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Boqueria's Tasty Tapas Hatches at Rooster Cafe

Bawk-Bawk-Boqueria!
A tasty tapas bar is the latest concept to hatch at the restaurant incubator that is the Rooster Cafe

Jack Flynn’s Rooster Cafe has become more than a purveyor of egg breakfasts; it is now equally well-known as a new-restaurant incubator—a place that nurtures fledgling concepts and allows them to take flight. First to hatch was the Hidden Kitchen, a successful experiment by four friends, all aspiring restaurateurs, who, for two nights per week, rented out Flynn’s dining room and kitchen to serve three-course prix-fixe dinners. In the short time it operated, Hidden Kitchen became one of those unique word-of-mouth phenomena, a surprisingly special dining experience that I still consider one of the best I’ve had in OC. It has since moved on, ready to find a location of its own; but without Rooster Cafe’s assistance, it would just have been four people in a suburban cul-de-sac with kitchen know-how and an unrealized restaurant idea stalled in “what ifs.”

Now, Rooster has taken another new eatery under its wings. Called Boqueria, it is the brainchild of Maria Christenson, an associate of Flynn’s at Costa Mesa’s Kitsch Bar. Hers is a tapas restaurant, and in my opinion, it’s a worthy follow-up to Hidden Kitchen. She has enlisted Marvin Boden, chef de cuisine at Splashes in Laguna Beach’s Surf and Sand Hotel, and three nights per week, the duo offers a Spanish menu to pair with wine and sangria.

Christenson will be your server and host while Boden cranks out the dishes faster than it takes your local Del Taco to assemble a burrito. Seriously, the man works like he’s out to prove something. On the night of our visit, we were hit with a barrage of dishes, all coming within seconds of one another. Some didn’t require a lot of effort, such as a small saucer of mussel meat pickled in vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil—each morsel piquant from the acid soak and richly textured like a hardboiled egg yolk. But others were complex and thoughtful, like the uncharacteristically not-chewy octopus surrounded by a kimchi-like salad of onions, green beans and Yukon gold potatoes sliced into coins. Or the handcrafted, sausage-stuffed zucchini with a mole-like sauce.

Even more impressive was Boden’s roasted pork belly, a bona-fide main course crowned with a salad of dates, walnuts and endive barely dressed in quince vinaigrette. The two square slabs of pig possessed equal parts crispy meat and melting blubber—the kind of dish you wish you didn’t have to share.

As these are foods from Spain, a hog-loving country, pork is also well-represented in the form of its indigenous sausage: chorizo. You can choose to have it featured straight up with pickled peppers, or worked into a sauté of Brussels sprouts, which Boden serves steaming-hot. Or, if you prefer that it play Sancho Panza to another protein, enjoy the chorizo in a dish of braised lamb cooked with white beans in one of Boqueria’s more substantial and satisfying offerings.

If you come hungry, you need to order something such as the latter per person, since everything else will be done in small amounts—some as tiny as an amuse bouche, others as just as a single serving (like the empanada—a flaky, crimped pastry parcel stuffed with spiced ground beef and served atop a tangy avocado purée). This is tapas, after all: finger foods akin to hors d’oeuvres served communally, eaten in sample-sized mouthfuls, usually with a toothpick as utensil, followed by a swig of something preferably alcoholic and chased with good conversation.

The croquetas, three stubby, deep-fried fritters filled with minced chicken and bacon, are gone in two bites. The boquerones en vinagre, an elegantly laid mound of marinated anchovies, could pass for a course in a sushi omakase. And when you order gambas à la plancha, you receive only three head-on grilled prawns, each lightly crusted with crunchy sea salt on its soot-charred carapace.

But the trouble with tapas isn’t with the tapas; it’s with our Extra Value Meal mindsets and Claim Jumper portion expectations that demand bulk over quality. So I warn those of you who subscribe to this notion: Boqueria will not be cheap.

Even so, I submit Boqueria’s patatas bravas, simply fried hunks of potatoes served with homemade tomato sauce and an addictively lemony aioli. Yes, these are filler to be sure, but the crusty golden skins and ethereally fluffy insides will make you regret ever saying anything complimentary about McDonald’s fries.

Boqueria at the Rooster Cafe, 750 Saint Claire, Costa Mesa, (714) 727-7286; www.boqueriarestaurant.net. Open Thurs.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. Dishes, $4-$15. Beer, wine and sangria.

 
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