Panoringan: How Are OC Restaurants Adapting To Their New COVID-19 Reality?

Photo courtesy of Water Grill

Shoppers purchase produce at an ad hoc market set up at Water Grill restaurant in Costa Mesa.

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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It’s been over a month since most locals have been instructed to work from home. If you’re a part of the restaurant industry, however, food and beverage are considered an essential service.


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Due to the closure of all dining rooms, thousands of service staff have been forced to file for unemployment; if we factor in the rest of California, that count is above a million. Those that are still on the clock are utilizing gloves, masks, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and other precautions to prevent catching and spreading COVID-19.

While many establishments have temporarily closed their doors, others have chosen different paths.

Restaurants Giving Back (Plus Supporting Their Own)

Small businesses are going above and beyond to support first responders. Despite operating their business in this stressful climate, many have the biggest hearts when it comes to feeding first responders and medical professionals.

Photo courtesy of Twenty Eight

Chef Jay Lacuesta prepares box lunches out of his kitchen at Twenty Eight in Irvine.

Twenty Eight in Irvine instituted “Thankful Thursday” where chef Jay Lacuesta and owner Stacie Tran coordinate the delivery of up to 200 free box lunches to area hospitals. Fountain Valley’s angel is Paderia Bakehouse, donating selections of cookies and malasadas to hard-working frontline staff throughout the county.

A duo of businesses are using their products for the greater good. Cali Dumpling Delivery is an online service that offers handmade wontons, dumplings and XLB (Xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings) delivered to your residence. Founded by Candace and Allan Tea, one hundred percent of profits raised from those deliveries will go to those who became unemployed in the hospitality industry due to recent events.

The Golden Marrow specializes in ready-to-bake bone marrow. Their new at-home kits include signature glazes and sauces to complement toasted bread, salad greens and even rice. One hundred percent of the profits from these and t-shirt sales will go to their Bone Thug Heroes project, supporting individuals affected by COVID-19.

Bracken’s Kitchen was founded in 2013 with the mission to provide wholesome nourishment in a dignified environment to individuals going through tough times by way of food recovery, community feeding programming and culinary training. Bill Bracken’s 501(c)3 has shifted into high gear during the current economy, and he’s responded by hiring out-of-work restaurant employees to keep up with the growing need.

Staff from Sapphire Catering, O.C. Mining Company, and Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens have joined the  Bracken’s team to produce over 120,000 meals in the past four weeks. With 42 non-profit partners receiving food from Bracken’s Kitchen, families, veterans, seniors, homeless and children are being fed. Per Bracken, “My heart and prayers go out to each and every person whose life is being completely turned upside down by this invisible virus. But in spite of all this, please remember my friends: this too shall pass and life will go on. Now more than ever we will work to ‘(deliver) hope, one tasty meal at a time.’”

OC Smoke Kitchen, a newly formed consortium of chefs spearheaded by Heritage Barbecue‘s pitmaster Daniel Castillo, has come together twice already to feed out-of-work service industry professionals.  Along with Castillo, chef Peter Lai of The Blind Rabbit, Clayton Wellbank of Brewery X, Trevor Kotchek of Pizza X, and fellow chefs Josh Lozano, Ralph Montes, and Kevin Hammons pooled their talents and resources at drive-thru events where they distributed brisket tacos, beverages, desserts and more. Per Wellbank, “As part of this city, we want to do what we can to support our neighbors in good times and bad.”

And OC Smoke Kitchen has plans to do it again soon. Follow Heritage Barbecue on social media to find out about their next act of service which is shaping up to feature quite the starting line-up.

“Good food, good mood, good day” is the current motto for SOCIAL Kitchen + Craft Bar. Earlier this month, they began feeding furloughed and unemployed hospitality employees every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at their flagship Costa Mesa restaurant. Serving “Social Care Packages” that include water, toilet paper, sponsored beverages, a burger and fries, their drive-thru is held from 4-8:30 p.m. at 512 W. 19th Street. Donations to pay for staff and food are graciously accepted on their GoFundMe page.

Restaurants Converting Into Bodegas

Establishments generate profit from meals created in the kitchen and beverages prepared behind a bar. Diners nowadays are searching for food beyond a hot meal, as there is only so much takeout one is wanting to consume or spend funds on. For these reasons, a handful of places have added fresh produce, kitchen staples, and sometimes toilet paper to their menus. They are becoming an alternative one-stop shop for meals and groceries.

Costa Mesa’s Water Grill is the sole branch in the brand that has switched gears to an indoor market. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 3300 Bristol Street, they are offering a concierge shopping experience. This means their team members are the only ones handling your food as you are guided through the selections. Seafood, meats and produce are available. (Check out their shrimp kits.) Seniors and at-risk guests are allowed entry starting at 9:45 a.m.

Crema Cafe and Artisan Bakery is based in Seal Beach. However, their production bakery is located in Irvine. While it normally isn’t open to the general public, they are doing a pop-up out of there weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 17815 Sky Park Circle., Suite L. Bakers and fans of carbs are able to purchase pastries, bread, milk (whole, almond or soy), eggs, plus all-purpose flour and yeast. They’re even offering packaged and portioned chocolate chip cookie dough.

Glasspar in Dana Point is specializing in a seafood-centric market. Executive chef and proprietor Rob Wilson was recently interviewed on the SoCal Restaurant Show discussing their selection of hard-to-find fresh offerings at below supermarket pricing. Discounted wine bottles, pantry staples and Mason jar cocktails are also on deck. They are open on Wednesdays from 1-5 p.m. and Saturdays from 12-4 p.m. at 24961 Dana Point Harbor Drive.

Dean Kim of OC Baking Company, best known for supplying bread to over 100 OC restaurants, has opened his Orange production facility to the public for not only bread purchases, but his version of a pop-up. Joining Kim is a roundup of local artisans with their specialty cuisines. Chef Shachi Mehra from Adya includes her chicken tikka and bake at home samosas; Sessions West Coast Deli offers a different specialty sandwich daily; Miss Mini Donuts manufactures tiny treats and DIY decorating kits; Terrace Hill Olive Oil Company and Jones Coffee Roasters have their brands of pantry staples, Break of Dawn, Villa Roma Restaurant, and many others. Hours of operation are weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., then again from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. (or until they sell out of bread). Note: All patrons are required to wear a mask for entry, some vendors are cash only, and they ask that you bring your own bags and practice physical distancing.

Four Restaurants That Closed, Then Reopened

Berry Brand, Tustin: Custom acai bowls – Previously, their business involved personal interaction with a team member to create your own bowl. Now, customers order online for contactless service from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Located inside Union Market at The District, the entire operation is now shielded for physical distancing between staff and customer.

Hamamori, Costa Mesa: Sushi/Japanese – South Coast Plaza may be closed, but James Hamamori’s team decided that they still want to serve. Proper nigiri and other specialties will be brought down to your vehicle curbside. Open Tuesday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m.

Marche Moderne, Newport Beach: French – The kitchen led by Florent and Amelia Marneau opened this past Wednesday with an edited menu of additions and new, family-style versions of favorites. Selections will be updated every Sunday online. Check out their Farmer’s Market Box, packed with produce and staples to get your family through the week.

Stowaway Tiki, Tustin: Pivoting from their notorious bar environment, Stowaway is offering a trio of menus (including meal pick-up for The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim and Shuck Oyster Bar in Costa Mesa on select days). Beer, wine and cocktails are also available for purchase. Check Stowaway’s Instagram for specifics.

In Other News…

Today is the official launch of Surf City Still Works’ sale on 4-ounce hand sanitizer. Earlier this month, the Huntington Beach-based distillery began taking orders for five-gallon buckets of what’s considered liquid gold nowadays. Per Director of Sales Ben Carpenter, “We have spent the past month working with first responders, government agencies and local businesses on their bulk sanitizer needs. All the while, we have been receiving countless emails and phone calls about smaller sizes for the general public, and have felt the need to address the critical shortage.” They are providing a bottle of the personal size sanitizer free with any SCSW purchase. Curbside pickup and delivery are available for your convenience. Find them at 7242 Heil Avenue.

The Coyle family owns and operates a trio of restaurants: Dublin 4 Gastropub, Wineworks for Everyone, and Fable & Spirit. While they aren’t open currently, expect good news coming very soon from the duo of South OC spots as well as their newest dining room in Newport, helmed in the kitchen by Chef David Shofner. When we reached out to verify, the Coyle’s responded, “We are working on a curbside menu right now, starting at Dublin 4/Wineworks Mission Viejo next Tuesday. We will be offering a similar curbside at Fable & Spirit shortly after, in a week or two. As soon as we get the green light, we will be opening that yellow door in whatever capacity we can. We miss everyone so much!”

TOAST Kitchen & Bakery in Costa Mesa was recently awarded one of 80 partnerships with clothing brand Vans as part of their Foot The Bill program, directed towards community-driven small businesses that have been directly affected by Covid-19. Net proceeds from the sale (limited to 500) of each pair of Vans Custom shoes will go directly to the restaurant. In turn, TOAST will use the monies for both their employees and to build a small aquaponics farm, providing additional employment opportunities for hiring at-risk youth, veterans and those experiencing homelessness.

AnQi by House of An will be hosting a pantry box giveaway this coming Monday, April 27, from 12-4 p.m. A total of 450 boxes will be distributed to fellow employees in the food and beverage industry. Items such as flour, rice, canned tomatoes, sugar, toilet paper and fresh produce from Melissa’s Produce will be included in the offering. Funds for these boxes were raised by the An family through a GoFundMe campaign. South Coast Plaza will be sponsoring 100 of the packages. For those interested, please bring a current or recent pay stub to 3333 Bristol St., adjacent to Bloomingdale’s. The city of Costa Mesa is requiring face masks, and physical distancing will be observed.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.