We've never understood what led Jason Quinn and Hop Phan to open food trucks, other than lower startup costs, but whatever the motivation was, we're glad they did. When people drive from Los Angeles to Orange County to eat at the Lime Truck and Dos Chinos, it's obvious they've got something special going on.
Then came the inevitable announcements of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Phan is opening is in L.A. (hmph!) and Quinn is opening Playground on la Cuatro in downtown Santa Ana next month. Both came together last night at the Shark Club--not, frankly, a venue where we ever expected to have fine dining--to serve 200 dinners with cocktail pairings.
Phan started the dinner with huge communal bowls of shrimp ceviche with mixed minced bell peppers, pineapple, and Meyer lemon nuoc cham were set on each table. We spooned some onto our plates and ate them with shards of banh trang me (fried rice crackers studded with black sesame seeds). The shrimp were halved lengthwise and had been cooked just right, so that they were soft but cooked through before being marinated; the dressing was a natural fit, though the pineapple was superfluous given the sweetness of nuoc cham.
The first cocktail by genius mixologist Gabrielle Mosa Dion of Charlie Palmer was called San-gri-la, made of rose, grapefruit, elderflower liqueur, Maurin Quina (an old French apéritif) and Hottenroth, a floral, light Berliner Weisse beer from the Bruery. Flowery, slightly bitter, and slightly yeasty; it slipped down suspiciously easily.
Quinn's first dish was banh mi salad. I've come to the conclusion that the banh mi is the sandwich most likely to be deconstructed by chefs anywhere, because it's so much more than the sum of its parts; Quinn's interpretation, with haystacks of do chua (shreds of pickled carrots and daikon radish) surrounding an enormous pile of bun croutons and an even larger pile of crispy, slightly sweet pork belly, was the runaway success of the night. My only quibble is that the family-style service meant that the last to take a portion (our party) got almost no herbs, which would have punched up the dish considerably.
The banh mi was paired with my favorite cocktail of the night, a Shogun Assassin: Nolet gin, cucumber water, yuzu, and kaffir lime simple syrup. Cucumber and lime are a great and traditional combination with gin, and they go especially well with a less juniper-y gin like Nolet; this is a drink that, if you're not new to gin, slips down shockingly easily. It wouldn't be hard to stand up after a few of these and discover that gravity has asserted its ugly will.
Oxtail soup with pho broth and roasted root vegetables was rich without being greasy. The pho broth was light, like morning pho before the broth has had a chance to concentrate, and the soup's flavor was more reminiscent of bo kho (beef stew) than pho. This was reinforced by the presence of a baguette (required for bo kho) with beef marrow butter. This ought to go on sale on the Dos Chinos truck as the weather gets colder; it'd be easy to serve, too.
The oxtail was paired with a 4th Chamber, with 10 Cane rum, coconut water, lime, cardamom and orange bitters. I love all these ingredients, and the choice of cardamom was inspired, but I think perhaps light coconut milk would have blended better; the heavy coconut water precipitated out of the drink very quickly, so I got a mouthful of flavored rum and then a mouthful of coconut water. Good for hangovers that way, though.
Chicken tikka masala, a play with roasted chicken wings on the Punjabi-American speciality, contained the largest such wings I've ever seen. I'd have thought they were turkey wings had I not tasted them myself. The chicken was well-cooked, and the skin had crisped nicely, but the dish was distractingly salty, even when eaten with the miniature potatoes.
Rather than the traditional raita, we had an I Gotcha Back, a mixture of 10 Cane rum, ginger-lemongrass syrup, lime juice and plain yogurt; it was a great play on the dish, though it wouldn't have worked as a standalone drink. The yogurt gave it a certain Calpico-ish quality that recalled nights drinking soju in Koreatown bars that cast a lenient eye toward those who (ahem) might not have been exactly 21.
Salmon with crispy skin, shredded mangoes, watermelon and tomatillo sauce was a challenge. The salmon was unevenly flavored, and the fruits made the dish unrelentingly sweet. The orange-infused couscous, served cold, contributed to the sweetness and washed out the flavors of the salmon. I found myself longing for some chile heat or vinegar to cut through the dish--maybe through the use of pickled watermelon rind.
The paired Watermelon Felon cocktail came to the rescue; while I found the cocktail a little bit too strong by itself--Jose Tradicional, watermelon shrub, lime juice and a big block of six-spice watermelon all warring for supremacy of my taste buds--it cut right through the sweetness of the dish.
The final dish was a hot pluot cobbler with vanilla bean-passion fruit yoghurt. The fruit was absolutely perfectly set; Quinn's obviously made jam before and knows how fruit pectin, sugar and acid work together. The biscuit was slightly tough, but it softened, like hardtack, under the tart yoghurt.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
While the dessert was quite good, it was eclipsed by the pairing cocktail, a Cold World Float: ROOT liqueur, Becherovka liqueur, vanilla ice cream, and house-made espresso soda. It tasted like the illegitimate love child of an egg cream and an alcoholic root beer float; it was so good that my wife asked for the recipe.
It's obvious that both chefs have a gift for cooking; we've showered both trucks with love repeatedly right here. All of us here at Stick a Fork In It have been looking forward to seeing what they can do when given more than fifteen square feet of preparation space, and this was a peek into that bright future. Now we just need to schedule time to go up to L.A....