East Coast Deli's Mucho Mangia
So it's come to this in Orange County: a Latino serving New York Italian food to another Mexican while talking about Volkswagen Bus memories in English.
It happened a couple of weeks ago at East Coast Deli in Fountain Valley, an A-frame-shaped restaurant that probably served burgers or ice cream in another incarnation, definitely not the refined Italian/Mexican menu it now offers. Owner Alex Lopez (whom I presume is a Mexican, but won't state with confidence lest he's a Salvi) knows how to prep pasta and hot dogs like any gruff East Coaster, but he can't help but sneak Mexican favorites onto his menu as specials—a great carnitas taco, fat dripping off the tortilla, or a gargantuan carne asada burrito. Want to wash down your ravioli with a mandarin-flavored Jarritos? You can here, probably the only place in la naranja where such a flavorful cultural exchange is possible outside when my mom makes fettucine Alfredo topped with red salsa—true story!
The Mexican items are only a small part of the menu, though, and Lopez pays the rent selling all the classics of an East Coast, well, deli. The cold hoagies can be wielded as a Louisville Slugger, as they are densely packed with meat cuts and peppers. The East Coast Hoagie—mortadella, salami, prosciutto, capacolla and provolone topped with peppers—is like a porcine turducken, the flavors of the pork cuts melding with one another until what reaches your mouth is salty, fatty pleasure. As delicious as that is, I usually favor the hot hoagies, jonesing for Lopez's fluffy, marinara-soaked meatball sandwich.
The pastas are fine (pillowy ravioli covered in a cheesy pink sauce), the hot dogs veer from the subtle chili on the Coney dog to the bastardized Godfather dog (marinara on a wiener? Sure!), and he also delves into the gourmet with a panini list ranging from the tried-and-true (a fine, if expected, ham and Swiss) to a chicken chipotle version that reminds you of the pepper's merits after too many lame interpretations over the years.
I didn't ask Lopez much about his restaurant history—he regaled me with tales of a friend who drove a Westfalia from Guadalajara to Southern California while I waited for my cannoli to go, relaying my order in Spanish to his worker. The pastry was fat, flaky and impossibly sweet, as great as any homemade cannoli in Orange County. Now, if Lopez would only top his lasagna with habanero salsa, like my mami does. . . .
This column appeared in print as "Mucho Mangia."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.