1402 South El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
South OC has really been blowing up lately with tons of independent, chef driven restaurants opening. Sol Agave, Ironwood, Public 74, and Central, which is in Laguna are just some off the top of my head that have debuted recently, and are on our list of restaurants to hit up. Also on our list is MRK Public, which has been getting lots of praise lately, and that was enough for us to move them to the top of our list.
MRK comes to us from the three local chefs that used to be at Tabu Grill in Laguna. Lending the first letter of each of their names gives us the name of this restaurant, which used to be a burger joint, but has been revamped into this chef driven spot. Coming from a more fine dining background, the three chefs wanted to create a casual place, which encouraged customers to become regulars. If the crowd here on this particular Saturday night we visited is any indication, they now have tons of regulars.
The term gastropub gets thrown around a lot these days, and I guess this restaurant/bar qualifies. MRK has a pretty solid list of craft beers, which are all priced at $5. There's also a small list of red and white wines. The decor here is minimal, with white walls, some sporadic art hanging up, and comfortable black booths. There's a ten seat bar as you enter to the left, and maybe 30 or so tables here, including the busy patio out in front of the restaurant. They nailed the casual, laid back, beach atmosphere they were going for.
Chalkboards all around lend to a slight hipster vibe at MRK, but not in an annoying way. Checking out their customer base, there's a good cross section of people here. Young families, seniors out for a date night, and millennials out for a quick bite before hitting up the bars. The space is loud, but in a lively kind of way, which is good because it gave Katie a break from listening to me for awhile. It also allowed us to focus on the food here. So, let's see how it all worked out for us on this evening.
I had recently read an article by the Register's Restaurant Critic, Brad Johnson about wings, and he mentioned these Vietnamese Sticky Wings ($13) among his best. I would also have to tend to agree with his summation. I'm usually more partial to a more traditional hot wing, with the neon orange sauce, but these were fantastic. They came out of the kitchen scalding hot, had a great crispy shell to them, and included plenty of tender chicken on each drum and wing. They struck a delicate balance by having just the right amount of sweetness, so it did not detract from the chicken. Wonderfully done.
Only one of four sandwiches to choose from at MRK, Katie selected this photogenic Red Wine Braised Angus Short Rib Sandwich ($14, but $17 with the fries) as her meal. This sandwich was overflowing with shredded short rib, caramelized onions, a very good horseradish crema, pickled fresno chilis, baby greens, fried onions, and jalapenos. Katie fell in love with this sandwich, throwing words around like, "perfect, balanced, and comforting." She loved the crunchy bread this came on, the tender short rib, and the clean heat she got from the jalapenos. She proclaimed this the best sandwich she has had all year, and the bite I had could not discount this statement. The fries were freshly cut, and fried to perfection. These came with a tasty rosemary garlic aioli that I used with my upcoming entree. Even the house made ketchup was good, and I'm usually not a fan of ketchup's made in house.
With only three other sandwiches left to try, and one of those being a burger, I guess you can assume which one I went with. This House Burger ($12) starts with a half pound of Angus beef, and is topped with a white cheddar, oven roasted tomato, lettuce, house made pickles, a grilled onion spread, and lemon aioli. This was one of the cleanest burgers I have had in recent memory. Not relying on the condiments to do the work. The bun to burger ratio was on point, and the beef was stellar. I would have liked the condiments to be more prominent here, but I used plenty of the rosemary garlic aioli on this. The cheese melted superbly, and even the roasted tomato, which I am not really a fan of, worked well on this. Very good burger.
It seems like every time we have gone out recently, we have ended our meal with a bread pudding. On this evening it was a variation of that dessert. The Brown Butter Banana Bread ($8) was not soaked like bread puddings, and was topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, five spiced cashews, and a banana caramel. To be truthful about this, I did not really get a lot of banana from either the bread or the caramel. I did like the crunchy texture of the nuts, and that they included enough ice cream for both Katie and I to share. Usually we jockey with our spoons for the ice cream, but not so at MRK. Katie enjoyed the muted sweetness of this dessert.
MRK deserves all of the praise it receives. Not only were they lauded for their very good wings, but they were also placed on the Top 75 Places to Eat List by the OC Register. Pretty impressive for a restaurant that has only been around for less than two years, and is located in the sometimes neglected southern most city in our great county. The only knock I have with this restaurant is that their menu is pretty limited. They feature only four sandwiches, three salads, and a handful of light snacks. This might be due to their pretty small kitchen, which you can get a good look at as you walk through their door. We had great service from our waitress Elizabeth on this evening, and everyone else we encountered was friendly as well. Good food and nice people make this a great addition to the chef driven restaurants of South OC.
Out of five ravens, (because the initials MRK are also used as the airport code of Marcos Island Airport in Florida, and their lone airline that flies there is Raven Airlines), five being best to zero being worst, MRK Public gets 3.5 ravens.
For more information about MRK Public, click here to go to their website: http://mrkpublic.com/mrk/