Photo by Jack GouldDrive the entire length of Broadway in Santa Ana, and you'll see homes every bit as beautiful and well-kept as those in the snootier Floral Park neighborhoods. But next door to some of those bitchen Broadway homes are what appear to be crack dens. You'll see the refreshingly funky Cal Fed Bank building at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street, and then, a few doors down on the other side of the street, a church in an ugly storefront with cardboard covering the windows. As a result, the city has launched a spirited redevelopment campaign. A sign that these changes may be for the good can be found not only in the city-sponsored Artists Village but also in the non-city-sponsored artists' villages popping up organically around it.
By the way, if Orange County is a melting pot, Santa Ana is the fire. Non-Anglo ethnic groups constituted nearly 80 percent of the population in the 1990 census—a census criticized for undercounting minorities. Santa Anans have gone on to play a significant role in changing the face of central Orange County politics. Whitey may have mapped out Santa Ana in the beginning, but people of color have charge of its ultimate fate.
SANTA ANA DOES CULTURE
Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Dusty art museums may not be your cup of tea, but the Bowers continues to put Santa Ana on the map with nationally recognized exhibits that are generally composed of African, Oceanic, pre-Columbian, Native American or California Plein Air art. First opened in 1936 and shut down for what Disney would refer to as "re-Imagineering" in the mid-1980s, the Bowers reopened six times larger in 1992. It's become a favorite destination for tourists and school field trippers, while at the same time building a solid foundation of thousands of museum members. There's even been some controversy: exhibits featuring works by Native Americans and present-day Vietnam artists have drawn protests and newspaper headlines. Neato! 2002 N. Main St., (714) 567-3600.Bowers Kidseum. Next door to the Bowers. An 11-year-old who has written about Discovery Science Center for the Weeklydescribes the Kidseum as "good, but not as good." 1802 N. Main St., (714) 480-1520.Edwards South Coast Village Theater. I love it, and I hate it. I love that it's one of the few places in Orange County that exclusively screens independent films, art-house flicks and those increasingly Hollywoody Miramax deals. But I hate the ass-mashing seats. I love that they serve espresso. But I hate that there are only three screens—and generally short runs—for those non-Hollywood-mainstream films. But I love being able to walk from the theater to Cost Plus. But I hate that funky smell. But I love that Orange County has at least one place that exclusively screens independent films, art-house flicks and those increasingly Hollywoody Miramax deals, so please don't take it away. 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., (714) 540-0594.Martnez Books and Art. Part bookstore, part art gallery, part literacy-outreach facility, part activist-organizing hall and part Shoot-the-Shit Central, Rueben Martnez has cobbled together one hell of an Orange County institution. His shelves hawk everything from the collected works of Octavio Paz to the Latin edition of Peoplemagazine. During one visit a few years back, Martnez entertained a reporter in one part of the room, the daughter of a right-wing Cuban exile in another, a student looking for a book he needed for a college class in another, and a woman who needed information for a charity event in yet another. And he had Zoot Suit author Luis Valdez on the horn about an upcoming literacy event. 1110 N. Main St., (714) 954-1151.Santora Building of the Arts. It's tough to say what's more inspiring: the Spanish revival-style architecture of this storied building erected in 1929, or the artwork now created in the basement by the literally underground artists who first saved the structure and then revived an art scene. The open houses on the first Saturday of every month are not to be missed, and other special events dot the calendar for the rest of the year and beyond. Don't forget to save room for the goodies served across the courtyard at Gypsy Den Grand Central Cafe. Santora Building of the Arts, 207 N. Broadway, (714) 571-4229; Gypsy Den Grand Central Caf, 125 N. Broadway, (714) 835-8840.
SANTA ANA DOES GRUB
Burrell's BBQ. I still recall the first time a friend drove me to this place. We're stop-and-going forever through a residential part of town. Multistoried buildings rise up in the distance, but nothing else indicates we're heading toward a commercial zone. Suddenly, my friend whips around a corner and stops in front of a red house. Welcome to Burrell's! One section of the house serves as the kitchen, and what would roughly be the back yard in one of the neighboring homes is the open-air seating area. Don't let this humble setting fool you: Burrell's serves up some of the best barbecue I've ever eaten—and I've eaten barbecue cooked in a trash can in North Fontana! The sauce is incredible, the chicken prepared to tender perfection, and the sides . . . well, I rarely remember the sides seeing as how I eat more chicken than any man. I've still got the barbecue sauce stains on my cheeks. 305 N. Hesperian St., (714) 547-7441.George's Thai Bistro. You walk into a nondescript suite in a nondescript shopping center, and suddenly the outside world disappears. You're not in Santa Ana anymore, Toto. Hell, you're not in Thailand either. You're in some unusual, hyperclean netherworld created from memories buried deep in your psyche. There's the brick fireplace upon which you chipped your tooth as a kid. Pictures on the wall display various scenes from your subconscious, like that babe with a dragon tail you wanted to nail in high school or that deposed Asian royal family member who hastily moved his family, his entourage and his yapping poodle into the condo next door. By the time the food arrives—beef, fish, pork, shrimp and chicken prepared in soups and broths of varying degrees of spiciness, which YOU control—the netherworld disappears, and it's all about inhaling fresh, spicy creature parts. Served with rice or noodles, George's food tastes, looks and smells so delicious your senses will beg you for return trips to this trippy little oasis. And if you've been a good boy, you can have some of the kiwi, mango or coconut ice cream. What's that? You don't like kiwi, mango or coconut, but you've still been a good boy? Then head a few suites over to Hans' Homemade Ice Cream, which features every flavor imaginable, and—like the name implies—it's all homemade. The peppermint's killer. But once the last spoonful has melted in your mouth, you'll need to find someone to roll you back to your car. George's Thai Bistro, 3732 S. Bristol St., (714) 979-8366; Hans' Homemade Ice Cream, 3640 S. Bristol St., (714) 979-8815.Nikki's Tandoori Express. What do you suppose came first: The "Best of," or Nikki's? Seems that every publication that puts out a "Best of Orange County" guide—including yours truly—settles on this place as the best Indian restaurant around. I don't even know whether the fast-food-style fare Nikki's serves is considered authentic Indian food. All I know is it's so good that if I go to another restaurant for lunch and then find someone in the office sampling the takeout they just got from Nikki's, I feel very, very sad—like the only guy in the office who failed to invest in the winning lottery ticket. Vegetable side dishes in the combo plates change daily, and it's a documented fact that our office is so fond of Eggplant Monday that Nikki's management seems compelled, lest we sick our I-Team leader R. Scott Moxley on them, to offer it on Tuesdays after national holidays that fall on Mondays. 3705 S. Bristol St., (714) 850-0595.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
SANTA ANA DOES LIVE ENTERTAINMENT
Empire Theatre. Some of the county's most daring live theater is coming out of this space, across the street from the aforementioned Santora Building. Many productions aren't exactly what you'd take your kids to. Then again, maybe you should, considering the crap they're watching on the tube. Whoever you go with, you'll be doing your part to foster a burgeoning downtown scene. 200 N. Broadway, (714) 547-4688.Galaxy Concert Theatre. This former dinner-theater house still looks like one—right down to the Muppetesque balcony seating—but Coach House guru Gary Folgner's satellite venue hosts the mega-huge Club Rubber gatherings, up-and-coming (and down-and-falling) musical acts, and pro wrestling! Some luster's gone now that Anaheim's Sun Theatre and House of Blues have sucked away some of the touring bands (and some of Folgner's former bookers), but you're still likely to stumble into an unforgettably intimate performance by your favorite artists here. 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., (714) 957-0600.Koo's Art Cafe. Anarchists. Punks. Feminists. More punks. Graffiti. Even more punks. Murals. Pukes—who've brought along still more punks. Teen angst meets post-teen conscience-building in this live-music venue/activist meeting place. Dude, we're sooooo there! 1505 N. Main St., (714) 648-0937.Ecstasy. This slick and glossy adult nightclub—sorry, only soda and water are served in these puritan times, fellas—features a long stage, at the ends of which two women in birthday suits dance. The hot-hot-hot thang goin' down at the E are bed dances. That's right: not lap dances, but bed dances, where men—or women—recline while nekkid womens gyrate on top of them. Is this legal? It is in my America, bucko! According to one online guide, this place has "really good lookers." Anyone who's attended a bachelor party at a strip club in Azusa featuring a naked lass in her third trimester of pregnancy will appreciate that. 2920 W. Warner Ave., (714) 556-8956.
Illustration by Bob Aul
Teri Cigar Company. These days, the pleasures of tobacco are considered a sin greater than pride, sloth, envy, even murder, perhaps. So, as Martin Luther advised, if you are going to sin, sin big—consider the Teri Cigar Company, a Less-Than-Little Habana in Santa Ana. It's a tiny shop and factory seemingly from another era (the 1940s) and exotic locale (Cuba before Castro). The sweet smell of fresh tobacco hangs in the thick humid air; it's tropical. The soothing squeak of ancient ceiling fans is like a metronome, measuring out the production of cigars rolled by the expert hands of Cuban cigar makers. The walk-in humidor is filled with fresh, tempting delights, all sizes, all inviting. Ah, the pleasures of sin. 310 E 1st St., (714) 541-9142. (Douglas R. Keene, Mission Viejo)