If Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria is Kubrickian in his obsessive quest for technical perfection in alta cocina, then Danny Godinez of the new El Mercado in Santa Ana is Spielbergian, a proven master of his craft who never forgets the audience he's trying to entertain. For years, Godinez has enjoyed blockbuster success at Anepalco and its sequel, both restaurants crowd-pleasing even as they dabble in mixing French technique with Mexican staples. But with El Mercado, Godinez has created his masterpiece—his Schindler's List, Jurassic Park and E.T., all in one. It's at this point, however, that my Spielberg analogy must end because what Godinez has done here is unprecedented.
As Gustavo Arellano wrote in his preview of the restaurant, Godinez—in what might be a subtle jab at Rick Bayless—is literally offering the flavors of Mexico, one plate at a time. The menu is constructed to represent nearly all of Mexico's states. Each dish hails from a specific region, and the menu is organized so that as you read it, you progress from appetizers to main entrées, then to dessert. But as with the chapters in a Lonely Planet guidebook, each entry is a new place to explore and discover. And when you actually eat, you get not only the cuisine of Mexico as most Americans have never had it, but also a lesson in the country's diverse geography.
I am not kidding about the geography lesson, by the way. I ordered the chicken mole and got an actual map of Mexico drawn on my plate, its coastline and borders traced in avocado purée, the land mass and terrain filled in with paint-thick smears of sauce and protein. Apart from the Instagram-ready presentation, the mole was one for the ages, smoky on top of earthy, a flavor distillation of all the chiles and spices that went into it. I used every grain from the plate of rice it came with to scrape up each drop of sauce, speck of cheese and leaf of cilantro.
When I was served the aguachile that represents Sinaloa, I thought the kitchen made a mistake: the dish was nothing but a tall stack of cucumber slices. But then, with a nudge of my fork, the cucumber fell away as if dominos, revealing shrimp and avocado marinating in a chilled green liquid that electric-shocks the tongue with lemony acidity and chile heat.
There were surprises such as this everywhere. The "Tabasco" dish was described as ceviche de coco, and though I was expecting some sort of seafood in it, there was none. Instead, the dish was more like a salad crossed with a gazpacho, with curls of sweet coconut meat swimming in cold coconut water next to tomatoes and floating clouds of coconut foam.
Tacos made an appearance, but none more bold than the tacos orientales, the Chihuahuan version of al pastor. Godinez piled mountains of adobo-cooked pork and pineapple atop two rounds of rustic tortilla that were chewy, crispy, coarse and smooth. I folded the massive thing up, took a chomp, and did my best to not let any of the fillings escape while streams of melted cheese trailed every bite.
If you have no idea what a tlayuda is, let Godinez's version be the first to acquaint you. It's enormous, the size of a large halved pizza that took over our table. I dragged a knife through it, slicing up wedges. The thin, crepe-like crust was crisp on the edges and soft in the middle, where it was smeared with beans, dolloped with puréed avocado and dripped with jocoque, an equivalent of sour cream native to Oaxaca.
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Of the many things that can be called a main entrée, there was costillas de puerco, pork ribs slow-cooked and smothered in a morita chile sauce that made it taste like a cross between Italian osso bucco and Texas barbecue. There were also two steak entrées. The least expensive was the arrachera from Coahuila, a perfectly cooked skirt steak sliced on the bias and served with a red chile reduction and charred cactus. The cactus did its best impression of green beans filled with Jell-O, and the steak was as tender as this cut of beef has ever been or could be.
The two desserts are wonderful—not to be skipped. The thick custard of a rum-spiked jericalla and rompope hybrid from Jalisco was akin to a combination of egg nog, panna cotta and flan. And the refreshing dessert from Morelos was a frozen coconut-milk treat that's equal parts Hawaiian shaved ice and sorbet.
In my two visits, apart from being his masterpiece, it has become evident to me that El Mercado is also an intensely personal and ambitious project for Godinez. And people are taking notice. One person Gustavo talked to during the preview said, "This is the Mexican restaurant that downtown Santa Ana deserves." I agree, but I would argue that it's even more than that: This is the best restaurant in Santa Ana.
El Mercado Modern Cuisine, 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; www.mercadomodern.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight; Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Full bar.