Fourth Street Market is a food hall not unlike most of the other new food halls in OC, honestly. But to me, it felt the most like a Singapore hawker center, where the stalls are actually single dish specialists focused on making that one thing they do best with nothing but a pay counter out front and the exposed guts of their kitchens behind them. Lined end-to-end, back-to-back, barely a buffer zone between one stall and the next, these vendors occupy the heart of 4th Street Market. And it's this food court--not the gleaming incubator kitchens that can be rented by the hour, nor the Honor Roll Community Market where the products of that kitchen might be put up for sale--that most of the general public will want to visit.
There's Mar by Jon Melendez, who previously ran Civic, but whose focus has changed here. Mar serves seafood, with its most popular item being the poke bowl. But the poke is actually its least memorable dish, with an excess of rice and only enough marinated fish to answer about half of it. What you should order instead is the Mexican seafood cocktail, a thrilling vortex of chilled tomato broth whose spiciness builds as you scoop spoonful after spoonful of shrimp and scallops from its depths.
Next to Mar, Felix Barron, formerly of KTCHN DTLA, makes open-faced sandwiches topped with a fried egg at KTCHN DTSA. His proteins range from pulled pork to chicken to smoked corned beef. The latter is my favorite. Not only did the petals of beef taste as though they were made by an actual Jewish deli, but here, for the first time, the proclivity of chefs such as Barron to add a fried egg to everything actually works. His perfectly cooked yolk breaks and marries the beef, the crispy toast and the excellent lime vinaigrette-dressed chayote slaw as though it's a sauce made to do exactly that.
A fried egg also tops the poutine two stalls down at Stockyard Sandwich by Phil Burden, who was previously at Santa Ana's Grilled Cheese Spot. Stockyard makes big, honking sandwiches stuffed with either short rib, pulled pork, chicken or tuna, all served with house-fried potato chips. But the moist shreds of his short rib sing the loudest on his poutine. That it manages to breathe new life into the already-tired hipster food fascination with tater tots should say a lot about his short rib.
The Stoner Papas dish at Dos Chinos has a similar meat-on-top-of-fried-potatoes bent, but you're better off opting for the rice plates, which are perhaps the best things you can eat at 4th Street Market. In particular, you want the so-called Bolsa Pork. Its gorgeously crispy swatches of pork belly recall the last time I had great Filipino lechon. The pork is also paired with the same Dos Chinos magical tangy chile relish that comes with the Oahu shrimp rice plate, which is 10 times better than anything I've had at actual shrimp trucks in Hawaii.
Around the corner from Dos Chinos is Ink Waffles, where Jaritza González makes waffle sandwiches that can compete with Bruxie and all its copycats. Get the namesake waffle made with actual squid ink, or try whatever sweet waffle González currently has on special, especially if it's the Almond Joy, a chocolate waffle with melted chocolate, coconut shreds and slivers of crunchy toasted almonds. Read Gustavo's Hole In the Wall column from last month for more details.
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Adjacent to Ink Waffles are Jason Quinn's three Playground spinoff eateries: Noodle Tramp, PFC and Wagyu Chuck. At Noodle Tramp, try the vegetable khao soi over the chicken and the beef, neither of which adds anything to the already-thick coconut-curry gravy doused over noodles. And at Wagyu Chuck, the best discovery is the baked-potato fries, torn-apart whole spuds deep-fried until the skins turn crunchy. The potatoes are far more interesting than the burgers that taste a lot like In-N-Outs but with a denser bun. Quinn's best contribution to the food court, though, is PFC's fried chicken, dusted with a spice rub akin to the kind that covers the ribs at Memphis BBQ and served with a tangy syrup aromatic of pulverized lemongrass.
For dessert, you could suck on a paleta from Front Porch Pops, munch a custom built s'more from Torch, lick a crumbly ice cream cone from the Chunk-N-Chip, or wait until someone from Honor Roll decides to walk out and offer free doughnuts from its bakery counter. If they do, you will be compelled to get coffee from Portola, or maybe just another beer from Recess or juice from Radical Botanicals. Then go outside to the patio flanked by graffiti murals and listen to the string quartet musicians play their hearts out in the middle of the afternoon.
4th Street Market, 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 486-0700; 4thstreetmarket.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Individual stall hours vary. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only.