Photo by Courtney OquistConsider the potato chip—go on, ya mug, consider it—reclining quietly near that brisket sandwich of yours (mmmm, brisket). But even thick cubes of savory beef infused with tangy sauce can become redundant, and after a while, you figure, "A potato chip? Why not?" And you bite into one, and it doesn't taste like any chip you've ever pulled from a sack (mmmm, sack pull). It's crispy and light but with real flavor, the real flavor of—wait for it—a potato. And then you're wondering where the folks at the Firehouse Char Grill buy their chips.
But what you don't know is that these "folks," as you call them, are actually "a guy" who comes in every morning and slices the potatoes thin for the chips. And when he's not doing that, he's preparing the date-nut squash that will be combined with candied pecans and caramel sauce to create the greatest thing ever—seriously—or coring the onions to be dipped in the onion-ring batter or rubbing the meat with seasoning before it gets thrown into the smoker or shredding the cabbage for the coleslaw, and when he leaves, another guy shows up to take his place, and this goes on all day at the Firehouse because just about everything at the Firehouse is made fresh at the Firehouse.
This is how Hal Redjai wants it. He opened the Firehouse Char Grill in Irvine about a year and a half ago, but he had been planning it for at least twice that long. "To do all this prep work by hand instead of just buying things in bags, I gotta tell you, it's a paaaain," he said. "But I really believe it's the attention to detail—something you can't get at other places—that's going to make families want to come back."
They'll come back because they can taste the onion in the ring and the beef in the barbecue. You know how some barbecue places use their sauce not so much as an ingredient but as a camouflaging agent? At the Firehouse, barbecue dishes are lightly suffused so they'll never lose their intrinsic meatness, whether it's the beef or chicken or turkey breast or chili dog. Oh, yeah, there's chili. It's very good, but when you order it, be sure to say yes when they offer cheese and onions—it kicks the flavor over the top.
What kicks your visit to the Firehouse over the top are the side dishes. Coleslaw? Homemade and delicious. Then there's the date-nut squash dish that, admittedly, looks like baby food but is sweet, soft, crunchy and complex, tasting almost like a dessert and making a perfect foil for piquant barbecue. Oh, and there's a lot more: green beans with bacon and onions, baked beans, and roasted corn that is actually roasted corn.
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"Nothing against anyone, but I didn't want to be compared to El Pollo Loco," Hal said. "When you go to [Newport Beach's] Bandera and get the coleslaw, your mouth hits the ground. That's what I wanted."
Indeed, though the Firehouse is a relatively small place—14 tables—that one might mistake for a nice pizza or sandwich joint, its quality and selection are closer to that of a more upscale restaurant. To be honest, Hal would have preferred his restaurant to be about twice the size of the one that currently sits between a discount barber and a gas station. But this was what was available. Still, it's not the size; it's what you do with it—at least, that's what I keep reading in my daily affirmations. The bland, beige stucco exterior belies the affable brick and mahogany interior, a warm place that recalls some of the joints Hal checked out in Boston when he was scouting for ideas.
"It was like the food—I didn't want to skimp," he said. "We could have put up fake brick or pine instead, but it just wouldn't have seemed right. I mean, if you're going to pay 10 bucks for ribs, I'm not going to give you some cheesy metal seat to sit on. That just wouldn't seem right."
Firehouse Char Grill, located at 3991 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 731-5818. Beer and wine. Lunch for two, $15-$20, food only. All major credit cards accepted.