I was invited to a soft opening at Irvine’s hottest new gourmet sandwich shop, Mendocino Farms, today. They are located in the University Center at 4175 Campus Drive, in Irvine. Navigating the busy parking lot at the University Center was a pain but we finally found a spot – and the hassle proved to be worth it.
Their motto is “eat happy” and we were even happier on this occasion as the food was free today. The servers and cooks were going through their final training. When we checked in we first had to choose what to eat, from a giant menu board. They have a lot of choices. You can check out their menu here. The menu includes sandwiches, salads and soups.
I sampled the chicken tortilla soup and it was really delicious – with chunks of free range chicken breast swimming in a puree that was a melange of all the flavors you would usually expect from such a soup.
I asked the host who welcomed us for a recommendation when it came time to order and he recommended the Mendocino Farms most popular sandwich – the Banh Mi, which features braised, caramelized Kurobuta pork belly, housemade pickled daikon & carrots, cilantro, cucumbers, jalapenos, chili aioli on panini grilled ciabatta. I was afraid it would be too spicy – but it wasn’t. It was savory and while it was odd to eat a traditional Vietnamese sandwich on ciabatta bread instead of a baguette, it worked.
I also tried their Kale Caesar salad, which included shredded local kale, butter lettuce & romaine, crispy wheatberries, red onions, grape tomatoes, avocado, parmesan with a lemon parmesan vinaigrette. The wheatberries added a playful crunch to the salad – be sure to ask the servers to toss the dressing in the salad as that really made the kale taste much better than it might have otherwise. I had them add some shaved chicken to the salad and that really made it a meal.
I ate lunch with several friends. One of them said she was trying to cut back on meat so she ordered the Caprese sandwich, which features local Gioia fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, house marinated red peppers, basil pesto, Scarborough Farm’s greens, balsamic vinegar on ciabatta and seasonal roasted vegetables. I am not a big fan of Caprese sandwiches as they are generally too mild. The mozzarella cheese was excellent, although the sandwich could have used some of the chili aioli that made the banh mi sandwich so savory.
My friend also ordered the Mama Chen’s Chinese Chicken Salad, which included shaved, roasted free range chicken breast, napa cabbage & kale slaw, butter lettuce & romaine, scallions, cilantro, toasted slivered almonds, and crispy wontons with miso mustard sesame dressing. It was very good – and the dressing was delicious with a smoky flavor that really brought the best out of the greens in the salad.
We took an Italian “Love” sandwich back to work for another friend of mine but he never showed up so I ate it as my dinner – and I ended up liking that sandwich better than all the other food I tried today. It included prime honey ham & fennel salami with housemade spicy giardiniera, herb aioli, provolone, tomatoes, romaine lettuce on a Drago Bakery’s soft roll. This sandwich proved to be spicier than the Banh Mi, and that proved to be a great contrast to the creamy provolone and the excellent ham.
The sandwiches cost between $8 and $10 dollars. But the food is much better than what you might get elsewhere. This isn’t Subway!
Mendocino Farms was founded by Mario Del Pero and his wife Ellen, who was featured in a recent article at Darling Magazine. She was working at a company that was acquired by Electronic Arts. She had a passion for food and so did Mario.
Eleven years after opening in an underground center on Grand in downtown, Mendocino is positioning itself as a rising star in the $28.8 billion quick-service sandwich industry. Mendocino – now backed by private equity investors – has plans to add seven more Southern California locations, according to the O.C. Register. But they are not stopping there. They are preparing to grow to 30 units in the Southern California market by 2018, according to their website.
Del Pero’s father ran a 100-year-old meat company and their family spent their summers near the lush redwoods of Mendocino County, a farm and wine community in Northern California.
In 1998, Del Pero and his wife opened Skew’s, a fast-casual teriyaki restaurant. They eventually had three locations, which they sold – and that money helped them to start Mendocino Farms.
The location in Irvine is set to have its grand opening on Monday, June 8, according to their Facebook page.