El Portal de Veracruz

Photo by Tenaya HillsThe reconquista continues: El Portal de Veracruz is Orange County's first Mexican restaurant to specialize in the cuisine of Veracruz, the Caribbean coastal state best known for twinkly son jarocho music and huachinango a la veracruzana, red snapper slathered with a creamy, caper-studded sauce. You won't find either of those here, though. Instead, El Portal functions primarily as a cafeteria, a culinary and cultural nexus for the surrounding El Modena barrio. There's piñatas, ice cream buckets, trays of pan dulces and a cooler crammed with Mexican sodas. Free newspapers litter the entrance; taped to the windows are fliers advertising prayer groups at the nearby La Purísima Catholic Church. Men stroll in throughout the day, taking a respite from loitering across the street at a check-cashing site. Sometimes people dance to the tropical rhythms of the Santa Ana-based KWIZ-FM 96.7 "Sonido" blaring from the shoddy sound system.

Eventually, everyone sits down and eats. Most people pick their El Portal meal from a buffet that surprises hourly. Sometimes you'll find fried bananas sidling against pork ribs slathered in a citrusy green salsa spiked with smoky cactus strips. Or you can go veggie and load up on grilled jalapeños, cheese-sprinkled refried beans and moist rice. Throughout the day, El Portal cooks add to the stacks of Saran-wrapped rotisserie chickens that line the buffet; families purchase a hen, then tear the spicy flesh off the bones to make impromptu tacos. Menudo, stews, sandwiches the size of coconuts, chicharrones fried until they're as hard and oily as asphalt—wait long enough, they'll appear.

But no meal at El Portal is worth eating without at least one masa-based Veracruzan snack. The tamales are different from what Americans expect in their Mexican tamales: pillowy and moist instead of slightly crunchy and dry, wrapped in a banana leaf rather than a corn husk, obese with chicken strips and vegetables. Picaditas are really glorified fried sopes topped with shredded cabbage, queso fresco and your choice of meat, but they're as light as a salad. The garnachas, too, seem familiar at first—buttered-up tortillas folded over mashed potatoes, meat and a mild adobe-colored salsa, they look like greasy tacos—but they're delicate like an enchilada and twice as filling.

El Portal also prepares the strangest salsa I've come across in my Mexican life: a cranberry-red, oily substance as thick as a river bottom. Ask for it, and the cooks will inevitably grin, ready to howl when your face turns into a sprinkler—that would be in about 40 seconds. Don't worry—napkins are on the house.

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