Go eastward from Mission Viejo, and you'll find the hamlet of Ladera Ranch, an unincorporated slice of master planning surrounded by hills of cookie-cutter homes. But follow the main drag of Crown Valley Parkway until it ends at Antonio, and you'll make a startling discovery: an honest-to-goodness Spanish restaurant!
Yes, inside a charming shopping center called Mercantile West (which, by the way, looks like Stars Hollow from TV's Gilmore Girls) is one of the county's few Spanish eateries. And unlike the others, this one is very, very good.
The feast for the senses begins as soon as you enter its doorway and take in the surroundings. Above the dining room, looping wrought-iron chandeliers dangle, casting a dim, romantic glow. On the walls, oil paintings depict bucolic scenes of the Spanish countryside. And though the windows look out to the parking lot, the ornately patterned drapes make you feel like you're in a Renaissance exhibit at the Getty. Then, as you sit on high-backed chairs plush enough to bear the rump of Queen Isabella herself, your ears detect the distinctive, staccato handclaps of flamenco music.
We would not have been surprised if our server, who had hair slicked with pomade and looked like Antonio Banderas' older brother, strutted in with matador's cap and a red cape (he didn't). But he did have Banderas' distinct raspy inflection in his accent.
But all this would be moot if the food weren't good. The proof, as they say, is in the paella. This much-revered and traditional rice dish of Spain is served up in three variations at Picante. One paella includes nothing but land-based mammals as meat. Another, dubbed the Marinera, opts for freshwater shrimp, calamari, fish and clams. A third offers up equal doses of surf and turf. Although combining seafood and livestock in a paella would be verboten in Banderas' native land, such a motley crew was just the kind of combo this diner craved.
Served in the blazing-hot pan in which it was baked, the Paella Valenciana came out looking very much like an overindulgent deep-dish pizza—every square millimeter was covered with one type of protein or another. The bounty included tooth-tender cubes of pork, chunks of chicken, chorizo and more shellfish than an episode of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch.
Underneath the carnivorous cavalcade lay the heart and soul of the dish: rice. Picante uses a variety called Valencia, a grain groomed throughout the centuries to soak up volumes of liquid flavor and whose sole purpose is to anchor paella. And it was cooked perfectly. Neither gummy nor overly firm, each spoonful was infused with saffron, paprika and the juicy essence from the meats. The ethereal delights of this paella existed somewhere between the best fried rice and creamiest risotto. Plan to share an order with a friend (paella is meant to be shared), especially if you decide to get a few appetizers beforehand (which you should).
In particular, look for the appetizer called Banderillas Bravas. Two grilled skewers are stocked with not one, not two, but three species of meat, all speared on a stick and flame-licked to a beautiful char. Slide it off with your teeth and marvel at the butter-soft bliss of filet mignon, lamb, pork and salty chorizo. [Editor: That's FOUR. Goei: Ah, but chorizo is made from pork (it's a pork sausage!). Editor: Wiseass.]
For a taste of the ocean, get an appetizer called callos, which are sea scallops seared to a deep-brown burnish and served with a sweet guava vinaigrette and garbanzo beans.
Vegetarians will rejoice after biting into one of the deep-fried stuffed artichokes. Filled with a tangy nugget of goat cheese, these are the upscale version of the jalapeño popper: equally unhealthy, but 10 times tastier.
Spanish food purists will scoff that a main course of bacalao uses fresh cod instead of dried salt cod, but one taste of the firm and flaky baked filet will shut them up. The reason? A piquant sauce made with Albarino white wine complements the fish so aptly, you forget all else. Sharp olives and grape tomatoes act as both garnish and bursts of flavor.
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The last time I checked, bananas Foster wasn't a Spanish dessert. But that didn't stop us from ordering it, especially when we found out it was wrapped inside a crepe and served with ice cream. My teetotaler date didn't appreciate the alcohol taste of the drizzling sauce, but I thought it gave the fruit a much-needed bite.
Dulce de leche, on the other hand, has a Spanish name, but it blankets that familiar American standby, the cheesecake. Dense with calories and tooth-achingly sweet (it's practically covered in caramel), this is a decadence you should probably forgo, especially if you are inspired to run with the bulls in Pamplona after the meal.
Ever seen a fat matador? Exactly.
PICANTE, 25606 CROWN VALLEY PKWY., STE. K-2, LADERA RANCH, (949) 364-7100; WWW.PICANTE1.COM. OPEN DAILY FOR LUNCH, 11:30 A.M.-3 P.M.; DINNER MON.-THURS., 5-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 5-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $60-$80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.