Las Vegas Bar in Santa Ana is a Legendary Mexican Watering Hole That Isn't What You Think It Is
[Editor's Note: We all know local music and dive bars go hand-in-hand. So in the interest of merging the two together on Heard Mentality, we bring you our newest nightlife column Dive, Dive, My Darling. Read this week as our Mexican-in-chief, Gustavo Arellano stumbles into the dive bar scene to find crazy stories, meet random weirdos and guzzle good booze.]
About once a month, I go on a massive SanTana pub crawl with two of my closest friends, both future lords of Orange County. One is fellow Anaheimer Julio Perez, whom we deemed one of OC's sexiest people back in 2010 because of his work raising holy hell for progressive causes as staff director for the OC Labor Federation. The other is Benjamín Vasquez, a teacher at Valley High and one of the folks we profiled for our fantabulous People Issue this year. Joining us is Jeff Jensen of Chapter One: The Modern Local, so we start at his fine establishment for drinks, then move on to Memphis At the Santora. A Mexi bar follows, then Ruben's Tacos y Mulitas for grub. Next is Rancho D'Mendoza for bukanas and cigars, then we end the night at Chapter One, sipping Fernet (at least me) and humoring all the drunk girls. And the conversations? From politics to chismes, arguments about philosophy to the state of the Reconquista in la naranja.
Last time around, Jeff's other Jeff, Hall (Chapter One's co-owner), joined us for the fun. It's hard for Hall (let's call him Gabacho Jeff, while Jensen will be Argie Jeff) to go out nowadays because his wife just had a beautiful baby girl (congrats!). We forced Gabacho Jeff to drive us to a Mexican bar because he was the only sober one at the time. So when we piled into his car, Benjamín asked Gabacho Jeff a simple question: Been to Las Vegas?
"Of course I have," he replied.
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"Let's go!" I slurred, and off we went.
Las Vegas is one of the most legendary paisa (the Mexican equivalent of "wab") bars in Orange County, and you know the beer-only bar is dive-y when it's hidden behind a 99 Cent, next to a recycling operation and separated by a low-slung wall from a mental-health facility. The only illumination during the day comes from the jukebox, the fridge, the televisions, and the open front and back doors; it's barely more visible at night, so dank that the outlines of the many beer-girl posters lining the walls resemble a mirage. Three pool tables dominate the center, with pool cues near the restroom, far from the borrachos.
It's a great place to see how SanTana's working-class Mexican stiffs drink--not the narcos (there's a bar for that) or the cholos (there's a bar for that) or real crudos, but the hombres who've put in an honest day's work, our dads and uncles and cousins a month removed from the rancho. During the day, retired union guys and construction workers still in their neon vests sidle up to the long bar or sit at one of the many raised tables circling the billiards games, as though grandstands for a rooster fight. At night, the cubetas (a bucket filled with ice and beer) begin to bloom, stocked with everything from Coors to Negra Modelo to Tecate to even Bahía, a Guatemalan lager that Las Vegas' Central American customers sip throughout the night. It's a boys' club--the only women here are the chubby servers who make sure you never stop drinking.
And if you're not Mexican? That's when the fun starts. A Chicana mans the bar during the day, when it offers so-so tacos; at night, everyone will stare you down, and someone will inevitably start something. That's what happened with Gabacho Jeff: Julio ordered a cubeta, while Argie Jeff, Ben and I sat alongside Gabacho Jeff near a pool table. He was inadvertantly blocking a shot; the shorter player went up to Gabacho Jeff, pointed at the tall, lanky, blue-eyed ginger and shouted one word over the banda sinaloense blaring from the jukebox: "Fuck you, GÜERO!"
Them's fighting words! But Julio and Argie Jeff were the cool heads that night--they talked the man down and gave him one of the Modelos from our cubeta. Within minutes, Gabacho Jeff and the pool player were laughing like compas. See, Orange County? Gabachos and Mexicans don't always need to fight; all you need is a cerveza and a bilingual cabrón, and we'll be amigos for life.
BEST HIDDEN MEMENTO: The Santo Niño de Atocha above the doorway.
IF YOU'RE PEE-SHY: The bathroom door is always open--and so is the stall.
Las Vegas Bar 2343 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 546-3035.
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