Death Row Decision!

Photo by Jack GouldI went to lunch with Kresal the other day.

"Where are we going for lunch?" I asked.

"How about the Mexican place next to the Vons next to the Toys R Us across the street from South Coast Plaza?" he said.

Of course I said okay. If there's one thing my friend Kresal knows, besides unusual ways to wear sunglasses ("You Know How Some Guys Wear Their Sunglasses on the Back of Their Heads?" April 13), it's Mexican food. I remember when we were in college and Kresal was working at some place in Anaheim that sold, like, hammers or ingots, constructiony stuff, and he told me to come down and eat at his favorite Mexican place, and we went and it was great! They had chips and salsa and everything! Leave it to Kresal.

So I met him at the Mexican place, and I noticed it was called Baja Fish Tacos. Uh-oh, I thought to myself. Fish tacos. This is another one of those Wahoo's clones that pop up more and more. Like what happened with Tommy's Burgers in LA.

Still, I do like my fish tacos, so I ordered the combo ($5.35), two tacos of charbroiled fish with beans and rice. When they arrived at our table, they looked just like the ones at Wahoo's—the double soft corn tortillas, the white meat covered by shredded cabbage and a sprinkling of salsa. But who knew how they'd taste? The clones manage to replicate the ingredients, even the look of the thing, but they never manage to find its soul. The whole is less than the sum of the parts. I asked the server for extra lime and salsa, like I always do at Wahoo's, and he looked at me funny.

"Idiot," suggested Kresal, "you get the lime and salsa over there."

Indeed, there was an oasis of cut and marinated vegetables, limes, and salsa. Kind of reminded me of the spread at Taco Mesa. I added salsa and lime to my tacos and—what do you know?—they tasted great. They had that clean, healthy, tangy thing going on, complemented by black beans and white rice that provided sufficient bulk for the rest of the day. Terrific.

Kresal ordered the Bravo Burrito ($5). It came with blackened chicken breast, cabbage-relish white sauce and cheeses. He said he gets this every time he comes here. He said it tastes good and healthy, fills him up without making him feel all heavy. In fact, it's so filling he doesn't even order it as the combo with beans and rice ($6.10). I believe he liked it because he was really tearing into it. And it was then, as I watched Kresal getting all primal on his Bravo, just around the time he told me he was eating nothing but barley in the mornings, that I realized Baja Fish Tacos wasn't a clone. It was a mutant. You know, in the good way.

Take the two best-known Mexican joints in the county—Wahoo's and Taco Mesa—and mix them together, and you get Baja. Not better, but a nice melding of the two into one place by the Toys R Us across from South Coast Plaza. The menu has that kind of quasi-Cajun-Mexican cuisine Taco Mesa pioneered: blackened shrimp tacos and burritos, blackened chicken burritos, tacos and quesadillas. There's grilled fish tortas—Mexican sandwiches—as well as beer-battered and blackened ones. And, of course, there's the fish tacos.

Granted, if it came down to a death row decision, I'd still go with Wahoo's. It's nothing I can really put my finger on; maybe it's that soul crap I was selling you earlier, or maybe it's just because I was raised on the stuff. But if the prison warden told me, "Sorry, you'll have to take Baja fish tacos instead. Now hurry up—we still have to shave your genitals," I wouldn't be that disappointed.

By the time the meal with Kresal was over, I felt very good. I'd had a good meal, felt satiated but not full, got a chance to see Kresal and talk about barley. We both agreed barley was a good thing that was good for you. Then, feeling good, Kresal suggested we get ice cream. We each ate a quarter of a pound.

Baja Fish Tacos, 3664 S. Bristol, Santa Ana, is open Mon.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (714) 641-4836. Beer and wine. Lunch for two, $10-$12, food only. Cash only; also at 23020 Lake Forest Dr., Ste. 130, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-0920.


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