Mexico City Squared

Plaza Garibaldi is a nontheme dream

Plaza Garibaldi is so close to Disneyland that we got to watch the Magic Kingdom's Saturday-night fireworks show from the parking lot before we went inside. And Plaza Garibaldi's owner, Santa Ana tacopreneur Mike Magin-Helguero, likes to mention his place in the same breath as such other extremely thematic OC dinner barns as Medieval Times and Wild Bill's Wild West Extravaganza. He brags that various members of his house band, Mariachi Garibaldi, have performed with Vicki Carr on the Jerry Lewis Telethon, gone on tour with Linda Ronstadt and hawked hamburgers in a Carl's Jr. commercial.

"We're making a name for Plaza Garibaldi in lots of different places," Magin-Helguero noted proudly. "I like to think of Plaza Garibaldi as the newest tourist attraction in Anaheim."

Yeah, well, I don't like to think of it that way. I've just found Plaza Garibaldi, perched all happy and painted on the edge of a huge, faded parking lot in the midst of the massive construction-zone mess they've made of Anaheim. And so what if I've since learned that Plaza Garibaldi has been sitting there for five whole years? To me, it still seems new and exciting and unique.

Plaza Garibaldi is named after the famous square in Mexico City, where bands of mariachi musicians play mostly for free in and around the legendary nightclub Mi Tenampa in a sort of endless audition for local party throwers. Magin-Helguero, who got his start in the restaurant business 10 years ago with the still-thriving Taqueria Americana in Santa Ana, says the chefs in the local Plaza Garibaldi prepare the food Mexico City-style. But it would be just as accurate to describe the cuisine as Anaheim-style, and it wouldn't make it any less authentic; Mexico City is a metropolis, filled with immigrants and transplants and tourists, just like OC's biggest city.

In fact, the warm-Anaheim-night fireworks turned out to be the perfect pyrotechnic appetizer for Plaza Garibaldi's interior, which swirled with the colors and sounds of a Latin carousel. Piñatas and streamers and blinking lights and bigger-and-brighter-than-life portraits of famed Mexican musicians swayed from the ceiling and surrounded the walls. A stage that protruded among rows of white-clothed tables boiled with the bobbing heads of patrons—undulating young lovers, overweight husbands and wives, a wrinkled old woman and her sweetly obliging young grandson—as they danced off a just-eaten feast while awaiting the professional entertainment to come.

My girlfriend Lisa and I were led to a semicircular booth just to the left of the stage, where we opened our menus while lush depictions of mariachi legends Pedro Infante, Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Javier Solis—lost in song or romance or supreme self-confidence—stared over our shoulders. It seemed a shame not to be able to ask for their recommendations.

We opted to share the super botana de mariscos, a refreshing medley of raw and smoked seafood tossed with a chopped mixture of crisp lettuce, cool cucumbers, tangy onions and juicy tomatoes. It was presented on a large oval plate, surrounding a cup of diabla sauce. We followed each forkful with a long gulp of water.

Show time was announced twice, first in English and then Spanish, but this was the last concession to bilingualism—and the last time translation was needed. Mariachi Garibaldi, a collection of nine musicians attired in dashing black-and-white suits punctuated with red sashes and silver buckles, coaxed audio dreamscapes out of their violins, guitars and trumpets. They played for dancers who swept dramatically across the stage. They played for one another, as they took turns belting out ballads that ranged from the overwrought to the playful. They played true to the mariachi tradition, and they played in ways that pushed that tradition into fresh areas—with a Bolivian pan flute, with a Spanish bandoneon. There was an Argentinean rope-twirling act, a comedic crazy waiter and tango dancers. They played for locals and tourists. And they played for us.

Yeah, this is the era of theme restaurants, but something special separates Plaza Garibaldi from eateries that reference Amazon rain forests or auto racing or Alcatraz. Don't go there expecting the blood-lust battles of big-haired jousting headbangers who purport to come from King Arthur's Court. Forget about the yippee-yi-yo histrionics of shitheels straight from Jed Clampett's barnyard. Plaza Garibaldi's theme is authenticity—real food, real music, real culture and a really good time—and I'll be damned if I'm going to concede it's a gimmick.

Plaza Garibaldi, located at 1490 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, is open daily, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Call for performance times. (714) 758-9014. Full bar. Nonshow meals begin at $5.95; dinner shows begin at $16.95; kids 10 and under, $6.95. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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