THE LIME TRUCK GOES BRICK & MORTAR
Well before setting out on the Great Food Truck Race in the spring of 2011, I dreamed of taking what I started on The Lime Truck and expanding it into a restaurant like no other. I envisioned a big, beautiful building filled with character and style, an open kitchen and stunning bar, shiny new equipment, and a team of passionate foodies to help me change how food and drink is prepared, served and appreciated. My father embraced my vision and agreed to be my business partner. He and I began looking for the perfect site for this restaurant. We found the vibe we were looking for in Downtown Santa Ana. We also learned that our plans were wildly ambitious and we’d have to wait until we could find a couple million dollars before we’d be able to build that restaurant.
Meanwhile, we fell in love with this little space on the corner of Fourth and Spurgeon in Santa Ana’s East End, right across from the Yost Theater. It wasn’t quite right for THE restaurant, but we thought it would be a perfect place to build a great team, hone our craft and learn how to be restaurateurs. We developed a gourmet burger and craft beer concept, wrote a business plan and began the painful process of getting the restaurant redesigned and open.
GOURMET BURGERS, AND MUCH, MUCH, MORE…
Yes, we started out branding ourselves as a “burger restaurant” but then the question arose, Is a burger restaurant a restaurant that serves only burgers or one that serves a perfect burger? We have decided it’s the latter. Besides, we know as a new business we can’t afford to alienate customers. The last thing we’d ever want to hear is, “I don’t want to go there; I’m not in the mood for a burger.”
So what kind of restaurant have we created? Here’s how I answered that question when it was posed by a brilliant young chef who wanted to join our team, “Craft beer focus. Fifteen taps, 60 bottle list. All rare stuff. Foodwise, new American small plates. Ingredient driven. Technique driven. One great burger, epic chicken wings, delicious pork belly, awesome vegetable preparations, sous-vide hanger steak, interesting flavor combinations. Open kitchen, communal seating, bar-height tables made of black ebony wood, 27-foot white-quartz bar. I want to put together a creative culinary team. What WE can do is better than what any one person can do. It is mandatory for every person to contribute to the menu.”
As time has passed we’ve moved wherever the creative energy of the team has taken us, pushing boundaries and exploring new techniques and flavors every day. Our Playground burger and our wings form the foundation of two of our quick-service restaurants in Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market.
Food is only half the story at The Playground. We’ll also be one of Orange County’s premier destination for craft beers. To make sure we bring you the most interesting selection and pair it perfectly with our food, I’ve teamed up with Jarred Dooley, one of approximately 200 Certified Cicerones in the world. (Since we opened, Jarred also passed his Court of Master Sommeliers Level I exam.) Jarred spent two years working with our friends, The Bruery, ranked among the Top 10 breweries to visit in the world. He spent his time at The Bruery learning how inventive and expressive beer can be. Then as Staff Manager at The Bruery Provisions, a bottle and cheese shop in Old Town Orange, Jarred learned to pair beer with cheese and dessert, and even crafted specialty sandwiches to pair perfectly with The Bruery’s beer. We’ve given Jarred free rein to build a craft beer destination worthy of our food. By focusing on elevating the craft beer movement without alienating new craft beer drinkers, Jarred is putting together an accessible and always interesting beer list. With 15 rotating beers on draft and a bottle list 60+ bottles deep there isn’t a taste that we can’t satisfy.
We started with a number of preconceived notions, some of which we discarded quickly. Initially a beer-only restaurant, we have added a wine list and a wine-by-the-glass program, which we have steadily expanded. Then we added full liquor. We now take reservations. We completely abandoned the idea that you’d have to order from the bar. (What were we thinking?) But we have retained our core values: Fresh, exciting ingredients prepared with skill, passion and love, a constantly changing menu, and the stubborn belief that each dish is an integrated composition that we will not alter.
We have noted that many people love our approach to food and we are thankful to have attracted a number of committed regulars who come back every week to see what kind of craziness we’re up to, and we’ve garnered a reputation in the foodie community as a fun place to experience new ingredients in exciting preparations. They love us for our successes and forgive us our misses because they know we’re adapting and evolving to new ingredients as fast as our purveyors can source them. To these, our loyal fans, we are most grateful.
We have also noted that there are a number of people who do not like to be told how their food is going to come. They want a restaurant that gives them a choice, that caters to their whims. That’s not us. At Playground, you have to submit to our whim. And if that’s not okay, we get it. We can recommend a number of restaurants where the chefs are talented, the food is fresh and they’ll do whatever you want to it. We’re just not going to be that kind of restaurant. Please don’t come if that’s what you want. We hate to make people unhappy, but to give you what you want we’d have to sell ourselves out and become generic. That would take all the joy out of it for us and, trust me, you don’t want to be in the restaurant business if it doesn’t bring you a lot of joy. There are a million easier ways to make a living.
We implemented an online reservation system, so reservations can be made online. You can still call us at (714) 560-4444 if you have a big party or can’t find a time on Open Table. We also have plenty of room for walk-ins on our patio. If you thought the Playground was reservation only, that’s no longer true.
We secured a full liquor license and one of our craft cocktails even earned Cocktail of the Week honors. On top of that we have 2014’s Best Bartender, Jarred Dooley.
Earlier this year we opened three mini-restaurants and a bar in the 4th Street Market. Our three restaurants (food stands, really) will be operated under the general umbrella LUNCHBOX BY PLAYGROUND. The three concepts are NOODLE TRAMP, featuring a Northern Thai meal in a bowl called Khao Soi; PFC, featuring our unique Playground Fried Chicken, house baked cornbread and sides; and WAGYU CHUCK, truly fantastic burgers and cheeseburgers made from fresh-ground 100% Imperial Wagyu chuck, placed on a fresh sponge dough bun made at our bakery.
So what’s next for Playground? (Other than continual development of our skills and a better understanding of what our customers enjoy, of course.) In the near term, we’re going to catch our breath a bit and work on shoring up what we’ve built so far.
– We are nearly finished with Teachers’ Lounge, a place to enjoy a cocktail or bottle of beer or wine while waiting for your table at Playground or Playground 2.0. It’s also where you want to go to buy Dough Exchange bread, house made pastas, selected cheeses and charcutrie. Please stop by, even if you’re not waiting for a table. We’d love to make you a cheese plate and open a bottle of wine for you to enjoy on the patio or in the cool interior. Teachers’ Lounge is in the Dough Exchange space immediately south of Playground 2.0 on the Spurgeon Promenade.
– We are working to expand the Playground dining room, adding a second kitchen and upgrading our back-of-house facilities.
– We’re also working on a lounge and craft cocktail bar above Playground where our guests can relax before and after their meal while enjoying unique cocktails.
– Stay tuned to this page for updates.