Updated: Oct 27
Our food columnist revisits an establishment that changed the way locals in Rancho Santa Margarita defined dining out. (Hint: It involves a visually impaired farm animal.) Plus, a look at what’s on her radar.
There’s a lake in Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM) that locals gravitate toward, whether to push a stroller, hold onto a leash or go for a jog around its perimeter. This body of water is the town’s proverbial watering hole as it also shares real estate with a mix of retail and eateries including The Blind Pig Kitchen and Bar, utilizing verbiage referring to Prohibition speakeasies. Established in 2013 by Tony Monaco and Chef Karl Pfleider, this independent concept presented a New American menu and craft cocktail program unique to the area.
I remember joining a drinking buddy there early on. Mounted above the bar, in plain view was a small chalkboard with an excerpt of a one-star Yelp review scrawled on it. How could a restaurant take such criticism in stride? There was an air of confidence – a very “Come at us, bro!” attitude. Other initial reviews would predict that The Blind Pig wouldn’t last six months; they had no idea how incorrect their statements would be.
Lasting a decade is considered a benchmark to restaurant owners, according to Monaco. This longevity means a great deal to him. Yet he also realizes 10 years in business didn’t happen with just his current crew. “It was every single employee we’ve had along the way. I’m very thankful for all the hard work and passion they contributed,” he said. To expand upon a story Anne Valdespino recently penned about its cocktail program, I wanted to understand more about the business that’s endured into double-digit longevity.
Coming from mixed Filipino/Asian and Hispanic backgrounds, Pfleider grew up watching everyone in his family cook – from his parents, grandparents, aunts and even uncles. “Looking back now, it must have really made an impression,” he said. However it was his grandma that truly inspired him – hinting at his career pathway before he ever considered it.
Pfleider’s introduction to the professional kitchen was positive. “I was lucky enough to be surrounded by talented and creative people, some of whom eventually became my mentors,” he said. This combination of home cooking and supportive colleagues led the chef down a solid career path to The Blind Pig.
When it comes to the cuisine, Pfleider cooks what he would want to eat. “As I get older, I often crave food from my childhood, so it’s been fun to sneak some nostalgic dishes into the menu,” he said. Options such as a sizzling pork belly sisig incorporating pig ears and kimchi enchiladas offered during weekend brunch aren’t typical fare for that region of Orange County.
A second location for The Blind Pig opened in Yorba Linda in October of 2019, offering the progressive menu and bar program that made it unique in RSM. For Monaco, the time felt right to expand; everyone was confident in their product and experience, wanting to bring that vibe to another part of OC. “We also had a really great team giving me more confidence to expand without feeling like we were spreading ourselves out too thin,” Monaco said.
How has The Blind Pig lasted a decade? Chef Pfleider joked that it was a combination of blood, sweat and tears. “I think we did a great job adapting throughout the years and turning that place into something Rancho Santa Margarita needed – a place that was different from anything else around, which we got a lot of resistance for in the early years.”
It isn’t often that I locate a dining room that also possesses a memorable beverage program. Most places focus on one or the other, but few excel at both. With previous notable bartenders that included Gaby Dion (owner of The Mixing Glass and Market) and Ryan Autry (territory manager for Garrison Brothers), The Blind Pig is an establishment that works hard at curating craft cocktails.
Current bar manager Jason Friedman acknowledges that having high standards of quality is a main contributor to a long-lasting bar program, focusing on consistency across all bartenders. “We believe if you enjoy a cocktail once, you should be able to expect that same experience every time,” he said. The team also does its best to stay informed and is inspired by current techniques and products, using these elements to create cocktails with its own personal spin. The Blind Pig’s loyal regulars are also truly special. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without them!” Friedman said.
For its 10-year anniversary, Friedman is reintroducing 13 of the restaurant’s most popular cocktails to the Rancho Santa Margarita location. Selections were nominated on social media and narrowed down by The Blind Pig staff. These “greatest hits” are being served through the end of the season and include creative riffs of classic drinks. A What the Cuss beverage includes rye, vermouth, amaro and orange bitters, while the Chip Off the Ol’ Block incorporates gin, pico de gallo (You read that right!), lime and celery bitters.
Even after 10 years, The Blind Pig is always working to improve and cater its menus to the community, “because at the end of the day, that's who we are here for,” Monaco said.
The Trough (Their Bonus Spot)
Fans of The Blind Pig (or sandwiches for that matter), know about Monaco and Pfleider’s secondary concept, The Trough: Sandwich Kitchen. A fast casual spot with outposts in Anaheim, Irvine and RSM, it serves up classic and eclectic handhelds in addition to hearty breakfasts daily. The Rachel sando is my favorite of the moment, but if Trough’s griddle cook gave the morning burrito a loving sear on the tortilla (so the cheese melts more) I may have a new fave.
Per Monaco, “We feel that The Trough offers a very affordable price for very high quality sandwiches compared to others. And now more than ever, offering good value to your customers is in high demand.”
A TO-DO LIST OF WHAT'S ON MY RADAR
Looking for something to do tomorrow, this weekend, or later? I’ve got you covered.
Heritage Barbecue and Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Through the end of October, all proceeds from San Juan Capistrano’s sales of Heritage’s smoked turkey breasts will be donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Executive Chef Nick Echaore’s wife, Samantha, is currently battling breast cancer, and this fundraiser is dedicated to her. And while you’re ordering, be sure to check out the sides and specials for the day, because Echaore and the rest of the team nail those flavor profiles.
Celebrating Diwali at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen
A Michelin-recognized dining room in Fullerton? Yes, Khan Saab is associated with the illustrious guide. To celebrate the Hindu Festival of Lights, the 100% halal menu will offer a trio of specialty dishes for the holiday between Nov. 10-12. Chef Imran Ali Mookhi will be including deconstructed samosa chaat, hara bara kabob and mushroom korma. Pro-tip: Its zero-proof bar options are also worth savoring.
Jan’s Health Bar to Open Location No. 6 This Month
In 2022, Jan’s celebrated 50 years in business, thanks to the growth and expansion mindset of one Poppy Holguin, a former employee who bought the original Huntington Beach spot from founder Jan Gaffney. Over the weekend, I attended a preview of Holguin’s next bar – also in Huntington Beach at Bella Terra. With additional locations in Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach, Corona Del Mar and Irvine, the brand has come full circle to once again serve the community that helped establish Jan’s as a place locals can rely on for clean eating. I usually end up craving a kale dish or tuna salad, but I recommend inquiring about the new non-dairy dessert or rustic white bread option being rolled out; both are deceptively delicious.
Oliboli Donuts Now Open Saturday Evenings
As of last weekend, my favorite donut shop now stays open later on Saturdays. I no longer have to hustle to swing by the locally and family-owned Oliboli for a freshly fried yeast round or seasonal indulgence – I’ve got until 9 p.m. on date night to head to Tustin. I also want to take this opportunity to say how much I miss Chef Brooke Desprez, who passed away on Sept. 9 from breast cancer.
Shout Out to Newport Beach Film Festival Food Documentaries
I attended Newport Beach Film Festival screenings last week for a duo of culinary features. The first was for “Food Roots” starring Billy Dec and his determination to travel back to the Philippines to learn more about his family ancestry as well as his family’s recipes. It was a very relatable story about growing up as a minority.
“Susan Feniger: Forked” gave a candid look at the trailblazing chef and her journey to open a restaurant. It was refreshing to view the culinary world from a female perspective. Feniger’s personality was as real as they come, and the Q & A afterwards gave me a lot of food for thought. Look out for both films at your local arthouse theater in the near future. I also saw advertising for Culture OC for the first time and it made me proud to be a part of the team.