The Crosby

Two-and-a-Half Stars

During its rookie years, The Crosby gained street cred as a funky-but-solid canteen with quirky bar food, but without the culinary capital to warrant one of our full reviews. Recent upgrades have prompted a closer look. A modest remodel and the expanding focus on young chef Aron Habiger’s creative, sometimes whimsical chow prove The Crosby is out to wow new and old fans of Santa Ana’s evolving downtown.

With no sign out front to speak of, it takes a veteran to sniff out this convivial speakeasy in the Artists Village. Open since April ’08, the scruffy storefront is on a walkable indie-minded night owl circuit that includes Proof Bar, Memphis at The Santora, and Lola Gaspar.

A mix of characters supplies much of the color in the mostly black vintage digs. Our cheerful waitress sports red curls piled high, wrapped with a flowery bandana tied Lucy Ricardo-style. Hang on—is that twentysomething gal in fishnets and heels really wearing granny panties? The guy at the bar with the long gray braid is downing his second can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a mere $1 during happy hour, and proof The Crosby isn’t shy about embracing its working-class rep. One of the menu’s best sellers is The Starving Artist, a $5 grilled Gruyère sandwich with a zesty tomato soup shooter. It’s a princely effort, finessed with sautéed cremini mushrooms and country white bread—quite the belly-filler at a pauper’s price.

Habiger switches up about a quarter of the 25-item carte every several weeks. But some dishes are so beloved, they are de facto everlasting. Such as the crispy, crinkle-cut sweet-potato fries with smoky chipotle dunking sauce. And a swell mac ’n’ cheese, upgraded with seashell pasta, smoked bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, and cremini mushrooms. Jerk carnitas torta is a wildly flavorful sandwich of Jamaican spiced pork, cilantro aioli, pepper jack cheese, and house-pickled onions. And there are whopping mushroom caps, sautéed in garlic-butter and heaped with spinach and Parmesan; I see the dish on a lot of tables, but it’s surprisingly bland.

Smallish portions seem a tactic for keeping prices down, but for $9, I want more than a row of those tender squid-ink gnocchi poised on pools of pureed tomato reduction perfumed with herbs de Provence. The plating feels too precious for this ramshackle-chic room. Chunky Bolognese sauce is the major asset in a satisfying ravioli deconstruction with a few luscious duck meatballs scattered amid pasta sheets, finished with a showering of earthy, tangy pecorino cheese. Each bite varies just enough to keep the dish interesting from start to finish. Angel hair pasta is a generous bowl of al dente strands tossed with basil pesto, asparagus, and artichoke hearts—but it’s not quite hot enough and tastes too chewy and vegetal as it cools.

Habiger shines brightest with dishes that star meat. His house-made beef jerky is served on a board with nutty, slightly aged goat cheese, cranberry compote, and fluffy mascarpone whipped with elderflower liqueur essence. The wide ribbons of gently dried beef are savory, salty mouthfuls with the sharp cheese and sweet-tart berries.

His smoked Wagyu burger is fine, too, set off by brandy-cider mayo, caramelized onions, melting Muenster cheese, and a firm brioche bun. It comes with a fried egg, but hardly needs the extra richness. If over-the-top is your delight, I say take the egg in lieu of the truffle fries; the skinny spuds with truffle oil aren’t terribly special.

But the buches terrine is a standout. It’s a newfangled take on the beloved (by some) taqueria classic, the pig stomach taco. Habiger layers a terrine with the tender pork, cilantro, pickled vegetables, then sears slices of it on high heat, topping them with ground corn tortillas and a chiffonade of romaine. The pork has a deep flavor, but no funkiness, and is nicely textured from the high-temp sizzling.

Philly cheese steak also gets transformed—into a roulade of thin, grilled top round of beef wrapped around asparagus, onions, and bell peppers, and stuffed into a focaccia roll with seasonal mushrooms and gooey havarti cheese. At $18, it’s pricey for a sandwich, but more satisfying than the Crosby Cristo, a poorly proportioned Monte Cristo with mild brie and prosciutto lost in thick bread, egg-battered, and fried. Soft flavors of lemon blueberry jam on the side don’t stand a chance against all that fried starch.

Dessert is a small-but-changing cast of postmodern comforts such as the house sundae that’s more fried banana burrito than ice cream treat. The best of the bunch is basmati rice pudding with goji berries and a splash of riesling reduction.

After 11 p.m., the tiny kitchen serves an edited menu. Only then can you order Habiger’s banger and brioche, a properly greasy sausage, grilled and tucked into a rich brioche roll, accented with sassy house-made relish.

I regret not drinking my excellent bourbon and ginger beer Django cocktail here late, so I could soak it up with that sandwich. But by that time of night, The Crosby mutates into an amplified lounge-y hang, complete with ace deejays and fans who follow their tweets.

Sure, the kitchen lacks the rigor of more glossy venues. But this funky, freeform spot is a good match for the curious and creative Habiger. He’s dreaming up dishes most senior chefs would never allow on their watch. But hey, this is the Artists Village, and a fitting site for exploring the culinary arts.

Best Dishes
Sweet-potato fries, Starving Artist Grilled Cheese, jerk carnitas torta, smoked Wagyu burger, squid-ink gnocchi, jerky platter, buche terrine, mac ’n’ cheese, duck meatball ravioli deconstruction, pepperoni flatbread. Basmati rice pudding. Ask about nightly specials.

Best Tables
Booths 1 and 2; Table 8, with two front-row seats to the kitchen action.

Say the Word
Want artisan pepperoni on your grilled cheese? Order it C-Rad style.

Closed Sundays.

400 N. Broadway
Santa Ana

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.

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