The first time you visit Starfish Asian Cuisine in the Albertson’s parking lot across from the Montage, you’re in for a shock. On the outside, you figure, “It’s a shopping strip mall kind of restaurant.” As soon as you walk inside, though, the rich décor is only outdone by the memorable food and service.
Managed and owned in a 4-way partnership between Gretchen Andrews (formerly GM at Tabu Grill), Archie McConnell and Marco Romero (both longtime PF Chang’s Operating Partner and Culinary Partner, respectively), and a small cadre of silent partners, Starfish is what I call “the little South Laguna restaurant that could.”
“It felt a little touch-and-go during our first year,” says Andrews. “But we worked on producing consistently good food, and came up with a Monday Industry Night, our daily Opium Happy Hour and our Take-Out Service. It’s all helped buoy those quieter restaurant nights, and the growing return audience is something we’re so thankful for.”
It starts with the sublime libations
Indeed, it started with the South Laguna residents feeling comfortable in this place, and this is the most important hurdle to conquer. As one such South Laguna peep, I can attest that we love our quieter lifestyle down here (a whopping 3 miles from Laguna’s Main Beach center), but we haven’t had any real place to hang out (sophisticated bar-wise) or dine in foodie fashion (except Eva’s Caribbean).
Starfish Restaurant was a winner from Day One. When Starfish first opened, its crew included Master Mixologist Neil Skewes. Not only is Neil the nicest bartender I’ve met in Laguna Beach in the 13 years I’ve lived here, he’s one seriously talented mixologist.
Any time the restaurant is open, Neil’s entire specialty cocktail list is available – and each is 50% off during Starfish’s daily “Opium Happy Hour” (3-6 p.m.). Take a few minutes to peruse this libations menu, as it’s quite an inventive leap. Consider, for instance, their bestseller, the Lagniappe Margarita, named for a New Orleans’ phrase meaning “something extra.” Or, try the Red Lotus with Prosecco, pomegranate liqueur, blood orange bitters and hibiscus syrup. The Yokohama might claim to be a martini, but with coconut vodka, lemongrass syrup and coconut water, it’s a surprising taste treat combination. Narrowing it down to just one cocktail is a serious task.
Next to the food menu, though, your cocktail decision pales in comparison.
You might venture to say that this Starfish restaurant has a “PF Chang’s” kind of Asian fusion menu but Starfish is well beyond that moniker.
When I visit Starfish, I eat at the bar. For a single gal, it’s “safe” there (and you single girls know exactly what I mean.) The restaurant seating is divine, and the newly created patio is its own oasis, for sure, but the bartenders at Starfish are such a cut above in friendliness and professional efficiency that I rely on their recommendations of drink and food as much as I would a sommelier’s choice on Pinot Noir.
The light and steamy Pan-Seared Pork Dumplings, happily messy Korean Galbi Tacos and inventive Chicken Lettuce Wraps are always favorites of mine. The restaurant’s recent introduction of Sushi Rolls and killer (and I mean killer) Crispy Lobster Spring Rolls, though, are edging on the perennial favorites.
“As soon as we introduced our sushi rolls, they started blowing out the door,” says Archie McConnell. “As a group, they’re easily in our ‘top 5’ food orders every night.”
The Ahi Tuna Roll is the most popular seller, but I prefer the real Stone Crab California Roll with crab, cucumber, avocado, red leaf lettuce and cilantro served up with generous dollops of Sriracha Aioli and Wasabi Aioli.
The Crispy Lobster Rolls are absolutely blameless. Stuffed with big chunks of lobster, red and green cabbage, Fresno peppers, bamboo sprouts, Thai Basil, and topped with micro leeks, the rolls wade happily in shallow pools of Kaffir Lime Aioli and Sweet Chili Plum sauce. These rolls are so new that they haven’t even been added to the menu, yet they’ve already landed in the ‘top 10’ best sellers in the restaurant. Word of mouth is a fast moving thing at Starfish.
And those were just appetizers, my friend.
Starfish Restaurant offers a cornucopia of fresh salads. The Cucumber Salad is a veritable mountain of crunchy, super-fresh goodness that often serves as my entire meal, and the Seared Ahi Salad is large enough to share.
From there, it’s hefty noodle dishes, meats, fish and even freshly steamed pork dumplings. For me, the Mahi Mahi “Hot Fish” is a perennial favorite, second only to those rare moments when I can no longer resist the siren call of the 5-Spice Baby Back Ribs. (I’m sorry, I can’t even describe this fall-off-the-bone craziness further, or I’ll be packing myself in my car and bee lining for them in mere minutes.)
Thankfully, I have the lighter Starfish Filet Mignon Pho Soup to turn to in my weakest hour. It arrives in something the size of a mixing bowl, its aromatic steam putting neighboring diners under its spell as it floats its way to me. The dish offers big chunks of filet (or chicken, or just vegetable if you prefer), rice noodles, scallions, and optional bean sprouts, fresh mint, jalapeno slices and two add-in sauces.
If you have room, try the Banana in Filo Dough dessert. It is a gleeful chuckle.
Not only a much needed foodie plus in South Laguna Beach, Starfish Asian Cuisine is a plus for the entirety of Orange County. It’s a pleasure each and every visit.
Starfish Asian Cuisine is at 30832 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 715-9200