You might remember Brian Huskey if you watched Top Chef: New Orleans. Me? I stopped watching the show two seasons earlier. So when this very paper broke the news that he was opening a restaurant in OC, it was the first time I'd actually heard of the guy.
Huskey's place is called Tackle Box, and it's a stretch to call it a restaurant. The space it occupies is, in fact, a beach concession stand—not much more than a walk-up window near the sand on Corona Del Mar State Beach that you'd mistake for a bait shop if you didn't know any better. And the food he serves out of it would, at first, seem literally pedestrian—burgers, sandwiches, quesadillas—stuff on throwaway paper baskets you'd pick up as you were on your way to surf, play volleyball or do any of the other beach activities you're actually here for. But when you taste Huskey's cooking, you realize Tackle Box is probably the most compelling reason to visit Corona Del Mar right now.
The best dish I've tried at Tackle Box so far is the salmon poke, a rendition of the now-ubiquitous Hawaiian delicacy that doesn't look a thing like poke since it's covered in crispy rice. In fact, the poke is so caked with rice, showers of dried seaweed and dollops of green masago, you don't even see the fish. But it's the snap-crackle-pop texture of these components—as well as the unorthodox use of tomato, avocado and the bright citrus-sesame dressing Huskey liberally applies—that makes this poke an indictment of all the assembly-line poke joints of late.
Huskey also does a wonderful spin on bánh mì. He subs the requisite French baguette for a gourmet top-split hot-dog bun toasted with butter, but then he tucks in big, meaty hunks of Niman Ranch pork belly that's still slightly crisp despite the gobs of spicy aioli it's mired in. And on top, it isn't pickled daikon he pairs with the carrot shreds; it's green papaya. As a crowning touch—for no other reason than because he can—Huskey places a quarter of a hard-boiled egg over the pickles. The result is the first derivative bánh mì that doesn't taste derivative.
The second-best sandwich you can get at Tackle Box is Huskey's so-called Cali Cheesesteak. As with all the sandwiches, Huskey uses the same hot-dog bun as bread, but it diverges from a traditional cheesesteak even further from there. For one thing, the cheese seems to be worked into the thin ribbons of the rib-eye so well that when you bite into it, you can't decide if you're eating beef-flavored cheese or cheese-flavored beef. Then, right when the richness starts to overwhelm, the reedy strips of crispy onions and the firecracker blasts of the fried jalapeño kick in.
It's probably best to stick with these sandwiches—or the shrimp one or the cornmeal-dusted catfish po' boy—and pass on Huskey's lobster roll. This is the sandwich for which the hot-dog bun seems actually designed. But it costs about 20 bucks and tastes anticlimactic. Still, even if you get the lobster roll, it'll be the least you'll pay to be fed by a Top Chef contestant in Orange County.
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For the amount you'll spend on one of Huskey's sandwiches (each of which comes with a handful of his homemade potato chips), you might get an appetizer at Shirley Chung's Twenty Eight in Irvine or a cocktail at Amar Santana's Broadway in Laguna Beach. For sure, Huskey's Tackle Box is the most accessible Top Chef eatery around these parts. The customers are usually shirtless, in bikinis or wearing wetsuits. And most are probably unaware that the breakfast burrito they're eating is made by not only a Top Chef, but also a California Culinary Academy grad who became chef de cuisine of LA Prime at the Westin Bonaventure and was chef Ricardo Zarate's right-hand man at Picca, Mo-chica, Paiche and Blue Tavern.
But if you're going to go for breakfast, know that Huskey stops serving it at 11 a.m., and it's not the breakfast burrito you want—it's the chilaquiles, the dish that's exactly what you want to eat as you're inhaling the salty Corona Del Mar morning air. Each chip is soaked in green tomatillo sauce, sprinkled with cotija cheese, slathered with black beans and topped with pico de gallo, yet it retains its crispness. If it weren't for the sunny-side-up egg, Huskey might be better off calling the dish nachos.
If you do get his breakfast burrito, the tortilla torpedo will be massive with fluffy eggs and paired with two packets of Tapatío, because as every Top Chef contestant or Denny's hash slinger knows, nothing's better with breakfast burritos than Tapatío.
Tackle Box, 3029 E. Shore Ave., Corona Del Mar, (949) 723-0502; tackleboxoc.com. Open Tues.,11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Wed.-Sun., 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Meals, $10-$20. No alcohol.