By Allison Hata | Photos by Jody Tiongco
With beach-bound bicyclists gathered around the patio entrance, you might miss one of the newest eateries to open on the peninsula. But let your nose lead the way as you navigate through the masses; just follow the aroma of savory meats mingling with salty ocean air. Nestled between the old Balboa Performing Arts Theater building and Great Mex, The Trough is a hidden gem along Balboa Boulevard. Tony Monaco, one of the owners of Grenanimal Group, launched the sandwich kitchen concept late last year in Rancho Santa Margarita with his business partner Jarryd Graaff after opening the successful Blind Pig gastropub in the same area.
“Our original idea when we opened The Blind Pig was to do something near the beach,” Monaco says. “We ended up doing it in RSM because a place was there that we just couldn’t say no to. … So we’re getting back to where we originally wanted to open a place up at [with the second Trough location]. Newport Beach was a no-brainer.”
Monaco spearheaded Grenanimal Group’s efforts to bring The Trough to the peninsula this August, taking over the former Il Barone Pizza e Pasta spot. Borrowing design cues from its farm-to-table approach to ingredients, the Newport location has a rustic, homey vibe. The intimate space adds to the cozy appeal, with a communal dining counter that seats eight and just a handful of other two-person tables inside.
Though the decor is charming, it’s the sandwiches that make The Trough worth visiting again and again. A sort of guilty pleasure, sandwiches are usually a cheap meal in which quality isn’t half as important as quantity when it comes to ingredients piled high on a doughy roll. But with the success of other peninsula ventures like Sessions and Dory Deli, Newport is proving that philosophy wrong. And Monaco’s effort with The Trough only further dispels any lingering doubts that sandwiches can’t be a work of culinary art.
“I think people are going more toward finer craft sandwiches because they want good ingredients; people want to know where their food is coming from,” Monaco says. “When we do sandwiches, we don’t just throw them together. We make sure we have the best ingredients, the best quality products. Pretty much everything is made in-house as far as the sides and sauces.”
With the help of the company’s executive chef Karl Pfleider, Monaco and the rest of his kitchen team built a solid list of hot and cold sandwiches, breakfast items and simple sides. Though the menus from both locations are converging, upon opening, diners could find a Newport exclusive on the board next to the register: The Vice, based on a Cuban sandwich, brings together carnitas, ham, cheese and spicy peppers, then kicks it up a notch with creamy Dijon mustard sauce made from scratch. The meaty offering is served on a cornmeal roll from OC Baking Co., which Monaco explains is an essential component in building the perfect sandwich.
“As far as sandwiches go, it’s sometimes an overlooked part at how important the bread is,” he says. “If you don’t have the bread right, the whole sandwich is going to get ruined.”
Another popular pick recommended by the staff—for good reason—is the Caprese. A word of caution, however: This is not a one-napkin sandwich. Savory tomato jam with a hint of sweetness plays off the freshness of the baby arugula. Throw in a tender chicken breast and a little aioli, then bookend it with a hearty squaw roll and you have another substantial option that errs on the more traditional side of the menu.
But Monaco isn’t one to stick just to the classics. “Growing up, in high school, I always just made wild sandwiches at the house and just kind of experimented with different weird combinations,” says the Southern California native. The Trough introduces peninsula palates to a diverse range of flavors, from the Asian-influenced chashu pork with boiled egg and pickled ginger to the soul food staple of fried chicken and a waffle with rich white gravy.
“We pride ourselves on being original and having things you can’t get other places,” Monaco says. “We have your standards—your bacon, lettuce, tomatoes or your turkey clubs; there’s always a time and a place for those. But we also want some options that will blow you away with different flavors that you might not have been expecting to come together the way they do when you look at the menu. But when you have your first bite, it makes sense.”
When pressed, he admits his sandwich of choice is Da Guido—one of the funkier combinations that he wasn’t 100 percent sure of upon hearing about the concept from chef Pfleider. “You look at it and it kind of seems a little simple—like cream cheese, salami and just like pepperoncinis,” he explains. “But we made a garlic kind of cream cheese, and it’s kind of an odd combination that you wouldn’t expect. But as soon as you take that first bite, you’re blown away. … I’ll force people into trying it and they won’t go back.”
705 E. Balboa Blvd.