Asian-American Foodies Are Changing the Way Orange County--and the Nation--Eats
Portraits by Danny Liao and Dustin Ames
The 405 is slammed from the 55 to Long Beach. Harbor Boulevard is a parking lot. The industrial and office parks surrounding the South Coast Collection (SOCO) shopping center in Costa Mesa are emptying out, with thousands of employees resigned to spending the next hour or so in traffic hell.
Refuge is needed. At the Iron Press, on the northeastern edge of SOCO, the bar is already filled with people getting at the restaurant's waffle sandwiches and craft beers. Diners wear suits, pricy kicks, flip-flops and almost all the other fashions en vogue in Southern California. Three doctors, still wearing their scrubs after a day at work, relax with brews. At a side table, young friends look at their phones, framing the perfect photo of their food for Instagram or Snapchat.
Running around to make sure everyone's having a great time is Iron Press owner Leonard Chan. "What'll you have now?" he asks two patrons at the bar who had just finished their drinks. "I see two people and no beers."
One group obviously dominates the customer base: Asian-Americans.
The Asian Foodies are out in force tonight, as they are almost every night at Orange County's most buzzed-about food spots. Since at least the beginning of the decade, Asian-Americans have become the county's culinary tastemakers. Their foodways have always had a presence in the county, from the chow mein dives of the 1930s to teriyaki spots in the 1960s to the explosion of Thai and pho restaurants going back to the 1980s. But Asian Foodies have created, popularized and mainstreamed nearly all the major local culinary trends of recent years, from the currently ubiquitous poke and couture ice-cream joints to crawfish shacks and poutine places to the food halls, Korean taco trucks, and dessert and pastry shops popping up from Mission Viejo to Anaheim. Throw in New American comfort food, as well as nouveau hamburger, pizza and hot dog chains, and there isn't a food genre the Asian Foodies haven't blown up.
The easiest way to open a successful restaurant in today's climate is to attract Asian Foodies. But if you thumb your nose at this scene, thinking no way on Earth will you let multicultural millennials dictate how you chow down, be warned: As with that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep dresses down Anne Hathaway's smirking ingénue by pointing out that Hathaway's supposedly fashion-free cerulean-blue sweater actually represented fads from years ago, the Asian Foodies' influence will eventually trickle down and get you.
I mean, you've all had boba, right? That was so 1999.
Chan: Iron Press-ive
Danny Liao/OC Weekly
You've probably been to one of Chan's restaurants. If you haven't gone through the hidden door behind the guarded sake barrels to the Blind Rabbit in Anaheim, you've probably dipped razor-thin slices of meat into bubbling broth at either Rolling Boil or California Shabu Shabu. Maybe you've had the still-quivering oysters at Shuck? Awaiting his sliders concept, Hatch? At a minimum, you must've had waffles and beer at your local bar, a concept created by Chan at his Iron Press.
He is the king of the Asian Foodies, seemingly announcing a new concept every month and drawing packed crowds at all of his spots. But the 40-year-old (who looks a decade younger) is not an imperious ruler, making it a point to work weekly shifts at all of his outposts.
On a recent Friday night in Anaheim, after a day of driving across Orange County for meetings about more restaurants in the works, Chan is behind the bar at the Iron Press. Dressed comfortably in jeans, Chucks and a casual button-down shirt, he moves effortlessly between employees, chatting with customers at the high, wooden bar in between pouring beers from the row of taps behind him, checking in with nearly every member of his staff, plus entertaining one of OC's most popular food Instagrammers and one of its most famous fashion Instagrammers, both of whom are seated at a separate, lower section of the stone top.
"Leonard's always working," says Michel Phiphak, the food Instagrammer, of Chan, who banters with a customer farther down the bar.
It's continuous, nonstop work, and though the bar is in the middle of post-dinner Friday-night beer rush time, Chan's smile—which grows wide when speaking to anyone and shrinks to a gentle grin when focused elsewhere—never drops from his face.
"I still love interaction with customers, new or old," Chan says a few days later. "I like being in the trenches with my staff. I want them to know that if they ever need help, I can fill in anywhere and I'm always willing to get dirty."
Chan didn't plan on getting into food. Born in the now-shuttered Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim and raised in Irvine, he always had a head for numbers. He went to UC Irvine to pursue a math degree, but he found the program weak and unchallenging. "It got to the point where I would be doing the equations on the board instead of the TAs," Chan remembers. "They didn't really understand what they were teaching."
After leaving the major, he bounced around the university, taking two quarters in psychology before graduating with a degree in economics in 1997. Chan immediately started a corporate job with Fountain Valley-based Kingston Technology that served as a jumping-off point for a decade-long, successful but ultimately unfulfilling career in IT, during which he spent time in the Bay Area. He traveled often to the Pacific Northwest and other major American metropolises. It was during these years that Chan developed a taste for Fernet-Branca—the now extremely popular Italian digestif that was, until five years ago, only easily found in San Francisco—and saw what kind of businesses succeeded in major cultural centers across the States.
"I wanted to open a bar while I was working in IT, but I didn't realize how much red tape was involved," Chan says. "I also had an idea for a concept: craft beer and waffles. I had seen waffles up in Portland, but they weren't doing any beer, and I thought 'beer and waffles' . . . but craft beer wasn't what it [is] today, and no one was doing savory waffles."
Originally called the Mad Batter, the concept failed to attract investors in 2007. Chan continued his IT work. Just two years later, the original Bruxie opened in Orange. Now a beloved chain, it made the idea of savory waffles a smash, and Chan saw an opportunity to dust off his old vision. One week before deciding whether to take a job in Singapore or Seattle, he went out with his friend Wayne Atchley. The pair drank into the night. At one point, Atchley, one of the original owners of California Shabu Shabu, asked Chan if he were serious about getting into the restaurant industry.
"I had been telling him for two years, but he didn't want to mix business and pleasure," Chan remembers. "Honestly, I thought he was just drunk. He told me to meet him at the restaurant at 10:30 in the morning the next day, but I didn't think he'd remember."
The next day, Chan took his then-girlfriend to Target to go shopping; he was there when he received a phone call. "Wayne said, 'Where are you? I thought we were meeting. If you're not serious about it, that's okay,'" Chan says.
He rushed through the store, put all the items in his cart back in their proper places, then dropped off his girlfriend before heading to the California Shabu Shabu in Costa Mesa. Atchley and Chan spent hours discussing working together and months working the minutiae of the financials.
"We got it down to each sliver of a carrot," Chan says, grinning. "We were funded in about two months after that."
His Fountain Valley branch of the California Shabu Shabu franchise took off, and its success loosened investor purse strings. In 2012, Chan opened the first Iron Press, as well as Shuck Oyster Bar, at SOCO. (Iron Press bears a memorial to Chan's original concept: The Mad Batter is the menu heading for the restaurant's waffle sandwiches.) In 2014, he opened the second Iron Press, Rolling Boil and the Blind Rabbit in Anaheim. Earlier this year, he consulted at Pie Dog in Fullerton. He's also prepping for the debut of Hatch, a sliders brand complete with tiki drinks, at Union Market in Tustin, and he has even more restaurants planned for after that.
His ultimate goal, he says, is to make people happy. "Part of the reason I left IT was because I was getting burnt out," Chan says. "It's an odd animal—when things go right, people think you're doing nothing. When something breaks, people think it's because you've been doing nothing the entire time. There's very little human interaction, and when you do interact with people, they're upset because something is wrong. [At the restaurants,] I get to interact with a lot of people, and they always leave happy—and maybe a little tipsy."
This . . . is . . . the . . . Kroft
Among the local Asian Foodies who left lucrative careers to open a restaurant are Andy Nguyen and Scott Nghiem. They had successful streetwear businesses when they started Afters Ice Cream, which popularized the stuffing of doughnuts with ice cream (see "The Ice Cream Men," July 8).
The team behind the Kroft, one of 2014's most-hyped openings thanks to its poutine focus, also left white-collar professional careers to start a restaurant. "I was a financial adviser for five years at John Hancock, and after that, I worked at another company for two and a half, three years doing international sales," says Hugh Pham, one of the Kroft's four founders. "Then the market crashed. Working behind a desk, you get bored. I needed something new."
Until that point, Pham and his fellow founders—Stephen Le, Matthew Tong and Nam Truong—had seen food as a way to experience something new and as a personal challenge. They had traveled across the world, tasting each city's iconic dishes. Then they returned to Orange County and showcased their findings at family barbecues. After countless you-guys-could-sell-that reactions, the men (who still held full-time jobs) decided to open their own eatery, with a menu focused on modernized comfort food. The Kroft's anchor is its poutines, the Canadian classic that marries fries with gravy and cheese curds, reinterpreted as everything from a burger featuring Thousand Island dressing to a chicken katsu curry adaptation.
The reaction was immediate. Long, chaotic lines queued for hours in front of their first location. Three of the four founders left their full-time jobs nearly immediately to work 10- to 12-hour days at the Anaheim location.
"It was an easy decision, but it was a learning experience," Pham says. "Each hour of each day was a learning experience."
The group gradually became more effective. Lines, though still long, began moving quicker and wait times decreased. A second location, in Tustin's Union Market, recently opened, and with things calming down, it freed Pham to have another learning experience: He has relocated to San Francisco for the remainder of this year so he can attend the San Francisco Cooking School, with the intention of returning to create more restaurants.
"All of us don't have cooking backgrounds, and I wanted to do more for myself," Pham says. "San Francisco is where it's at for food. It's thriving out here—everyone is doing innovative things. That's the philosophy I want to follow."
Phan: He makes pho, too!
Danny Liao/OC Weekly
The godfather of OC's Asian Foodies is undoubtedly Roy Choi, the Villa Park High graduate whose Kogi Korean BBQ truck brought Korean-Mexican tacos to the masses in 2009. But he did that from Los Angeles and has built his kingdom there.
Almost as visible is Hop Phan, the mind behind Dos Chinos. The 35-year-old from Santa Ana has appeared on television more than any other OC chef in recent memory, including the Cooking Channel's Eat St.; the Food Network's Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen and Camp Cutthroat; and NBC's Food Fighters. On the latter show, he faced off against a 14-year-old former Masterchef Junior contestant; Phan lost.
The father of one has a food truck and a brick-and-mortar inside Santa Ana's Fourth Street Market; he also hosts pop-up pho nights and has plans for much, much more. But Phan, whose family owned restaurants in both Vietnam and Orange County, didn't start cooking until he was nearly out of his teens. "I was supposed to go into teaching, and then work my way up to law school, but I never got my teaching job," says Phan, who attended UC Irvine. "When I graduated [in 2008], my friends were getting laid off. No one was hiring."
Phan filled his time doing odd jobs: working in construction, managing nail salons, helping his family members with startups and business ideas. During this time, he refound his love for food, visiting his old favorite loncheras in Los Angeles for chorizo tacos and happily jumping into the Kogi craze.
"I tried Kogi out, and I was hooked," Phan says. "They had me. I was waiting in line for hours for their food: Kogi, Komodo, NomNom—all the originals."
One night in 2009, just a few weeks after his grandmother passed away, Phan and a friend were on their way to a construction job when a drunk driver smashed into Phan's car. "I remember thinking, 'I'm going to die,'" Phan says. "It sent us on two wheels. The car was completely totaled."
The insurance company wrote the car off, cutting Phan a check for $6,000 for a $20,000 car that he had just finished paying off. "I thought, 'Oh, man, what am I going to do? Buy another car just so I can lose some more money later?'"
Driven by all that had happened over the previous year, Phan got a 1988 Honda Accord from a brother-in-law and fixed it up into drivable condition. He spent the $6,000 insurance money on a food truck, which he operated with a cousin who had often accompanied him to the luxe loncheras. The pair decided to blend the foods they ate growing up in Santa Ana—Vietnamese, Mexican, Chinese, Korean. They went through a litany of names, among them Uppercuts and Strong Arms, until one day, his cousin looked at him and said, "Dos Chinos."
"It's perfect," Phan remembers saying. "Everyone was doing Korean with Mexican, and we loved all Asian food. Growing up, people would just call us 'chino' ['Chinese' in Spanish]. It really stands for all Asians."
For the first few weeks, the truck made no money; for the first few months, the pair just didn't sleep on Thursdays. They worked Thursday night into early Friday morning, and then prepped for Friday breakfast. "I said, 'People do this, right?'" Phan recalls, laughing. "'They just don't sleep for a day of the week.'"
Phan's cousin burned out after a few months, leaving Phan to run the truck on his own. But it wasn't too much longer before Dos Chinos hit its stride, going from $70 days to sell-outs during art walks and craft shows. Phan, who had at first eschewed social media, finally embraced it and found willing throngs of diners.
Dos Chinos' position in OC food was cemented by Phan's television appearances, though he initially avoided those, too. "I was so nervous before I went on Eat St.," Phan says. "The first few times I went on TV, I threw up right before, but after Chopped, I realized it was one of the best times I had had in the kitchen. It was the same with Cutthroat. I still get nervous, but it's exhilarating."
Phipak at work
Danny Liao/OC Weekly
The hyped food coming out of Chan's, Phan's and the Kroft's kitchens wouldn't be as popular without the hype supplied by Orange County's Asian Foodies, who mostly reside on Instagram. Three of the largest are @dailyfoodfeed (63K followers), @foodwithmichel (61K followers) and @tryitordiet (50K followers and run by Nguyen and Nghiem, whose personal followers also run in the tens of thousands).
Local chefs credit such social-media masters for quickly popularizing their restaurants.
"We've spent zero dollars on customer acquisition, so there's a good chance that anyone who comes here came because someone they knew had a good time," says Playground chef/owner Jason Quinn. "It's a double-edged sword because sometimes we'll plate a certain way, and a picture doesn't get taken until after things get moved around, but when someone like KevinEats [an Asian-American LA and OC food blogger] or someone who takes their hobby seriously comes in, they make a huge difference."
These foodies rove around Orange County's most exciting eateries and food events, often with one another but just as often alone. On Labor Day, Phiphak, better known as @foodwithmichel, is at lunch at Mokkoji, a modern black-and-wood shabu bar in Irvine that burns its logo into the tofu and rotates its menu seasonally, with modern takes on Asian classics such as quinoa bibimbap. (Many food Instagrammers eat exceedingly healthy when not working. Phiphak, who underwent nine months of chemo while fighting cancer, doesn't eat much red meat or sugar.) Most days, he's the thin, mildly snarky manager at Honey & Butter, the dessert shop in Costa Mesa that stocks Instagram-friendly macarons featuring fanciful decorations. But Mondays and evenings, Phiphak is often out taking photos.
"They're known for their thin-sliced beef belly," he says, looking over Mokkoji's menu. Partway through the meal, while talking about what his followers like ("Anything with Hot Cheetos or Nutella gets a lot of likes. If I feel like my photos haven't been doing well for a few days, I'll just go to In-N-Out") and don't like ("Pizza does really poorly. Salads, too"), he comes to a moment of realization: He's eaten all of his beef belly and hasn't taken a video for Snapchat yet. He takes his dining companion's half-full plate and fires off a quick update, then goes back to talking about how small the food community in Orange County actually is. Phiphak had run into Nghiem and Nguyen while at the grand opening of the Chino Hills location of Afters Ice Cream. He met Chan while planning a visit to one of his restaurants, and he and Edmond Cartojano (@dailyfoodfeed) met at the Orange County Night Market, an open-air food bazaar modeled on the street life in Asian metropolises. There, Cartojano also met Chan, Nguyen, Nghiem and several of the people behind Santa Ana-based Foodbeast, a food version of Buzzfeed (Weekly contributor Charisma Madarang had long been its editor).
After lunch, Phiphak heads to Afters Ice Cream in Tustin to take pictures of its signature Milky Buns in preparation for a Long Beach opening. It's an unexpectedly long two-hour shoot, as he goes through a dozen of the ice cream-stuffed doughnuts, freezing them as cold as possible to keep the ice cream from melting while he holds a tower of four in front of a white sheet that he carries with him to shoots.
"I think my experience is actually a little different because my Instagram account was a personal account first," Phiphak says. "I noticed it was my food photos that were the most popular, so I wanted to see how far it could go."
Cartojano: Doing it daily
Danny Liao/OC Weekly
The Asian foodie isn't unique to Orange County, of course. The majority of food bloggers in the Southland are Asian-Americans. As a whole, Asian-Americans spend 17 percent more of their income on eating out than the rest of the United States, according to a 2014 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But nowhere else in the country do they make as much of an impact when it comes to the food everyone eats. Even Halal Guys, the iconic New York food stand, is coming to Orange County thanks to an Asian-American franchisee.
Popular theories include the traditional importance of food in family and culture, food as a way of conspicuous consumption, food as competition, and food as a way of communication for a largely second-generation immigrant community. They all have some basis in reality.
"Food became a part of my life for two reasons," says Afters' Nguyen. "My sister is the chef of our family. She was the one to introduce me to a lot of different foods. . . . And with the IMKing Team [his previous streetwear line], we were always figuring out where to eat, so I got really into Yelp. It was a way to bond with my sister and became a fun game for me." "I think a lot of people want to live vicariously through Instagram and food," Cartojano says. "They look at the picture, and it's like they're there."
Phan asks, "Isn't food a big part of all Vietnamese and Asian families? Food defines who you are as a family. Some do their food a little sweeter, some saltier, some greasier."
"It was a way for us to spend money to really experience new things," Pham says. "And then it became a challenge for us to do better."
"It was a big part of my life growing up," Chan says. "My first food memory is honestly me folding dumplings with my mom."
There are other ideas and theories, of course. Asian-Americans are over-represented among Yelp users, who drive modern-day restaurant buzz. They are better wired than other ethnicities and more apt to support their own. Food is a universal way of communication, understandable no matter how little language parents and their children may share. And then there's the fact that food is where Asian-Americans have the most celebrities—their David Changs and Roy Chois and Eddie Huangs.
What's certain, though, is that the partnerships built through the network of Instagrammers, chefs, developers and eaters has made Orange County's food scene better, livelier. Phan is developing a project in Irvine that'll feature the Afters guys. They and Chan are also working on a few ideas.
"I just want to inject as much fun into Orange County as possible," he says, laughing. "Stuff as many faces as I can."
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