Kitchen Republic isn't the first restaurant to attempt a small-plates-Asian-fusion concept in Huntington Beach. And as with others that came before it—such as Scraps, which closed after a year—it's earnest in its efforts and ambitious in its intent. But here at Bella Terra, Kitchen Republic is fighting a particularly hard battle. Buffalo Wild Wings and Cheesecake Factory flank it. Both chain restaurants were packed on the weekend nights I visited; Kitchen Republic had six customers.
If I had to guess why it's struggling to find a foothold, I would say Kitchen Republic's price points are too expensive for the older generation of Asians who've never paid more than $5 for a bowl of pho. At the same time, some of its food may be too Asian for those who've yet to discover that a little tendon on beef is a good thing. This leaves Kitchen Republic to carve out a narrow target audience of trendy, younger customers fluent in Asian food but with the short attention spans of a crazy Yelper.
This all becomes evident when you see the dishes Kitchen Republic has chosen to attract them. The menu worships recent restaurant tropes as though they were the Gospel of Thomas. Poutine, roasted Brussels sprouts and poke are all present and accounted for. And up until a few weeks ago, it even offered roasted bone marrow served with triangles of crustless toast. I once had a very good rendition of uni pasta there. It was hot and creamy, the vaguely buttery sea urchin liquefied into a sauce that coated strands of thin egg noodles. Last week, it disappeared from the menu.
For another pasta dish, the kitchen greases the same noodles with garlic butter—something that may or may not be inspired by AnQi's famed garlic noodles and sold for about the same price. And the best deal here may be the grilled lamb chops. You get three for $13—all pan roasted competently and served next to a small dome of cheesy orzo pasta that stretches out in webs.
Though there's a burger to order (a truffled one, no less), what you want at Kitchen Republic are actually the straight-up Asian dishes. The braised pork belly comes steeped in its own pot juices in a small ramekin. To eat it, you're supposed to tuck the meat into steamed buns, then garnish that with shaved scallions, cucumbers and sprouts. But since the anise-scented broth had most of the flavor, I dipped the DIY sandwiches into the liquid, treating it as a sort of improvised au jus.
Kitchen Republic's $15 "Frizzled Rice" might be the most you'll pay for shrimp fried rice anywhere, but when you get it, you'll immediately spot where the money went. Those white streaks running through the rice grains are premium lump crab meat. Khao soi—the Thai noodle soup that so captured the imagination of Playground's Jason Quinn he made a whole food stall out of it—is also a good bet. The kitchen staff serves it in deconstructed layers: the chicken in its curry sauce on the bottom of the bowl, the egg noodles above that, then an impenetrable beehive of wispy fried noodles on top. It's incredibly messy and hard to eat, especially when the staff tell you you have to mix it all together and squeeze a lime into it. But it all manages to work out in the end.
Easier to navigate, though spicier by a thousand Scovilles, is a beef curry with sliced chiles as its only vegetable. The wait staff give you ample warning, but they don't tell you the beef is loaded with gelatin-rich tendon—something that's coveted by Asians but might be misconstrued by everyone else as fat or gristle.
Kitchen Republic has other dishes that aren't quite Asian enough. The Imperial egg rolls are the very best kind of cha giò, blistered fried stogies packed with shrimp, crab and pork, all patiently wrapped in rice paper instead of the usual egg roll skin. But when I asked for lettuce leaves to eat it with, the waiter shrugged after checking with the kitchen.
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The only unsuccessful dish here is the fried corn and shrimp—something neither Asians nor non-Asians would like. And it's not because the dried baby shrimp's pungent aroma wallops you in the nose; the problem is the corn, which is dry and sticks to your teeth as though old gum. Still, everyone should give Kitchen Republic a shot. The restaurant is full of potential, and it sure beats Cheesecake Factory, with or without its hour-long wait times.
Kitchen Republic, 7821 Edinger Ave., Ste. 110, Huntington Beach, (714) 891-8890; www.kitchenrepublicbistro.com. Open Mon., 3-9 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. Full bar.