Panoringan: OC’s New Brunch Scene Is What Locals Are Craving

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Chef Jared Cook of Sapphire restaurant in Laguna Beach. Sapphire recently started serving brunch on their patio.

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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Why brunch? The better question might be why not?

When I asked chefs, their answers reflected each restaurant’s particular attributes. One establishment noticed an uptick in weekend reservations, and jumped on the opportunity. Another simply never had the option to create a dedicated morning menu.

Regardless of the reasoning, I’ve seen four brunches (five, if you include breakfast) launch around the county in the last couple of months. And with the patios many of them have, it made so much sense. This collection of leisurely brunches spans entire weekends and then some. From creative waffle flavors to shaved truffles, I’m confident one will be to your liking.

Sapphire

1200 South Coast Highway, Ste. 101, Laguna Beach

Unless you’re a Laguna resident, you might not have heard about February’s changeover at Sapphire from chef Azmin Ghahreman to the restaurant group featuring chef Jared Cook (his last name isn’t a typo.)

Sapphire’s no-reservations brunch, which launched in early July, is served from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. They benefit from a location that has a people-watching patio, a dedicated parking structure, and the “town Greeter” at their disposal. Chef Cook was excited to finally create a brunch menu at his new gig: “Brunch food to me is one thing I have always loved to go out for.”

Their modest spread embodies all your basic brunch needs, including nap-inducing, sharp cheddar biscuits with sage-garlic sausage, and a Kurobuta pork belly riff on the Benedict plating perfectly poached huevos. Cook’s ode to chicken fried steak is his infamous schnitzel dish served with eggs. During a recent visit, meyer lemon crème fraîche waffles delighted us without weighing us down. Cook also makes note of his salty/nutty/sweet Nutella version: “I’m from Oregon, so hazelnuts are mandatory.”

Prior to ordering their signature cocktail, be sure to pick up a token at the host stand to use when exiting the parking structure. You’ll be too busy extolling the virtues of a Patio Pounder (vodka, champagne, sweet basil, lemon, tangerine ice cube) to remember later. Note: There have already been updates to brunch since it debuted, such as the pancake dishes now being waffled.

Nểp Cafe & Brunch

10836 Warner Ave.,Unit 7, Fountain Valley

I should start off by stating that this is not your typical Orange County brunch. Nểp (Vietnamese for “glutinous rice”) started serving their version of a brunch-only menu a few weeks ago out of Gem Dining’s kitchen. In other words, the two restaurants share the same cooking space– Nểp in the morning, Gem in the evening. Since Gem (which is temporarily closed) normally serves from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, Nểp serves their breakfast from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day except Monday.  Outdoor seating is first come, first served. Both restaurants are run by the restaurant group Kei Concepts which also manages Súp Noodle Bar (Buena Park/Irvine), The Vox Kitchen (Fountain Valley), and The Alley USA (Fountain Valley/Irvine).

Anne Marie Panoringan, VOICE OF OC

Mango sticky rice, coffee flan, and yogurt ice cream from Nểp.

Since I had no prior Vietnamese brunch experience to compare to, I trusted in our server to steer us correctly. Listing over a dozen selections, Nểp’s beverage menu is an impressive collection of high-octane coffee, juice drinks and mocktails. A coconut and pineapple blend nicknamed the Saigon cooler includes a separate shot glass of butterfly pea “tea” to pour over, giving it a cool colorful effect. Bạc xỉu đá is an iced coffee “marbled” along the sides with extra condensed milk, giving it a slightly sweet and pleasant mouthfeel. Egg coffee (cà phê trung) isn’t nearly as eggy as it sounds, similar to how egg white in a whiskey sour doesn’t taste like eggs. Made with egg yolk, the purpose is more texture than flavor. A friend mentioned how difficult it is to even locate egg coffee locally.

Although a number of the dishes list an option to add Italian black truffles, our recommendation is not to. While I normally don’t turn down an opportunity to make it rain mushrooms, the flavors stand well on their own – plus some items already have infused truffle in them. The dao is an umami spread layered in a petite mason jar with velvety potatoes over sous vide egg and truffle oil. A bowl of housemade cavatelli shells capture morsels of sweet crab. Our table’s favorite was a serving skillet of bánh mì chảo: sunny eggs, filet, tomatoes, Swiss, pate, truffle peppercorn sauce and chả lụa (Viet sausage roll).

For dessert, we shared a trio of bites. Smooth coffee flan had our server pouring a flourish of extra caffeine on top. A delicate yogurt ice cream was plated with fresh mango and coconut. Lastly, a mango sticky rice finale (the only “nểp” on Nểp’s menu) included yet another tableside service of coconut milk drizzle. If this is the closest thing to Southeast Asia travel for now, we’ll take it.

Note: Seating arrangements vary; the toughest on one’s knees being a series of super low tables with matching stools to squat on. If you hold out for a standard table, it may be a while.

Anne Marie Panoringan, VOICE OF OC

Pork, fried rice and egg bowl from Twenty Eight.

Twenty Eight

19530 Jamboree Rd., Irvine

They previously attempted brunch service a few years ago, but scrapped it not long after. As a stand-alone structure within an office complex, Twenty Eight faced the challenge of a location primarily visible by Google employees and Equinox members – groups that typically go home after they are done with their day and are less likely to return on the weekends.

However, now with many people spending a great deal of time working from home and looking for excuses to go out on the weekend, they decided to rethink their brunch menu and try it again. Dining on their recently remodeled patio is working out this time around.

According to chef Jay Lacuesta, “We wanted to make the food understandable and relatable to our guests, but also put the restaurant’s stamp on it.” The kitchen did so by first including a sub-menu specifically showcasing steak and other meats, echoing their dinner options.

Served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, we made sure to book ahead on Yelp to guarantee a table. The most extensive selection of the bunch, our first request was the curious Pork Chops & Apple Sauce cocktail, featuring WhistlePig rye whiskey, maple syrup and candied peppered bacon. Its eye-catching presentation matched the euphoria experienced while sipping it. After sharing a sizable salmon Benedict with jiggly poached eggs, we moved on to fried chicken. Our Belgian-style waffle griddled with cheddar and scallion paired well with the poultry. Seeking a sweet finale, the Sazerac French toast with butterscotch apples over brioche and candied pecans was a winner.

From comforting char siu pork and garlic fried rice to a jackfruit waffle with banana and macapuno (coconut), these are Filipino flavors Lacuesta grew up with, “and a version of food that I ate or wanted to eat. The last piece [to creating a brunch menu] is me as a chef adding whatever I think is good or works with my team.”

Note: Allot an extra five to ten minutes for parking and making the short walk from the structure. Parking validation is available at the host stand, so bring your ticket with you.

Anne Marie Panoringan, VOICE OF OC

Benedetto at Bello.

Bello by Sandro Nardone

1200 Bison Avenue, Newport Beach

When I asked chef Sandro Nardone about their brunch menu, he reminded me that brunch isn’t a meal in Italy. However, with chef de cuisine Frank DeLoach on his team, brunch was inevitable. Available weekends from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Nardone did point out that his extension to the original patio was the more popular of the two outdoor spaces. When I asked why, he explained that the more exposed area reminded diners of sidewalk cafes in Italy. Umbrellas, planters and a little astroturf provide ambiance for watching cars cruise through the parking lot; all we were missing were Vespas.

The yang to Sandro’s yin, DeLoach incorporates elements of Bello’s original lunch menu (currently the all-day menu) with his knowledge of what brunch crowds crave. The dolce di diovola pizza incorporates silano cheese, Calabrese salami, walnuts, and honey. This unfamiliar sweet, heat, meat trifecta startled my taste buds, yet had me craving more. The last time I experienced such confusion was my introduction to sour beer from The Bruery’s tasting room. Per DeLoach, “I approached brunch with the goal to cook food I would eat. Simply put, doing what I can to keep one foot in Italian concepts/ingredients and ideas. And the other, well, just wherever I want to go.”

While I spied avocado toast and cinnamon rolls, there was also the burger that bamboozled me more than sweet pizza. Mare e monti is the Bello version of surf and turf. Pork, salsa verde, caramelized onions and tuna mayo read like a typo. Yet each bite is a cohesive mouthful of flavor (assuming you’re comfortable with the flavors individually). For a bit of extra indulgence, check out the Benedetto (Benedict) dressed in pesto and black truffle hollandaise. This is the kind of varied menu I look forward to working my way through.

Anne Marie Panoringan, VOICE OF OC

The Loco Moco at TAPS.

Honorable Mention: TAPS Fish House & Brewery

101 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea (also Irvine)

Not considered brunch, but an excellent early morning spread, TAPS is currently serving a daily breakfast from 8 a.m. -11:30 a.m. All TAPS locations offer dedicated patio seating as well as pickup and delivery. Plating hearty dishes you can get a second meal out of, at the time of this article they are serving a series of specials hard to resist.

For starters, weekday entree orders placed before 11 a.m. are priced down to eight dollars. If you’re staying to dine, tables receive sweet potato monkey bread (a $9 value) with their entree order. If that doesn’t impress you, they’ll even include a single bloody Mary or mimosa for one penny to enjoy while you dine. Reservations aren’t required for breakfast, but you’re welcome to give them a call.

My suggestion is the Hawaiian-inspired loco moco, with its distinct peppercorn gravy and cilantro notes over Angus grade patty and sushi rice. Their signature lobster and crab Benny is a close second thanks to a smartly waffled potato base, lending an unexpected crispness. A self-proclaimed halloumi lover, the panzanella salad and panini dishes featuring this melt-free cheese were a savory treat, but may overwhelm those not familiar with its intense flavor.

Round out your meal with some award-winning brews or cocktails. The TAPS michelada mixes their light lager with bloody mary mix and lime, while a Southern Hospitality makes bourbon and coffee the caffeinated duo matching everyone’s 2020 mood.

And how about that incredible brunch, you might be wondering? They’re working on it.

Amuse Bouches

This edition of amuses finds me in familiar territory. Morning meals are here to stay. If the first part of my article isn’t evidence enough, the handful of items you’re about to read up on will surely convince you.

Poached Neighborhood Kitchen Has Arrived

With their initial location in Downey three years ago, this concept had me wanting one closer to home. Located at 17595 Harvard Avenue, Unit A, it’s a few doors down from Jamba Juice. A fast casual breakfast, brunch and lunch establishment, Poached Neighborhood Kitchen’s operating hours posted state 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. Grand opening is expected this week. I’m ready to check out their chilaquiles and apple baked pancakes.

Eggslice Egg Sandwiches Sets Opening Date

Initially, Eggslice was a popup inside Costa Mesa’s PIE-NOT (R.I.P.). It then migrated to The OC Mix as a morning joint. Now, their dedicated counter will be opening Saturday, August 22 at Buena Park’s upcoming collection of eats, Grange Hall 39. Located at 8340 La Palma Avenue (a.k.a. Buena Park Mall), get your cheesy, eggy sandwich cravings fulfilled. Follow them on social media for all the updates.

Royal Hen Pop-up by Uprising O.C.

My recent interview with Joshua Lozano was a reminder that all desserts are not created equal. Between his baked bread and burnt Basque cheesecake, this was becoming a busy year for Lozano. In fact, he’s collaborated with Royal Hen restaurant and Zonzo Coffee Roasters for a weekly cafe pop-up. Only available Saturday mornings at 311 Marine Avenue on Balboa Island, they open at 8 a.m., but quickly sell out. Get your caffeine fix and some treats for the road while perfecting your parallel parking skills.

Photo courtesy of Jeromy Chan.

Paragon Cafe’s breakfast spread.

Paragon Cafe Grand Opening Coming Soon!

A strictly breakfast operation, Paragon is located within Costa Mesa’s Shuck Oyster Bar. Currently in their soft opening phase since late last month, expect a focused menu of greatest hits such as avocado toast, steak and eggs, and chilaquiles with tomato braised chicken from the kitchen led by chef Dean Isom. Fun fact: Eggslice was based out of here prior to their Grange Hall 39 move. Stop by Wednesday through Sunday from 7-11 a.m.

Toast Kitchen & Bakery Turns Two!

Quick shout out to Toast for reaching second anniversary status. I celebrated by checking out their seasonal menu selections. In addition to the curry fried chicken sandwich I’m still thinking about and a cool bowl of mapo tofu noodles, we were impressed by chef John Park’s take on acai bowls. Watermelon goji berry base, frozen golden (turmeric) yogurt, Asian pear, dehydrated honey, and other special ingredients give dimension to what could’ve been a pedestrian dish. Stop by for happy hour the next time you’re stuck in traffic off Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa.

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