Diego's Downtown seemed to have materialized from nowhere. Apart from the location at the former Cafe Azteca across from the Yost Theater, the menu of alta cocina-style dishes and an anemic paragraph describing its owner/chef Richard Espinachio as a person who's had "20 years' experience in art and cuisine," the restaurant's website gave nothing up and provided no conclusive proof that the place wasn't actually just beamed down by a passing spaceship.
So when a man who introduced himself as the pastry chef came around to see how we'd enjoyed our dinner, I took the opportunity to interrogate him: "Where did you guys come from before this?" "What other restaurants has the chef worked for?" The pastry chef revealed that he studied culinary arts at Orange Coast College with Mr. Espinachio. They were both recent grads. In fact, he told me a majority of the kitchen staff came from OCC. Mr. Espinachio, it turns out, was an art-gallery owner who decided to go to cooking school, graduated, and then hired some of his classmates when he opened this restaurant. After we exchanged more pleasantries and I complimented him on the wonderful empanadas we had, I thanked him for his time. The restaurant had filled up to half by then, and the exceedingly horrible acoustics of the room made it hard for me to hear anything else he had to say.
Those were indeed lovely empanadas. I'm still thinking about how delicate the golden half-moons were a week later. They came four to an order, each one barely enough for two bites, with a soft, crumbly crust that eased you into the warm contours of either a queso fresco or a spicy chorizo filling. We would've declared them the best dish of the night had we not also ordered the Plato Bueno, an adaptation of Swiss raclette that saw farmer's cheese baked until it melted into a puddle, then drizzled with honey and dusted with crushed pistachios. We scooped it up and ate the cheese blubber on top of tiny rounds of toast, all of us declaring this appetizer trumped all others. The fried calamari were just fried calamari: the usual squid rings, their crispy coating already shedding, the dish narrowly saved from Applebee's mediocrity by the add-on of batter-fried jalapeños and an aioli de ajo dipping sauce we found worked just as well with the empanadas. On a shrimp appetizer, a thick coat of a dark, complex paste made from mulato chiles and honey managed to mask an overcooked chewiness. And if it weren't for the "Oaxacan" dipping sauce that I suspected was actually mole, the unevenly fried yucca fries might have been easily forgotten.
Diego's Downtown, 224 E. Third St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8257; diegosdowntown.com. Open Tues.-Wed., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat.,11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Full bar.
No matter what we ordered, be it the appetizers or the main courses, everything came in artfully presented haute-cuisine portions. A mild cashew-crusted halibut in need of acidity and some sort of sinful sauce, arrived in a dramatic, swooping bowl over rice and saddled with grilled squash—the serving size made to tempt the eyes, not fill the gut. A tamarind-glazed short rib was slightly bigger, with deeply tangy ribbons of the slow-cooked meat already divorced from its bones and now reminiscent of a pile of messy brown rags draping the hockey puck of a breaded "manchego cheese risotto cake" that, in retrospect, sounded better on paper.
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What Diego's has done here Anepalco's Cafe and Raya at Ritz Carlton have accomplished previously: to show the culinary traditions of Mexico do not always come in cheesy combos with rice and refried beans. Diego's is unique in that it does it in Downtown Santa Ana, where it straddles two disparate dining universes—hipster restaurants on one side, countless regional Mexican specialists on the other.
The menu has ample evidence it wants to appeal to the customers of both: Diego's offers a version of steak frites, but with yucca fries. It does tortas ahogadas with slow-cooked beef and pork, but the red dipping sauce is served on the side, not doused over the sandwich. There are steak and eggs for breakfast, but also chilaquiles and caldo de res. And then there are the sopes, usually fist-sized and flat, but here served in three neat, dim-sum bites that resemble squat mushroom stumps, the fried masa pockets stuffed with homemade chorizo and queso fresco, then topped with a meticulously fried quail egg.
Some dishes are served with a bowl of refried beans but not by that name—rather "butterscotch calypso beans de la olla," which simply means they're stewed in a pot. But the beans don't taste as though they came from a Mexican restaurant trying to be hipster or hipster restaurant trying to be Mexican; they taste like something from mami's kitchen.