In one of his earlier standup routines, Jim Gaffigan had a great joke on how, during his time as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant in Indiana, he had to deal with clueless customer questions about the menu. They'd ask him, “What is nachos? What is a burrito? What is a tostada?”
After repeating the same answer—”It's a tortilla with meat, cheese or vegetables”—over and over, he'd say to them, “Look, it's all the same!”
Gaffigan continued by concluding that “Mexican food's great, but it's essentially all the same ingredients,” which led to the punch line: An imaginary scene 200 years ago in which the top Mexican cooks met in Mexico City. One of them says to the group, “I figure we can rename this one entrée seven times and sell it to the North Americans.”
It's a fantasy of mine that Steve Ells was listening to that bit, and then opened Chipotle. Because let's face it: Even though Gaffigan's joke is just a joke—a gross generalization of a complex cuisine—what is Chipotle if not that punch line turned into a business model? Ells' success essentially comes from peddling all the same ingredients (yes, meat, cheese or vegetables) and stuffing them in different versions of tortilla. And the fact that his operating model works so well validates Gaffigan's argument: The components of Americanized Mexican food are indeed as modular and interchangeable as Lego pieces, thus perfect for Chipotle's assembly line.
The trouble then comes when non-Mexican restaurants try to apply this model to their cuisines. Most have struggled to make their pieces fit the mold, especially the Asian ones. In recent years, Orange County has seen Eleven46, which tried to do a Vietnamese-style Chipotle in Foothill Ranch, and Kaya Street Kitchen, which tried to do an Indonesian-style Chipotle in Aliso Viejo.
I noted in my reviews of both that if you chose unwisely at the assembly line, the different taste profiles could result in potentially awkward combinations. And it's perhaps because of this that both restaurants never took off and have since closed. But the stalled attempts to successfully Chipotle-ize Asian food weren't unique to them. Even Chipotle's own Asian concept, ShopHouse, is slow on the uptake. Last year, while Chipotle added a whopping 150 new Mexican restaurants to its roster, ShopHouse opened only three.
Now comes Cross Roast, a Cantonese barbecue-style Chipotle that opened a few weeks ago in Anaheim by James Leung, a third-generation restaurateur whose grandparents owned Casa de Oriente in Alhambra back in the '80s. And though I knew asking for nachos was going to be a bad idea, I did it anyway.
At my direction, the server took tortilla chips, poured on a DayGlo-yellow movie-theater cheese sauce, then topped it with bits of a crispy roasted pork belly called siu yuk. But my server and I weren't done creating this Franken-nacho. To it, I added a roasted-corn salsa, cotija cheese and, heck, “Squirt on some of that hoisin sauce and your mayo, too!”
It must be noted that I'm normally a food pragmatist. If I were at a Vegas buffet and there was a Mexican-food station and a Chinese one, I would make it a point to make two separate trips with two separate plates. But here at Cross Roast, free from the shackles of common sense, I had no such restraint.
So how did the nachos taste? Predictably bad. The five-spice on the pork clashed with the nacho cheese, and the whole thing was a salty (though beautiful-looking) train wreck. Yes, Cross Roast was my enabler, but I was completely responsible for the terribleness of that dish.
Fact is, all the proteins at Cross Roast are expertly made but best suited for serving on top of rice and maybe only rice—the way that all those Chinese barbecue joints with hanging ducks would do it. That siu yuk, in particular, had the lovely skull-rattling crunch of chicharrones, and the ruddy char siu was the perfect ratio of fat to lean. You could even order duck here, either shredded or hacked by a cleaver into bone-attached pieces. But even if you ask for a rice bowl, I would advise against topping it with the coleslaw, the corn salsa or anything else from the condiments tray.
It's hard to say no to them, though, especially when all are free for the taking. It took a lot for me to refuse my server's suggestion to dump cotija and shredded Monterey jack into my ramen soup. I have, however, found that no matter what I chose, it worked well inside a baguette—something I also noticed with Eleven46's bánh mìs. Who knew the French had the skeleton key to unlock the Asian Chipotle conundrum all along?
Cross Roast, 401 S. Magnolia Ave., Anaheim, (714) 236-5766; www.thecrossroast.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Meal for two, $15-$20, food only. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.