Like Break of Dawn's Dee Nguyen and the Playground's Jason Quinn, Danny Godinez cut his teeth and proved his chops during stints at the most expensive and uppity restaurants in the county, including Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern and Charlie Palmer. He lists Thomas Keller's and Ferran Adrià's cookbooks as essentials. And when we asked him where he sees himself in five years, he answered, "Working hard to earn a three-star Michelin."
You shouldn't be surprised, then, that Godinez makes crêpes as well as enchiladas; puts a croque monsieur alongside a carnitas sandwich; and dares to utter "beurre blanc" in the same breath as "pico de gallo." Godinez's original Anepalco's Café in Orange has become the place to taste the food of a chef who has one toe in French culinary traditions and a whole foot in his family's Mexico City kitchen.
He recently opened a second Anepalco's inside the Ayres Inn, across from the UC Irvine Medical Center. The words "Le Mexique French Cuisine" are the subtitle on a sign that features a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower acting as the "A" in Anepalco's. But the Mexican dishes aren't any way less Mexican. Godinez still offers chilaquiles, the homey breakfast usually whipped up from last night's leftover tortilla chips, here with a modernist twist. He sculpts his near-pulverized mass of masa into a compact cylinder not unlike the expensive tuna tartares that Godinez admits were an inspiration. Once you get past the irony of the presentation, you're mesmerized by the spicy moat that surrounds it. The dark, thick sauce is a secret seven-chile blend harboring smoky, sweet and complex flavors of all the species of capsicum that went into it. Everything from the muted crispiness of the chilaquiles to the folds of a perfectly cooked egg to the cooling touch of crema takes on deeper resonance and depth when combined with spoonfuls of the stuff. And you'll eat every speck—eventual heartburn be damned.
More of this wonder can be had in the huevos divorciados, the traditional two-toned dish of fried eggs, bacon and ham riding a corn tortilla flotilla. A whole cup and a half of red sauce engulfs one side of the plate, while the other side is drowned in a green-chile salsa. The green sauce sings with the high trill of Mariah Carey; the other rumbles with the low, sultry bass of Barry White. If your constitution is used to something milder for breakfast, I suggest the Spanish tortillas, employing beaten eggs spread out onto an omelet as thin as a compact disc. The tortilla de pollo—topped with bright splotches of pesto, artichoke, chicken and cheese—is also wonderful and can be had at both Anepalco's locations.
Be aware that only the Ayres Inn branch offers dinner. And it's with this menu that Godinez starts to really crack his knuckles and show you that Mexi-French cuisine isn't monopolized by Richard Sandoval's Raya at the Ritz. Baguettes are served with guajillo chile butter, and dessert is from a roster of crepes that, of course, includes one with Nutella and banana. The best dish has to be a pan-sautéed tilapia; Godinez turns a bargain fish into something as delicate as seabass. Everything you require from a French restaurant fish dish is present, from the coveted crispy sear of the flesh to a silken potato purée to a lick-the-plate good serrano beurre blanc an accomplished saucier would sell his soul to produce.
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The second-best dish features a strongly flavored brown paste of chiles and spices coating a well-cooked pork tenderloin. The pig steak is done al pastor-style, sitting in a pineapple purée that winks at the classic combo of applesauce and pork chop. But a few other dishes still need time to mature. One night, the huarache was inedible, the dough tougher to chew than an actual sandal. The huitlacoche burger, which is still better than a lot of burgers out there, falters slightly only because Godinez seems afraid diners will actually taste the huitlacoche aioli. And although it has perfectly cooked scallops topped with coins of chorizo and an orange-hued sauce that harbors the burn of the sausage, the polenta base for the callo de hacha was lukewarm.
These are minor complaints, though. It's already well on its way to being the best new restaurant in OC. Heck, it's already the best restaurant in a hotel not near the ocean. No dish costs more than $16, and the wait staff is overly attentive. Plus, during Sunday brunching hours, parking is less frustrating here than at the original Anepalco's, which gives you more time to ponder what vintage of wine goes best with chilaquiles.
This review appeared in print as "Le Mexique: Danny Godinez's second Anepalco's Café serves Mexican meals in the French style."