Chef Andrew Gruel’s Slapfish empire is about to cross state lines. Six new restaurants will soon open in six different western states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. Additionally, 50 more are in development—taking things well beyond burgeoning right into huge.
It’s not all Slapfish for Gruel, either. He’s contributing to Orange County’s continuing food hall hegemony by opening two new concepts at Trade in Irvine, a multi-tenant project due to open this fall near the airport. Gruel describes one, Two Birds, as “a very simple chicken concept.” Like many simple things, the working menu sounds fab: Guests choose grilled or fried chicken, and specify sandwich or salad, “bird in the hand” or “bird in the bush,” respectively. Sides will include cheesy or plain cottage fries, house-made pickles, salt-and-vinegar slaw. There’ll also be a signature chicken biscuit sandwich garnished with slaw and herb sauce.
Butterleaf, Gruel’s second new concept, is plant-based, and I was impressed that he won’t be featuring meat simulacra—I dislike the reliance on highly processed fake meat common to a lot of vegan cooking. Vegetables are where it’s at. Gruel says, “I feel in general many diners are either accustomed to having 16 ounces of meat on every plate, or they’re 100 percent against meat—there’s no in-between,” adding, “I love vegetables—the amazing spectrum of vegetables available, especially here in southern California. The goal isn’t to turn people away from meat, but to celebrate the vegetables.” At Butterleaf, expect a sweet potato-mushroom burger with herb sauce, and a grinder sandwich with kimchi, melted onions, and peppers. Butterleaf bowls will be customizable with a choice of flash-seared vegetables, grains, and sauces. Sides like everything fries and chunky vegetable chowder sound happily like plant-based versions of favorite Slapfish dishes.
Scalability is built into both concepts—Gruel hopes to have two more of each open within the next year. Following the Slapfish model, this is surely only the beginning for Two Birds and Butterleaf.