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Photo by Katheryne MoralesThere are two things that I would hazard driving the traffic-jammed "Y" for: to drink margaritas with my bikini-clad sister and her blue-eyed husband while watching my towheaded nephew and niece gleefully splash around in an inflatable blue pool all to the rhythm of Bowie's "Let's Dance." And to stock up my freezer and switch on the barbecue for the best damn carne asada in Orange County.
El Toro Gourmet Meats owner Bob Bacca has created a mecca of high-quality meats and seafood, as well as a great selection of wine. It's a place to slow down and appreciate small business at its finest.
It's easy to spot—it's the only Big Red Barn on El Toro Road in Lake Forest. The rustic façade is the first indicator that this ain't your average grocery store. I grab a cart and enter the store like a woman checking into a day spa. Five men smile over the counter at me. Total bliss.
23522 El Toro Road
Lake Forest, CA 92630
Region: Lake Forest
My flaring nostrils are greeted with the aromatherapy of cool air sweetly wrapped in tangy citrus marinades and unidentifiable warm spices. I leisurely toss a one-pound tub of their homemade spring-green guacamole ($6.99) and a one-pound tub of beautifully ripe red salsa ($3.99) into my cart. Tell your friends you made them, and they will worship you.
Turning the aisle, I get my first unobstructed view of the large meat counter. The expansive glass counter is shiny, clean and full of fresh, red meat. Sidling along the counter, I stay on-target and ignore the enormously stuffed pork loin chops ($3.99 per pound), the pink plumpness of the boneless stuffed chicken breasts ($3.99 per pound), and the foot-long teriyaki beef kebabs ($6.99 per pound).
I crack a smile at the happy meat guy behind the counter. I point at Francisco's Carne Asada ($7.99 per pound). He isn't surprised.
The carne asada is artfully butterflied open, sliced very thin, and then marinated for 1 to 2 days in a mixture of soy sauce, orange juice and, of course, secret spices—one of which Bacca let slip out is red pepper. The marinade gives the already tender beef a citrus-sweet taste that is followed up with a spicy kick-kick-pow, ending in the succulent and satisfying flavor of the beef itself. It is pure heaven.
"We actually sell more of the carne asada by the pound than any other item here in the store," said Bacca. "We make carne asada five to six days a week here, in 50-gallon barrels."
The real secret to El Toro Gourmet Meats' success is quality. "All the beef we carry is graded choice or higher," he said. "It's really the best you could get. You could go to Scott's, Houston's, Ruth Chris, or even Morton's. If you got a steak there that's as good as this, you'd be doing good. This is really that kind of quality or better."
El Toro Gourmet Meats only sells naturally raised beef, which means there are no growth hormones given to the cow. "There's no antibiotics given to the animal 300 days prior to processing the animal, so there's no antibiotic residue left in the animal by the time it gets to this point," said Bacca.
What this means to the consumer is that Bacca's beef is tender, delicious and a bit pricier than what you'd find at the market. "You can go to the grocery store and pay two bucks a pound less for a steak, and you can't chew it and, you got to throw half of it away," he said. "That really costs you more."
Treat yourself right. Go get your own carne asada from El Toro Gourmet Meats because I ain't sharing mine.El Toro Gourmet Meats, 23522 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 855-0215; www.eltoromeats.com. Open daily, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.