TRADE Food Hall is not the typical strip mall or cafeteria you’d expect to find in the Irvine Business Complex near the airport. It’s an open-air, fast-casual restaurant scene where you can find young professionals, social media personalities, students and artists on any given day for lunch or happy hour. It’s a spot where you can get tasty food or eats that looks good for your Instagram feed.

Sweet Combforts – Photo by Benjamin Farren

TRADE is nestled between corporate office buildings at the intersection of Von Karman Avenue and Michelson Drive. It used to be an average strip mall with a smattering of tenants including a crusty food court, a smoke shop, a Subway sandwich shop and picture frame store. As a hungry human, I’ve excitedly embraced its recent transformation. The entire triangle-shaped center, from the coffee shop Krisp on the east, the food hall in the center and OoToro Sushi on the west is called the TRADE Marketplace. Oh, and we cannot forget about HiroNori Craft Ramen, which is located a few suites down from the food hall and attracts a perma-crowd that floods the outside walkways.

Large letters spelling “EAT” and “DRINK” beckon passersby to brave the parking lot to visit the center. A food hall concept is a rare but increasingly frequent presence in Orange County. TRADE lures workers from nearby businesses with such magnetism that the street median is planted with anti-jaywalking signs. The open-air food hall is the main hub of the shopping center and features eight small restaurant stalls and a bar serving patrons that sit in a common, partially indoor, area. (Mini reviews of each are below.)

TRADE Food Hall – Photo by Benjamin Farren

Due to its location in the Irvine Business Complex, TRADE’s most popular time is lunch. Drivers arriving at TRADE between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. immediately notice a short supply of parking. Hawkish security guards patrol the reserved and time-limited spaces. The parking lot in front of the center is so packed for the lunch hours that some customers stoop to illegally double parking in the dead-end parking aisles. The biggest parking secret: parking behind the food hall. Sadly, if you’re reading this at lunchtime, the back parking lot is probably full.

At the food hall, a person is unlikely to find a full meal for less than $10, although we could see those prices rising in the not-so-distant future.

The evening hours at TRADE attract a different crowd from the lunchtime working folks. People wanting a quick bite on their way home from yoga class or students using the free wifi can be spotted eating dinner there. Evenings are certainly mellow compared to the energy from the noontime heat and working crowds. If you want to minimize stress while experiencing TRADE, don’t visit weekdays at lunchtime.

But who really cares about the parking, the crowds or the ambiance, right? It’s all about the grub. Here’s the cheat sheet of what TRADE food hall has to offer:

Dos Chinos was first incarnated as a food truck as part of the early 2010s gourmet food truck renaissance. It now occupies two non-wheeled locations, one of which is across from the Center Hub bar at TRADE. Their stoner papas, which includes three types of O.C.-area branded meats on cheesy fries all topped with a fried egg and multiple sauces, is certainly a crowd pleaser.

Portside – Photo by Benjamin Farren

Portside, as the name suggests, primarily features seafood. The fish platter (double blackened white fish) with grilled vegetables and Old Bay fries is my go-to. For groups of more than two with large appetites, go for San Pedro Platter. Don’t try this alone! And don’t forget to ring the bell after you order it.

Two Birds prides itself on its menu of “organic, free range, local” Jidori chicken. The options are two types of chicken (fried or grilled), three formats (sandwich, salad or bag-o-chicken), four side dishes and three sauces. The fried chicken is the most popular, of course.

Butterleaf, from the same chef as Two Birds, serves up plant-based food aimed at appealing to meat eaters. You can find a vegetarian taco, burrito and burger. Butterleaf isn’t the only spot to find a non-meat dish in the food hall, but its minimalist menu makes it easy to decide what to eat.

Red Envelope – Photo by Benjamin Farren

Red Envelope is a newer edition to TRADE, recently replacing Hawaiian-inspired Megadon. The concept features dishes that are extensions of the classic Vietnamese dish pho. Try the “Bad to the bone” pho. It comes topped with a giant roasted beef bone.

Ground House lures crowds — and recently Instagram stars and YouTubers — with inventive burgers, including their newly-released “magical burger” — a crazy colorful burger with a rainbow swirl bun and lucky charms toppings.

Gyro King is a reliable option for convenient Greek dishes. They’ve got all the staples like falafel, hummus and baklava. If you are looking to indulge in something heavier, check out the gyro fries.

Center Hub, like its name suggests, is the bar in the center of the food hall. An ideal post-work happy hour location for nearby workers, Center Hub has giant board games and a plethora of craft cocktails. If you are a tequila fan, like me, try the Cabo-Rita. It looks cool and has just enough spicy kick.

Sweet Combforts is the dessert-only spot at TRADE centered around honeycomb-shaped Belgian waffles on a stick (hence the name). The specials menu on the chalkboard seems to change daily attempting to satisfy the collective Irvine sweet tooth.

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