On The Line: Shawn Xa Of XA Sweet and Savory Cafe, Part One
"My cooking is a reflection of my life, very clean and straightforward."
To call Shawn Xa confident is an understatement. Tell him what you are looking for in a meal (or not, if you're vegan or gluten-free), and he'll come up with a flavor profile on the spot. Situated across the street from CHOC, XA would go overlooked, if not for the recommendation from our resident restaurant reviewer. Edwin not only told us what to order, but that Shawn would make for a solid interview.
Xa roasts his pork loin and roast beef daily. He knows the quality and taste of the cuisine is top notch, and the medical staff reaffirm this, phoning in orders on a regular basis.
How do you keep the chicken so moist and flavorful?
Our chicken is marinated in olive oil, fresh thyme, Italian parsley and fresh garlic. It's seared on high heat to form a crust, then roasted on low heat with spices.
Favorite meal growing up:
Steamed live crab and shrimp with hot chili lime sauce, poached chicken, steamed spinach, steamed sweet rice with dried shrimp, banh tet, etc. I can't list it all. It's just too much. I love to eat.
Best culinary tip for the home cook.
Just do what your heart desires; there is no right or wrong. As long as your loved ones like it, that's all that matters.
My mom. She kept it fresh, simple and healthy.
Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make?
Not at the moment, because I'm working on a line of gluten-free baked goods for my wholesale business. I'm ready to get it going; I just don't have the time. I need to build a warehouse.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?).
I haven't had such a request. If I do (and if I have the ingredients), I will be happy to do it.
What's the secret to a really good cookie?
Fresh ingredients, incorporated fruits and nuts. Finding the balance to make it work together.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Hot green tea. It relaxes me. I can make it for you. [Editor's Note: Shawn also chose it as the food he can't live without.]
Your earliest food memory.
Fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables my mom would bring home from the fishing boat.
What do you recommend for first-timers?
To sample all the spices. I would give them tastes of all the food to try. The combinations in my head are different from everybody else. So when they ask, I tell them that. When they eat, it's not the same.
What are your most popular items?
Our maple & spices chicken and the California citrus chicken with fig honey Dijon sauce. For dessert, our s'mores, apple pie, green tea and smoked chocolate cookies.
What are your favorites on the menu?
My favorite is the adobo pork loin grilled sandwich, grilled watermelon salad with chili lime sauce, roasted squash and smoked bacon cookie.
Most undervalued ingredient:
The balance of the ingredients.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
OC has a great abundance of fresh ingredients and many different cultures. You go to Little Saigon, and you can find every little snack or ingredient from China, Singapore, anywhere. We have so many local farms here. It gives you a variety of ingredients that we can take in.
When people ask me what type of cuisine I'm cooking, I tell them, "Nothing." I'm just basically taking what's fresh, and turning it into something great.
Where was your most recent meal?
I just came home from work. As I'm working on this interview, I'm home having catfish with water spinach in a tamarind broth and hot green tea.
You went to school for accounting, but ended up going back to the family business. What changed your mind?
I always loved to crunch numbers, but I just love cooking and baking. My mom knew this.
Strangest thing you've ever eaten:
I'm Chinese. We eat everything on the animal: brain, ear, eyeball, feet, etc.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
Trieu Chau, a Chinese noodle house in Santa Ana. That's my culture, right there. I grew up eating noodles. They have two types: They have a white, rice noodle and egg noodles. I love the rice noodles more. They serve a broth with roasted duck. It's so simple.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
I'm having a grilled breakfast sandwich with egg, roasted pork loin, cheese and caramelized onion on sourdough with hot green tea.