The young cashier approached me apologetically, as her boss wandered around behind the counter.
"I'm sorry, but we ran out of chicken," she said. I had just ordered the quarter-sized option and was laying out my magazines to read when she delivered the bad news.
"We sold the last one a little bit ago," the owner blurted out. "No more rotisserie chicken."
I wasn't happy. I had driven all the way to Cafe Mint in San Clemente specifically for the hen, to try to patch the hole in my stomach left after Sassoon Chicken in Orange closed years ago. I knew the other dishes here would be great just by the menu—there was labneh as an appetizer, shawerma wraps and a poster advertised knafeh—but I didn't want those right now.
The owner had an idea. "You'll get the chicken kebab plate instead," he declared. "That okay?"
Before I had a chance to respond, he went into the kitchen and started to cook. The young cashier—who looked as if she was part of the Class of 2018 at San Clemente High down Avenida Pico—brought out the labneh, and it was just what I needed: creamy, tangy, cooling, wonderful. I scooped it up with pita bread as Arab Idol blasted on the flat-screen TV, competing for my attention with the Middle Eastern pop on separate speakers and the sweet, marinated smells that enveloped the tiny restaurant.
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The owner emerged with a giant platter of rice and chicken kebabs. He didn't charge me the $3 more that it cost compared to the rotisserie. He waited a bit so he could see my reaction. The kebabs were juicy, lightly charred, with hints of sumac and citrus. The housemade toum that came alongside them was not whitewashed for South County at all—it reeked of garlic, beautiful garlic, and stung.
"I just got a new chef, and he's great," the owner bragged. "He's about to do a new round of rotisserie chicken—you should come back."
Two weeks later, I did—and it was fabulous. Between the Surfin' Chicken and Cafe Mint, San Clemente is now the chicken capital of Orange County. Can Metrolink introduce an Eater's Pass so I can get down there more often?
Cafe Mint, 1011 Avenida Pico, San Clemente, (949) 940-0224.