For the first five weeks after it opened directly across from CHOC, Xa Sweet & Savory Café offered only one kind of protein: chicken breast. But it was juicy, full of flavor, a pleasure to eat—all things chicken breast rarely is. And Shawn Xa, the chef and proprietor, prepares it only one way: baked with extra-virgin olive oil and finished with a flurry of spices of your choosing. The simplicity is almost Zen, breathtaking, yet kind of revolutionary because, well, it's chicken breast—the last thing you ever thought you could get excited about.
But the man who has elevated the meat from Shake 'N Bake status almost didn't end up here. Xa went to Cal State Fullerton to prepare for a career in accounting. After helping his parents with their wholesale bakery, he wanted nothing to do with the family business. But Xa came back to it and created this restaurant with his siblings. Xa Sweet & Savory Café is the kind of place that has a bowl into which you drop your business card for free lunch drawings. You order and pay at the counter, and then you get a number. The soda is self-serve. But Xa is also a bakery that has a laser-guided focus on making one of the better cookies in the county. More on that later.
First let's talk more about the chicken. As of this writing, Xa offers seven flavor paths for your white-meat filet, everything from a simple herbes de Provence, with hints of thyme and tarragon, to a Mexican adobo, humming with cumin and oregano, to a Japanese togarashi powder full of red pepper flakes and sesame seeds. Your chosen spice rub will cloak a thick piece of hen that's, for the most part, otherwise unadorned. Sauce would only obfuscate and conflict with the modular way the protein is supposed to pair with sides that complete your meal—a meal that, by the way, costs a total of $8.25 for a composed, artfully presented plate more apt for a restaurant that's candle-lit and waiter-attended.
Xa's list of nine sides includes vegetables, starches, soups and salads. Building your chicken plate from this list is akin to linking together Legos. Because it's Asian, you figure the togarashi-seasoned breast might go best with the sautéed noodle and maybe the grilled zucchini. The Indian-flavored masala chicken, you discover, plays rather well with the scallion quinoa, which has the fluffy texture of couscous. But no matter what you choose, everything goes with everything else because every side dish is just as masterfully prepared as the chicken. Sautéed green beans are still snappy and verdant. Brown rice is tossed with bits of pan-browned onion and easily mistaken for fried rice. Roasted squash is soft and sweet, the edges ridged with caramelization. Perhaps the best side dish of all is the crispy potato cake made from compacted roasted potatoes that are cut into squares and sizzled on the griddle when an order comes in.
Nothing is deep-fried or tastes less than wholesome here, and after the meal, you feel good about what you ate. It's partly because you're amazed how little you spent to eat so well, but also because you now won't feel so guilty about indulging in a few of the terrific cookies on display. And you must get some, especially the apple pie cookie, a crispy-chewy disc with jewels of diced apple where you'd normally expect chocolate chips. It tastes so uncannily of apple pie you wonder why no one in the history of cookie making has ever thought of it before. The same goes for a pumpkin pie cookie, which only needs a dollop of whipped cream to take you back to your last turkey feast.
As good as everything already is, Xa is constantly adjusting, calibrating, making changes to suit his customer base as word of mouth gets around. He has added grilled sandwiches because that's what the nurses and doctors who descend for lunch said they wanted. For now, he serves a crumbly pastry he calls “Xa Pockets”; they emulate the Hot Pocket in that they are filled, except with things you actually want to eat, such as steak, egg and blue cheese. Six weeks after opening, he has added tilapia and pork to join his chicken. The chicken is still better than the pork (which is cut from a loin before spicing and thus ends up slightly dry), but the tilapia is already the chicken's equal—moist, delicate, best paired with the herbs de Provence and showered with capers. Like the chicken, it's a meal so calorically and economically conservative, you will allow yourself another apple-pie cookie.
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.