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Rubalcava's and the Rise of Primo-Mex

[Hole In the Wall] This Placentia meat market is launching an audacious experiment with Mexican food

An interesting trend is rising in Orange County: the emergence of second-generation Mexican food entrepreneurs continuing their family tradition, but tweaking the model to stay relevant. At the Northgate Supermarket empire, the children of the González clan are assuming leadership roles and heading their bakery department; meanwhile, Taco Maria's Carlos Salgado and Gabriel Zambrano of Soho Taco (children of restaurateurs and meat men, respectively) are pushing their luxe loncheras to gourmet heights.

But the most promising project is happening at Rubalcava's in Placentia, where Roland Rubalcava is single-handedly inventing what I'll call primo-Mex cuisine: creations by the children of Mexican immigrants who are Americanized but not pocho, who spend their weekends with cousins and friends grilling up carne asada and hamburgers side-by-side and hitting up Angels or Dodgers games fueled with brewskis and recovering the following day with mami's menudo or birria. For them, the Cal-Mex combo plate is alien, but the bacon-wrapped hot dog is as Mexican as Vicente Fernández. It's fusion cuisine that doesn't call itself that, one that calls itself Mexican even if its makers spend most of their days speaking English.

Rubalcava is the perfect person to do this; he comes from the family behind La Reina markets, the mini-chain with outposts in Anaheim and Orange that make some of the best tortillas in Orange County. With his father and his siblings, they spun off on their own about six years ago, running a full-fledged meat market and a bakery with bolillos as fluffy on the inside as cotton, as sturdy on the outside as an empanada. The pan dulces are sweet and baked nonstop; the quinceañera cakes are already a North County institution. Rubalcava's also features a full-fledged taqueria, with massive tacos holding Mexican-meat cuts, gargantuan burritos, humongous tortas—food that pleases working-class wabs and football players from Esperanza High alike.

But here's the exciting part: Rubalcava is experimenting. He's not content with a mere Sonoran dog; his version is more structure than supper, a hollowed-out bolillo with shredded bacon, jalapeños and a hell of a lot of cheese. Toritos are just about to debut, a staple of Sonoran cooking that finds chile güerito shells stuffed with shrimp, wrapped in bacon, then fried; Rubalcava tweaks this bar snack by making the shrimp as creamy as crab cake. He's even cribbing an idea from his chilango customers and ready to debut a tamale torta—a toothsome tamale stuffed inside a bolillo, then lightly decorated with salsa. None of these items is on the menu yet, but he will happily make them for anyone who asks. Better yet, go Sunday evening; Rubalcava is about to debut a dinner menu that will truly let his primo-Mex freak flag fly.

 

This column appeared in print as "The Rise of Primo-Mex."

 
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3 comments
OCFamily
OCFamily

Went in search of Rubalcavas yesterday. Reina's is good too, but Rubalcavas gives you more for your buck! And it is a little hole in the wall meat market/carniceria, that has about three shelves of perishables and household buys, that has a bakery and deli-style counter in the adjacent space.  I feel like I have to tell you, there is no AC in this place, so be ready to buy some cold drinks from the carniceria. We ordered from the Taco Tuesday-Wednesday specials 75 cent tacos: Chicken tacos, Al Pastor tacos, and Carnitas tacos, as well as the Ensenada-style 2 for $3 fish tacos.  These tacos were all extremely tasty, excellent value and quality for your money.  We then bought various breads from the bakery wall (a cinnamon bun, bolillos and two other breads I don't know the names too, sorry bad reviewer) and we had these later in the day at home.  Let me tell you, each bread was moist, soft and individuality was the key; each bread had its own flavor and kick. Other than the AC, this place has delicious food, so if you must, you could eat in your car or take it home.

 
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