Vamos, Vamos a Reginas

Food, soccer and more of each

Soccer is a volcanic sport, with long lulls interrupted by explosions of passion. Opuez is correct: you have to have it in your blood, and Regina's patrons do. Any time Argentina touches the ball, Regina's sounds like an air horn going off—probably because someone has in fact brought an air horn. While most stay quiet, an older lady offers a running commentary throughout the game. Whenever an English player goes down, she yells that he's faking it. Eventually, the woman calms down and simply yells, "¡Sucios!" (Dirty ones!) each time England touches the ball.

"They say God is Argentine," someone comments after a Michael Owen shot hits the post. But not this morning. Argentina loses to England 1-0; everyone walks glumly to their cars, a gray sky greeting them instead of pastel blue.

DAY THREE
"You better not bring us bad luck or . . ." The older man lets the beat pass.

"I didn't the first time," I reply.

"You did the second time," he counters.

Though the food is great, the regulars a delight (albeit sometimes threatening), and the atmosphere impossible to match anywhere in Orange County, what makes Regina's a dining experience par excellence is owner Niquias. Before buying Regina's about 18 months ago, Niquias was the manager of a Greek restaurant in Tustin, which explains the excellent spanakopita and other Greek dishes that Regina's offers in addition to Italian and Argentine food.

"People like to be in a friendly environment," says Niquias' wife, Shayra, originally of the Dominican Republic. "Many times, you go to a restaurant, and no one pays attention to you. Here, it's different. Everyone knows one another, and if you're a stranger, you'll be presented so that everyone knows you and you know them."

It's hard for me to interview Niquias because he's constantly running around, greeting everyone by their first name and a kiss on the cheek. "I call him 'El Besador' [the Kisser]," Shayra says with a laugh.

Tonight, I savor the ñoquis en salsa suave, a sort of pasta soup drowned in tomato sauce with cream. The broth is cheesy and perfect for dunking bread in, but please don't lest you draw the same admonishing looks I got for so lacking class. Partnered with my ñoquis was a glass of Torrontés wine, a wet white wine (one of more than 30 native Argentine wines that Regina's has in stock) that's light and not too potent, perfect for wine novices like myself. It is only later that the waiter tells this wine swine that I should have ordered the Malbec red to go with pasta.

The atmosphere is muted tonight. This is a must-win game for Argentina, and they come out roaring but not scoring. The crowd begins to get restless, and after Sweden scores on a free kick, cries of "¡La gran puta!" and "¡Hijo de la puta!" are screamed at the screen.

Nothing goes right for Argentina. Scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity is thwarted by either the Swedish goalie's spectacular play or boneheaded mistakes (two bench-riding Argentines are ejected for talking too much trash). After falling behind early, Argentina scores a goal in the 88th minute on Hernán Crespo's penalty kick, making the final two minutes (plus about four minutes of extra time) agony for Regina's. They are on their feet yelling, trying to inspire their countrymen thousands of miles away. But alas, the 1-1 tie eliminates Argentina, a favorite to win the Cup, from the opening round of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. What's more, it dents the national soul, even in Garden Grove.

"I want to kill myself," a woman tells her companion before dashing for the restroom with her hands covering her face. The crowd at Regina's quickly dissipates; many have tears in their eyes. But they'll be back. God may not be Argentine, but El Besador has created a little bit of heaven at Regina's.

Regina's Restaurant, located at 11025 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, is open Mon. & Wed.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (714) 638-9595. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
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