It feels so incongruous. Yet it works so well. My wife and I are sitting at the rear counter of MRK Public in San Clemente, looking through picture windows past telephone poles and treetops to the distant ocean. With our backs to the room, we could be in some roadside diner, yet we’re enjoying a limited-edition double-IPA craft beer with a “drink-by” date, plus a bone-marrow appetizer more suited to fine dining thanthis former Love Burger location.
Two of this yearling restaurant’s chefs, San Clemente natives Rayne Frey and Moriah Robison, attended the same high school and surfed together. Both ate at Love Burger, open for 30 years, and the short-lived Surferosa Cafe that followed. They attended the same culinary school and served as co-executive chefs at the highly regarded and now defunct Tabu Grill in Laguna Beach. Together with a third chef, Moriah’s brother Kai, they transformed a hometown fast-casual fixture into MRK Public—get it, Moriah-Rayne-Kai?—and recast it as a gastropub.
The front patio is packed one Sunday afternoon when we check out the place. Near the entrance is a colorful two-sided succulent wall. In the dining room are a contemporary triptych collage of a Long Beach refinery and, at the rear counter, a matching pair of wall installations: copper pipes set at interesting angles, succulents emerging from the ends.
We were just going to peek in. But here we are, bone marrow before us, the bone split longways, with a crusty veil of pecorino cheese sealing in its unctuousness. Alongside is a salsa verde of basil, cilantro, and tarragon that I could eat all day, plus a roasted-red-pepper terrine and grilled baguette slices. We are very happy.
Back for dinner two days later, we start with the Tuscan Toast and are even happier. It’s downright
vibrant. Roasted garlic confit spreads like butter; yellow and red grape tomatoes explode with flavor; a goat-milk fromage blanc adds tang. Olive oil, a balsamic reduction, and fresh rosemary provide finishing touches.
We order Thai basil clams, redolent of lemongrass, cilantro, mint, and jalapenos. With broth like this, who needs clams? We finish what we can with spoons and sop up the remains with the grilled toast that accompanies most of the starters.
The place is buzzing. Families occupy most tables along one wall. A man stands and rocks a baby while others in his party eat. When they leave, a new party is seated and another man stands and rocks a baby. This is a gastropub? Chefs Rayne and Moriah are fathers; perhaps these are their friends. Perhaps the two-item kids’ menu—grilled-cheese sandwich, chicken tenders—is a draw.
It’s possible these are families looking for a bite after a day at the beach; after all, it’s right off the freeway, across from Tommy’s Family Restaurant. Maybe they were headed to Tommy’s, but Dad wanted a craft pilsner to go with his burger.
Our winning streak among the Snacks & Shares continues on another visit with an order of Vietnamese Sticky Wings. A palate party thanks to its coating of caramelized roasted chiles and fried garlic, the juicy chicken has a pleasurable crunch and just the right amount of sweetness and heat.
Off-menu secret: Those in the know ask for the sticky sauce on their fries.
One of MRK’s most popular items is a half-pound Angus-beef patty with white cheddar cheese and roasted tomato—plus grilled onion spread and a lemon aioli, but on ours somebody skimps on these two components and the patty arrives medium-well. Not so exciting.
Our banh mi includes a thick rectangle of pork belly—you can opt for chicken or tofu instead—plus pickled veggies, jalapeno, and a ginger aioli. Yet the baguette overwhelms. The bread ratio works better in the Angus short-rib sandwich, richer by dint of its horseradish cream and a rosemary-roasted garlic aioli, more substantial thanks to caramelized onions and pickled Fresno chiles.
The category’s runaway best, however, is the fried-chicken sandwich, an all-American vision with applewood-smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, and buttermilk dressing. It’s lifted another mouth-watering notch by a spicy mayo made with Frank’s RedHot.
The tightly edited menu offers more than a dozen items, including a trio of salads, plus two desserts, both satisfying: lemon ricotta beignets—piping hot sugar-ed spheres with a yummy yuzu curd—and a moist, brown-butter banana bread with vanilla ice cream, banana caramel sauce, and spiced candied cashews.
The selection of nine craft beers changes nearly daily. It’s written on chalkboards and runs the gamut from Avery Brewing’s White Rascal to Barley Forge’s Patsy, a coconut-rye stout. All are $6.
Were you to fashion a meal entirely from the Asian-inspired items, a capital idea here, a number of options from the list of 15 wines, notably the rieslings and rosés, also accommodate. All are available by the glass.
We feel like regulars from the first time we sit down. We like our servers. Though they’re often stretched thin, they seem unfazed no matter how busy. The chefs in the open kitchen are smiling. Our servers are smiling. The waitress at the front counter with the tattoos and lavender hair is smiling. It’s either because they eat this good food on their breaks, or they enjoy their jobs. I’m guessing it’s both.
We’re smiling, too, at a concept that marries Love Burger accessibility and Tabu Grill know-how. A pint of Coffee Cream Porter, please.
El Camino Real