Irvine's University Town Center continues to rebrand itself as a hub for upscale, trendy eateries–so upscale, the center now offers valet parking. This past year, the center welcomed gastropub Eureka!, fancy cafeteria Tender Greens and soon-to-be-open seafood stop Slapfish. Joining the center's ilk of bougey restaurants is Mendocino Farms, who classes up everyday lunch fare with a sustainable farming ethos.
If the concept sounds familiar, it's because you can't throw a sandwich in an affluent area without hitting a restaurant that does the same thing. This is not to say Mendocino Farms has done something wrong. If anything, they're the green-sustainable-organic-eco-friendly cum capitalist dream realized. If ethical food production is important to you and you can stomach an $11 price tag on a sandwich, Mendocino Farms will please you.
The restaurant blends country farmland aesthetics–including AstroTurf covered benches, black, white and blue wallpaper photos of cows in pasture, and chalkboard walls covered with family recipes–with an eclectic collection of disparate objects. Kurt Vonnegut quotes (which, given the cow motif, recall bizarre Slaughterhouse Five associations) join vintage lamp sculptures, lit-up letters and tan leather couches. There's even a designated area with custom Cornhole boards and bean bags.
How's the food? The menu is vast and varies by season, though there's a "classics" section with creative takes on club sandwiches and Italian hoagies. If you can't decide what to order, Mendocino Farms offers generously overflowing samples of all their deli salads and drinks, including the local beer and wine.
The artfully named "A Sandwich Study of Heat" adds to the typical turkey and avocado sandwich smoked Gouda, an equally smoky chili aioli, jalapeno relish and salsa on the side. The tomato, relish and avocado blend into a de-facto guacamole that works surprisingly well with Gouda. As you'd hope, the classic white bread is pleasantly hot and crisp. Though flavorful, the sandwich is not particularly spicy in the heat-sense–even with added jalapenos. It's a good, if predictable, sandwich.
The "Drunk'n Goat on Highway 128," an ingredient-ode to Northern California's wine country highway, is as bright and lovely as the highway views. Cranberry-walnut bread houses a thick schmear of herb-marinated goat cheese, brie, cranberry spread, green apple slices and aptly-bitter mixed greens. Cranberries, apples and golden raisins provide a tart and fruity sweetness that's tempered by the mixed greens and walnut. The goat cheese is tangy and creamy and should be eaten by the crackerful, while the brie adds a characteristic funk. For $2 more, you can represent the whole farm and add sliced chicken.
The restaurant boasts that it's a place for sandwich aficionados, but its salads and drinks shine. The curried cous cous salad is vibrant in color and flavor, with a creamy yellow curry sauce that's spicier than the purportedly spicy sandwich. Tender, meaty hunks of cauliflower and the container's coating of yellow oil recall Aloo Gobi. The $3 side is carb-heavy and filling enough to be a meal on its own.
In addition to craft brews, there's craft fountain drinks. A restaurant's soda fountain is rarely praise-worthy, but Mendocino Farms serves up $2 sodas that warrant a visit on their own. Spicy birch beer replaces root beer while the vanilla cream soda beats any bottled cream soda I've tried. Mandarin orange soda nixes the neon color of Fanta for a more realistic flavor and hue. The lemon-lime soda is the most daring, resembling lime-flavored tonic water more than any green can. It would make a great alcohol mixer, but it's also guaranteed to piss off any seven year old green-can-favoring child.
Ultimately, if "nice" sandwiches, salads and soups are your thing, you'll probably enjoy Mendocino Farms. If you're offended by the inflated price of man's most humble food–the sandwich–there's two Subways across the street.