By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
By Moss Perricone
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By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
As you walk into Tabu Burgers & Bites, you see a big, gaudy drawing of a hamburger with a chile relleno hovering in the middle of it. It's a subtle nod that this new burger joint wants to be an indigenous part of SanTana, a reminder that as you made your way here, you passed by three pushcarts selling duros in dangling bags and cut-up fruit dusted with chile powder. More than anything, the illustration foreshadows a menu that favors carnitas over bacon, tortilla chips over fries, and agua frescas over milkshakes. When you are told "Tabu" is a portmanteau of "tamales" and "burgers," it all falls into place (although, seriously, kids? When we hear the name, we still think "scandalous early-aughts nightclub"). This isn't just a "burger restaurant"; it's also a "Latin American restaurant." Tabu's Facebook page describes the place as exactly those things.
Owned by two 22-year-old entrepreneurs, Tabu wants a claim in Santa Ana's hipster scene as much as it does the Mexican part. Here's proof: It serves not only a quinoa salad, but also elote, the common Mexican roadside snack of corn on the cob slathered with butter, then sprinkled with cheese and chile powder. But if Tabu fits anywhere, it's in the growing subset of eateries that are out to serve you a burger that isn't a burger. Think of Slater's 50/50 and Umami Burger—both burger alchemists that rejiggered the formula with altered patties and higher prices. Tabu belongs to the second wave of the movement, doing burgers that aren't typical and charging $10 per sandwich. Among its peers is the recently opened Toro Burger—an Asian-inspired joint that serves a burger between two pan-fried discs of ramen.
At Tabu, I had a burger made with a pork patty tinged orange by achiote. There's a thin slice of pineapple on it, and a lime crema is spread on its puffy, too-thick potato bun that seems to muffle the flavors a bit. I ordered it because it was called the Downtown Santa Ana Burger, but I think I may have been hoping for something a little more representative. Perhaps I wanted to be reminded of a big, honking torta, with the fillings spilling out, messy as hell. Tabu's house burger is better than this burger because it is exactly that. It is also what's depicted in that big cartoon—an enormous, wobbly tower with an entire, stem-attached, cheese-oozing chile relleno tucked between meat and bun. If you order a burger, let it be this one. Though the bread has the same suffocating quality to it, there's enough meat and cheese (not to mention that disorderly deep-fried chile) here to counterbalance the doughy fluff.
306 W. Fourth St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Region: Santa Ana
The Carnitas Burger needs to take a cue from that concoction. Again, the bun overpowers what could have been an over-the-top orgy of beef and pig. Instead, I found just a few slices of pork that look more like Chinese char siu than the self-disintegrating, sopping hog strands Tustin's El Toro Bravo used to fill my burrito the week prior. Tabu's "carnitas" are employed again as topping for a side dish called Tabu Fries, which are not fries at all, but rather potatoes thinly sliced into dollar-coin-sized discs, then covered in melted Cheddar, grilled onions, cilantro and a garlic-chipotle sauce. The "fries" were good, but I much preferred the papas y pollo, for which the kitchen stuffs shredded chicken and spinach into a hockey puck of mashed potatoes, then pan-fries it as though it were a crab cake. A dollop of tamarind paste crowns the top, and the two latke-like things are served with tomato chutney dragged across the plate in an artful swoosh.
There are, indeed, tamales on offer, but not as many as I would've liked. The banana leaf tamale I was looking forward to trying wasn't available yet and the masa for the husk-covered chicken tamale felt slightly dry, the filling not as flavorful as the one with pork. The elote came in orders of two. One cob was panko-covered and the other slicked with butter and cheese; both had kernels that were nearly desiccated. Another disappointment was the lomo saltado dog, which might sound as though it were inspired by the Peruvian chifa dish but turned out to be nothing more than a German sausage sandwich topped with griddled tomatoes, onions and peppers.
Perhaps the best dish to eat here is the dessert of a tiny stack of pan-fried hot cakes that fall halfway between a buñuelo and an ebelskiver. The cakes are drizzled in sweetened condensed milk and not easy to classify. Are they Mexican? Hipster? I'm not sure. I'll just say they're very good.