On its website, the Gypsy Den advertises itself as "Orange County's Original Alt Café," and no one save for maybe Alta Coffee in Newport Beach would argue. It's a legend–never necessarily cutting-edge, but always comforting to the hipsters and activists and lawyers and artists who frequented its downtown SanTana spot for more than a decade, jonesing for their daily, cheap fix of tuna melts, carrot cakes and hobo bowls. Those people have been howling for the past couple of months, as that location has essentially blown up what worked in an effort to become something it was never before: a hipster haven.
Gone are the chicken Waldorf on croissant, the vegan chicken wrap, the Greek salad. All of these dishes have been deemed outmoded by its new executive chef, Kris DeLee, who favors tartines and small plates with artful garnishes. Though I'd never been to Gypsy Den before the menu makeover, I did note there was an unnecessary potato chip that was propped up like a sail in the yellow of our deviled eggs. Was it there to justify the $3 price tag for what amounts to one whole egg per order? Or was it there for texture? Either way, I would've preferred more of those chips on the side. I could've used them to scoop up an egg yolk so loose with mayo it nearly dribbled out of its dimple.
And there were the new tartines, something the menu defines as "noun/ open-faced sandwich, especially one with a fancy spread." In other words, Gypsy Den's now doing hipster toast, months after the trend was cool. Our waiter recommended the one with pork belly over the trout and tuna tartines. I would've ordered it anyway since it looked more tempting than the rest. It came with arugula, tomato, a smear of hot sauce aioli on its two thick rafts of pumpernickel, and, of course, a fried egg on top. Yet, the thinly sliced pork belly that was supposed to be its star tasted almost of nothing. A more egregious oversight was the sunny-side-up egg. It was undercooked, with some of the whites still clear and slimy. Even still, this tartine turned out to be a substantial meal, the one thing on the menu that might just be worth its $13 price. And since you actually get two open-faced sandwiches per order, it's apt for sharing.
A salted, roasted beet salad from the "shareable" menu seems less inclined to be shared and more to be photographed. It's plated to take up exactly half the space of its large white platter. The single puddle of goat cheese sauce glistened as if polished ivory, while the red of halved, cooked beets contrasted against it and the green of the fancy salad mix. And all over the plate, bits of bright yellow flickered as though starlight. These turned out to be crumbled hard-cooked egg yolk.
The chef took the time to make the dish beautiful, but when I ate it with my date, it was gone before I realized I'd already consumed my share of the three razor-thin slices of prosciutto without giving much thought as to how it all tasted. We decided it was still better than the actual salad of shaved, raw Brussels sprouts the kitchen tossed with raw kale, pine nuts and pickled chiles. This dish proved that kale and Brussels sprouts have no place in the world until they're cooked. Eating them in this state, in this salad, felt as if we were chewing on what comes out of a paper shredder.
It was about then I realized maybe the regulars were right. Rather than playing catch-up to the likes of Playground, North Left, Little Sparrow, Lola Gaspar and all of its more cutting-edge neighbors, Gypsy Den should've stuck with what worked. If you look at archived pictures of the food Gypsy Den used to serve, you'd see big, unattractive gobs of mayo-rich chicken plopped into bowls of plain chopped iceberg, tomatoes and cucumber. You'd see deli-style sandwiches with a side of tortilla chips. And you'd see a packed house with happy faces. Now? Recently, my Mexican In Chief spent two hours there in the evening when he was one of six customers through that time.
Some of the old food still exists at the Gypsy Den's original Costa Mesa branch, where I tried the tuna melt along with the much-lauded nachos. Neither impressed me much, but then again, I was looking to be impressed rather than comforted by food that has been a staple of OC for years, staples that whoever's running the Gypsy Den must think were outdated fads. They at least kept the open-mic nights, and the space still looks as it always has: Old West saloon meets Parisian salon, with mismatched chairs and a whole lot of kooky art on the wall. It knows better than to change any of this–maybe as a last, tantalizing reminder of what once was.
The Gypsy Den, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840; www.gypsyden.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Meal for two, $30-$50, food only. Beer and wine.