I admit I’m no longer an expert on the food-truck biome. A few years ago, during the height of the luxe lonchera craze, I knew every species and subspecies that roamed the streets. But these days, I’d rather call ahead to a reserve a table somewhere than follow these trucks’ Twitter feeds. Why should I bother? Once nature and economics culls out the weak, all the best food trucks end up as permanent brick-and-mortars. And when the fittest of those survivors—such as Dos Chinos, Taco María and Slapfish—became full-fledged restaurants or food-hall vendors, they emerged fully tested with predictable hours and a place to sit.
Free Range Cafe is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s the first brick-and-mortar from Free Range LA, a food truck known for its tempura-battered, fried-chicken sandwiches by Jesse Furman, a chef who used to cook at Red Medicine. And I’m glad I waited for it to evolve into a restaurant because the outdoor café it became on Balboa Island is a charmer. It’s located far away from the main drag, buried deep inside the residential part on the two-way street that leads to the ferry.
So far, because of its insular location, Free Range Cafe remains relatively undiscovered. Most of the customers—presumably locals from the neighborhood—do not know its origins. One warm night, while eating on its patio, I overheard the waitress explain to the group of seniors at the next table what Sriracha was. As she continued to describe how it’s used to flavor the sauce on one of the chicken sandwiches, I determined the group had never eaten at a food truck, let alone Free Range’s.
I also admit I never tried Free Range LA But I no longer need to. The first part of the café’s menu was composed of the truck’s greatest hits. There were two versions of its tempura-battered chicken sandwich on it: the original, with a vinegar coleslaw, and one with a Sriracha-and-honey glaze. Rounding out the signature truck items were an avocado toast and two other biscuit sandwiches. All involved egg. And I’ve yet to visit Free Range Cafe without ordering the crispy potatoes, in which a baked Russet is “hand-torn” into bite-sized chunks, then deep-fried until the outer parts turn golden, the insides steamy, and the skin gnarled and crunchy.
Everything else was unique to this café, executed with a breezy simplicity, especially the plated dishes. Chief among them was the cucumber-and-melon salad, which wasn’t so much a salad as an interpretation of what you get at a sidewalk fruit cart. In my bowl, locally harvested watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, cucumber and avocado swam in a puddle of lime crema. Over the top was a dusting of a house-made version of Tajín. As the juices spurted and the spices burned, the crema cooled and soothed.
Hopefully, this salad remains on the menu permanently, but it’s more than likely we’ve seen the last of it. Free Range Cafe seems to operate on the whims of the farmers’ market. A kale-and-avocado salad with a soy-sesame vinaigrette I once enjoyed has since disappeared from the menu. But so has the greasy bowl of sautéed snow peas mislabeled as snap peas. On another week, I ate fried chicken wings, their skin beautifully rendered to a crackle, then caked with a chile-flecked spice rub; the next week, it was gone.
Among the items that I hope will still be there when you read this review is the roasted half-chicken. But how it looks one week might be different than the next. Earlier incarnations of the dish had the chicken as whole, bone-in pieces served on an arugula salad with dried cherries and torn toasted bread. By the time I got around to trying it, the chicken was served boneless, the arugula were left on their stems, the cherries were now currants, and an insignificant amount of toum was smeared on the plate. But even with the revision, it’s still the best thing I’ve eaten here, with the skin crispy and the meat juicy and spackled with herbs.
It must also be noted that Free Range Cafe has recently changed how it handles tips. One week, as usual, I added a tip to the total. But on the next visit, a note on the menu said “No Tips, Please” with an explanation that a service fee of 16 percent would now automatically be tacked onto the bill. This is so that the kitchen crew can get its share along with the rest of the staff. But it just goes to show: You can make a restaurant out of a food truck, but you can’t take the food truck out of the restaurant.
Free Range Cafe, 501 Park Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 220-4887. Open Wed.-Sat., 4-9 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$75, food only. Beer and wine.