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Dynamic (Sister) Duos Command OC's Restaurant Scene

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Our columnist understands that success isn’t always strength in numbers, it’s strength in sisters. She gets to know some of the prominent players in Orange County’s food and beverage scene.


From left, Mahta and Ana Ariarad of Aria Kitchen, Angela and Miriam El Haj of Calaca Mamas Cantina, and Mai and Stacie Tran of BLK Dot Coffee. Photo collage by Heide Janssen, Culture OC
 

When relatives go into business together things can go awry. In the case of these families, however, the sisters have what it takes to curate food and beverage destinations that attract locals and out-of-towners. From Mexican fare to Vietnamese coffee to halal fusion, these creative owners are changing the way Orange County drinks and eats.


Mai, left, and Stacie Tran are sisters and the owners of BLK Dot Coffee. Photo courtesy of BLK Dot Coffee
BLK Dot Coffee

When it comes to enjoying coffee, Starbucks wasn’t strong enough for Mai and Stacie Tran. “My grandmother fed me Vietnamese coffee at the age of 5,” Mai said. Their family drank it every day, perfecting the taste with each full drip. When friends and family would come visit, they would rave about the taste. But a coffee shop would not come to fruition for many years.


The Tran family was involved in the garment industry in the 1980s, expanding their work ethic to include restaurants in the ‘90s. By 2002, the Trans had transitioned away from textiles to fully concentrate on dining rooms, catering and event planning. When Google’s Irvine campus had a space available for a coffee beverage player, it coincided with the sisters pursuing their flagship BLK Dot Coffee.


January 2015 was the opening month for Mai and Stacie’s first outlet. Would the potent flavor of BLK Dot’s signature VTM coffee appeal to the American palette? Thanks in part to Mai’s congenial husband, John Huynh (who oversaw day-to-day operations), word-of-mouth and positive Yelp reviews, Vietnamese coffee was a hit. 


With no initial plans to expand beyond the campus, the sisters would ultimately spend the next eight years opening additional locations. Stacie took charge of the real estate and leasing details while Mai would cover the staffing; their children have all worked for BLK Dot in some capacity.


Despite being called an Asian chain of Starbucks by critics, each shop has its own personality. Irvine/Market Place is primarily customers on their laptops working. Laguna Beach is the most community-oriented one with early risers and regulars who linger with conversations. Irvine/Von Karman is ideal for on-the-go and delivery orders thanks to accessible parking. Storefront number 8 opened in October of this year as part of a new plaza in Cypress and is my favorite place for a LVTM (a lighter version of BLK Dot’s Vietnamese coffee).


A Newport Bluffs branch will open by the end of the year, with Costa Mesa debuting soon after in the Canvas office complex. Long Beach, the sole L.A. County shop, might not be so lonely in the future. Although the most telling sign of BLK Dot Coffee’s success is, in my opinion, the eventual opening of Crystal Cove . . . in a former Starbucks.


From left, general manager Bobby Pari, owners and sisters Mahta and Ana Ariarad, and chef Rafael Alferez Santana of Aria Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Aria Kitchen
Aria Kitchen

Restaurateurs Mahta and Anahita Ariarad had been eyeing the former Daily Grill restaurant space at the corner of Jamboree and Dupont as far back as 2016. What they had in mind for the future Aria Kitchen was a fusion of Persian flavors and Mexican fare – a first in OC. It would be the culmination of an upbringing that revolved around a neighborhood grocery in Irvine.


From 1996 to 2022, the sisters worked at the family business known as Super Irvine, an international market that served the Persian community for over a quarter of a century. The grocery provided a sense of belonging to all who frequented it. “That feeling of connecting people became the driving force behind our desire to get into the restaurant industry,” Mahta said. 


In 2016, Mahta maintained the on-site cafe inside Super Irvine. Fast-forward to 2020 when both Anahita and Mahta debuted Irvine Grill, a Persian-centric concept featuring family recipes from within the same cafe space. Their goal with Aria Kitchen was to expand cultural horizons through a fusion menu. “I wanted to create halal Mexican cuisine, giving family, friends and the Muslim community we served at Super Irvine the opportunity to enjoy the rich staples of Mexican cuisine.”


A blend of Mediterranean flavors, Persian spices and the aforementioned halal proteins are present in Aria’s unique menu. Chicken flautas are treated to labneh, feta and za’atar pico condiments. New Zealand lamb shank in birria sauce and a butterflied branzino with a pomegranate walnut stuffing provide alternatives to taco and enchilada options. Daily Persian breakfasts that include lemon ricotta pancakes with saffron orange cream would make for an excellent morning, but I’m also intrigued by the sujuk sausage breakfast platter that serves two.


A Don Julio 1942 tableside margarita is the most extra of the cocktail selections, but I would lean toward Aria’s margarita flight for more variety. Spirited cocktails are counterbalanced by a kind trio of zero-proof sips such as the Passion Spritz. If dessert is more to your liking, then debate between vegan tiramisu with vanilla bean gelato or rich baklava alongside saffron ice cream.


Angela, left, and Miriam El Haj are sisters and owners of Calaca Mamas Cantina. Photo courtesy of Calaca Mamas Cantina
Calaca Mamas Cantina

When sisters Mariam and Angela El Haj wanted to open a dining room, they noticed the lack of family-friendly Mexican establishments in the county. “When it came to the restaurant menu and bar program, we knew that we wanted to stick to tradition and highlight authentic Mexican dishes while also infusing it with fun and elements of the unexpected,” Angela said.


Inspired by the Day of the Dead holiday with its vibrant art and festive activities, the proud mothers settled on Calaca Mamas, referencing the iconic skull featured during that time as well as their familial connection. “Since Day of the Dead traditions and celebrations have always resonated with Angela and I, despite not being Mexican ourselves, we wanted to pay homage to a culture that celebrates life and honor that heritage while still creating a space that was uniquely us,” Mariam said. In addition to the curated interior design, artwork collected from their visits to Mexico adorn the space.


Dishes from Calaca Mamas Cantina. PHOTO 1: grilled shrimp; PHOTO 2: the brunch board; PHOTO 3: chile relleno. Photos courtesy of Calaca Mamas Cantina

 

Armed with the experience of growing up in their parent’s restaurants (plus being franchisees of multiple iHop and Dave’s Hot Chicken branches), Angela and Miriam channeled their appreciation for Mexican cuisine, focusing on non-GMO and sustainably sourced ingredients. Classic ceviche mingles alongside melty queso dip as starters. Chile relleno comforts from the inside out with the inclusion of braised beef; poblanos offer a kick to garlic shrimp. Diners may order quesabirria tacos to dip in consommé, but I appreciate alternative proteins of jackfruit al pastor and charred cauliflower for custom burritos, bowls and tacos in addition to Calaca’s carnitas and lengua. 


For dessert, the churro presentation is extra eye-catching – although the Flan de la Abuela is a family recipe that’s been passed down. I sought out a breakfast option only available on the weekend and the Brunch Board didn’t disappoint – a veritable mini-feast which included conchas, potato taquitos, veggie frittata, chicken chorizo and housemade beer bacon. Also of note is the drink program: small batch cocktails, copious tequila brands, coffee service plus a sweet selection of zero-proof beverages like a basil-tinged Tia’s Surprise Lemonade and Blushing Maria featuring strawberries and orgeat.

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