The college bar crowd is what Fullerton, specifically its downtown area (also referred to as D.T.F.), has a reputation for. One walk through the neighborhood on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll encounter packed parking lots and thirsty 20-somethings enjoying life. Yet, there’s definitely more to the city’s culinary scene than this stereotype. While I was having a drink with Fullerton resident and friend Corky Nepomuceno, she explained that downtown Fullerton (and its adjacent neighborhoods) are changing.
For more than a decade Corazon “Corky” Nepomuceno has operated Fullerton Foundry, a social media platform that promotes the arts, food and beverage scene and her hand-over-heart passion for the Fullerton community. It’s through our mutual love of dining that we crossed paths and became friends.
From 2015 until 2019, she was a founding executive board director for the annual Day of Music Fullerton festival and acting president for 2016 and 2017. She served on the board of trustees for the award-winning Fullerton Museum Center from 2016 to 2022. Accolades include being featured as one of OC Weekly’s People of the Year for 2014 and Top 10 Women of the Year in the 29th District in 2017 for her contribution to the advancement of the arts.
When asked about Fullerton’s college drinking status, Nepomuceno explained that as much as the COVID pandemic crushed the restaurant industry, those local storefronts that survived were instrumental in transitioning downtown Fullerton’s nighttime landscape for the better.
“Being one of the very first towns in SoCal to block off streets and parking lots for outdoor dining (coupled with the imposed curfews), we were attracting more diners than the usual college drinkers from other cities,” she said. “We became a destination for families and those starving for a dining experience.”
With her as my guide, I knew I was in good hands as we explored Fullerton’s grown-up dining culture which includes newer and longstanding establishments.
Hidalgo’s Cocina and Cocteles
Our discussion of alternative Fullerton hangouts came about while catching up over cocktails at Hidalgo’s. As the sister dining room to The Cellar Restaurant, Nepomuceno explained that Hidalgo’s shares both an executive chef and beverage director, meaning guests can expect the same solid quality regardless of where they dine. A family-owned establishment focusing on Latin cuisine, its weekend brunch, social hour and Taco Tuesday specials make it a popular hangout for customers of all ages.
“A new draw is that veteran bartender Kevin Malone (who had been at Mulberry Street for-effin-ever) finally committed to a change of scenery to become their bar manager. He is affable and nerdy, has a sympathetic ear and provides a familial haven for us locals,” Nepomuceno said. I was introduced to Malone and can vouch for her description of him – he also makes a mean cocktail.
Pre-COVID, Nepomuceno was the type to seek out new places. However, during the pandemic she took a cautious step back. It was actually through community Facebook group Fullerton Loves Food that she initially learned about Eggspresso over in the neighborhood of Sunny Hills. Corky also knows me well enough to know that I’d be down for a quality breakfast, so one Sunday we met across town at this all-day brunch joint.
Eggspresso’s open layout, pet-friendly patio and lengthy countertop gave off strong brunch vibes when Joo Hee Kwon and her husband Sun initially visited the vacancy. And so with no prior restaurant experience, the couple took a leap of faith in the summer of 2020 to plan a daily brunch spot. Serving modernized versions of classic dishes like vibrant, seasonal fruit toast and a brocollini omelet with garlic confit and aged Gruyere cheese, their culinary travels also inspired Asian-themed lunch dishes including kimchi fried rice as well as kalbi (beef short rib) mac and cheese. A favorite of mine is Eggspresso’s refreshing green goddess salad featuring components of roasted squash, soft-boiled egg and bacon.
Joo Hee’s coffee fiend husband was in charge of crafting a sizable espresso menu (Read: no alcohol served). It utilizes herbs grown in a series of makeshift herb planters which double as decorative carts throughout the patio for signature “Affirmation Lattes.” For instance, they use rosemary syrup in their charcoal-based Black Hole beverage and fragrant lavender syrup in a matcha-forward latte called The Forest.
From the super-authentic Lebanese eats to its eclectic music and mismatched dishware, Les Amis is a go-to restaurant for Nepomuceno and her significant other, Ryan. Different from other places in the area, the establishment gives her an Old World feeling, as though she’s not in Fullerton anymore.
In the 10-plus years that Les Amis has been in operation, it has expanded twice. Its original corner location is now a craft whiskey concept named Chapter Four. The two additions morphed from dive bar and pizza joint to dedicated lounge and bar plus a wrap-around patio. Pre-COVID, it was one of the only dedicated patios in the neighborhood, which has since extended onto the sidewalk. Note: The city recently extended the open dining provision until September 2022; businesses have the option to apply for a permit to keep their respective outdoor areas.
Jinan Montecristo serves up a varied menu of small bites and hearty entrees (many are recipes passed down from her mother); newcomers should graze on a sampler platter that includes an addictive fried cauliflower topped with pine nuts that was offered long before the vegetable became trendy. More fusion-style options include shawarma-baked spaghetti, a ginger burger flavored with serranos and cilantro, plus falafel taquitos.
Nepomuceno’s fascination with the construction of Play Coffee as it was coming together was warranted as she marveled at how a new business seemingly popped up in the middle of a breezeway, defying physics with an aesthetically pleasing use of six(!) repurposed shipping containers. A functional space with baristas who didn’t take themselves too seriously, she also mentioned frequenting Play for its kouign amann (a multi-layered, sugar and butter indulgence) from Bread Artisan Bakery.
Play Coffee is a rotational, multi-coffee roaster and beverage bar. Beans are thoughtfully sourced from around the world. Espresso-based drinks, refined teas and freshly filtered coffee are complemented by pastries from local bakeries. Open to sipping something new? Ask about a Volcano or Shakerato latte. The orange and blue-hued caffeine stop from owner Leon Wansikehian was a finalist for World’s Best New Coffee in 2020.
Locals line up for the specialty coffee, however they tend to stay and linger in Play’s lush patio to hop on its wifi or catch up with friends. Bonus: Wanskiehian recently acquired the former barber shop next door to provide additional indoor seating.
Though she has yet to dine indoors at Khan Saab, Nepomuceno ordered takeout from there several times over the past two years due to its proximity to her home. In her opinion, the hallmark of an exceptional restaurant is one that produces simple yet delicious foods like papadum (crispy lentil chips). She loves the taste so much that one time she split four orders with her significant other while browsing Netflix.
Founder and executive chef Imran “Ali” Mookhi faced a challenge when opening a high-end Pakistani restaurant in Orange County. Khan Saab debuted in January 2020, focusing on a regional menu and zero-proof bar program. Educating diners in Halal cooking standards and the Desi region of South Asia (which includes Bangladesh, Pakistan and India) while also navigating a pandemic would be the ultimate test for Mookhi and the rest of the team.
In 2021, the hard work paid off as Khan Saab was awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand, an incredible achievement under the circumstances. Ali says, “I was and still am absolutely humbled to be named alongside tremendous chefs that I’ve looked up to since the beginning of my culinary career.”
Its varied selections included an extensive curry listing, Australian Wagyu steaks, wild-caught salmon kabobs and signature dishes like chicken biryani.
Khan Saab’s success story reminds us that good things can come about even during difficult times. “Knowing our restaurant has fulfilled our collective vision of being a platform for people, especially those from our culture, to be excited and proud about high-end Pakistani cuisine means everything to us,” Ali said.
A recommendation from a fellow Day of Music board member, West Fullerton’s Maison Fox and its adjacent Maisonette drew Nepomuceno in with its chic vibe. “The sun shines a little differently here, like a jewel box,” she said.
Proprietor John Lee’s Maisonette is a curated shop carrying artisanal brands for the kitchen while Maison Fox is a multi-hyphenate destination. Created for more intimate gatherings, it is a bespoke event space that will ultimately include a natural wine tasting salon. In an effort to get away from traditional bar culture, Lee explained how the future concept is commonly found in hotels and speciality wine rooms. “We wanted to just do something familiar and easygoing like in our home,” Lee said.
The indoor/outdoor setup of Maison Fox is a welcome respite thanks to its smartly-allocated patio, out of sight from the main road. Minimalist design gives the converted residence an open, airy feel. Lee is collaborating with a chef consultant to create a modest menu (she was on site while we were there). Still in an organic, soft-opening stage, Maison Fox was limited to its activities, so we toured the event/tasting space after visiting Masionette.
Coming Soon to the Downtown Fullerton Neighborhood
During the course of my visits to downtown Fullerton and its surrounding neighborhoods, we came across three sites in varying stages of build out within walking distance to the train station: Ostrich Egg Distillery, a saloon by Mario Marovic, and a tasting room for Chapman Crafted. Will these three brands shift the focus closer to a college bar community again? At the end of the day, it’s a brewery, a distillery and a bar in the works. How they market and how the community responds will likely be the deciding factors.
SoCal Restaurant Show Appearance
On Saturday, March 19, I visited Angel Stadium to be interviewed by Andy Harris of the SoCal Restaurant Show. We discussed Anaheim’s Natural Products Expo West, my recent column and also previewed the one you’re reading now. The opening interview segment can be found here; the second is linked here.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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