Whenever someone mentions downtown SanTana, what comes to mind? Mexican food. Courthouses. Hipsters. But one thing you historically didn't hear about is Asian food. Now, we're talking a growing spectrum of cuisine— one that covers Japanese, Vietnamese and even Filipino. Most of it in the past year. 4th Street Market didn't even exist two years ago, and now it's become an eating hub. And if you're wanting to call bullshit on our realization, let's look back.
Flashback to Early 2015: Former luxe lonchera Dos Chinos was part of the opening wave of tenants at 4th Street (Note: Ninjas With Appetite, also a former lonchera, opened their own brick-and-mortar just a month prior). Hop Phan and Viet Tran's hybrid menu of five-spice pork belly tacos and coconut curry chicken burritos oozing with egg still draws a line at lunch. In fact, the Travel Channel was filming them and another other tenant last weekend.
It wasn't advertised initially, but all tenants were on short-term leases, with the option to renew after a year. So one year later, Sit Low Pho joined the Dos Chinos family, moving into the space previously occupied by Noodle Tramp. Broth slurping and greasy chicken wing digits became the norm. We were satisfied with these couple of options, not thinking beyond them.
May brought the anticipated opening of Irenia, a former traveling pop-up dinner by Ryan Garlitos. His focus is on modern Filipino cuisine, housing both a thoughtful bar program and creative pastry chef in Ashley Guzman. Savory rice bowls at lunch and composed dinner entrees had us rethinking the turo-turo joints we were used to ordering from. Irenia's menu was a game changer for the area, expanding the range to include Pacific Islander tastes.
Another one of restaurateur Leonard Chan's concepts pops up a block away in June. This time, it's a stand-up spot (save for four seats) serving hand rolls. The months leading up to Kiyomizu's opening found Chan staging at South Coast Plaza's Hamamori for guidance from the man himself. Its minimalist atmosphere a far cry from his Iron Press or Cal Shabu spots, there's a sense of refinement. Servers take care in handling their seafood, requesting quick consumption before the nori becomes too soft.
Next door to the Yost Theater, Yojie Japanese Fondue unlocked its doors. A brand with locations in Artesia, Los Angeles, Diamond Bar and Las Vegas, we were more than a little surprised to discover this was their first Orange County neighborhood. Did you even know there was shabu shabu here? They started up in August, offering premium cuts of beef, a selection of broths and a jiggly raindrop cake catering to a weeknight crowd, with lunch service on weekends.
The trend continues this month, as Gu Ramen expands from Laguna Beach to Paninoteca Maggio's old space. A casual izakaya-ish eatery specializing in noodles and small plates, this new kid on the block further drives home the notion that things are changing. Or, as Phan matter-of-factly remarks, “Don't you find it fitting that DTSA, which used to be a Chinatown, is now Chinotown again?” He's got a point.