Eat & Drink This Now: Benchmark in Santa Ana

Bar snacks and beers? Oh, yeah! Photo by Greg Nagel

It’s easy to feel one with nature while dining at Benchmark. As the last tajín-and-lime-soaked chicharrón gets chomped, a hummingbird zips down to eyeball my freshly poured Beachwood Citraholic IPA, squeaks to his woodland friends nearby that it is indeed NOT hummingbird food, then makes a beeline back to a nearby branch. “I bet hummingbirds would totally get down on a Pizza Port Honey Blonde,” I mention to our server while one of those wacky Japanese beetles bumps into a wall repeatedly. Nature, am I right?

Sangria is offered on weekends. Photo by Greg Nagel

Seating is somewhat intimate for being outdoors, meaning side conversations with other tables are frequent. “Have you guys been to Blinking Owl Distillery?” asks a woman next to us, which sparks a half-hour-long conversation about the best cocktails in Santa Ana.

For just opening, the al fresco-only eatery seems incredibly well-put-together, with a menu that reads as if the place had been open for ages. There are bar snacks, shareables, mains, salads and desserts, each topped with a tiny bit of intrigue that’s balanced with familiarity. 

If it’s on a menu, my wife will order it. Photo by Greg Nagel

Take, for instance, the artichoke fondue, which comes with a hot, Bavarian-style pretzel made for dipping. It’s oozing with fresh summer character, yet it made me want to reach for a liter of Oktoberfest lager to balance out the flavors. The light, creamy fondue also makes for a good dipping sauce for other things you may be eating, such as the incredibly crisp parmesan-herb fries.

Only thing missing is a liter of German beer. Photo by Greg Nagel

The street corn is a nod to the vendors right around the corner (minus the price), while the $6 roasted-corn esquites is coated in sharp red guajillo, flecked with aged cotija and finished with crema. And the burrata is ultra-gooey and served with ripe heirloom tomatoes.

The cocktails are soju-based, but the beer and wine list features many local, independent breweries. The wines offered the night I visited were on the lighter, brighter, generally summer-forward side of things.

Buratta: So fresh and gooey! Photo by Greg Nagel

My daughter, bored of mac and cheese, decided to skip the kids’ menu and instead went bonkers over the gochujang fried chicken, which comes almost candy-coated in the sweet-and-spicy Korean sauce. On the side is a refreshing shaved Napa cabbage salad with cilantro and onion that’s cut with aioli. “Do kids eat this stuff outdoors in Korea?” she asks. Why, yes, dear, I think they do.

Gochujang fried chicken for the kids? Hell, it’s for everyone. Photo by Greg Nagel

If it’s your first time there, then the Benchmark burger should definitely be sitting in front of you, alongside those aforementioned crispy parm fries and a hippy-dippy sauce. The meat mound is layered on a toasted brioche bun that is as poofy as a chef’s hat, and the well-thought-out peppery arrugula on the bottom provides an ample ramp for juice runoff so as to not cause a swampy-soggy bottom bun. The oozy Cheddar and bacon jam offer just enough glue to keep the top from flying off if there’s a sudden gust of wind. 

My new benchmark burger, against which all others will be judged. Photo by Greg Nagel

My favorite burger in 2019? Absolutely.

Benchmark, 601 E. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 480-0225;




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