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Photo by Gustavo ArellanoThe perfect location for a restaurant is 800 W. Lincoln Boulevard in Anaheim. It's across the street from Anaheim High School, within walking distance of St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church and two blocks away from City Hall. And Lincoln is one of Anaheim's busiest streets, which means thousands pass the property daily.
Yet every restaurant that set up shop there during the past decade met with more failure than a Democrat running against Christopher Cox. The tiny building (for decades home to an ice cream store) had already been deserted for about four years when I was a freshman at Anaheim High School in 1994, and it remained vacant during my stay. It hasn't improved much since: the past four years have seen two taco stands, a Chinese takeout and a Hawaiian barbecue joint open and close within months.
When I retell the wretched history of the place to current owner Mario Arellano (no relation) and ask if he's worried that his Mexico City Restaurant will suffer the same fate, he shrugs his shoulders. "Anyone who failed here didn't take advantage of the great location," he says matter-of-factly. "I will."
And he has. Arellano's Mexico City Restaurant has been open for only three months, but it's already drawing the hordes of Anaheim residents who have been ignoring the location for years. His secret is not a welcoming exorcism courtesy of the folks at St. Boniface. Rather, it's Arellano's knowledge of his customers' appetite.
Take, for example, the high schoolers across the street who are always in a hurry as they ditch classes. Arellano has special discounts just for them and makes Mexican fast-food staples like nachos (a monstrous mound of beans, meat, guacamole and a hell of a lot more good ingredients) and the cheapest tacos this side of East Los Angeles. For people looking for a more formal atmosphere, Arellano also prepares sit-down dishes complete with cooked-right-there tortillas and fresh salsa (of the green and red variety).
But where Arellano really pleases his customers is the type of Mexican food he prepares. Rather than stick to staple entrées like chile rellenos and enchiladas (which he does offer, and all of which are very good), Arellano focuses his efforts on cooking the food of his native Mexico City.
Chilango (a nickname for people from Mexico City) cuisine is sparser than the elaborate dishes of other Mexican regions but just as delicious. For example, their quesadillas are smaller and a bit greasier than what we're accustomed to here, looking more like crepes. But the buttery cheese they're made with is just lovely, and Mexico City Restaurant stuffs them to the point of explosion with traditional-there-but-rarely-found-here delicacies like flor de calabaza (pumpkin flowers) and huitlacoche (overripe corn). Another dish particular to the region is a huarache, which looks like a sandal—fitting, because "huarache" means "sandal" in Mexican Spanish. It's made by putting a thin layer of beans, lettuce, your choice of meat or cactus, and crema ranchera (Mexican sour cream) over fresh-baked masa. The yum! factor of these new dishes is what's bringing in the crowds, both newbies and those familiar with the food.
"When I moved to Anaheim five years ago, I couldn't find any Mexican restaurants that offered dishes from el Distrito Federale," Arellano recalls. He got in contact with other people from Anaheim's huge Mexico City expatriate community who also longed for their native food but couldn't find it here. "Once I found this location and knew that there was a demand," Arellano said, "I saw the perfect opportunity to start a restaurant."
With Arellano's marketing savvy, delicious cuisine and an already-loyal clientele, the restaurateur is confident he'll break the curse of 800 W. Lincoln Blvd. "Yes, we have competition," Arellano admits as he gestures down Lincoln to an established taco stand and a hamburger joint, "and it'll be hard to establish a presence. But all that means is that we need to be cheaper and tastier than everyone else."Mexico City Restaurant, located at 800 W. Lincoln Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 776-8827, is open daily, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $7, food only. Cash only.