After years of development, public announcements, and panting media hype, downtown Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market is finally open for business. Allowing some grace time after its February debut, I dive into the 30,000-square-foot “progressive culinary hub” that will “impact and influence the way that food is enjoyed in the United States,” as its website states. I wish. Six visits during the spring demonstrate this ambitious enterprise is a wobbly tot in a neighborhood full of veteran operators. I dare say nearby street fruit carts and bridal shops are better at marketing their wares and serving their customers. If you visit this fledgling venture, here’s a realistic overview and suggested list to manage your expectations.
Unless you show up early with a craving for caffeine, bypass the sterile, amorphous Portola Coffee Lab—everyone else does. Instead, follow the others into the heart of the 15 food stalls. Prepare to dash around as you await your name or number to be called, especially if you don’t order your entire meal from a single stall or adjacent ones. The dining protocol is akin to a food truck roundup, but tables are plentiful inside and out. The best dishes and where to find them:
PFC Go for the terrific fried chicken from this Playground sibling. A crunchy, slightly spicy flour crust is the golden jacket that seals in the juices of these buttermilk-marinated parts. You’ll only get this superb recipe here, says chef-owner Jason Quinn, who serves a different recipe at Playground, where he lacks the space and time to make it the PFC way. Fresh, rustic cornbread and bright fennel slaw make great sides.
NOODLE TRAMP Pungent, steamy khao soi also is from Quinn, his take on the northern Thai noodle dish. It’s crunchy on top,
slurpy and thick-sauced below, and the flat egg noodles are made to his specs in L.A. One dish, two sizes, and four choices of protein. Rare Wagyu beef is my pick. It’s splattery to eat from its paper container, but spunky green papaya salad is fair payback for the mess.
STOCKYARD SANDWICH COMPANY Come here for gourmet sandwiches and tater tot poutines from Santa Ana native Phil Burden (previously of The Crosby and The Grilled Cheese Spot). The de-lish carnitas Naughty Totties are getting attention, but I also like the straightforward smoked chicken club with Kewpie mayo on Bread Artisan Bakery slices.
DOS CHINOS A must-try for those who haven’t caught up with the hugely popular food truck by the same name. The tasty progeny of Viet flavors and Mexican fare includes chicken curry tacos, fried rice, and Stoner Fries—topped with every food in the kitchen. Beware of long waits, though.
KTCHN DTSA Oft-praised L.A. chef and Santa Ana native Felix Barron serves his celebrated breakfast eats, most of them glorifying at least one fried egg. By lunchtime, the menu adds unctuous and satisfying barbecue elements with pulled pork and egg the top seller. Only KTCHN opens at 7 a.m., long before others at 11.
MAR Order fresh and fast seafood eats from Jon Melendez, chef-owner of Santa Ana’s popular but short-lived Civic restaurant. Get the ahi poke bowl with carrot-zucchini noodles or the inventive scallop dog with bacon. Standout black rice horchata, too.
WAGYU CHUCK Skin-on chunks of fried baked potato are the irresistible order on this short burger menu. Their earthy, crispy goodness radically outshines the simple burgers with 2.5-ounce patties of top-notch beef. The “torn” potatoes are the perfect partners to KTCHN’s corned beef-and-egg sandwich, just around the corner.
Desserts, beverages, and retail market goods are hard to rave about. Chunk-n-Chip, a popular ice cream sandwich truck, offers its warm cookies and gourmet ice creams, but to diners too full to crave a hefty handful of fast-melting calories for $4 to $5.75. Around the corner is Torch S’more Co., where the classic campfire goodie is upgraded with
handmade, hand-torched marshmallows—then downgraded with rock-hard graham crackers and a 10-minute wait time. I worry the invisible location will do it in, regardless.
Something to drink with that poutine? Most stalls offer a small selection of boutique sodas and bottled waters with their food
offerings. Recess, another Quinn production, is inexplicably proud of serving its wine, beer, and cocktails on tap, but its smiling tap jockeys might or might not know anything significant about the liquid in your cheapo plastic cup. For best results, stick to the $6 beers
Even odder than the problematic dessert and booze options are inscrutable tenants that include the rarely inhabited Foodbeast Kitchen & Studio, the 10 adjacent, oft-empty East End incubator kitchens, and Honor Roll, the haphazardly stocked retail boutique near the Market’s entrance. If all these kitchens and fridge cases sound confusing, there’s a map at 4thstreetmarket.com/visit.
Many will argue that it’s simply too soon to judge this enterprise, deemed “revolutionary” by its operators. But it’s old enough to charge market (or higher) prices, so early judgments seem fair. It’s also fair to note that 4th Street Market, like the rest of O.C.’s trendy new food halls, is a fast-evolving landscape. Right now, it’s more of a chow court than a market for shopping, unless you’re filling your bags on Thursday night at the weekly farmers market next door.