The contribution of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Orange County food scene cannot be understated.
From old-school Vietnamese hole-in-the-walls in Garden Grove to second-generation Filipino chefs updating the cuisine of their homelands, O.C.’s diverse restaurant culture would look like just a plate of burgers and tacos without the input from more than 40 Asian and Pacific Islander groups that reside here.
Nearly 20 of these chefs — all from award-winning eateries across the county, all too humble to take credit for their magnificence — will be displaying their undeniable influence at the second annual Tastemakers of Orange County event Sept. 20, a cultural celebration and all-you-can-sample food festival benefiting the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA). The event will be at SoCo in Costa Mesa.
For the past 20 years, the OCAPICA has provided workforce, healthcare, educational and civic engagement resources to the Asian community in O.C.
“The Asian community has become so diverse in the last 20 years,” says OCAPICA Executive Director Mary Anne Foo. “You have Asians mixing with other races, the second-generation, younger chefs and longtime restaurant owners who have really transformed the county. What binds them all is their commitment to the community and wanting to give something back.”
Here are five chefs not to miss at Tastemakers 2.0:
Nothing is ever as it seems at Dee Nguyen’s Break of Dawn, the Laguna Hills breakfast-only restaurant that turned 11 this year. Combining his Vietnamese background with fine-dining training from years spent as the executive sous chef at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Nguyen transforms diner-style breakfast staples into artistic expressions with no equal. Take his plate of bacon and eggs, which is a dish of house-cured pork belly with tempura eggs, Napa slaw and kimchi-spiced crema. Or his brisket, made from a lengua ragu with ginger, king oyster mushrooms and Merlot-poached eggs.
Filipino food is still enjoying its moment in the spotlight, as young chefs like Henry Pineda continue opening restaurants that make modern riffs on traditional dishes from this indescribably hybridized cuisine. At Modern Filipino Kitchen, aka MFK, in Anaheim, the second-generation Pineda (who is half Guatemalan, natch!) serves $7 rice bowls, loaded tater tots and — with 72 hours prior notice — a traditional kamayan feast that piles fried and grilled seafood atop a mountain of sticky rice. With tangs of vinegar, whiffs of fish sauce and a history of treating pork as its own food group, Pineda’s Filipino food reflects the entire history of the archipelago in every bite.
You might not recognize his name, but if you’ve eaten at any of the hundred-or-so of O.C. restaurants that purchase direct from OC Baking Co., you’ve likely tried some of his impeccably crafted artisan hamburger buns, dinner rolls or French-style baguettes. Since opening in 2009, Kim has become the county’s go-to wholesale baker, selling to a growing fan base of local chefs as well as the public, once a week, at the Orange Home Grown farmers market, located just a few blocks from his industrial bakery. Kim treats each loaf like an artist treats a canvas, using decades of classical training and his own creativity to paint rich edible tapestries unlike anything else around.
Wahoo’s Fish Taco is an Orange County icon, serving Baja-style dishes with Asian and SoCal twists from 70 locations across the U.S. and Japan. Co-founder Ed Lee represents all that is beautiful about our messy, global village. Born to Chinese immigrants in Brazil, Lee moved to Costa Mesa as a child to live with his father, who ran a Chinese restaurant on the Newport Peninsula. He fell into the surf and skate scene here, eventually running a successful taco catering company that morphed into Wahoo’s. A major advocate for the Asian and Pacific Islander community, Lee was instrumental in organizing the first Tastemakers event last year.
Chef Shachi Mehra is by far the best modern Indian chef in the county, and will be Tastemakers’ lone representative of the complex flavors that define South Asian cooking. Mehra, a New Jersey native, spent years working the line in fine dining kitchens before opening her own new-wave Indian concept, Adya, on the second floor of the Anaheim Packing District, where she serves healthy chaat (street snacks), handheld khati rolls and traditional curries like tikka masala and more. Now with a second location near UC Irvine, Mehra is expanding her empire, spreading her tasty take on her native cuisine to more of Orange County.
Tastemakers of Orange County 2.0 is from 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 20 at SoCo and the OC Mix, 3303 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa. Tickets start at $95 for unlimited samples and beverages. For more information, visit tastemakersofoc.com.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.