Free Range Cafe
501 Park Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92662
I'm one of those weirdos that don't mind going to the dentist. Sure, I have only been to the regular doctor a handful of times in the last 20 plus years, but I never miss my two dentist appointments a year. One reason for this is that I want to keep my teeth for as long as I can, but the real reason I keep coming back is that I really enjoy the people who work on my teeth.
They not only keep my smile looking great, but they have also given me some pretty good restaurant tips. If you are a frequent reader of this restaurant review site you know that my dentist gave me a suggestion for an Italian restaurant that we went to for my birthday this year. It turned out pretty well. So when my dental hygienist, Karilyn suggested a place, I came home and put it on our restaurant wishlist. It would sit there until my vacation, but we finally made it to Free Range Cafe on Balboa Island.
It was the first full day of my vacation and my parents wanted to join Katie and me for a walk around Balboa Island on a recent Monday morning. Free Range Cafe is situated blocks away from the hustle and bustle of the main drag of Balboa Island's Marine Avenue. On the corner of Park and Agate, you will pass this unique restaurant on the way to and from the Balboa Island Ferry. Kind of on its own island, Free Range Cafe could almost be mistaken for another of the fabulous houses on Balboa Island. It definitely fits right into its neighborhood surroundings.
Entering the space I was immediately struck by the white walls, dark wood flooring, and of course, the bakery display case near the register. Our server told us, with the exception of the donuts, everything was made on the premises. We were seated in the spacious dining room, as it was too breezy to be out on their very inviting patio this morning. With the Pinterest vibe that the dining room conveys, it's easy to forget that Free Range Cafe got its beginnings as a food truck.
I never had the opportunity to try their food truck, but they do have a section of their menu dedicated to their original food truck offerings. The rest of the menu is focused on breakfast, which is served all day, sandwiches, appetizers, salads, plates of pasta and entrees. Free Range is open all week and is ready to serve you from 7am until 9 in the evening. We arrived just before 10am and were met with a half-full restaurant. We quickly made our selections and this is how everything came out for us on this particular late morning.
I told you that I was mesmerized by the bakery display as we entered the restaurant. After ordering, I got up and took a closer look at what they offer behind the glass. I can never resist a Chocolate Chip Cookie ($2) and this was a pretty solid representation. I always enjoy a cookie that has a little crunch along the outside and a softer, chewier center. This cookie had that, along with a pop from the salt on top. This cookie whetted my appetite to try more of their baked goods, but it will have to wait until next time since my breakfast was on its way.
Katie was feeling like something pretty light, so she channeled her inner millennial and tried out the Avocado Toast ($14). This was not simply avocado and toast though. There was a fried egg hidden underneath the creamy avocado which also was spiced up with some Sriracha, pickled red onions, and parsley. The bread used on this was very sturdy, with a thicker than I care for the crust. The egg was a tad overcooked, as I like more of a runny egg but Katie likes her eggs this way and it was her breakfast after all. She also got some Twice Baked Potatoes ($5) which were addictive. Some were crunchy, while the bigger ones were a little less crunchy. A little something for everyone, I preferred the crunchier of the cubed spuds. Even though Katie imagined this was going to be a lighter breakfast, she still found herself taking half home which I ate for dinner later that same evening.
There are a couple things you can count on in life. Death and taxes of course, and that my mom will get a breakfast sandwich when eating out for breakfast. That means my mom got the Avocado, Egg and Cheese Biscuit ($12) at Free Range Cafe. One problem though, the kitchen forgot the avocado, which my mom pointed out rather quickly. They made it right by taking it back and adding plenty of avocado to this upgraded Egg McMuffin. Once the avocado crisis was averted my mom really enjoyed this breakfast sandwich. She did sub out mayo for the honey mustard that this usually comes with. The egg was done nicely and the cheddar cheese was nice and melty. This also came with a large pile of those twice baked potatoes which I grabbed off of my mom's plate with great regularity.
My dad went pretty basic at Free Range Cafe with his selection, the Breakfast Plate ($16). This came with two eggs, three strips of bacon, more twice baked potatoes, toast and arugula for some reason. This was a good-sized breakfast plate for my dad. The eggs were cooked to his desired over easy, the bacon was nice and crisp, and the toast was thick and hearty. Not sure why the need for the arugula, as it was left pretty much untouched by my dad. A very basic, but well-executed breakfast plate.
My first pick for breakfast was the biscuits and gravy, but I was told they had no gravy on this morning, so I had to pick something else from the menu. I once had a Croque Madame at Bouchon in Las Vegas and fell in love with this rich French sandwich. I try to order it every time I see it on a menu, so I went with it this morning at Free Range Cafe. This Croque Madame is listed under the sandwich portion of the menu, probably the reason I did not see it when I initially scanned the menu. Ham, Swiss cheese, a sunny side up egg, bechamel sauce, and a little dijon are piled on top of a sturdy piece of sourdough. This was a good one, just not as good as the one I had at Bouchon. The ham, egg, and cheese were all great here, but what held this back a bit was the bechamel sauce, which was a little on the heavy side, which I didn't mind, but it was not backed up with a big flavor boost. Good stick to your ribs sandwich though. The french fries were fantastic here. I believe they are made here, and even if they are not they were fried nicely, crunchy, and, and very hard to keep my hands off, even though I was pretty full from my sandwich. Make sure to get the fries here.
I was pretty happy with our visit to Free Range Cafe. I was a little perplexed with the three-star rating on Yelp and then after reading some of the reviews, I think I get why some commenters have a problem with this restaurant. Yes, the prices are probably a little high by a couple dollars on each item, but I get the feeling they are using better quality ingredients than their competitors. The other complaint people online have about Free Range is that they automatically include a sixteen percent service charge on the final bill. This is in lieu of tipping, and some people do not like to lose control of how much they want to give to their server. I usually am right around the sixteen to twenty percent tipping range, so this did not bother me as much as others, but I can see both sides of the argument for and against this service charge. In the end, I loved the food here, find it to be worth the couple extra dollars for better quality food, and think it's one of the better breakfast options in the area. I can't wait for my next dental appointment to see where they send me next.
Out of five frozen bananas, (because other than the expensive beachfront homes that dot the island, the most famous thing Balboa Island is known for is their frozen bananas), five being best to zero being worst, Free Range Cafe gets 3.5 frozen bananas
For more information about Free Range Cafe, head to their website here: http://cafefreerange.com/