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The allowance of indoor dining and general (re)opening of restaurants earlier this year gave diners a false sense of security, assuming independent and neighborhood dining must be faring better now that restrictions are loosened. 

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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The reality is things are nowhere near normal. Difficulty in hiring skilled labor and rising costs in many areas are not only impacting daily operations, but the pricing of menus. Chefs Paul Cao of Burnt Crumbs and Tin Vuong of Little Sister provide industry insight as to how this is occurring.

Trying to Make It ‘To the Other Side’

Cao is one of four partners who own a collection of OC-based brands including Burntzilla, The Burnt Truck and Dogzilla food trucks, plus Burnt Crumbs in Huntington Beach and Irvine. His primary focus is the Burnt Crumbs concepts: “I think all restaurant owners and chefs right now will tell you they are still trying to make it ‘to the other side’ of all this. People say ‘Congrats guys!’ for being open and I know they mean well, but oh man, we are still fighting every day.”

Burnt Crumbs at Huntington Beach’s Pacific City reopened on Thursday, April 15, but staffing an outpost within the plaza’s food hall has been challenging. Cao continues: “When all of the cooks got furloughed, they immediately had to find other jobs. One spent the last eight months making cabinets. We are lucky to get him back, but a lot have gotten other jobs.”  

In addition to losing staff to other industries, those considering returning to restaurant jobs expect higher monetary compensation: “With the demand comes the command for higher wages because they have so many options now. For example, the day before two staffers were supposed to start, they called and told us they found jobs paying $1 more per hour. So those we are trying to hire are asking for $18-$20 an hour.” 

Chef Paul Cao of Burnt Crumbs competes on Food Network’s “Chopped.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Food Network

To make up for the increased pay, Cao will likely need to raise prices. Fortunately, the team has been able to fill a handful of positions at Burnt Crumbs Pacific City, thanks to friends and family.  

While business is improving incrementally, the struggle continues. For example, 30% of business at Burntzilla pre-COVID was catering. Orders evaporated as a result of so many employees working from home, but evolving state guidelines show hope as May and June requests are trickling in: “Our saving grace has been Burnt Crumbs in Irvine thanks to (introducing) brunch, but again, it’s inch-by-inch daily in terms of rebounding.” 

These upticks aren’t at an ideal pace for Cao, but he’ll take it as a sign that foodservice as a whole is trending in that direction.

Putting Together the COVID Puzzle

Opening its doors at the beginning of this month in Irvine, Little Sister is a concept from Los Angeles-based Blackhouse Hospitality Group, originally entering the Orange County restaurant scene with Bluegold and LSXO in Huntington Beach. Chef/owner Tin Vuong expressed how challenging managing the hiring process for Irvine has been, despite using staffing resources such as Indeed, Craigslist and restaurant industry groups: “We put the word out via social media and leaned on Irvine Spectrum Center to assist in the process as well, however, the pool to pull from has gotten extremely small.” 

From delivery drivers to Instacart shoppers, many restaurant industry “lifers” were forced to find alternative sources of income. After spending the majority of 2020 adjusting to a 9 to 5 work week, in addition to higher pay, these former front and back-of-the-house employees are now expecting office hours – ones that don’t involve late nights or weekends. 

Vuong brings up an additional reason why available line cooks and servers are scarce: “Many people who worked in the hospitality industry are still on EDD (unemployment benefits) which while great for them, isn’t so great for us and other restaurants who are trying to find competent and experienced staff.” 

As if the cost of labor wasn’t enough to be concerned about. “Everything from seafood to meat, cooking oil to alcohol pricing has all gone up during COVID; there just isn’t the same amount of people in the workforce and availability has gone way down,” Vuong said. “Our menu pricing has to reflect increasing costs.” While Vuong wishes he could keep pricing the same, it’s just one piece of this greater, COVID puzzle. 

April is Filipino Food Month

April dedicates an entire month to the cuisine of every family get-together I attended growing up. For a taste of the Philippines, consider the following eateries.

Griled meats from Barrio in Garden Grove. Credit: Photo courtesy of Barrio

Barrio

12900 Euclid St., #130, Garden Grove

In Garden Grove, Barrio specializes in customized meat plates with Korean and Filipino influences, thanks to husband and wife team Adam and Sharon Go. Perfectly charred skewers of pork and chicken are reminiscent of summer barbecues; additional proteins include garlic-herb shrimp and beef bulgogi. Order it over steaming hot rice, choose the atchara (pickled carrot, mango and papaya), then add a fried egg. Barrio is a prime example of simple food done well. Bonus: Forgo a soda for the calamansi lemonade slushie, a tart treat. 

Teófilo Coffee Company

10525 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos

Named after the owner’s grandfather, Teófilo Coffee Company in Los Alamitos stands out from other independent coffee shops. This daytime spot favors batched brew and cold brew blends over more complex concoctions. Sourced directly from the Philippines, the Bokod is a single-origin coffee bean found in the Cordillera highlands and is considered an endangered heritage food by the Slow Food Movement. A selection of ube (purple yam, not to be confused with taro) pastries and housemade gelato are worth investigating. On the weekends, place an order for fried chicken and ube waffles while you narrow down what to sip. 

Mix Mix Kitchen Bar

300 N. Main St., Santa Ana

Downtown Santa Ana houses the first of three dining rooms by chef Ross Pangilinan. Mix Mix Kitchen Bar (a 2019 Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient) isn’t strictly Filipino cuisine, yet Pangilinan incorporates subtle nods to his heritage in the form of crispy shrimp lumpia, addictive pork cheek adobo, and velvety tropical verrine – a treat that echoes halo halo. Opt for the prix fixe with your house cocktail for a complete experience. FYI: Catering is second nature for Pangilinan.

Menu items from MFK by Aysee. Credit: Photo courtesy of MFK by Aysee

Modern Filipino Kitchen (MFK) by Aysee

16500 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower

If you’re missing chef Henry Pineda’s Modern Filipino Kitchen (MFK) by Aysee that’s temporarily closed in Anaheim, he has news for you. The second branch is up and running at SteelCraft Bellflower. Get your crunchy lechon or bistek fix at this shipping container food hall, then wash it down with a cup of ubechata– MFK’s horchata and ube blend. 

First Looks

Little Sister

896 Spectrum Center Dr., Irvine

Housed in the most recent expansion of Irvine Spectrum, Little Sister is one of a series of dining concepts by co-owners Jed Sanford and Tin Vuong. Open since the beginning of April, the duo waited out more than a year before opening to the public. Per Sanford: “We couldn’t be more excited to open Little Sister – the space, the energy, the new beginning has been incredible.”

This is the third branch of Little Sister, with existing ones in Redondo Beach and downtown Los Angeles; a fourth location is coming to The Point in El Segundo. 

A higher-end Vietnamese dining experience, Vuong takes familiar Southeast Asian flavors combined with his culinary background to produce aggressively thoughtful versions of dishes one would find in Little Saigon. The “Rice Paper” section of Little Sister’s menu is a tight lineup of rolled bites that incorporates pork in all but an unassuming pho banh cuon, assembled with texture, heat and spice. Seafood plays a recurring role with balanced salted cod fried rice in crab chili sauce, chili-salted baby octopus salad with fresh basil and mint, and an indulgent salt and pepper lobster adorned with butter-fried shallots.

Exerting an unapologetic aesthetic of throwback hip-hop jams with a succinct artistic theme of butterflies, helicopters and firearms, it is the unexpected juxtaposition of masculine and feminine that allures and enhances Little Sister. It defies what diners expect of Irvine. Vuong adds: “Little Sister has always been at the heart of everything we do and being able to open the newest (and largest) location yet is especially poignant after the tough year all of us have had.” 

Mutt’s (Eastbluff)

2531 Eastbluff Drive, Newport Beach

Newport Beach residents know Gail and Dan Lynch’s Mutt Lynch’s as an institution – akin to a frat house. Its relaxed vibe, year-round Christmas lights, and fixtures adorned with stickers welcome beachgoers from breakfast through dinner. Forty-four years later, daughter Meghan Murray is ready to introduce the next chapter of Mutt’s: Mutt’s Eastbluff. “After a year of pivoting, conceptualizing and building the space, we’re finally ready to open.” Together with husband and co-owner Alex Murray, they are making final adjustments in the Newport Beach neighborhood they also call home. 

A family-friendly sports bar at its core, the Eastbluff destination will have a curated menu of most requested items such as pizza, pterodactyl wings and those infamous sangria schooner goblets, making room for new specialities including steak frites and charcuterie. Playful design elements in the form of banquettes and booths upholstered with an eclectic mix of themes (think Americana, holidays and even Star Wars) give Mutt’s a homey, personal touch. Consider it the alumni house to Mutt Lynch’s. 

Upgraded Mutt’s features are found in the craft cocktail program plus its wrap-around, enclosed patio that’ll house a secondary bar. Future iterations of Mutt’s are also in the long-term plan, according to Alex: “We want to continue to build upon the success and ethos of Mutt Lynch’s by celebrating what gives America character – its small towns and communities. Beginning with our hometown in Newport Beach, each Mutt’s location will celebrate its respective community with distinct decor and menu items that reflect unique elements of the town and its history.” Mutt’s will be opening by the end of the month in the Eastbluff neighborhood of Newport Beach.

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

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