Old Towne Orange, a tight-knit community that is sweet on preservation, went weepy in January 2020 when storied Rod’s Liquor shuttered after seven decades of selling ice, booze, and the day’s Racing Form. The collective heartbreak of losing the cherished merchant hit hard and fast. Locals were less ready to move on than the Fraser family, who retains ownership of the fabled corner and enthusiastically welcomed its transformation into a lively gastropub.
Tapping the group behind Bosscat Kitchen was an ingenious flex. Long successful in the airport zone, the whiskey saloon has a scalable formula—widely appealing eats, clever bar program, plus a welcoming setting just the right shade of cool. Leslie Nguyen, the cofounder and creative director, leapt at the chance to fuel the future with the landmark building’s past. Salvaged fixtures are now artwork, vintage neon reminds that liquor is still sold here, and 100-year-old oak floors reappear as tabletops. Look around at the high-ceilinged room, 19-stool bar, open-air patio, and private dining room—and spot repurposed treasures everywhere.
As with Newport Beach’s original Bosscat, Peter Petro is executive chef, adding a third address to a portfolio that includes another in Houston. He describes the fare as southern comfort food and his one-page menu is indeed rife with old-school southern players—grits, succotash, chow-chow, and huckleberries. But global flavors such as kimchi, risotto, Gouda, and churros suggest he’s up for fun with fusion.
The menu opens with plenty of shareable grub; after all, this is also a whiskey bar and happy hour hot spot. Chicken cheese dip with homemade potato chips is spicy-not-fiery and enough for four. It’s a prime choice for bold, substantial snacking that gives those libations a safe place to land. No wonder it’s a top seller. Same for the pork belly poutine. Do consider a mini Mason jar of tart house-pickled vegetables for a crisp palate-reviver.
Piping-hot hush puppies filled with pulled pork are irresistible with or without their mustardy dipping sauce. Just when cardiac arrest enters your thoughts, a trio of seared ahi tuna lettuce wraps save the day with light soy glaze and pickle strands. Avocado toast is basic—heirloom tomatoes, sea salt, and cracked pepper. Room-temperature cornbread madeleines with oddly bland fruit butter miss the mark.
The fine signature burger is a straightforward exercise in proper ratios, each familiar topping harmonizing well with the 8-ounce beef patty, ground in-house, and custom bun by neighboring OC Baking Co. Order it “chef’s way,” with Black Forest bacon, three cheeses, onion jam, beefsteak tomato, lettuce, and garlic aioli. It’s an exceptional build that will haunt your dreams until you have it again. Craggy wedge fries with chow-chow ketchup are the imperative side. Fries also flatter the inspired shaved, roasted pork chop sandwich with barbecue cabbage slaw.
Gulf shrimp and grits (dinner and brunch) are beautifully rendered with a Gouda tang laced through artisanal grits under a generous serving of sweet shrimp slick with fragrant creole flavors. The 12-hour short rib is fall-apart tender atop a deck of scalloped potatoes, graced by a silky black pepper sauce. A crunchy veil of fried onions is the unbilled surprise that makes the dish better than it needs to be. That short rib reappears at brunch in chilaquiles that soar far above the oversweet Fruity Pebbles French Toast that’s been invading Instagram for years now. Brunch is on weekends and features more than a dozen dedicated dishes. If the commendable chilaquiles sound too mainstream, there’s a donut burger for you extreme day drinkers. Fresh biscuits and pulled pork hash make the Smokehouse Benedict a standout.
All six desserts are house-made. Fried apple pie under vanilla ice cream is exactly what you expect and definitely better than the sugary but low-flavor red velvet churros. Skip the ho-hum strawberry cake and instead consider the retro banana pudding.
I’m all in on any place with a Whiskey of the Month. And a craft cocktail of the month. Be sure to request a large cube or risk losing lose your Old-Fashioned to rapid dilution. Better yet, have the gutsy Black Manhattan—it’s served up. Beverage Director Matt Sharp runs a fierce whiskey collection in the hundreds and looks to add special bottles such as Private Selection from Four Roses distillery. Private tastings and custom menu dining are slated for the 14-person Whiskey Room.
Friendly servers are well-trained and efficient—too efficient on one visit when my waiter was obsessed with clearing plates I was still eating from. Pop hits from the ’80s blare from inside, amping the lively vibe. To escape Bon Jovi, choose a table on the 48-seat patio.
Cofounder JT Reed reports that revamping the site took a mere 14 months and credits the pandemic for enabling extreme focus on the extraordinary project. That’s maybe 45 days in restaurant years. Also sure to happen fast? Bosscat Kitchen working its way into the hearts of generations of Rod’s Liquor fans.
118 W. Chapman Ave.
5 BEST DISHES
- Spicy cheese dip
- Pulled pork hush puppies
- Bosscat Burger, chef’s way
- Gulf shrimp and grits
- 12-hour beef short rib
Starters and sandwiches, $6 to $24
Mains, $21 to $30
Desserts, $9 to $12
An excellent happy hour runs Monday through Friday, 3 to 6 p.m.