OC’s talented chefs continue to move cuisine forward, off-road.
By Carrie Storke Williams
Are our days of following food trucks over? Maybe. But what these mobile kitchens have given rise to are perhaps some of the greatest culinary concepts and most lauded restaurants in decades. Forget farm to fork. If you want to really get to the root of the current restaurant revolution in SoCal, you’ve got to think truck to table.
Most foodies (or anyone living in Los Angeles or Orange County, for that matter) remember the food truck furor fomented by Roy Choi and his Kogi BBQ trucks in late 2008. If you weren’t already on Twitter, you were now—if only because you wanted to be in the know and, more importantly, to score the impossibly delectable $2 short rib taco that would soon become iconic.
Little did any of us know on that rainy November night that Choi was launching a mobile movement—one that would give a generation of inventive chefs a culinary voice and a powerful platform that would turn the notions of test kitchens and menu development on their toques. And, one that would see Choi become a celebrity chef in Los Angeles, with seven incredibly successful brick-and-mortar restaurants to his name.
It’s no surprise that reality show producers were quick to smell something cooking, sensing the star quality of the chefs on the street food scene and bringing the first season of “The Great Food Truck Race” to Food Network in 2010. The show pitted seven specialty food trucks against each other in a series of competitions as they traveled cross-country to the finish. In the show’s second season, a young chef by the name of Jason Quinn steered The Lime Truck and its ingredient-driven, California-inspired cuisine to victory.
Breaking New (Play)Ground in DTSA
Yes, we’re talking about THAT Jason Quinn. Even before his Lime Truck days, he’d always dreamed of setting down real restaurant roots. As the story goes, he found his inspiration in downtown Santa Ana and opened Playground with the idea of elevating the gastropub concept to its most adventurous, while simultaneously planting a flag claiming the perfect burger. Since its 2012 founding, Playground has put DTSA on the foodie map and earned more accolades, beyond its buzzed-about burger, than you could shake one of its famed Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken drumsticks at, including rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold. It’s easy to see why—unless you’re a picky diner with a penchant for making special requests, in which case Playground isn’t for you. With a menu that changes daily, Quinn and his team continue to concoct culinary delights created with the freshest hand-picked proteins and produce—a farm-to-table practice that was first tested in the chef’s Lime Truck days.
Importantly, Quinn has proven that even with a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you can continue to remain nimble when it comes to testing (and often breaking) the boundaries of the dining experience. The proof is embodied by his Playground 2.0 concept, an “intimate culinary theater” that plays host to pop-ups, themed dinners, invitation-only tasting menus and private dining. Here, both in-house and guest chefs ply their passion for cooking and experimentation in a bid to continue pushing the epicurean envelope for dining in Southern California, and beyond. And a quick postscript: Quinn’s Lime Truck partner, Daniel Shemtob, also has largely traded the open road for the open door, with brick-and-mortar restaurants in Irvine, Newport Beach, Pasadena and Westwood.
Michelin Man Trades Mobile for Mortar
Anais Tangie distinctly remembers the day in 2011 that chef Carlos Salgado pulled up to SOCO, one of the first and most popular hubs for food trucks in Orange County. Tangie curated and hosted more than 50 trucks three times each week at the Costa Mesa center and it was the first-ever stop for Salgado’s Taco Maria truck.
“Chef Salgado and his team were the only crew dressed in traditional chef whites,” Tangie says. “That made an impression, but it was his food that blew me away. I knew something big was happening.”
That “something big” was a reinvention of how we saw, experienced and tasted “Mexican food.” Trained for more than a decade in many of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best kitchens (and Michelin-starred restaurants) including Vernon Morales’ Winterland, Daniel Patterson’s Coi, and James Syhabout’s Commis, Salgado’s taco was more than just a taco. Rather, this chef’s Alta California cuisine was Mexican-inspired food that paid homage to the lost kitchens of his ancestors, and to traditions transplanted into Southern California’s multicultural soils. Local produce and regional meats and seafood—enveloped in tortillas made from Salgado’s house-made masa—reached new heights of flavor.
At first confused, Taco Maria truck patrons asked for hot sauce, salsa, chips. Then they tasted what they were offered. Then they “got” it. And then, it was time for Chef Salgado to shift into park—and open his brick-and-mortar Taco Maria within SOCO. It was 2013, and it wasn’t long before Salgado’s reverent yet inventive approach made it difficult to get a reservation at the intimate restaurant with the open kitchen. Easier to score, it seemed, were high marks for this OC-born chef whose culinary roots spanned generations and borders. In fact, Salgado was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2015, the Orange County Register’s 2015 Chef of the Year and, in 2016, a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: West.
From Food Trucks to Franchises
A contemporary of Salgado’s in OC’s second wave of food trucks, Andrew Gruel graduated from Johnson & Wales University and had worked in fine-dining restaurants, hotels and diners for years. But his unconventional culinary “break” came at Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, where he directed a nonprofit project committed to the sustainable seafood movement.
The gig marked a sea change in Gruel’s culinary career, reinforcing his love for the ocean and his commitment to working with local fisherman and other responsible seafood suppliers.
In May 2011, with little cash and a tight but delicious menu comprised of a fish sandwich, a lobster roll and fish tacos, Gruel put his first Slapfish food truck on the streets. Early diners recall the chef’s personable style, which had him greeting customers, talking sustainability and getting feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. Gruel aimed to bridge the gap between fine dining and fast food filets for fish lovers, and this approach seemed to catch on, allowing him to add more food trucks in short order.
But winter came quickly that year—as it rarely does in SoCal—and, with the weather keeping otherwise hardy foodie fans indoors, Gruel began looking for a more permanent location for Slapfish. He found it in an old bagel shop in Huntington Beach that he retrofitted as his first sit-down restaurant. Working at break-even and around the clock on funding from friends and family, he decided to approach the franchise broker group that had helped Five Guys and the Halal Guys expand.
Gruel’s food truck gamble paid off, and the Slapfish fast-casual seafood restaurant franchise now encompasses six Southern California locations, with 20 new locations planned within the next year. The most popular menu item? The original food truck fish sandwich, of course.