One of the reasons that Orange County is the gem that it is, and why I find myself living here (even though I once scoffed at the thought in my angst-ridden young twenties), is it’s location. I know, I know, seems obvious - famous Southern California, no need for explanation when multiple beaches are a stone’s throw away. I’m referring to location in the sense that we are in close proximity to two very distinct, major cities: Los Angeles and San Diego. Living here, we have the opportunity to drive a little over an hour either North or South to explore cities that are unique travel destinations for people around the world, all in just one day. The events, sights, history, and culture of both cities are in Orange County’s backyard, making it a little sliver of quiet paradise.
I was recently reminded of the geographical benefits of living in Orange County when I had the opportunity to attend the first annual EAT Show in Los Angeles, an event with over fifty restaurants and food industry establishments. After a quick drive up, my cousin and culinary partner in crime, Allison, and I entered the Reef, a space designed for hosting creative events, like fashion shows and media productions. It’s a cool place, with lots of slick polished concrete, and the EAT show was being held on the second floor. We were escorted to the elevator by men dressed in nice suits. Shit, we are underdressed, we thought aloud in the privacy of our elevator, which is something we both have a fear of. We were wrong of course, as plenty of people were wearing similar attire, which makes sense - it’s called the EAT show. We were all there to chow down, and in order to do this properly, you’ve got to be comfortable, like Joey wearing Phoebe’s maternity pants in one of the Friends Thanksgiving episodes comfortable.
After checking-in and receiving our VIP swag bags (couldn’t resist the temptation of a mysterious swap bag when purchasing tickets), we headed straight to the open bar. Yes, that’s right, OPEN BAR. The hired bar for the event was Mr. Bartender, an LA based crew of talented mixologists that creates custom cocktails for events. Dressed in casual suits sans jacket, bowties, suspenders, and sleeves rolled up, the team emanated a relaxed, party-is-well-on-it’s-way atmosphere. In short, very cool vibes surrounding the bar, which we frequented. They created five cocktails for the show, and since it’s a foodie event, the cocktails had to bring it - and they did. Of the five (yes, we tried them all - sharing of course) the “Pop Up Punch” stood out as an original, one of a kind, libation. With a title playing on the event itself, and the addition of gin, raspberry, and citrus juices shaken, poured over ice, and topped with a float of champagne then garnished with a sprig of fresh thyme, we were in a daze of tasty wonder, ready for more.
Our thirsts quenched, we formed our plan of attack, which was easy to do, as the coordinators of the EAT Show truly had the attendees in mind when planning the event. Only 1,000 people were admitted to each session (lunch and dinner - we chose lunch) making the vast space of the second floor give you enough room to breathe while enjoying the food. This was also awesome because we never waited for more than three minutes at any location, allowing for maximum food intake. Food vendors lined the outskirts of the room, and long, family style tables and the bar were located in the middle. Your “ticket” was a miniature monopoly board game, where vendors were arranged much like Park Place or the Boardwalk - each section contained four different vendors. We decided to just head around counter-clockwise (with trips to the bar in between).
With over fifty eateries involved in the event, it would be naive for me to expect you to patiently read my thoughts regarding each one. So, I’ve listed my top three that absolutely crushed the small-bites event. Coincidentally, these three killer places were located in the same “monopoly block,” and were the first stop on our list.
First up is Swami’s: A Sandwich Experience, which clearly put dedicated care into not just the delicious tostadita they prepared, but into the entire display of their table and booth space as well. The display was unique; with a clean-cut, black cloth backdrop and handmade wooden and aluminum Swami’s lettering, we felt like we were in a genuine space, and not just one of the plebes at a 1,000 person event. Fresh cut flowers adorned the daffodil-yellow square tiles they used to form a hardtop for their table, making it one-of-a-kind at the show - sincerely, their booth owned it. From what I have learned about Swami’s, the food truck has become a staple in Los Angeles’s mobile eatery scene, challenging other trucks’ culinary prowess, like Kogi Beef and The Grilled Cheese Truck. After tasting the braised lamb and pork tostadita, you can clearly see why Swami’s has become an LA essential. Chef Ramanathan “Ram” Swaminathan makes everything from scratch, and on the truck, everything is made to order - no substitutions. I greatly appreciate the “no substitutions” movement; trust the chef - they put a lot of thought into every ingredient and flavor profile that goes into a dish. So, once I heard that Swami’s did this, I knew it was the real deal. Now, back to what matters: the tostadita. The chile-braised lamb and pork tostadita ended up being the perfect bite at the show. Starting out, you get the traditional chile and cumin seasoning that you’d expect (and hope for) in the latin-inspired dish. However, the addition of the mint to compliment the depth of the lamb and the saltiness of the fresh, homemade queso fresco was, unearthly. It almost took us a moment to figure out what it was we were eating, which seems like an odd statement, I know, but that is what I loved about it - the taste demanded that our tastebuds think, but then quickly reminded them of familiar home-cooked Sunday meals after being away for a while. That, and the artful smear of chipotle crema and hibiscus pickled shallots that topped the tostadita were enough for us to call it a day. We had already won.
Next up is Restauration, located in Long Beach on 4th Street’s “Retro Row,” whose EAT Show table design definitely complimented the joint’s title, a combination of “restaurant” and “restoration.” With a teak wood and burlap feel at their station, it’s no doubt that Restauration takes pride in it’s locally sourced and responsibly grown ingredients (something AU & Co. appreciates and promotes with their use of homegrown and deadstock fabrics). The dish: crispy pan fried pork belly, pinenut cassoulet, and white bean puree, topped with a pinch of microgreens. The pork belly, oh my God, the pork belly - it was cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of crisp to provide that bacon consistency that everyone loves, but also melt in your mouth tender, like it had been slow roasted for hours. Mixed with the pinenut and subtle white bean flavors, this dish had the elements of salty and creamy that need to happen on the daily in my life (heart attacks aside, I’d still probably be really happy if that happened). Keep an eye out for a future AU&co blog post about Restauration, because if this dish relays what the rest of the menu contains, I’m down. I don’t have a photo for this dish, unfortunately, but this is for the best due to the fact that every time I saw it I might have a sensory overload.
Lastly, we have Westlake Village’s Aroha, owned by New Zealand’s own Chef Gwithyen Thomas, which specializes in his native country's cuisine. Now, arriving to Thomas’s table, Allison and I thought that perhaps we weren’t at the right spot. We checked our monopoly maps - we were indeed in the right place, but it seemed...wrong. This table was not up to the standard that Swami’s or Restauration had set. There was no decoration, no thoughtfully placed flair to enhance the eater’s experience, which is something I absolutely appreciate. There were long, rectangular, styrofoam coolers. That’s it. We were about to move on, when a head popped up from behind the coolers. It was Thomas, and he was sitting in a chair, shucking clams with a long, serrated knife. Not just any clams, though, he calmly explained in his accent. These were Cloudy Bay Clams from New Zealand, that had been harvested from the ocean only two days before, and shipped express for the event - just as he does for Aroha, daily. The clams were served cold in the shell, partially cooked, with absolutely no seasoning, no lemon - nothing. I can’t have clams any other way, ever again. They were so fresh - so, so very fresh. I didn’t think that clams could ever taste that way. I will be venturing to Aroha for clams soon, and you better believe I will be trying many more of Thomas’s dishes - stay tuned.
Although I may never know what crack-infused ingredient Swami’s puts in their braised lamb, or how Mr. Bartender creates silky and smooth cocktails, I do know this: EAT Show nailed it their first go-around, and I will definitely be attending next year, cocktail and swag bag in hand.