A British chef who honed his skills in the kitchens of Italy and France comes to Orange County to make California cuisine infused with a Caribbean twist.
On the surface, such an unorthodox scenario seems the basis for a new reality show on The Food Network. However, it accurately describes the journey of Tony Corke as well as the genesis of his brainchild, Chaparosa Grill. While its original Laguna Niguel locale generated and maintained a palpable and worthy buzz, there were still legions of us whose dining excursions around the country rarely extended past the El Toro Y. Thankfully, Tony embarked on the challenge of bringing a second Chaparosa Grill to the exciting bustle of The District in Tustin, the OC’s shiny new shopping, culinary, and entertainment hangout. This is great news, because the culinary vision and passion that Tony possesses is a gift that should be shared with as wide of an audience as possible.
Now, when I was told that I was going to be dining at Chaparosa Grill, I was given a piece of advice. Actually, it was more of a mandate: Whatever I did, it was imperative that I order the Asian Nachos appetizer. The name of the dish alone intrigued me; all my life, I had drawn the conclusion the Mexican taste treat and the influence of the Far East were two paths that would forever remain parallel. But Tony crossed both aspects by taking a generous helping of wonton chips and covering them with an amazing blend of thai-marinated chicken, cheese and peanuts, which were then drizzled in wasabi cream. It was honestly like nothing that I’d ever tasted before – a concept which in and of itself excites me – and it was utterly fantastic. The spice of the wasabi and the perfectly gooey consistency of the cheese allowed the appetizer to fuse the flavors of both cultures into one dish in a way that marveled my taste buds. Truly, it is worth the price of admission alone (and it is large enough to be an entrée if you deem it to excellent to share with anyone at your table).
As we gleefully devoured the nachos, my wife and I decided to make a conscious effort to take Chaparosa Grill’s Caribbean influences out for a spin. The Caribbean Crab Cake appetizer that we ate were large and flavored quite nicely, although my cake could have used a little more of the zingy homemade spice rub that was scattered upon its top. Then again, I am a fiendishly ardent in my desire to douse my tongue in flames, so the amount of spice could be well-suited for someone with a milder palate. The island theme continued through the main entrées; the impressive curry featured in my wife’s West Indies Shrimp Curry was on the sweeter side, and it gave the dish a delectate edge that enabled the other ingredients to shine. What’s more, the vegetables that were in the curry retained their original crunchy texture – something that is lost in a lot of curries – furthering the overall depth of the dish.
Meanwhile, the flavor notes of the Jerked Jamaican Chicken that I enjoyed were some of the longest I have ever experienced. It started out with a tart bite courtesy of the mango black bean salsa that glazed over the fowl. Then the tasty tangy spice of the jerk came in a latent fashion, and hung around for so long, I thought about charging it rent. Its overall flavor essentially created a wonderfully sustainable presence. The natural sweetness of the accompanying plantains gave the dish balance, while the black beans and rice that rounded out the dish were akin to a good rhythm section of a rock band – not flashy, but steady and grounded. Additionally, the meals were accompanied by two pitch-perfect glasses of wine, as expertly recommended by the attentive wait staff. The Brancott Reserve Sauvignon Blanc my wife had with her meal had a lovely body of melon and grapefruit that brilliantly played off her curry. Conversly, the Santo Stefano Cabernet had a peppery boldness that worked to subdue the residual tang of the jerk, resetting my palate so it could quickly enjoy the full flavor of the chicken from its clear outset.
Since Tony is of British descent, we were pleased to see that Sticky Toffee Pudding was one of the desserts offered at Chaparosa Grill. It was every bit as sweet and satisfying as we hoped it would be. As good as it was, it was overshadowed by the outstanding cocoa notes that accentuated the beautifully bittersweet warm chocolate soufflé torte. But the true after dinner showstopper we enjoyed was the massive banana and coconut crème brulee, which featured one of the creamiest custards I have ever had, akin to an impossibly decadent banana pudding. It is unflinchingly a must order.
The venue itself fits in well with the overall feel of The District, as the brightly festooned décor lends itself to an even more relaxed, casual atmosphere than some of the other venues in the area. This makes Chaparosa Grill an excellent dining option if you plan to build an evening around exploring other parts of The District. It certainly worked out well for my wife and I, who promptly snuck in some Christmas shopping after our fabulous meal. A word of warning, though: It does have a lovely patio, but it overlooks a shopping intersection that can get busy with foot traffic. Therefore, you may want to wait for an inside table if you are looking for a quieter dinner.
When you go to Chaparosa Grill, you are certain to see Tony at some point. He is just as comfortable at the front of the house as he is in the back, and there is a good chance that he will come by your table and check in on things. When this occurs, it becomes obvious that he is man who is unabashedly passionate about his craft and his means of sharing his talent. This love is clearly present in the cuisine that Chaparosa Grill serves, and it is truly exciting to see that this more centrally located venue is poised to spread that love even further.