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Maximizing Dining Headroom (or, Managing Dual Concepts In A Single Space)

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Our food columnist is fixated on the idea of secondary restaurants residing at the same address as its primary, yet separate concept.

Restaurants Nèp Cafe and Kin Craft Ramen share the same entrance for their dining spaces. Photo courtesy of Kei Concepts

What’s more challenging than having a restaurant concept? Pulling off two in the same space. To be clear, I’m not referring to a bar intentionally hidden within a restaurant/bar (a.k.a. a speakeasy). I’m talking about two fully conceived brands with their own respective menus, operating under a single roof. Kudos to the following trio of establishments that capture additional demographics with their resourcefulness and ongoing hustle.

Brio Brio Bakery and Cafe / Bri Baru, Lake Forest
The pastry case at Brio Brio includes hojicha cookie bread and artichoke heart and cheese tarts. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Founded in 2020 by wife and husband Naoko and Ryuji Shiode, Brio Brio is a play on brioche – a popular bread Naoko would bake for family and close friends.Taught by her mom, Shiode’s earliest cooking memories involved the smell of freshly baked loaves that were crafted with care. Opening Brio Brio stemmed from the family’s love of breaking warm brioche with others.

The daytime Lake Forest concept expands upon the carblicious foundation through prepared sandwiches assembled with either shokopan (a traditional Japanese loaf), rustic or brioche breads. Customer favorites include a prime roast beef and a non-traditional BLT with the inclusion of a fried egg. Pastries are influenced by American, French and Japanese cultures, with the most frequently purchased bites belonging to a signature lemon brioche as well as a beef curry bread.

I inhaled an artichoke, ham and spinach pastry after my initial dinner visit, but returned the next morning to study the pastry case and plot my next move. I learned after the fact that the walnut and Gruyère treat that I was eyeing was a brand new creation that will need to end up in my belly very soon.

Roast beef from Bri Baru. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

The Shiode's first attempted to run a dinner operation two years ago, but factors including COVID forced them to abandon the idea. When the couple were ready to reboot evening service earlier this year, they hired manager Mao Nakayama from Japan to execute their vision of a spacious izakaya (an informal Japanese-style bar). Bri Baru’s naming convention once again references the rich bread; “Baru” is a Japanese term for a casual place to eat and drink at night.

“Brio Brio and Bri Baru emphasize Japaneseomotenashi spirit and style of service, and many of the items on our menu are inspired by flavors and ingredients more commonly found in Japanese cuisine, but our chefs draw inspiration from all around the world,” Nakayama said.

Since the relaunch Bri Baru has expanded its options, conceptualizing items that combine traditional cuisine with Southern California tastes. These examples can be found in dishes like the wagyu beef taco, baked mentai fusilli pasta and meat-centric roast beef don with soft boiled egg. I enjoyed the o-sea salad’s combination of smoked salmon, quinoa, tofu and avocado. Bonus: Many of the items offered pricing for half-portions, allowing diners to graze over multiple small plates if they so choose.

Bluegold / LSXO, Huntington Beach

Carbonara pizza at Bluegold. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Showcasing Cal-coastal cuisine that pairs nicely with panoramic ocean views, Bluegold in Huntington Beach’s Pacific City is one buzzy dining room. Ideal for groups, it was Blackhouse Hospitality Group’s initial foray into Orange County. Serving three meals daily plus a full bar means the kitchen is constantly running on all cylinders. An order of piping hot milk rolls are mandatory if it’s your first time. (The Spanish tortilla was my preferred starter until it disappeared earlier this year.) Selections are aplenty with steamed shellfish, beefy meats and thin crust pizzas. But wait, there’s more being offered than meets the eye.

Dessert from LXSO. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Stroll past the wine storage and an unmarked door leads to LSXO, an unapologetically bold offshoot of the Little Sister brand established in Irvine, DTLA, Redondo Beach and El Segundo.

To call it a speakeasy (the bar literally has four seats) would likely annoy corporate chef Tin Vuong and be a disservice to the secondary restaurant. Bluegold / LSXO was probably the first (non-speakeasy) duel restaurant concept I can recall, with its main distinction from the other two subjects being that both dining rooms are operating simultaneously for lunch and dinner, while the others function separately from each other.

From the machine gun wallpaper to butterflies adorning its ornate ceiling, plus hip hop pulsing in a space curated for fewer than 30 guests, the intimate layout is countered by fiery, Southeast Asian flavors. A separate menu executed in a dedicated part of the kitchen is inspired by Vuong’s Vietnamese upbringing in San Gabriel Valley; if you haven’t figured it out, the “XO” references a love letter to his family’s heritage and culture but with an edge. Indulgences include a salt and pepper lobster over curried seafood rice, plus a grilled lemongrass pork chop.

Nèp Cafe / Kin Izakaya, Irvine
Vietnamese shrimp salad at Nèp Cafe. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Kei Concepts restaurant group launched two brands in 2020: Nèp Cafe and Kin Craft Ramen. At the time, Nèp was exclusively outdoors, utilizing the kitchen of temporarily closed Gem Dining due to indoor COVID restrictions. Nèp’s Vietnamese brunch in Fountain Valley swiftly went viral, with waits quickly lasting over two hours long. In comparison, Kin’s pop-up, to-go only ramen service would consistently sell out.

Separately, the two brands were proven concepts. Putting them side-by-side after the acquisition of EMC Seafood’s massive footprint in Irvine was a strategic decision by Kei Concepts to feed the increased demand for breakfast in the same plaza that already carried another one of its brands, Sup Noodle Bar. “We were eager to bring Nèp Cafe’s unique offerings to the community, yet we acknowledged that its brunch-centric focus and operating hours left room for more,” said Viet Nguyen, co-founder of Kei Concepts.

(Note: When Kin Craft Ramen was proven to work, it became a Fountain Valley brick-and-mortar in 2021. As its menu evolved to include izakaya-style dishes, so did Kin’s name.) When the lease agreement for Irvine was negotiated, however, there was a catch: Kei Concepts was not allowed to serve ramen due to Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai in the plaza already specializing in it. Despite the removal of its ramen component, Kin Izakaya proved to be an ideal counterpart to continue Irvine’s dining room momentum at night.

Nèp’s mornings and afternoons are elevated by a comprehensive selection of entrees, cocktails, coffee beverages and teas. My top choices are a sizzling plate (get the filet mignon option) and the crab toast; consider the bone marrow pasta if you’ve never tried. Beverage-wise, I suggest experimenting with the complex coffees – start with the egg one.

Date and walnut cheesecake with matcha ice cream and kuromitsu (black sugar syrup) at Kin. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC

Begin with a cocktail if you’re dining at Kin. The three times I’ve dined at the Irvine destination the menu has been updated, so here’s what I have enjoyed as of last weekend: the date walnut cheesecake, wagyu loco moco, truffle salmon crudo, agedashi tofu and the sukiyaki hot pot.

“Striking the right balance between preserving the uniqueness of each cuisine, ensuring smooth operations, and creating a distinct vibe has been challenging yet enriching,” Nguyen said.

The Amuse Bouche: A Timely, To-Do List

Once upon a time, the only ways to learn restaurant news were either word of mouth or your local, print restaurant reviewer. Nowadays, industry news is communicated so frequently and swiftly, I want you to know about it as soon as I do. Check out the culinary happenings below and plan accordingly.

Surf-and-turf ramen bowl featuring prawn base and smoked char siu (Chinese BBQ pork) by Winnie Yee-Lakhani. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan, Culture OC
Le Shrimp Noodle Bar x Smoke Queen BBQ

Winnie Yee-Lakhani (aka Smoke Queen) has made a name for herself at LA’s Sunday Smorgasburg food roundup as well as on Food Network’s “BBQ Brawl.” On the weekend of Nov. 17-19, she’ll be doing a limited collaboration with Le Shrimp in Costa Mesa at Bloomingdale’s Collage Culinary Experience. Diners will be able to order a special surf-and-turf ramen bowl featuring the restaurant’s signature prawn base and the Queen’s smoked char siu (Chinese BBQ pork). Its pork belly is rubbed with Yee-Lakhani’s custom eight-spice Chinese powder before hanging out in an offset smoker until succulent. If you’re a fan of rich seafood broth, this intense pairing is for you. I previewed the dish last month and was delighted by the depth of flavor with every slurp.

P.S. Le Shrimp Noodle Bar is expanding to Irvine Spectrum in the not-so-distant future.

P.P.S. Yee-Lakhani’s first brick-and-mortar is coming to Garden Grove this winter at 12941 9th St.

Paradise Dynasty Laksa Soup Dumplings

While we’re on the subject of soup, Nov. 17 is the final day to slurp the exclusive laksa flavored dumpling at Le Shrimp’s sister spot upstairs, Paradise Dynasty. Created especially for the restaurant’s second anniversary and possessing spicy coconut curry notes, one of the best ways to counter laksa’s heat is . . . with dumplings in other flavors (cheese, anyone?).

Wine & Pizza Night at White Sparrow Coffee

For a low-key delicious Saturday evening, head over to Old Town Tustin this weekend for fine drinks and hot slices in the laid back neighborhood. From 5-9 p.m., White Sparrow owner Alexander Tejeda is opening up his storefront to host Hi-Lo Liquor Market and Bocca Bocca Pizza for a pop-up with al fresco seating. While coffee service isn’t on the agenda as of this writing, supporting small and local businesses will be.

Now Open: The B8kery by Selanne

In the decade that Selanne Steak Tavern has been open, it has earned consecutive awards from Wine Spectator, been recognized by Michelin Guide, and received multiple accolades from the Orange County Restaurant Association. It even opened a fast casual eatery known as The Penalty Box at SteelCraft Garden Grove that served hungry crowds for four years, ending its run last month. Now, the local Laguna Beach mainstay overseen by Kevin Pratt and Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne has expanded to include baked goods. The B8kery (referencing Selanne’s jersey number when he played for the Anaheim Ducks) is open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., offering a range of coffee beverages, smoothies, sweets and savories by recently named Pastry Chef Rebekah Eastman.


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