To truly understand the magnitude of Little Sparrow's undertaking, you have to know a bit about its neighborhood, Downtown Santa Ana. The city has been embroiled in gentrification debates ever since rebranding itself as a cultural epicenter a few years ago. Restauranteurs have struggled against the city's decades-old bad rap. Bars sustain a measured flow of customers by catering to the early twenties crowd and investing in obscure DJs and TVs and ladies' nights, but they've had a tough go of it. Even Memphis, a Southern-fare favorite, closed down recently -- suffice it to say, if you'd asked if it would be possible to bring sustainable New American fine dining to the heart of Santa Ana, locals would have told you, "No way."
Enter Santa Ana native Naseem Aflakian and her husband and business partner, Bruce Marsh. They'd immersed themselves in chef-focused creative culinary heaven in New York City for some years, then returned to Orange County to find a template, big box landscape of Red Lobster, Sizzler, Starbucks and the like. There were no locally-owned fine dining destinations in the area. Naseem had just wrapped up a Masters in Food Studies at New York University and Bruce had a successful entrepreneurial background, so they figured, why not create one?
We caught up with Naseem and Bruce for breakfast to find out how they did it, and along the way enjoyed a delightful spread that OC Weekly recently named its "Best Brunch". Check it out: kimchee fried rice (gochujang grilled pork belly, Napa cabbage, carrots, haricot vert, and plenty of scrambled eggs), lattes from local roaster Kean Coffee, vanilla bean french toast made from their signature pain-au-lait (French for "milk bread"), and blissfully-simple bloody marys.
After an initial round of fundraising and selecting a corner unit downtown, Bruce and Naseem single-handedly stripped and gutted the forgotten diner, then rebuilt and splurged in all the right places with the help of an interior designer friend. The space feels like a bright French bistro, with perfect little white tiles, sweet sparrow wallpaper, and marble two-tops that catch the brilliant sunlight streaming in. The breakfast was perfect, and our final treat was the short stack of créme fraîche pancakes, drizzled with maple syrup, cream, and berries.
"Our goal is to establish Little Sparrow as a truly authentic part of the Downtown Santa Ana neighborhood experience," says Naseem, "This year has taught us so many things about running a small business. It's been challenging, but worth it. I love to see friends gather here--"
"--and we're starting to have regulars!" chimes in Bruce.
I admire the audacity of hedging their bets on a vision of what could be. Santa Ana is one of the only up-and-coming urban neighborhoods in a county torpid with the concrete residue of failed social engineering, a veritable wasteland of gas stations and strip malls.
"We have to persuade people, seemingly against their will, to participate in their own community, to explore strictly-seasonal dishes, to pay extra for sustainably-produced food when they're used the Olive Garden, to experiment with craft cocktails when they've grown up on vodka smoothies. We're convincing them one meal at a time." Against all odds, the dream of the small business revolution here.
We allude to the stark income gaps between the lush gardens of clifftop mansions and the hastily-constructed, sprawling apartment complexes that make up the majority of Orange County's suburban landscape. Race and class relations are strained at best; though one of the safest cities in America is just a few exits down the freeway, locals hesitate to venture downtown at night. I admire the artful space they've constructed, a gateway destination, a place from which to explore the galleries, bars, music venues, jewelry shops, and designer shops that pepper the neighborhood. Their fine food and drink somehow comes off as homey, rather than pretentious. The cafe chairs were Craigslist finds, which work crews of friends and family sanded down and repainted in a labor of love.
At night, the atmosphere is warm and sexy, with Chef Eric Samaniego's rich dishes of marrow and gnocchi and couscous, an old-world mahogany bar top, and a killer late-night happy hour. Diners mirror their county; they're casual, they're upscale, they're just happy to have somewhere special to go. Bruce called on his background as a buyer for a gourmet food and wine shop to create the wine menu, which is playful and diverse; he happily makes recommendations to new customers and adjusts the music so it's just right. Meanwhile, we tell their bartender a bit about Mint & Mirth and he whips up the "First Date", a sweet blend of rum, bourbon, house-made date purée, maple, and egg white. We share a few other drinks and all are outstanding; I especially love the Down Shift cocktail, which featured tequila, honey syrup, ginger syrup, and fresh lemon.
"People here are ready for something new," muses Naseem, "We are a testing ground for what could be, and small business owners recognize that we're all in this together; we have the Playground, the Grilled Cheese Spot, we have Chapter One. Everyone has been so supportive." That support extends to local food writers and newspapers, who have eagerly anticipated a place like Little Sparrow and toast to its success. Best of all, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio selected Little Sparrow to appear on Bravo!'s "Best New Restaurants in the U.S.", and their feature will run on February 25th.
In a land where date night used to mean Dave & Buster's, where you're never more than fifteen miles from a Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang's, Little Sparrow is changing the cultural landscape of an entire county. Bruce and Naseem are warriors in a social revolution, and for that I applaud them. Fight on.
Little Sparrow is located at 300 North Main Street, Santa Ana, CA 92701. Phone: (714) 265-7640. Hours: 5:00 pm – 12:00 am, plus brunch on weekends and Late Night Happy Hour Tuesday - Saturday at 10:00 pm. Best Bets: Kimchee fried rice, braised lamb shanks, "Down Shift" and "The Miner" cocktails.
At home in Portland our brunch destinations are often caught up in competition over who can stack the most veggies, waffle fries, bacon strips, and crawfish on top of their showy marys. Little Sparrow's bloody mary was a breath of fresh air, delivering just enough kick and one demure pickled cucumber.
To make your own bloody marys at home, rim two tumblers with Jacobsen salt or celery salt, then juice two medium carrots, one small beet, two large tomatos, one cucumber, one celery stalk, and one lemon. To this fresh mix, add a sprinkle of pepper and five ounces of Portland Potato Vodka by Eastside Distilling, as well as worcestershire, hot sauce and horseradish to taste. Load up the two glasses with ice, fill to the brims, and enjoy!
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