It’s easy to feel one with nature while dining at Benchmark. As the last tajín-and-lime-soaked chicharrón gets chomped, a hummingbird zips down to eyeball my freshly poured Beachwood Citraholic IPA, squeaks to his woodland friends nearby that it is indeed NOT hummingbird food, then makes a beeline back to a nearby branch. “I bet hummingbirds would totally get down on a Pizza Port Honey Blonde,” I mention to our server while one of those wacky Japanese beetles bumps into a wall repeatedly. Nature, am I right?
Seating is somewhat intimate for being outdoors, meaning side conversations with other tables are frequent. “Have you guys been to Blinking Owl Distillery?” asks a woman next to us, which sparks a half-hour-long conversation about the best cocktails in Santa Ana.
For just opening, the al fresco-only eatery seems incredibly well-put-together, with a menu that reads as if the place had been open for ages. There are bar snacks, shareables, mains, salads and desserts, each topped with a tiny bit of intrigue that’s balanced with familiarity.
Take, for instance, the artichoke fondue, which comes with a hot, Bavarian-style pretzel made for dipping. It’s oozing with fresh summer character, yet it made me want to reach for a liter of Oktoberfest lager to balance out the flavors. The light, creamy fondue also makes for a good dipping sauce for other things you may be eating, such as the incredibly crisp parmesan-herb fries.
The street corn is a nod to the vendors right around the corner (minus the price), while the $6 roasted-corn esquites is coated in sharp red guajillo, flecked with aged cotija and finished with crema. And the burrata is ultra-gooey and served with ripe heirloom tomatoes.
The cocktails are soju-based, but the beer and wine list features many local, independent breweries. The wines offered the night I visited were on the lighter, brighter, generally summer-forward side of things.
My daughter, bored of mac and cheese, decided to skip the kids’ menu and instead went bonkers over the gochujang fried chicken, which comes almost candy-coated in the sweet-and-spicy Korean sauce. On the side is a refreshing shaved Napa cabbage salad with cilantro and onion that’s cut with aioli. “Do kids eat this stuff outdoors in Korea?” she asks. Why, yes, dear, I think they do.
If it’s your first time there, then the Benchmark burger should definitely be sitting in front of you, alongside those aforementioned crispy parm fries and a hippy-dippy sauce. The meat mound is layered on a toasted brioche bun that is as poofy as a chef’s hat, and the well-thought-out peppery arrugula on the bottom provides an ample ramp for juice runoff so as to not cause a swampy-soggy bottom bun. The oozy Cheddar and bacon jam offer just enough glue to keep the top from flying off if there’s a sudden gust of wind.
My favorite burger in 2019? Absolutely.
Benchmark, 601 E. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 480-0225; benchmarkoc.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, level 1 WSET in Wine, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest happening on June 29th in Anaheim!