The lines! I’ve never experienced lines for an OC Mexican hole-in-the-wall as long as those at Albatros in Lake Forest come lunchtime—stretching a good 30 feet from the entrance, a 10-minute wait. For a burrito joint in pinche Lake Forest? My South County amigoshave insisted Albatros (the most cleverly named Alberto’s rip-off since Albertacos) is an amazing Mexican restaurant, but of course they would: From Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano, good Mexican eats are as rare as ethics on the Irvine City Council.
With one important exception (more on that in a bit), those of us in the rest of Orange County don’t need to bother with Albatros. It’s the best Mexican restaurant in South County, but that’s like saying Chuck DeVore is our best Republican politician. The menu is straightforward Cal-Mex: tacos, burritos, chile rellenos, enchiladas, taquitos, even carne-asada fries. The food works, the portions are fine, the prices are reasonable, and I love that they’re open 24 hours. But is this enough to motivate me to take a 20-minute trek to Lake Forest, braving traffic on the 5 freeway, to deal with the mob spilling out of Albatros’ parking lot, to jostle with office crews over one of the dozen or so tables in the small dining room, to try to find a space in a lot better suited for Schwinns? No. You can throw a rock anywhere in Santa Ana and find a better Mexican place.
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But then there is the one grand exception: Albatros’ California burrito, that messy San Diego refugee. It’s not as gargantuan as what Pepe’s and Alejandro’s in Costa Mesa offer; this is a manageable missile that won’t explode onto your plate or even drip. But, oh, that tortilla—cooked in a method I usually associate with America’s So-Called Finest City, in which the flour is only slightly cooked so it’s more rubbery than crispy yet contains small burn marks that add smokiness to the raw flavor of the tortilla. It’s not a disgusting proposition: This tortilla actually tastes like something, sweet and earthy, as opposed to the napkin taste most tortillas de harina possess. And the contents of Albatros’ California burrito are even better: meat of your choice; long, thick, crispy French fries that nevertheless won’t scald your tongue; and more sour cream than guacamole, making this mestizo-surfer monster into a smooth, addicting beast. So sí, non-South Countians: Drive to Albatros for that California burrito, despite the madding crowds.
Albatros, 23591 Rockfield Blvd., Ste. G, Lake Forest, (949) 859-9600.
This column appeared in print as "The Best Mexican Restaurant In South County."