I admit I was excited that Irvine's Palm Café Food Court was being renovated. For years, I'd been going there for Franco's Pasta Cucina, Gourmet Burgers and the Chippy, which, in my opinion, made the best fish and chips in Orange County. But the food court was severely outdated. The place looked like a relic from the era of hair bands and Jordache. I'd previously called it "banal," a "sea of heat-lamp and chafing-dish mediocrity"—and after a certain time of day, every stall closed up since none of the cube-dwellers who went there on lunch break would ever think of coming back for dinner.
This all changed when the space finally reopened as TRADE. Not only were people there past sundown, but it was also routinely packed. And these customers weren't just workaday stiffs, but also selfie-taking millennials who Instagrammed and Snapchatted their experience. It's validation for the property owners who'd sunk $5 million into the revamp. But it also proved that food halls are still very much the rage in Orange County.
Yet I was conflicted. Yes, the outdoor courtyard was certainly an improvement over the old. But to me, it now looked like a concrete trench with a few skinny trees. And yes, the developers certainly recruited a who's-who of trendy food purveyors, including former food truckers Andrew Gruel of Slapfish, who developed two concepts here, and Hop Phan, who brought his always-consistent Dos Chinos and new poke concept Megadon. But along with their designer food and slick logos came point-of-sale tablets that swivel around and ask whether I want to add a tip to every order. And none of the vendors offered free cups of water.
Everything was generally more expensive. And the higher cost wasn't always justifiable. Portside offered fish and chips that were a shadow of Chippy's, with limp fries and fish covered in a greasy batter that fell apart when I picked it up. Also, the Bacon Mac n' Chowder turned out to not be as fun as its title. And I still haven't decided whether I liked that the crispy fried broccoli were as hard as coral.
I was less uncertain of my fondness for Butterleaf, Gruel's vegetarian concept. The Avocado Bombs—deep-fried cubes of avocado covered in breadcrumbs and crushed potato chips—were as addictive as they were inventive. And the Umami Chips—house-made potato chips topped with a scoop of guacamole—came in a portion that was commensurate with its price. Gruel's chicken joint, Two Birds, also impressed me. Its most popular item, the Bird In the Hand—a massive, craggly battered chicken breast between slaw and bun—was a Chick-fil-A sandwich as it never could be.
Megadon, however, was just another build-your-own poke joint. And its attempt at Hawaiian garlic-butter peel-and-eat shrimp—outrageously priced at $12.75—was disastrous. Hard to eat and ultimately flavorless, it was a reminder that Dos Chinos' shrimp rice plates were not only a better deal, but also better executed. I liked the Irvine Shrimp plate in particular. In its lightly-battered shrimp drizzled with a dulce de leche sauce was an homage to honey walnut shrimp. And Phan's Bolsa Pork Belly plate was the best meal not only at TRADE, but also at SanTana's 4th Street Market, where I first had it.
When it comes to Instagram potential, I discovered that Sweet Combforts' waffles on sticks get more likes than Pig Pen Delicacy's MacDaddy Burger. But while I resorted to counting how many bites this tiny waffle gave up for its $6 price tag, at least the burger left me full. Yes, it leached a pool of grease that turned its paper basket transparent, but the deep-fried "buns" of mac and cheese were decadent and crisp, and the burger patty was juicy and flavorful—the ultimate county-fair guilty pleasure.
Save for Center Hub, the bar that anchors TRADE, I've now eaten at every food vendor and restaurant at the hall, including the exorbitant Ootoro Sushi (which you go to for the privilege of complaining how expensive it is) and the soon-to-be-famous Hiro Nori Craft Ramen. I even tried Krisp despite knowing I'm too fond of In-N-Out chocolate milkshakes to understand the appeal of Krisp's açaí bowls or its Cacao Chip smoothie, which tasted more like a treatment than a treat.
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It was after that when I realized I missed the old food court. I found some solace at Gyro King, the only original vendor that stuck around. As the owner handed me my massive to-go order of gyro fries, I asked what he thought of the new place. He said that business was much better these days. But then he paused and, looking almost as wistful as I felt, told me that the rent was twice as much.
TRADE, 2222 Michelson Dr., Irvine; www.tradefoodhall.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.