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By Edwin Goei
Despite the name, there aren't a thousand juices on offer at Mil Jugos—only 24, but that's plenty because you're in the presence of fruits airport-customs officials would confiscate if they found you trying to smuggle them in your carry-on. So why bother with the Jamba Juice standard bearers of banana, strawberry and mango when you can sample mora, mamey and the incomparable charms of guanabana, a spiky menace of the tropics that has an invigorating tang within its fleshy, cream-colored pulp? Mil Jugos owner Norah Briceño and family will whir up your chosen fruit in blenders with ice and a few spoonfuls of sugar, turning out licuados, smoothies easier to sip than parking in downtown Santa Ana is to find, smoothies such as lulo, which tastes as though God got bored with creating pineapples, oranges and bananas and decided to put all of their flavors into a fruit that looks like a tomato. Drink it quickly. Don't even wait for the still-crunchy sugar crystals to dissolve. The longer you let any of the licuados sit, the more the drink separates. Take this not as a fault, but rather an indicator that they are concocted from the most basic and natural ingredients. Because of it, I consider Mil Jugos easily the best juice bar in OC.
It also happens to be Southern California's only Venezuelan restaurant and was probably one of the tiniest eateries in Santa Ana until it moved into a bigger space next door. In the new digs, the familiar shade of bright-yellow paint acts as visual anti-depressant while the same persistently peppy merengue soundtrack accents the air. But just because it has more room doesn't mean there won't be gridlock at the doorway. Lunchtime brings a flood of bodies descending from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse. If you've heard whispers from your jury-duty pool that there's a great arepa place around the corner, they're talking about Mil Jugos.
What are arepas? They're corn cakes with a crisp-as-paper outer crust and a dense corn-pudding inner core—born from batter and formed into these French macaron-like shapes in an iron press. In a lot of ways, they're not unlike their distant cousins, the Danish ebelskiver and the Japanese takoyaki. But it's the application that sets them apart. They're split down the middle, stuffed with meat and cheese and beans, and eaten as though they're South American sliders. The carne asada may be the simplest filling—a slab of slow-cooked beef touched by wine and brown sugar, a rival to pot roasts in its mouth-melting tenderness. An arepa called carne desmechada bursts with shredded beef and peppers. Better yet, opt for the deluxe version called the pabellon, which takes the same filling and adds a snow-white flurry of grated cheese and a spoonful of black beans that make it taste like a handheld version of a full-on Cuban ropa vieja dinner. The arepa stuffed with the chilled coolness of an avocado-studded chicken potato salad called the reina pepeada might just be the thing to soothe your tongue from the punishing ajis—two kinds of a thick, green, hot sauce applied via squirt bottles that you should've used to douse everything in sight. The mild one is already spicy, colored muted jade, but the one that looks like puréed grass clippings is so sharp it cuts similar to a Schick. Think of it as a hell-bent, chili-powered chimichurri.
The only problem you'll find with Mil Jugos' arepas is they're tiny temptresses, teasing you but never satisfying your hunger unless you take on three at a time. Enter the cachapas, a folded-over corn pancake filled like a gigantic, bloated crepe, landing on the table with a thud. The half-moon-shaped objects—as thick as a two-stack at the IHOP, but as dense as a three-egg omelet—will probably be all you need for lunch. In the cachapa con pernil, you get not only the sugary pancake, in which you still detect the fresh corn kernels embedded within the polenta softness, but also chunks of carnitas-like pork cooked to crispness in its own fat. A generous squirt of the aji would be more than appropriate here.
Though they offer sandwiches and even a burger, I've rarely seen anyone ordering anything other than the arepas washed down with at least one licuado. The meal is easily the best pairing of juice and sandwich since the hot dog-and-smoothie combo at Gray's Papaya. But while New York has about two of those, many imitators, and a thousand other hot-dog stands, there's only one Mil Jugos, and it's in Santa Ana.
This review appeared in print as "One In a Thousand: Mil Jugos moved into bigger digs, but its Venezuelan food is still wonderful."