Now that the luxe lonchera craze is (thankfully) over, OC food is moving on to the next trend: socialism! Of sorts. Putting together restaurateurs and food vendors next to one another in the name of pushing everyone to culinary heights is a concept locally pioneered by the OC Mix in Costa Mesa, with similar efforts now under way at 4th Street Market in SanTana and planned for Anaheim and Tustin. Expect the latter three projects to be fully going by the beginning of summer.
A different type of collaborative beast is happening in Costa Mesa's industrial zone with the Hood Kitchen. Here, small-batch food makers rent commercial kitchen space (along with tools, consulting, even walk-in fridges) to legally prepare their goodies. I took a tour a couple of months back, and the scene was out of 19th-century small-town America: butchers breaking down cuts just a couple of tables down from bakers who were sharing their latest creations with the hot sauce guy. From here, the food crafters take their products to other places, with the hope that one day they can leave this wonderful training camp and have spaces of their own.
The only critique I had of Hood Kitchen at the time was that there was no place for the public to taste all of these goodies. Thankfully, that problem has been rectified with the opening of the Hood Mrkt (quick note to local food people: drop the precious names, already! Let's not be douches like LA, m'kay?). Here, the public can buy products made on the other side of the wall, as well as see people in action through the windows just behind the retail counter. The wares available are always in rotation (a more permanent selection is online) but can range from delightful Sola Jams to the tasty crystals of the Laguna Co. to the surprisingly tasty (albeit gabacho) Heidi's Salsa to the adventurous Pernicious Pickling Co. And Toot Sweet's caramels? Perfectly chewy.
There's still room for improvement here. What passes as the prepared-food counter last time I visited was packaged roast beef, small containers of bread pudding and a chicken-salad sandwich wrapped in too much cellophane. And those involved need to do a better job of pushing themselves out there—more pop-up dinners, maybe? But as it stands, here is OC's culinary future: folks in friendly competition with one another, with the public as the beneficiaries. Now, if only some brewmasters would join the mix. . . .