Santa Ana: Cocktails and Bites at the Playground
Occasionally I make it down past the Orange County and usually I hang around the same couple of spots around the performing arts center in Costa Mesa. One evening after a show, my buddy Bobby from 100 Eats said I had to at least go a few miles over to Santa Ana to check out The Playground. I had heard about this place from bartender Joe Valdovinos. LA craft cocktails enthusiasts might remember Joe from his stint at Big Bar. Now you’ll find him full time at the Playground.
A big part of why I go to bars is watching the performance of a great bartender. It may have been a simple thing of what I’m calling steampunk boozey “tea” but all the oohs and ahhs is what it’s about.
When I first walked in, Joe asked what did I feel like drinking. I was thirsty so I wanted something refreshing. He made the perfect gin sipper that whetted the appetite so of course we welcomed the food.
Upgrading your usual hummus has never been so easy. We loved the Playground’s take on mashed fava beans and spring peas. And to make it even more of a rock star dish, top it with burrata.
One of the bestsellers are the cauliflower nachos. With piquant jalepenos and salsa, you won’t miss the chips — and you get some veggies in!
The Playground ages their Negroni for three weeks. Or to be more exact, 23 days in the barrel. The result is more mellow and good for those who want a cocktail ASAP.
While I was talking to a friend about white negronis, Joe whipped up his version of one. It’s not as heavy handed as some I’ve had. It would be welcome as either an opening or closing cocktail but more importantly, it worked well with the food.
There are a few “foodie” ingredients that always gets our attention:
When you combine pork belly (aka bacon) with a fresh guacamole, and then present it with slightly sweet puffy Asian buns, you got yourself a ridiculously good snack. We shared this order but I wouldn’t mind getting this just for myself. I love Kurobuta pork (also known as Berkshire pig) because it’s so juicy.
Rum, elderflower and celery bitters? What is this concoction? And Joe answered, “Jump in the line!” which is what I would imagine friends would say as they hurry you along to paradise. I would have never thought about putting celery bitters with anything sweet and floral but this drink worked out very well.
Jump in the Line – Zaya 12-year rum, elderflower, celery bitters
We went crazy over the khao soi. The Burmese influenced Thai noodles soup came with a plate of fresh veggies, peanuts and lime to customize to your heart’s content. It had a really great curry/ coconut milk broth reminding me a bit of laksa.
We put it all in and encourage you to do the same to extend the crunchiness of this dish. The fried noodles get pretty soft quickly in the soup.
Smokey and the Bandit – Del Maguey Vida mezcal, lemon, orange, honey, cayenne
One day someone asked for a Rusty Nail. Missing one of the ingredients, the Playground came up with Gold Spike which has just 2 ingredients; Scotch and a bittering agent. Joe mentioned it really didn’t need anything else. So trade your Rusty Nail for a glittering Gold Spike.
Gold Spike – Auchentoshan Classic Scotch, Tempest Fugit Gran Classico
Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore, the Black Mission Fig Sticky Toffee Pudding made an appearance. The steaming pudding was naturally sweet enough from the figs but was ever so rich with the toffee. My 3-bite dessert rule was seriously challenged by this pudding. Good thing I shared with three others or else I would have gobbled this down even though I was completely full from the noodles, pork belly buns and cauliflower.
I’m thinking about the next time I’ll be back down south. Perhaps by then the new meat market the owners of the Playground may be open. They’re also focused on opening a Thai noodle shop which would feature the great khao soi noodles and more. Plus there will be a bar opening upstairs at the Playground in August called Detention (Playground, Detention, get it?).
Now with all this cool stuff in Downtown Santa Ana, you may never want to leave.
© The Minty 2014