Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing for eight years at OC Weekly in which she interviewed over 330 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. In 2022, Anne Marie was a judge for the James Beard Awards.
Reasons why so many restaurant chains descend upon Irvine before other cities in Orange County include demographics, demographics and more demographics. Between the city’s population (third largest after Anaheim and Santa Ana), abundant commercial spaces such as The Market Place, Diamond Jamboree and Irvine Spectrum, income and education levels, and its proximity to John Wayne Airport, it’s common for corporate giants to place a branch there. But if you can look past the branded names, there’s a subculture of privately owned dining appreciated by locals.
Sky Park Circle Tenants
One lesser-known neighborhood chooses a specific style of service: spaces that do not possess a dedicated indoor dining room, thus requiring kitchen staff only in lieu of both kitchen and waitstaff. I’m referring to the industrial loop adjacent to John Wayne Airport known as Sky Park Circle, where back in the day Blackmarket Bakery first planted roots and Harry’s Deli sold coveted sandwiches. (Note: Neither Blackmarket nor Harry’s operate out of Sky Park anymore.) Within its circular labyrinth of identical-looking units are mostly manufacturers, escape rooms, urban workout spaces and other small businesses. Of the dozen or so outlets that focus on selling food to the public, these made a memorable impression.
Roast and Smart Kitchens
Spouses Rungsima “Rusty” Kositsawat and Pravit “Cliff” Asavadejpakdee met while Cliff was already attending the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa. A graduate of Cal Poly Pomona’s hospitality program, Asavadejpakdee’s culinary past includes stints in Philadelphia, time with Cheesecake Factory, L.A.’s Katsuya chain plus locally in Anaheim’s Catal Restaurant and Hyatt. The duo spent time doing consulting work before launching a five-course, Asian-inspired weekly pop-up in Beverly Hills. The pop-up has since evolved to provide meal prep and catering services. Their new Irvine venture, Roast, is the couple’s dream project.
Roast is one of the newer tenants of Smart Kitchens in Irvine. When customers arrive at Smart Kitchens, they find themselves in a small room outfitted with a series of doorbells and visuals for multiple eateries. Diners who order online and pay ahead of time may find their meals already bagged and ready for pick-up on a rack.
Signage for delivery drivers routes them to go around to the back door. For everybody else, there’s a general kiosk to place orders on the fly or selecting a buzzer at one’s preferred dining option for additional assistance. This style of digital food court, where all the food is prepared for off-site consumption, is referred to as a ghost kitchen – or for this collective, a ghost food court.
Kositsawat and Asavadejpakdee launched Roast from Smart Kitchens in January 2022. Specializing in quality meals for up to six guests, the concept’s protein of choice (a.k.a. Centerpiece on its menu) is rotisserie chicken with meatless alternatives of maitake mushrooms and cauliflower. A half-dozen sides and sauces lend to countless customization, and bottled beverages and choice sweets may also be added. Although most of the menu can be ordered à la carte, it would behoove anyone that’s undecided to request a combination.
The day I placed an order, I planned on taking lunch to Balboa’s Wedge at the far end of Newport Beach. Traffic to the ocean slowed at the end of the 55 freeway (of course), giving us no choice but to break into our containers of tater tots and crispy Brussels sprouts as we continued along Newport Boulevard. Despite the time it took to reach the peninsula our chicken remained moist; the integrity of every last sprout and tot was maintained. Meaty maitakes with umami-dense garlic grains could’ve passed for their own meal. And it was a toss up between ramekins of chimichurri and yuzu honey as to which was tastier.
In July of 2020, the modest storefront belonging to Lagu Cafe opened its doors along Main Street, one of Sky Park’s perimeter streets. A sister locale of Okayama Kobo Bakery in Anaheim, Lagu is advertised as a Japanese deli, crafting organic teas and coffees alongside both classic and contemporary eats. It’s easy to spot since there are usually a few patrons standing outside for their order next to dedicated bistro tables and chairs. Although I would not refer to it as a ghost kitchen, most visitors tend to take their purchases back to the car.
With limited hours covering breakfast and lunch only, the cafe’s food offerings list savory bites of rice balls known as onigiri – when in doubt, the salmon flavor is a solid starting point – as well as a series of handhelds utilizing Okayama’s fluffy salt and butter rolls. For liquid nourishment, a staggering selection of over 20 beverages includes espresso drinks, floral iced teas and ever-popular flavored lattes (strawberry sakura or melon cream, anyone?), finished with sea salt vanilla foam.
Setting Lagu apart from other businesses in the area is an ongoing collaborative hustle with a number of popular Los Angeles brands including Uncle Tetsu (cheesecakes), Tsujita (noodles) and Toku Unagi (eel) which offer signature items for purchase on specific dates. Pre-ordering on these dates not only guarantees sales for partners, but cross-promotes brands to new audiences. The fact that this cafe is closing in on two years of business during an uncertain time is proof enough that Lagu has pulled through.
Taylor Made Cuisine
When Taylor DeCosta was seeking an office/production facility for her company, moving into Sky Park Circle made sense. DeCosta’s business is closed to the public and by appointment only, making a highly visible storefront unnecessary to foot traffic. One deciding factor that sold the space was its proximity to both 55 and 405 freeways; the other was aesthetics. “When I walked into the second floor office with all the big windows, I knew it felt like home. We’ve had a lot of fun adding our own personal style to the space,” DeCosta said.
Taylor Made Cuisine is a gourmet meal prep service that has developed to include her past expertise as a caterer. Ready-made meals are delivered throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties for eight dietary needs, including vegan, keto, low FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, i.e. foods that cause intestinal distress) and pescatarian. Customization was key when I tried out the service, “tayloring” selections based on my dietary needs. Proteins and sides were packaged separately, allowing for easy storage in my refrigerator and the ability to mix and match flavors because I could. Having a break from grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning was a welcome change, but if I were to do it again I would personally focus on dinner entrees and snacks.
Office Complex Destinations
Back when office buildings were full of workers, deciding where to spend one’s lunch hour often meant a drive-thru or quick bite with a colleague down the street. If people were lucky, property management leased space to a no-frills spot in the lobby to conveniently feed the masses.
Gone are the days of Mick’s Karma Bar – where 10 bucks gave customers one of the tastiest burgers around with steak fries, a muddled strawberry basil lemonade and parking validation; it departed and freed up space for Porch & Swing.
Newer complexes are investing in specialty dining by the likes of chef Brittany Valles at seasonal Solstice, while long-standing brick-and-mortars regain their footing. There may be fewer individuals working from the office, but Irvine residents have taken these patio-forward outliers and made them local hangouts.
Housed in Google Center off Jamboree, Twenty Eight originally began with more of an Asian-focused menu. It has progressed to a carnivore-friendly dining experience with sizable cuts of wood-grilled beef, cheese and charcuterie boards, plus gems like char-siu glazed heritage pork shoulder or soft shell crab tajarin from chef Jay Lacuesta. Whiskey and vino connoisseurs will stay to study its comprehensive offerings. (Twenty Eight won a Wine Spectator award for the past three years). The layout is conducive to private meetings and events, with both intimate and open spaces for family and business occasions. It is currently offering dinner service only.
Serving O.C. power lunches and dinners as far back as 1987, Bistango first launched in Los Angeles three years prior before founder John Ghoukassian (who passed away in March 2021) relocated it to Irvine’s 10-story Atrium building. Curating a modern art collection while promoting live entertainment nightly within an expansive patio, Bistango was an early player in Irvine’s elevated dining scene. Consistent New American fare coupled with familial hospitality are Bistango’s trademarks. Note: Sister restaurant Bayside is in Newport Beach.
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Now Open/Opening Soon
If you’re questioning the subculture observations, below are two recent examples entering the Irvine mix. The first restaurant debuts at a remodeled office complex, while the other embraces its ghost kitchen status.
Originally a Newport Beach stand-alone establishment founded by chef Deborah Schneider in 2009, Sol Cocina (and its sister concept, Solita) were acquired by Xperience Restaurant Group in 2019. Located at the same Von Karman/Main office complex as Porch & Swing, the property was previously an El Torito Grill. Specializing in coastal Mexican cuisine, Sol boasts extensive food and drink menus, weekend brunch, happy hour and yes, Taco Tuesday. Sol Mexican Cocina may have gone corporate, but locals know the full story.
The Hainan Chicken Rice
Located in the unit adjacent to Irvine Smart Kitchens, The Hainan Chicken Rice (HCR) is its own ghost kitchen. Simply poached poultry is paired with flavored rice, cucumbers and a trio of dipping sauces; it’s the kind of dish that benefits from the sum of its parts. Between the garlic ginger, soy and chili sauces, the one I tend to ration to the very last bite is HCR’s ginger blend.
While it quietly opened at the end of last year, HCR’s owner Shaun Ito is ready to go full speed ahead with a grand opening this Sunday, April 10, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or until sold out). The first 100 guests will receive a free rice plate. Then it’s buy one rice plate, get one free. A giveaway for Disneyland tickets will also be happening. Note: Deliveries will also receive the BOGO deal when ordering via GrubHub, Doordash or Fantuan.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.