If you come to Jason's By the Circle and sense something familiar about the food, it's probably because you ate it just before a girl in a white dress tossed a bouquet. For years, Jason Kordas' catering company, Jason's Catered Events, fed numerous weddings throughout OC. Or perhaps you remember eating the same bacon-wrapped bananas hors d'oeuvres at Jason's Downtown, which opened in 2007 in the space now occupied by the VLVT Lounge. It closed right around the time the hipster restaurant scene came into focus in Santa Ana and another Jason (Quinn) was emerging.
It was in Kordas' old place that I first encountered his bastilla, which I loved and likened to a curried chicken turnover crossed with a churro. Now Kordas seems to have finally found his audience. Here in Old Towne Orange—the closest thing we have to Mayberry—Kordas' brand of comfort food fits right in.
This, after all, is the community that went all up in arms when rumors floated around that the new owners of Watson Drugs & Soda Fountain might turn it into a gastropub. It's also the town that shunned Ways & Means Oyster Bar and its Michelin-starred chef when it opened in the very spot Jason's By the Circle now sits.
Most dishes at Jason's hover around the $15 mark, such as the coq au vin and the chicken pot pie. Pasta dishes are even cheaper. A salmon dish sourced from a sustainable farm in New Zealand is offered, but Haven Gastropub down the street uses the same fish and at the same going rate of $25. At Jason's, the salmon also ends up in an $11 appetizer, for which the fish is cubed, dressed with sesame oil and rice wine vinegar, and called "poke." Never mind that Jason's offers it with wonton chips, following pre-Poke Boom conventional wisdom on how restaurants must serve this Hawaiian delicacy to clueless mainlanders.
About the most expensive thing you can order at Jason's right now is a 16-ounce rib-eye for $32, but the kitchen is strongest in the dishes inspired by Kordas' Greek, Italian and Corsican roots. His crew flambés gigantic shrimp in ouzo with Greek olives, tomatoes and hunks of feta—a bold, nearly overpowering one-two punch of brine and pungency until you realize the small hill of feather-light couscous in the middle is just the thing to balance it with its by-design blandness.
Instead of the steak, you might be happier with the ropa vieja, one of many Caribbean-influenced dishes that seems to have come from nowhere. And if I were given a choice between this ropa vieja and the one Felix Continental Cafe down the block has been doling out for decades, I would choose this one. There's just something so spot-on in the way the beef—shredded but still weeping juice and braising liquid—mixes with the buttered rice. And the last time I had crispier tostones, I was in Miami's Calle Ocho.
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Kordas' Caribbean covers don't stop there. One of his most popular dishes is a Caribbean crepe stuffed with shrimp and ahi in coconut milk. Caribbean rumaki—the aforementioned sticky-sweet, maple rum-glazed, bacon-wrapped banana hors d'oeuvres—is also still around, but now marketed as "Monkey Bites."
You could, in fact, make a meal of just his apps—including those strangely addictive Monkey Bites. It's best to do this during happy hour, when nearly everything on the small-plates menu is $5. And though the soggy Asian pot stickers may be derivative and the Spanish tortilla may taste too much like a reheated omelet, the kitchen gives you a ridiculous quantity of pillow-soft pita bread and a generous amount of eggplant caponata, tzatziki and hummus to drag each triangle through. But the best deal might be the coconut shrimp—five meaty, deep-fried pieces breaded with flecks of crispy coconut that you dunk into a mango sauce that tastes as though it was made from scratch.
And the bastilla? It's still here, overflowing with shredded chicken, almonds and Moroccan spices after your fork breaches the cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted phyllo crust. But also, there's something I never saw at the old place: a British, steamed, moist, toffee sponge cake dolloped with cream dubbed "Sticky Pudding." It's a dessert so comforting and good I'd urge any future brides who would use Kordas' catering service to serve it instead of the wedding cake.
Jason's By the Circle, 513 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 347-1130; jasonsbythecircle.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$75, food only. Full bar.