As I veered off the 1st Street exit towards downtown Santa Ana, bittersweet memories flooded my brain. You see, it has been years since I have stepped foot into old “Santana” - the vicinity of the Civic Center area – where Mexican markets buzzed with loyal customers, neighborhood “eloteros” (corn cob vendors) meandered about selling fresh, roasted corn cobs slathered in mayo with dry hot spices and my abuelita’s home on 3rd and Baker streets where the aroma of freshly roasted tortillas permeated the breeze. Those were treacherous days when the local Calle 3rd Street gang bangers, like sentinels, packed heat and hung out at the corner park. Today is a different story. A fresh, revamped downtown Santa Ana highlights a wonderful artist’s community with small boutiques where peppy restaurants are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.
Approximately six months ago, Chapter One: the modern local came to life and like the adjoining businesses also buzzes with loyal customers. The energy inside is intense. Hip patrons nibble on interesting food and sip creative cocktails while live tunes float through the air from the corner of the bar. I have dined at Chapter One on three occasions - with a concept based around food and the kitchen and a seasoned chef named “Oge”, I have yet to be disappointed. Each time I walk into the dining area past the shelves of library books, I expect to see Hemmingway sucking on a stogie while sipping his favorite booze – literary giant meet gastro pub!
The black bean soup was a mixture of al dente black beans and aromatic roasted sweet pineapple. The flavors were very rich, sweet and spicy at the same time and the consistency thick and chunky. The beans were slightly crunchy…some folks may prefer softer beans but I like my legumes slightly crunchy! My soup was topped with a fried plantain which had been sliced lengthwise and placed over the soup bowl creating an uncommon and creative presentation.
Stuffed squid, fare not normally offered in an American cuisine gastro pub, is usually served in Italian and Asian restaurants. That being said, I was curious about Chapter One’s “Stuft Squid”. Whole squid (sans tentacles, tube only) filled with sweet sundried tomatoes and salty Kalamata black olives. The calamari was tempura batter-fried, sliced into rings and served alongside a fresh tomato coulis. The rich tomato-olive filling held up well with the squid and had well balanced flavors but the accoutrement of tomato coulis was on the watery side and rather bland.
Sunrise in Jalisco was served in a martini glass with a crisp cucumber floater - was made with Russian Standard Vodka and Agave Underground Anejo blended with Rouge cherry liquor and muddled cucumber and simple syrup. Daily, the bartender fresh presses ginger root and diligently carbonates water to make fresh ginger beer for his Moscow Mule. This libation is served in a cold tin cup over special ice cubes which have a slow melt rate maintaining the smooth RS vodka flavor - my favorite cocktail from Chapter One!
Although I am not a vegetarian, I enjoy all foods herbivorous. Chapter One’s Eggplant and Portobello Mushroom Sandwich was light and refreshing - a hefty mound of tofu, eggplant ratatouille and balsamic marinated mushrooms aretopped with garlic tomato relish and piled in a sandwich roll. Another vegetarian dish was the panko crusted Potato Pear – mashed potatoes are molded into a pear shape and served atop mushroom Marsala sauce. Japanese style panko bread crumbs are light and flakey and as I bit through the crunchy exterior my teeth sank into a creamy mashed potato mound.
Desserts: A must try is the Milk & Cereal! Vanilla panna cotta, Kataifi (Middle Eastern shredded phyllo dough) and Cinnamon Toast Crunch are paired with peanut butter ice cream. Although the citrus chunks and sweet creamy panna cotta meritage seemed a little harsh on my palate, I would still toss my diet out the freakin’ window - that dessert put a Cheshire grin on my face. I closed my eyes, took a bite and the flavors took me back to pleasant childhood days when I was able to enjoy cereal for breakfast - guilt free!