Orange County knows all about Little Sparrow in downtown Santa Ana—after all, this spring it was chosen as Restaurant of the Year 2014 by Orange Coast dining critic Gretchen Kurz. Now though, it’s poised for nationwide exposure after being chosen as one of 16 restaurants featured on Bravo TV’s “Best New Restaurant” with Tom Colicchio, to premiere in January. If only the Bravo website could correctly place Little Sparrow in Santa Ana instead of lumping it under “L.A.” The Pasadena entry is noted. Why not Santa Ana?
Especially when it was the restaurant’s location that was part of its appeal to showrunners. “The producers really liked our story,” says chef Eric Samaniego. “Bruce [Marsh] and Naseem [Aflakian] are first-time owners, and it’s my first shot as executive chef. They really loved that we are in Santa Ana and not L.A. They loved the size of the restaurant and the overall feel. I know we made a great impression on them from the start, so I knew we would make the show. And the fact that it was Bravo meant I knew they would show us in a great light. No BS—just us doing what we do best.”
He’s had to keep all this under his hat since May. “The great thing is that they found us,” he says. “Bravo searched for the best new restaurants in O.C., and we popped up. We’ve been working with them for a while, lots of interviews and paperwork. It was really cool just to interview in the first place, but then to be picked to be one of 16 restaurants is truly amazing!”
I guess we’ll just have to wait until January to watch things unfold. In the meantime, Samaniego has a restaurant to run, with an entirely new menu that started today. For the rest of September and through October, it’ll be Little (French) Sparrow, with French bistro dishes replacing its California-style menu. “It’s inspired by our trip to NYC,” Samaniego says. “We ate at this great French place called Lucien in SoHo—it reminded me of my trip to Paris. So, when it came time to write a new menu, I thought it would be fun to be a full-on French bistro for a while. It’s fun for me to be nostalgic, and good for my cooks to see.”
Samaniego cooks in many styles. Just after Little Sparrow’s Best Restaurant honor I judged the annual Skuna Bay Salmon Challenge SoCal regional, and chef Samaniego won that as well, with a simple, Japanese-influenced dish. Sure seems like he’s got a shot at leading his restaurant all the way in the “Best New Restaurant” competition. Maybe then people will be able to find Santa Ana on the map.