!Ay, Mi Estomago!
1. If you're a regular of Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa, there's a chance you've driven by Taquería el Granjenal. Primary, of course, are the tacos: hefty with the grilled meat of your choice, wrapped with two full-sized corn tortillas and sluiced with a dark-red salsa that's amongst the hottest condiments offered in the county. Even better is their horchata, enlivened with a dusting of Chocomil, the Mexican version of Nestle Quik. El Granjenal is actually owned by Koreans, and the hundreds of residents from El Granjenal, Michoacán, who dine at this restaurant in honor of their namesake Mexican village, don't care a bit. 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-4964.
2. For one pinche buck, you can order a chicharrón taco at Carnitas Los Reyes. One is enough: the chicharrón will nearly suffocate you as it transforms from hardened pork fat to an unctuous, molasses-like liquid within the confines of your mouth. But you will find yourself coming back to choke again and again. 273 S. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 744-9337.
3. Fried chicken is not a culinary tradition in Mexico—we prefer pork rinds, gracias—but the folks over at Pedro's Tacosbreak protocol with their fried chicken burrito. Like the pastrami burrito at Pink's and the peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos many of my elementary school chums enjoyed for lunch, this burrito is proof assimilation is inevitable, enjoyable and comes wrapped in a giant flour tortilla. 550 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 498-5908.
4. Taquería del Amigo only roasts its barbacoa (barbecued lamb) on weekends, and even then they're out of it by midday. But each teeny-tiny barbacoa taco is worth the seven-day wait—stringy, juicy throughout and embellished Hidalgo-style, meaning the taco men follow the renowned barbacoa tradition of the central Mexican state by roasting their ewe with maguey leaves (the plant from which tequila is distilled), which contribute an intoxicating glow to the lamb's mellow charm. 11915 Euclid, Garden Grove, (714) 537-8740.
5. Immortalized by punk-parody vatos Manic Hispanic in their 2003 magnum opus Mijo Goes to Jr. College, Tacos Jalisco is every Chapman University student's salvation once they grow weary of their school's horrid cafeteria options and seek deliverance in tiny, tasty tacos. 480 N. Tustin, Orange, (714) 771-5819.
6. When tourists finally tire of looking at the old tools and beds that make up the majority of the "historical artifacts" at Mission San Juan Capistrano, they usually cross the street to eat at Señor Pedro's Tacos, a classic taquería with a pseudo-adobe design, no inside seating and small tacos. God truly is Mexican: the carnitas tacos reach the optimal point of pork heaven. 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 489-7752.
A QUARTET OF POLLO LOCOS
1. My generation of Orange County Mexicans learned as children that a stop at Surfin' Chicken in San Clemente meant we were halfway home from the monthly Saturday Tijuana road trip. We still stop by as young adults, where giant-but-gentle innkeeper José "El Cuatro" Martínez keeps watch over a Soviet-era open-fire grill, where he bathes and dusts butterflied chickens with chile powder and lemon juice until they turn a healthy obsidian on the outside while staying plump. Request a side of pinto beans, pink rice and a bottle of bubbly Jarritos soda. 71 Calle De Industrias, San Clemente, (949) 498-6603.
2. Two Nory's, two different Peruvian experiences. The original Anaheim location whips out all the highlights of the Peruvian diet—amazing ceviches that rely upon yams, marinated fish, crawfish and corn kernels the size of your thumb for their sweet-sour charm; Chinese-inspired dishes like fried rice (chaufas) and chow mein (tallarines) mixed with creamy ají salsa—except for the Andean country's famed rotisserie chicken. The Stanton Nory's includes all of its mother restaurant's menu plus the chicken—a succulent, smoky bird twirled for hours while absorbing the dripping juices of its sisters rotating above. The accompanying French fries are pointless until you dip them into the ají, which is like a spicy cottage cheese. 933 1/2 S. Euclid, Anaheim, (714) 774-9115; also at 6959-63 Cerritos Ave., Stanton, (714) 761-3332.
3. El Pollo Fino's charbroiled chicken is juicy and crispy and has flesh so delicate you can pull the meat off the bones with your pinkie. Pay attention to a different kind of breast if you dine in: three massive portraits of Aztec maidens with their cleavage spilling forth. Chicas calientes, indeed. 723 N. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 533-1160.
4. Super Pollo is a Costa Mesa institution, a bit of quirky comfort wedged between a Kragen Auto Parts and a Tower Records. OC Weekly's premiere issue sang its praises as "five bucks of heaven on a plate," the same combo you can gnaw through for just 50 cents more 10 years later. In addition to the wonderful chicken combos, they still fold one of the tastier non-Anaheim carne asada burritos in the county: beef mixed with creamy guacamole, lard-free refried beans and tangy pico de gallo. 1731 Superior Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-7574.
6 BEST CENTRAL AMERICAN RESTAURANTS
1. Every Salvadoran menu lists pupusas, the griddle cake Salvadorans consume from crib to crypt, and Pupusería San Sivarflips out some good ones: grease-free, fluffy and made with rice flour upon request. San Sivar is more than just the pupusas, though. This is also a great place to eat breakfast—the platano frito, a massive fried plantain, bends around refried black beans and a dollop of Salvadoran sour cream, while the nuegados con chilate, corn gruel gussied up with honey-covered fried yucca and plantain chunks, is Quaker Oats with flavor. 1940 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-2952.
2. The best Guatemalan meals are those that combine various appetizers, and the best around are at Panadería y Antojitos Guatemala. Start with a chile relleno—not the soggy, cheesy mess so many Mexican restaurants defrost but a stately bell pepper bloated with ground beef and minced carrots. Proceed with any of their tamales, whether it's the chuchitos (midget tamales of red chile and pork) or the wondrous pache, a potato masa tamale about the size of a Big Gulp and housing a chicken leg. Then order a rellenito, fried plantains engorged with refried black beans. And end with a bag of frozen custard. 1331 E. First St., Ste. A, Santa Ana.
3. Though it's next to the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, there is no talk of freedom fighters at El Curtido: the government workers on lunch break fill their spy holes with large pupusas of minced chicken or beef, mashed pinto beans, or the bitter flower-bud loroco. No matter your choice, cover it with the namesake curtido, a Salvadoran condiment that's like a spicy sauerkraut and will do wonders for your regularity. 300 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 973-0554.
4. The county's first Salvadoran restaurant, El Carbonero's crispy pupusas and cinnamon-strong horchata are legion to county Central Americans. Their grandest entrée, however, is the carne asada spruced up with chimol, a wildly tart salsa made from plum tomatoes, jalapeños and cilantro tossed with red wine vinegar and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. El Carbonero #1, 803 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-6653; #2, 9516 Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 520-0771.
5. Nancy's Pupusería is where to knife through Orange County's best pupusa: plump with ingredients that deviate from the pupusa stuffing regulars of shredded chicken, ground pork or refried beans in favor of spinach or the great zucchini pupusa, where the squash bits somehow remain as crisp within the melted cheese as they would on a salad. 8511 Knott Ave., Buena Park, (714) 995-2086.
6. Westminster's Pura Vida Restaurant closed last month, leaving la naranja with just one Costa Rican restaurant: the appropriately titled Costa Rica Restaurant. While this dimly lighted nightclub specializes mostly in different versions of the national dish gallo pinto (black beans cooked with rice and eggs), stick to the weighty spectacle that is the tamal tico. Wrapped in a canopy-sized banana leaf, this Costa Rican staple requires hiking boots to maneuver through its myriad flavors. Start at the pointy end studded with raisins and dates, then hack through the wet masa toward pork, red peppers, peas and carrots; a sprightly olive demarcates the sweet/spicy divide. 2500 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-2010.
4 BEST FANCY-SCHMANCY LATINO RESTAURANTS
1. I put off eating at Taco Adobe as long as I could. I thought its sins were many and cardinal. An Argentine owned it. The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce designated it the city's premier gourmet taco. It was the favorite spot of the Weekly's advertising department. 'Mano, was I wrong. Taco Adobe is gourmet Mexican as it should be, with substantial but light servings that linger in the senses, not in the gut. Co-owner Patricio Dillón introduces new platters weekly—his chipotle hamburger on sourdough skips across California's coast for its yummy gestalt. Once the gregarious Pilón deems you worthy, he'll trot out the real house salsa, a thick, habañero-laced magma with citrus undertones and an enduring scorch. 1319 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-2411.
2. More than a decade after its opening, Habana at the Lab still stands as the pinnacle of Nuevo Latino in Orange County. And yet most people know this place for its extraordinary sangria, a burgundy bliss of fruit, alcohol and love. Their loss—as grand as Habana's sangria is, get the glistening flank steak, por favor. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-0176.
3. A pioneer in providing gabacho eaters with more than just chimichangas and enchiladas, Yucatán Grill moved last year to bigger, better Seal Beach environs. The menu thankfully remains impressive and boasts a couple of specialties from the lush Mexican states. Make sure to dip your toasty chips into the Pepita dip, a salsa derived from toasted pumpkin seeds. 550 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. 111, Seal Beach, (562) 430-4422.
4. There is only one good thing about Taléo, the too-pristine, too-expensive Irvine Mexican spot, but what a thing! The flan, a throwaway dessert everywhere else on earth, achieves a sort of sugar nirvana here: a dense, creamy, cylindrical slab of smoky custard topped with a slightly melted caramel layer. 3309 Michelson Dr., Irvine, (949) 553-9002; taleomexicangrill.com.
4 BEST SANDWICHES
1. There are few snacks better rounded nutritionally than the salteñas at Beba's. Within a braided, buttery, hollowed-out bread are rice, ground beef, raisins, peas, carrots, slices of hard-boiled eggs and a broth that soaks up the properties of the above ingredients—a veritable full-course meal. You can feast on salteñas any day of the week, but better to visit on Saturday, when Beba's offers one of the Southland's few full-scale Bolivian menus and videos of traditional dances fill the big screen. 630 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 973-4928.
2. I once took a gabacho to the lunch truck that is Ricas Tortas Ahogadasto try the tortas ahogadas—a tasty, salsa-soaked sandwich native to the Mexican city of Guadalajara that's quite possibly the hottest edible on earth. The French roll maintained a buttery crunchiness even as the salsa seeped in; the fatty carnitas maintained its flavor against the onslaught of salsa. My gabacho's face was as red as a brick when we returned. He was crying. Me? Just wiped my brow. On the corner of Fourth and Mortimer streets, Santa Ana.
3. Imagine a gordita expanded to the girth of a sandwich but retaining its masa goodness, and you have an arepa, a Venezuelan dish so crucial to its national identity that electro-funk tropicalistas Los Amigos Invisibles included a recipe in their second album, Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey Into Outer Space. Only one place to buy Venezuelan arepas in Southern California, though: the colorful Mil Jugos, which prepares various kinds and includes a peculiarly strong cilantro salsa for dunking. As its name (A Thousand Juices) suggests, there are fruit juices up the ying-yang as well. 318 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-4601.
4. You can eat inside Q's Tortas, but it's better to drive through and order any of their tortas, the Mexican super-sub made with a fluffy French roll. Q's namesakes bloat to obese proportions in their effort to house all the cabbage, pickled carrots, jalapeños and your choice of meat cooks cram into the torta. Though the selection of meats ranges from carne asada to adovada (marinated pork), it's apostasy to order a torta without chorizo, fried to the consistency of greasy, spicy pebbles: perfect. 220 N. Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 993-3270.
4 BEST COMFORT MEXICAN RESTAURANTS
1. Mexican mothers are the best cooks in the world, but even they stand in line during the weekend with pots in hand at El Camino Realto buy the restaurant's menudo. The cow stomach soup here is properly fatty and spicy, with the different types of tripe velvety. The rest of the menu is nothing special: just Mexican food worthy of a Mexican mother. 303 N. Euclid St., Fullerton, (714) 447-3962.
2. Sarinara's Tamale Factory is probably the oldest restaurant in Orange County at a spry 70 years, and its fried-daily chicharrones—gnarled pork fat—consistently sell by the pound. But this is also the place to get the optimal Mexican tamale. They're not too big, slightly dry, with lean pork shreds encased in warm, firm masa and sluiced with a red chile salsa that clears out the pores. 2218 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8650.
3. The food at Tlaquepaque (111 W. Santa Fe, Placentia, 714-528-8515) and El Mariachi(650 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, 714-532-4001) is an afterthought, but patronize these restaurants when you're in a mariachi mood. Both feature house combos that expertly strum out the classics ("El Son de la Negra," "El Rey") and the unfortunate crowd favorites ("Guantánamera," "La Bamba"), and whose members embody all the mariachi archetypes—the macho, the female with huevos, the impossible falsetto à la Miguel Aceves Mejia, and the chap who prances around the room doing his best Juan Gabriel impression and sits on the laps of men without a hate crime occurring afterward.
4. Each Jugos Acapulco location generates its own vibe—the Costa Mesa location has the grimy charm of a Tijuana cantina, while the two Santa Ana spots are as immaculate as the Sports Club/Irvine juice bar. But all zip out the same jugos (fruit juices) and licuados (shakes), mixing and matching between a harvest of flavors and fruits like horchata, tamarind and grapefruit to more obscure choices (pulpy guanávana, sour alfalfa and beet juice). 307 E. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-1965; also at 2003 W. First St., Ste. A, Santa Ana, (714) 558-1414; and 745 W. 19th St., Ste. A-B, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8513.
5 BEST REGIONAL MEXICAN RESTAURANTS
1. El Portal de Veracruzis more than just the county's first restaurant to specialize in the light cuisine of its namesake Mexican Caribbean state: it's also an ice cream shop, a panadería that bakes pan dulces the size of couch pillows and a place to buy the latest piñatas (Family Guy models are flying off the shelves). El Portal's main attraction is the weirdest salsa of your life: a cranberry-red, oily substance as thick as a river bottom and spicier than a thousand suns. 4530 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 538-1660.
2. The owners of El Rincón Chilango reproduce Mexico City down to the use of the megalopolis's Angel of Independence as its mascot and a menu focused mostly on the city's legendary street cuisine. This is where you can order carne asada hamburgers called pambazos or huitlacoche, corn fungus with the smoky consistency of the best truffles in quesadillas that are as light as crepes, and down them with bubbly sodas or molasses-thick licuados of papaya, mango or any number of other tropical fruits. 1133 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-5096.
3. Mariscos la Sirena grinds out the only great green salsa I know—a condiment simultaneously sour, scorching and refreshing. Pour it on any of the Sinaloan seafood-style dishes, from the hellacious aguachile to the camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp marinated in copious amounts of garlic) to the gamy deer steak. Or use it to spike the caldo de caguama, the sea turtle soup long banned in the United States but, since Mexico annexed Santa Ana long ago, perfectly okay to eat here. 515 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-0350.
4.It takes a lot for my father to ditch the culinary allure of East Los Angeles, but Birrería Nayarit does it. Their specialty is the namesake birria, a primal goat stew from Jalisco flavored only by the gamy meat—it's up to you to decorate it with onions, cilantro and other verdant detritus. 825 N. Euclid St., Ste. A, Anaheim, (714) 991-6843.
5. Taquería Acapulcoactually specializes in the cuisine of the Mexican port city of Tampico, where carne asada comes topped with sautéed bell peppers and onions. But this is also where a furious, dense mole of banana and chicken as soft as a pillow can be had for about six bucks—and isn't a good mole all we need for the Good Life? 2419 W. Mcfadden Ave., Ste. 108, Santa Ana, (714) 542-9535.
3 BEST SOUTH AMERICAN RESTAURANTS
1. The county's only full-fledged Brazilian eatery, the recently opened Brazilian Grill already impresses with an intriguing mix of impossibly fatty, delicious meals. The risoli, buttermilk fritters that encapsulate ground beef, is the closest you can come to turning meat into dessert. Looking like massive teardrops are the golf-ball-sized, shredded-chicken-stuffed coxinhas. The feijoada stew features every conceivable pork cut and melted cubes of lard. How Brazilians keep their lithe figures on this diet is beyond me. 821 N. Euclid St., Ste. B, Anaheim, (714) 774-5200.
2. Don't let the name fool you—while La Pizza Grotto advertises spaghetti specials and pizza by the slice, its main attraction is Orange County's most comprehensive Peruvian menu. It hits all the notes in a country famous for its immigrant-influenced diet: tasty chaufas and tallarines that are Andean versions of fried rice and chow mein, respectively; pan-Latino empanadas, tamales and breaded beef; a Japanese obsession with seafood platters like ceviche and soups brimming with squid, fish, clams and many other mollusks—even potato-based platters dating to the time of the Incas. 13008 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 750-7343; www.lapizzagrotto.com.
3. Royal Oven distinguishes itself from other Peruvian restaurants by preparing causa limena, a mashed potato monolith not unlike Richard Dreyfuss' mad sculpture in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Tinted yellow with pepper and decorated with peas and chicken, the causa limena is technically an appetizer but will stick to your gut for days. Help the digestive process by washing it down with chicha morada, a clove-spiked purple corn punch. 3533 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 771-5859.
6 BEST ETHNIC MARKETS
1. The Bonillas who run El Toro Meat Market in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa's El Toro Bravo seek to be our Latino Kennedys, what with their food empire, too-infrequent Santa Ana Bowl rodeo spectaculars and frequent appearances in the society pages. But they would have remained mere Cabots if it weren't for their stores, each with industrial-sized corn mills that plop out fresh masa and tortillas for the families that line up eight deep. And the Santa Ana location is the spot to get an entire freakin' goat's head! 1340 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-1393; also at 745 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-4464.
2. If Irvine's Wholesome Choice is the United Nations of supermarkets, then Produce Warehouseis at least a subcommittee. It's primarily an Argentine market—hence the 15 or so varieties of the bitter Andean tea yerba maté—but you can also buy barley soda and apricot-flavored gelatin from Peru, Colombian jams, and Guatemalan knockoffs of the Salvadoran orange soda Kolashampan. If you're not into Latinos, Produce Market also shelves items from Croatia, Iran and India and good, meaty subs. 1225 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-8111.
3. The Orange County outpost of a popular Redondo Beach Argentine market, El Gaucho Meat Market #2 is the commercial nexus for Orange County's Argentine community, stocking traditional Argentine produce like dulce de leche (a caramel-like substance spread on crackers or toast), empanada crusts, beef cuts ranging from the muscle behind the eye to actual ass, randy gossip rags and about 20 Argentine wines. An adjoining deli sells crispy empanadas along with subs any Subway aficionado can enjoy. 847 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 776-6400.
4. Tikal Tienda y Restaurante functions primarily as a Guatemalan bodega, providing an affordable courier service along with fruit juices, preserved vegetables and even Guatemalan toiletries. But there are sit-down lunch options here as well: lightly spiced soups and enchiladas (what Mexicans call tostadas, topped with pickled purple cabbage and hard-boiled eggs), fluffy tamales and a great pollo campero, a buttery fried chicken that's like a Meso-American Colonel Sanders. Don't forget to snag one of their delightful almond-flour empanadas, tinted orange and oozing with vanilla custard. 1002 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 973-8547.
5. Colombians make up Orange County's largest South American contingent, yet seemingly the only Colombian business around is Sara's Mercado, which lies in the section of Westminster not yet overtaken by Little Saigon. Three aisles stock all your Colombian produce needs, from chewy burnt-milk candies to gossip rags to condiments to votive candles featuring the country's patron saint, Our Lady of Chiquinquira. Eventually, you want to gravitate toward the back, to the freezer with frozen foodstuffs of plump blood sausages, cheese breads and the arepa, a steroidal tortilla thick with cheese that's as essential to the Colombian diet as cocaine—kidding! 7134 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 903-0900.
6. Orange County Latinos revere Anaheim-based Northgate González Supermarkets, not only for its Horatio Alger story—the González clan opened the first one off Anaheim Boulevard in 1980 and now operates 17 others in Orange and Los Angeles counties—and its amply stocked stores, but because the company's Anaheim roots cross borders. See, the Gonzálezes hail from Jalostotitlán, a city in Jalisco that has hemorrhaged hundreds of its inhabitants to Anaheim during the past four decades, and they contribute thousands of dollars to charities and churches in both their hometowns. This reputation allowed Northgate to fend off the Mexican-based supermarket behemoth Gigante, which entered Orange County in 2002 vowing to crush the family-run company. Northgate met the challenge with a shrug; while Gigante still has only one Orange County location, Northgate grows and grows, making it the largest Latino-owned company in Orange County. Visit the original Northgate González Supermarket at 722 N. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 774-1178.
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273 S. Tustin St.
Orange, CA 92866