The Crosby Crosses Over
The food at the Santa Ana hipster hangout is now worthy of its owners’ lofty aspirations
“It’s time for the Crosby’s closeup!” Gustavo Arellano declared to me in a recent e-mail. “I’ve been eating there almost weekly for the past month and am astounded that they’ve become as good as they are.”
This was a culmination of events that I had seen building for months. Last year, my esteemed colleague found only disappointment after his first meal there. He posted his lamentations about their food on our Stick a Fork In It blog. The Crosby had only been open a few months after a long, arduous struggle with City Hall (see Dave Segal’s “Three the Hard Way,” Sept. 14, 2007), but the product of that battle, Gustavo wrote, was “not ready for prime time.” Of their vegan pizza, he wrote it was “downright disgusting—too many tomatoes, nothing to counterbalance the acidity, an overall mess.”
But at the urging of one of the owners, Gustavo did not give up. He kept coming back. Then, a few months ago, he triumphantly titled a blog post “The Crosby Has Grown Up.” In it, he proclaimed that the menu had been completely revamped and that there was now a monthly list of gourmet specials. More important, he announced that the food was finally excellent.
That last blog headline was especially apropos if you know the Crosby’s story. It is the brainchild of three friends, all under 30, with no previous business experience and nothing but dreamy goals about opening a bar/restaurant/bookstore in the heart of downtown Santa Ana. Chosen chef Aron Habiger had just barely graduated cooking school. And judging by Gustavo’s pronouncements during its first few months, Habiger’s confidence in the kitchen was as shaky as a newborn foal. Cut to the present: Habiger has hit his stride. His style has fully matured, bold as a bucking bronco and already kicking ass.
The first dish I tried, the pork tenderloin from the specials menu, shot out of the gate and took me for a ride (and my horse metaphors have crossed the finish line). It is, quite possibly, the best pig I’ve had in years. An inch-thick, pan-seared, swine steak gets sliced on the bias—each forkful perfectly cooked, crusted with salty, crisped brownness, with just a sliver of its sweet, quivering blubber attached. Roasted eggplant, oyster mushrooms and papery straws of deep-fried leek accompany the steak, but the most inspired add-on is a swipe of sauce made from pureed lychees, which takes inspiration from pork’s natural partner: applesauce.
Another Habiger porcine opus, the jerk carnitas torta, is on the permanent menu and an homage to the Crosby’s neighborhood, where the torta trumps the hamburger as the preferred lunchtime sandwich. The pulled-pork-like shredded meat is piled on proper torta bread soaked and grilled with so much butter it could double as garlic toast. Wisps of sour, house-pickled onions heighten a two-fisted beast that gushes and dribbles, thrills and fills.
While the torta tips its sombrero in respect to two cultures, the appropriately named Starving Artist Grilled Cheese aims to please its target market of hipsters and penniless bohemians. Even if it weren’t priced affordably low at $5, I don’t think I could find a finer, more satisfying wedge of pan-toasted bread oozing Gruyère and sautéed mushrooms. Habiger pairs it with an espresso cup filled with what he calls a “tomato shooter” because what’s grilled cheese without cream of tomato?
Habiger’s appetizers, dubbed “morsels,” feature a fresh shrimp ceviche made bright with onions, tomatoes and mango, all deposited into a just-fried wonton cup. He honors his sous chef, Joshua Han, by giving him the credit for the six-spice seasoning powder that covers the seared ahi. And for his most “look-what-I-can-do” dish, Habiger stuffs a squid like a sausage with pink longaniza, then grills and plates it with a smoky edamame stir-fry teeming with pieces of the cephalopod’s deliciously disembodied legs. That dish is found on this month’s menu, as is the fortunado pie, a special pizza strewn with pellet-sized wine grapes and pink rose petals baked into a thick, herb-encrusted focaccia-like crust.
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You wouldn’t expect pink rose petals to be in the repertoire of a guy with tats and black studs in his earlobes, but like I said, the dude is brimming with confidence these days. His attitude is actually reflective of the restaurant itself, where boom boxes are a functional decoration, the restroom embraces tagger graffiti as art, and there is no outside signage to advertise its presence—only its street number on Broadway, “400.” That’s just how these Crosby folks roll—and now, they roll very well.
The Crosby, 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543; thisisthecrosby.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.- 2 a.m. Dinner for two, $10-$50, food only. Full bar.
For more images of The Crosby's food, click here.