Eating the 21st Century

Photo by Jessica CalkinsJust a few years ago, the eating-out/hanging-out options for young Asians around here were pretty much stratified between their own ethnic enclaves and everything else—few melting pots of cuisine or cultures were to be found. But it is a gloriously diverse new world in which we live—recent electoral results notwithstanding—and a new generation of Asian kid demands not only their tonkatsu but also their quarter-pounder with cheese—and one place to eat both.

Enter Potbellies.

Potbellies re-creates the drive-in restaurant—that bustling American nexus of tail fins, chrome and fast food—on an expansive Fullerton parking lot. While offering all the dishes once balanced on the arms of roller-skating waitresses, Potbellies also incorporates Asian cuisine, the better to serve the new multicultural, multitasteful American race. Get with the times, Potbellies announces via a menu ranging from Philadelphia beef to Korean barbecue—this is the 21st century.

The restaurant entertains its share of regulars throughout the week, often bustling with the laughter and cadence of the bicultural young, the English/Korean/Chinese roadside sign beckoning to them and their tricked-out export cars. Most come hungry and spend the next couple of hours enjoying life as only the young can. They pull up, Hondas and Toyotas immaculately shined and not a few of them sporting racing logos, many dressed and versed in the ways of the hip-hop nation.

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Inside, they find a décor that could double as a jukebox dream imagined through a Zen riddle, beautiful arching wooden chairs more appropriate for a sushi bar stand on a floor that isn't a fugue in Formica but a shining timber marvel once likely stepped upon by Buddhist monks. Instead of rock & roll icons hanging on the walls, there are minimalist flowers accompanied by plant arrangements. And the lean-to counter is made of marble. Marble! At a drive-in!

Design and intent only accentuates a restaurant's ambience, though, not the food. So Potbellies makes sure to honor the luscious legacy of American diner eats. It prides itself primarily on Philly cheesesteaks, monstrosities that taste of Broad Street. Potbellies serve nine versions of the sub, each featuring the key base of melted-just-right American cheese, grilled-steak bits and robust bread. From this foundation, you can request piles of biting peppers, understated mushrooms or sweet onions. Get the No. 2 (which somehow squeezes all of those toppings into nine inches) and try to eat it without smiling.

It's with their Asian servings, however, that Potbellies fulfills the promise of their culinary juxtaposition. The pot stickers are seven levels of beef heaven accompanied by a superlative sweet-and-sour sauce. This same sauce also brings out the buttery side of the giant fried-fish balls.

As much as the entire Potbellies menu excels, the best dish is the bulgogi rice combo. Entire restaurants are built around bulgogi (also known as Korean barbecue), but here, the restaurant's cooking is so transcendent it treats the Korean classic as an afterthought, advertising it only by a withered paper hanging from the main menu. Which is not to say the bulgogi suffers; the thin slices of soy-sweetened beef interspersed with onion strands that lie on top of puffy white rice are wondrous and tasty, and you pay only $5. Oh, it is a brave new world indeed!

For drinks, choose from a plethora of Asian-flavored smoothies, slushies or teas. Or you can play the American game and go for the milk shakes, sodas and iced cappuccinos. It doesn't matter; everything at Potbellies is delicious, regardless of cultural origin. And that boy with the Chinese characters on one side of his car and an American flag flapping on his antenna wouldn't want it any other way.


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