The first wave of Orange County food halls gave us poke with an ocean view in Huntington Beach, gourmet New York-style pizza in downtown Santa Ana and Indian street food in a century-old packing house in Anaheim.
Now the second swell of culinary walkabouts is emerging. And, let me tell you: Get ready for a tsunami.
“This is going to be a dining mecca of international concepts,” said Kenny Liu, leasing manager for The Source, a mega-entertainment and food complex in Buena Park.
Within The Source, a food hall dubbed Square Mixx is coming next year. It’s one of two international marketplaces in the works in Orange County. The other is a Vietnamese-themed food hall in Little Saigon.
McFadden Public Market in Santa Ana opened last month. And in Irvine, TRADE, at 2222 Michelson Drive, celebrates its grand opening on Saturday, May 13.
Surprisingly, Irvine’s first food hall is being developed on a parcel of land not owned by the Irvine Co. Though we suspect the city’s largest landowner has culinary aspirations for the ex-Macy’s space at Irvine Spectrum Center.
TRADE, formerly Michelson Marketplace, is a joint effort between Lincoln Property Co. and Alcion Ventures. The two companies have spent roughly $5 million converting the aging food court within the 32,000-square-foot strip center into an open-air hall.
Like McFadden, TRADE has tapped experienced operators from buzzy concepts such as Dos Chinos, Slapfish, Afters Ice Cream and GD Bro Burger to bring fresh food stands to the center near John Wayne Airport.
“We had to get these guys who had the following to bring people here,” said Parke Miller, executive vice president of Irvine-based Lincoln Property Co.
Restaurants by Andrew Gruel opened last month. The creator of fast-casual seafood sensation Slapfish has developed yin-and-yang concepts Two Birds and Butterleaf.
At Butterleaf, Gruel is following the veggie trend with produce as “drool-worthy” center-of-the-plate creations. The menu features roasted or sauteed vegetables bathed in various housemade sauces including Green Goddess and a spicy tiger sauce.
Meals come as wraps or bowls and with sides. One standout appetizer: Avocado Bombs, diced avocados rolled in crushed corn chips, deep fried and topped with kimchi tiger sauce.
Though veggies are king here, Gruel says don’t call Butterleaf a “plant-based restaurant” because his intention isn’t to cater strictly to vegetarians; he predicts carnivores will love it too.
“It’s vegetables for meat eaters,” he said.
At Two Birds, Gruel is following an indulgent trend: fried chicken. The limited menu features grilled or fried Jidori chicken served as a sandwich or salad for $9.
“I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel. We are definitely trying to take advantage of chicken being hot,” Gruel said.
Most of the TRADE food stands have been open for a few weeks, including a second brick-and-mortar outlet for Hop Phan’s Dos Chinos.
Like Slapfish, the Vietnamese and Mexican fusion eatery started out as a food truck. Phan parked the concept at 4th Street Market two years ago. Now, he’s taking it to Irvine, along with new concept Megadon, a Latin, Asian, Mexican and Hawaiian fusion eatery.
Pig Pen Delicacy, which debuted last year at 4th Street Market, is a pork-centric eatery from the creators of Afters Ice Cream and GD Bro Burger. It recently opened at SteelCraft, a Long Beach food marketplace built from shipping containers. Popular offerings include Pork Belly Fries, Maple Bacon Jam Burger and the MacAttack Burger. The latter is served on fried mac ‘n cheese buns.
Other TRADE food stalls: Portside, a seafood shack serving fish and chips, calamari and fish tacos; Gyro King, Greek sandwiches, gyros and plates; Sweet Combforts, a whimsical twist on a classic Belgian-style liege waffle. And, yes, that’s how you spell it because the dimples on the waffle form a honeycomb pattern. The waffles, infused with pearl sugars, are served on a stick and dipped in a variety of cookie butter flavors.
Following the one-bar-serves-all philosophy of Recess at 4th Street Market, Center Hub will provide all the libations for TRADE’s eight restaurants. Expect simple, classic cocktails, boutique wines and 10 taps of craft beer.