The evolution of Santa Ana, California’s Little Sparrow Café reads like a fairytale.
It begins with a love story, and husband and wife Bruce Marsh and Naseem Aflakian pressing their noses to the glass of an abandoned corner café in Santa Ana—a city that had fallen by the wayside in the shadow of Los Angeles.
“We were thinking we’d open a little café, but we never imagined anything like this,” Marsh says. The couple had little restaurant experience, aside from a passion for their favorite New York restaurants where they bonded over dinners.
Two years and one Kickstarter campaign later, Little Sparrow is a bustling neighborhood bistro with a culinary feather in its cap from a well-timed Craigslist ad that brought in Chef Eric Samaniego. Fresh from its television debut on Bravo’s “Best New Restaurant,” the formerly deserted corner location is now fully grown, and the surrounding downtown area is expanding as well.
“There’s nobody promoting us,” Marsh says of the restaurant, which opened in May 2013. “It’s just us and we’re trying to put this little city back on the map.”
Little Sparrow’s eclectic menu, though billed as French-New American, defies any simple label. Instead, it is a collection of Executive Chef Eric Samaniego’s varied experiences and influences.
“It’s a fun menu to write because there are no boundaries,” Chef Samaniego says. Chef Samaniego previously spent five years with Comme Ça in Los Angeles.
The menu is predominately European, but with notable touches of Mexican, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino. A quick glance at the shared plates, which include fried Brussels sprouts with Korean chili, savory popcorn with Japanese spices, and roasted bone marrow, shows the restaurant’s scope.
“It’s global, but not necessarily all global or fusion or anything like that,” Chef Samaniego says. “It’s just the food I like to cook and I’m lucky that people appreciate it.”
Little Sparrow launched a new seasonal menu this month that integrates bright spring flavors with some rich flavors left over from winter. The Roasted Pacific Cod is balanced with tomato jam and saffron broth, and Grilled Prawns are served with cilantro, carrots, and salsa verde.
Chef Samaniego says the menu changes about seven times each year, depending on the weather.
The restaurant’s support of its local community pervades the menu as well, with most ingredients sourced locally and from the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market.
Local Focus, National Attention
Little Sparrow was selected as one of 16 restaurants to be featured on Bravo’s culinary competition series, “Best New Restaurant,” which premiered in Jan. 2015 and is hosted by Chef Tom Colicchio. In each episode, two restaurants face off in a series of challenges that evaluate every aspect of the restaurant’s food, service, and concept.
“I was actually more nervous watching it again than doing the production of it,” Chef Samaniego says. “And then the judgment came and it was like reliving it all over again.”
Little Sparrow fell to New York’s L’Apicio in the European-inspired round, which aired Feb. 25. But Marsh and Chef Samaniego agree the experience was positive overall.
“I think long term, this will give us more confidence to have even more fun with the menu, the drinks, and the experience,” Marsh says.
A viewing party held at the restaurant served as a celebration of Santa Ana, even though the episode did not end as many hoped.
“When the show was over, I said obviously I think we should have won, but by my count they said Santa Ana 12 times in that one hour show,” Marsh says.
Marsh says he asked producers to not refer to Little Sparrow as a Los Angeles restaurant. Santa Ana, almost a one-hour drive away, is a separate entity with an invigorated downtown scene that Little Sparrow contributes to.
“It’s different here. Our food is different, our customers are different, and it’s really exciting to be a part of bringing that back.”
By Sarah Niss