Hard to believe that 100 years ago it was illegal to manufacture, sell or transport alcoholic beverages in the United States.
Prohibition started in 1920 and ended in 1933, although just because the 18th Amendment to the constitution prohibited alcohol sales doesn’t mean that alcohol consumption was curtailed.
Speakeasys (illegal covert bars) sprang up. Some earned the slang term blind pig, a practice that some speakeasy operators used to circumvent prohibition. They would charge customers a fee to view a curiosity, usually an animal such as a pig, and then serve them a complimentary alcoholic beverage.
When Tony Monaco was researching names for a restaurant he planned to open that had a speakeasy theme, he hit upon the name Blind Pig.
“I had a potbelly pig in college so it felt like the perfect fit,” said Monaco, who was 25 when he opened The Blind Pig Restaurant and Bar in Rancho Santa Margarita in 2013.
The spot is in the Mercado del Lago shopping center, next to the city’s lake.
“It will be 10 years this summer. I remember our first year open and thinking I can’t wait until we hit 10 years and I’ll feel like I really know what I’m doing. Now, 10 years later, sometimes I do feel like I know what I’m doing.”
Monaco said he always wanted to be in the hospitality industry but doing his own thing.
“When I was young, I wanted my own restaurant,” recalled Monaco. “In college I thought I wanted to do nightclubs. I did a stint in Las Vegas working at the Hard Rock and did some hosting, then realized I did not want to do that because I started getting burned out. I graduated from college and came home wondering what I wanted to do. I went back to the restaurant thing. My first idea was a modernized dive bar because a full-service restaurant would have seemed overwhelming at the time. We looked around, found a talented chef and bartender, and before you knew it our dive bar was a full-service restaurant.”
Monaco said he dove in with a “fake it until you make it” attitude.
“It was a combination of not knowing what I don’t know, listening to the people that I hired do their job, and letting the talent speak for itself. That’s what got me to where I am. As far as location, I grew up in this area, I went to high school here. The center where we are was forgotten, the toll road did not exist, just getting to RSM was in the boonies. It was far away and forgotten, but a beautiful location once you knew it was there.”
Less than two years after opening The Blind Pig, Monaco opened a fast-casual restaurant in the same RSM center called The Trough Sandwich Kitchen, which specializes in breakfast burritos and sandwiches.
“It’s been a revelation,” Monaco said. “People love the breakfast burritos—it’s insane how many we sell. The community is supportive, and it’s been awesome to see the growth—every year we’ve had 20% increases. It’s built for to-go dining so when everything shut down for indoor dining during the pandemic, The Trough was there for us.”
Monaco also expanded the patio at The Blind Pig, which has a prime view of Lake Rancho Santa Margarita.
In 2019, shortly before the pandemic hit, Monaco opened a second location of The Blind Pig in Yorba Linda. That location has the same executive chef, Karl Pfleider, but a different menu than the RSM location.
“Going back to when I first opened, I wanted the talent knowing what they want to make. I approve all the dishes and throw my ideas out, but I let the chefs roll with it,” Monaco said. “They have full rights to mess around. We call our food modern American which is basically American cuisine with a twist. It allows us to create a fun menu that people love.”
Monaco opened a second Trough location in Anaheim near Angel Stadium last year. A third Trough is scheduled to open in March near John Wayne Airport.
“Expanding The Trough concept is one of our goals, whether in California or out of state,” Monaco said. “The Trough restaurants are easier to open with a smaller footprint, they’re plug and play. It’s fast casual so it’s less intimidating and easier to operate. The menu is the same at all locations and available all day.”
The OCBJ Review: BY CHRISTOPHER TRELA
Believe it or not, I had never been to The Blind Pig Restaurant and Bar in Rancho Santa Margarita until now, but I tried to make up for lost time by ordering three menu staples on a recent Saturday morning.
Several items on the weekend brunch menu are also on the dinner menu, so I chose two of those, plus a classic brunch dish.
I began with the Mushroom Saltado with field mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, puffed rice, pickled shallots, a six minute egg and chili oil.
“We change our menu a lot but kept that on the menu for years,” owner Tony Monaco said. “It’s an awesome dish—it’s hard to find a vegetarian dish that good.”
I’m not a vegetarian but I love mushrooms, and this is a mushroom lover’s dream. I asked my expert server, Lexie, which mushrooms were in the dish. She returned from the kitchen with my answer: all wild mushroom, specifically lion’s main, oyster and white peach.
It’s a delicious dish with a fun blend of flavors and textures. The chili oil gives it a nice kick.
Next up was Grilled Tenderloin Tacos with pastor sauce, pineapple chutney, pickled onion, cotija, cilantro and handmade tortillas.
“We make the tortillas in house and cook them to order, they are more corn than flour,” Monaco said. “The tortillas make those tacos special.”
I agreed—the tortillas were the first thing I commented on after the first bite. Together with the beef and other contents, these tacos are wonderful, and they look beautiful on the plate.
I finished with a brunch-only dish: Pork Belly Benedict with braised pork belly, Oaxacan cheese, salsa verde emulsion and fried eggs.
“The pork belly benedict is a really fun dish, it’s a perfect example of what we strive to do with our cuisine,” Monaco said. “It’s relatable. You may have had benedicts before, but maybe different than what you might have here.”
My palate told me these were perfect benedicts. The slice of pork belly was large, the English muffin thick and chewy, the sauce suitably gooey. Overall a satisfying and filling dish.
Since I was curious, I also paid a visit to The Trough Sandwich Kitchen in Anaheim this month for breakfast and ordered a breakfast burrito, which consists of an egg, tater tots, pico de gallo, and cheddar cheese plus an add-on of your choice (including a selection of proteins—I chose ham) all packed inside a large flour tortilla.
One bite told me why these are so popular. They are huge and savory—it’s like having a multi-course breakfast entrée in your hands. It’s a lot of food, but I polished it off with gusto.
The Blind Pig Rancho Santa Margarita: 31431 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 888-0072, theblindpigoc.com
The Blind Pig Yorba Linda: 4975 Lakeview Ave., Yorba Linda, (714) 485-2593, theblindpigoc.com
The Trough Rancho Santa Margarita: 31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Ste. N, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 709-5545, thetroughsandwichkitchen.com
The Trough Anaheim, 2100 E. Katella Ave., Ste. 100, Anaheim, (714) 363-3369, thetroughsandwichkitchen.com
Culinary Events Bring Out Top Chefs
March traditionally comes in like a lion, and two remarkable culinary events next month roar loudly with noted chefs cooking for charity.
Up first on Sunday, March 5 is Table for Ten, which features top chefs from across the county composing masterpiece signature dishes prepared tableside for 10 guests. At each table, chefs create unique and ornate table designs, cook creative cuisine, and pour exquisite wines and spirits perfectly paired for each course, along with a five-star “white-glove” service.
The event is held this year at the newly renovated Vea Newport Beach and benefits the Pascal Culinary Arts Scholarship (named after noted OC Chef Pascal Olhats) which provides scholarships to students seeking education and training specifically to gain employment in the culinary arts field.
The black-tie optional event includes a reception featuring bites and sips and a silent auction, followed by the multi-course dining experience.
Among the restaurants and chefs participating: Elvis Morales (A Crystal Cove), Prabeen Prathapan (Balboa Bay Resort & Club), Victor Soto (Cannery Seafood of the Pacific), Adam Navidi (Oceans & Earth), Chris Tzorin (Taste Collective), Riley Huddleston (The Mayor’s Table at Lido House), Yvon Goetz (The Winery Restaurant), and many others.
Reception hosts include C’est La Vie, Descanso Restaurant, Mah Jongs, Nirvana Grille, Primal Alchemy, Terra Laguna Beach, and many others.
Multiple sponsorship opportunities are available. Purchase tables, single tickets, and sponsorship online at tableforten.org.
The following Sunday, March 12, is Illumination Foundation’s 10th annual Chef’s Table Culinary Gala, held at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.
More than three dozen local chefs and restaurants are cooking up multi-course gourmet meals to help raise funds to provide housing and healthcare services to those experiencing homelessness in the community.
Chef’s Table is presented by Disneyland Resort, a long-standing supporter of Illumination Foundation and its mission. Chef’s Table allows guests to see chefs in action and interact with the chef at their table while their amazing meal is being prepared right before them. Each table will have a unique dining experience.
Celebrity Chef Jet Tila, executive chef of the Disneyland Resort Andrew Sutton, and dozens of other acclaimed chefs from local restaurants are participating.
Restaurants include Disney’s Napa Rose and 21 Royal, ADYA, Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens, Cambalache Grill, Villa Roma, Water Grill, Vaca Restaurant, The Cellar, The Ranch Restaurant, Bluegold, Ten Sushi, Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, Descanso Restaurant, Tableau Kitchen and Bar, Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge, Sapphire Culinary Group, and many others.
For sponsorship and ticket information, visit ifhomeless.org/ct2023.
OC Restaurant Week Approaches
Orange County Restaurant Week returns March 5 through 11 with more than 150 restaurants throughout the county participating. That alone is a cause for celebration, but this is also year 15 for OC Restaurant Week, an impressive milestone.
Presented by the Orange County Restaurant Association, OC Restaurant Week is designed to showcase Orange County’s diverse dining options via a variety of prix fixe lunch and dinner menus ranging from $15 to $45.
Restaurant listings on the OC Restaurant Week website are arranged by name, city, and themes such as romance-infused Date Night menus, curated Luxe Menus, Vegetarian options, Family Dining, and food experiences for your entire squad.
“We have more restaurants than ever this year, and the restaurants all seem to be more excited than normal,” said Pamela Waitt, founder of OC Restaurant Week and President of OC Restaurant Association.
“The initial year of Restaurant Week we were in a recession, so our goal was to keep restaurants open and get people to dine out. Now, we have a giant dining community that looks forward to this every year.
“Restaurants have been through so much over the past few years, and we are more committed than ever to help connect diners who are hungry to explore our diverse dining options,” Waitt added. “This year, we’re focused on introducing diners to new experiences in cities they may not frequent regularly through partnerships, like the one we’ve launched with Travel Santa Ana. We want diners to step out of their comfort zone and explore new restaurants.”
VIP Launch Event
The OC Restaurant Week website lists 20 participating restaurants in Santa Ana, ranging from the eclectic Chapter One to El Mercado Modern Cuisine to Morton’s Steakhouse. But no matter where you are in Orange County, you’ll be minutes away from enjoying a fantastic prix fixe menu.
This year’s event kicks off with an exclusive Restaurant Week Masters VIP Launch Party at the Marriott Irvine Spectrum on Saturday, March 4 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. A limited number of VIP guests will be the first to sample bites from more than two dozen OC Restaurant Week participants. Premium wines by San Simeon Winery will be available for tasting, as well as craft cocktails by Grey Goose, El Tesoro and Licor 43; mocktails by Waterloo, and a giant charcuterie experience from Lover Boards and a fresh produce bar by Melissa’s Produce.
The kickoff event sells out every year,” Waitt said. “It’s going to be great. We have some new things including a DJ and a live TacoTuesday.com podcast.”
TacoTuesday.com is a new venture that Waitt recently launched, although she had her eye on obtaining the domain name for a long time.
“When I started acquiring culinary domains, TacoTuesday.com was one of my dream ones,” Waitt explained. “In 2019, an opportunity came up that looked like I might be able to get it. It was always a seven-figure domain name and it was right around the time that Whisky.com sold for $3 million.”
Her broker made an offer, and after some negotiation Waitt was able to buy the domain name. She was making plans to develop the website when the pandemic hit, and it got put on pause. It’s now up and running, and the search engine is robust.
Waitt made a good decision with her purchase. Americans eat 4.5 billion tacos per year—that’s 490,000 miles of tacos, according to TacoTuesday.com. Waitt estimates there are 100,000 restaurant in the U.S. offering Taco Tuesday specials, and millions of searches for the term Taco Tuesday on the internet.
“Taco Tuesday is ingrained in our culture, and it’s not just $3 tacos and margaritas anymore,” Waitt said. “Now you can get a prix fixe Taco Tuesday with lobster tacos and champagne.”
TacoTuesday.com lists lots of local restaurants as well as those out of state. Waitt anticipates eventually having thousands of restaurants listed.
Waitt also acquired a Whisky Wednesday domain, which she intends to develop.
“People love having fun reasons to go out,” she said.
For tickets to the Restaurant Week Kick-Off event and a complete list of participating restaurants and their Restaurant Week menus, visit ocrestauarantweek.com.