgado started a restaurant on wheels. Taco Maria earned a wild following – one of the best on the streets. But then Salgado did something drastic: He put the brakes on the truck. He shut down to pursue his bigger passion: opening a restaurant showcasing haute Mexican cuisine. Salgado’s rebooted Taco Maria was a big risk in a county steeped in hole-in-the-wall taquerias.
When he opened, Taco Maria served a fixed-price dinner. No combo plates. No endless basket of chips. No tacos, at first. Yes, there was guacamole. But it was prepared with figs and pistachios and served with flaxseed chips. The salad featured the leafy herb papalo topped with razor-thin watermelon radishes, queso fresco and avocado.
But Salgado is not the sole Orange County food revolutionary. He is joined by “Top Chef” finalist Amar Santana, chef-owner of two local restaurants.
Santana earned admirers across the country after a successful run on Season 13 of Bravo’s award-winning competition show. He narrowly lost the title to Florida’s Jeremy Ford, but the attention put Santana’s two restaurants, Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach and Vaca in Costa Mesa, in the spotlight.
Vaca, which opened the day after Christmas, remains one of the toughest seats in town – earning an instant reputation for its wood-fired steaks, savory tapas and hand-crafted Spanish gin cocktails. But unlike Salgado, Santana, 34, had no idea he’d wind up planting his culinary flag in Orange County. The New York protégé of renowned chef Charlie Palmer was reluctant when his mentor asked him to relocate to California. He had to Google Orange County to find the location of his new West Coast home.
Moving from the Big Apple to Big Suburbia wasn’t easy for the young and ambitious chef. Santana’s first impression? The food was as flat and boring as the architecture. But, he played the culinary weakness to his advantage: Orange County was an untapped gold mine. Despite opening in the middle of the Great Recession, Santana saw well-heeled diners willing to pay $1,000 for a bottle of wine.
A light bulb went off.
If the food, service and atmosphere were top-notch, the growing ranks of gourmands in Orange County were willing to pay top dollar for a seat at the table. Unlike the hyper-competitive restaurant market of New York, Orange County was an empty canvas. And Santana was the culinary artist ready to conquer it.
Over the years, others saw potential as well: food-by-fire chef Noah Blöm of Arc, Jason Quinn of Playground, Florent Marneau of Marché Moderne, Michael Rossi of The Ranch Restaurant, Andrew Sutton of Napa Rose and Gabbi Patrick of Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen.
In a geographic twist, outsiders are taking notice. Reservations are coming in from as far away as Las Vegas and San Francisco – an unheard of phenomenon a decade ago. Even Los Angeles diners are tackling congested freeways to get their fine dining fix in Orange County.
Adventurous OC foodies are supposed to go to Los Angeles – not the other way around. Now, Angelenos are risking road rage to check restaurants off on their bucket list. It’s a seismic shift. A culinary flip-flop.
Heck, even nachos and hot dogs at the beach are becoming passé. This summer, a Huntington Beach wine bar owner converted four concession stands at Bolsa Chica State Beach into pint-size bistros serving gourmet foods, craft beer and wine to diners lounging under cabanas along the coastline.
But how we know Orange County has truly arrived comes down to one word: Nobu.
The acclaimed global sushi bar by Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa is coming to Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach this fall. Dining at Nobu is an event – an omakase meal runs $200 per person. But it’s more than a meal; it’s an experience. Orange County is ready to pay the price.