Complacent and apathetic aren't traits you want in a chef, and the words certainly don't describe Jason Quinn, who made waves last week for telling a Yelper to “burn in hell” after the customer leveled a personal attack on his burger, his 3 percent kitchen surcharge and his family.
But here's all you need to know: You want to come, you want his burger, and you want Quinn to remain as defensive, as passionate and as bullheaded as he's always been. He's only 25 and still has the reckless bravado and screw-it-all attitude endemic to youth. His competitors on last year's iteration of the Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race have labeled him and ex-Lime Truck partner Daniel Shemtob as cocky. The description may be apt, but no one can argue that Quinn's kitchen talents and career trajectory aren't impressive. He's gone from a food truck hash-slinger to reality TV champ to owner of a restaurant in less than two years.
At the Playground, Quinn exhibits the ballsy confidence that's gotten him this far. He scribbles on his chalkboard wall, “If you want your meat well done, bring it with you” because he not-so-coyly refuses to do his burgers warmer than medium rare. The now-controversial Playground burger is the bloodiest in all of OC, but also one of the greatest. The barely cooked patty is as thick as two fingers but you don't chew it; you inhale the thing like beefy air. It shares the lightness of sushi and doesn't feel greasy even as the juices trickle down your forearm. That it shares a kinship with steak tartare and Ethiopian kitfo more so than a Double-Double is the reason the cheese, the bun and the misplaced shreds of iceberg lettuce disappear from your peripheral vision. You focus instead on that deep-crimson core and marvel at how very good this hand-ground wagyu beef is when eaten nearly raw.
Quinn's burger isn't even the best thing on the menu. A few weeks ago, he served a wonderful bowl of cheesy scrambled eggs that existed not as a liquid, not as a solid, but as a state of matter somewhere at the creamy in-between. The week after that, the dish was nowhere to be found. Too many chefs throw around the already-trite term “ingredient-driven,” but few actually follow the truism as strictly as Quinn does—it's the operating model of his new restaurant just as it was for the Lime Truck. As such, every visit will differ from the last, with the menu changing weekly and even daily.
I doubt you'll see the Sichuan quail again. It appeared one night deboned save for the drumsticks and wings, lightly dusted in flour, deep-fried legs akimbo, the meat tearing off like the most delicate chicken wings you've never had. A thimble of a vaguely Asian vinaigrette zings the bird as much as it adds an understated hotness to the handful of arugula he includes to offset the protein. Another dish, a chilled Jidori chicken noodle salad, seems to be sticking around longer than expected. In it mango, cilantro, Thai basil, cucumber, avocado, almond, peanuts and shredded chicken strands are caught in twirls of thick, chewy noodle—an original concoction that employs classic flavor profiles of both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine without being derivative.
The fries and Brussels sprouts are already proven standards—the only permanent objects in a kitchen always in motion. The potatoes overflow from the cup, cut to near-perfect spears and carefully double-fried to a consistent crunch. The sprouts come piled in an iron skillet, well-roasted with tiny potatoes and confetti bits of ham, everything absorbing the tangy, almost fruity seasoning liquid. I have a secret hope that the “frost-kissed” halved artichokes stuffed with crab will join the Brussels sprouts and become permanent fixtures, but I know I've seen the last of them.
By the time you read this, the fried chicken “TK style” will also be history. “TK” is Thomas Keller, an idol of Quinn's, whose wisdom he quotes on the website like the word of God. Bear witness to how much juice gushes from the breast meat while the batter crunches as noisily as a Grape-Nut and you, too, will believe the gospel of St. Thomas of Yountville. A chilled half-lobster with avocado and grapefruit will have also disappeared, itself a replacement for a yellowtail crudo with kumquat and habanero-sesame oil that came paired with Bruery beer a week earlier.
Tables are communal. There's a Ms. Pacman machine in the corner, and at least one server sports an ironic handlebar mustache. Everyone on staff is as young as Quinn, all too eager to please. A few of the crew are anointed with arm tattoos that say “You & Me & All Our Friends.” Your only hope for them is that Quinn's drive, energy and ego last after he outgrows his tight, purple pants. Only Peter Pan can remain eternally young—and tattoos like that are permanent.
This review appeared in print as “Brotherhood of the Purple Pants: The Great Food Truck Race 2 co-winner Jason Quinn opens his long-awaited restaurant.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.