Photo by Jeanne RiceIn central OC, taquerias are as common as jackalope post cards at an Arizona gift shop. It takes some patience to separate the good from the bad and the ugly. Over the years, I've become fond of a family-run sextet of 24-hour taco stands called Taqueras Guadalajara, places where a guy can knock back a Bud and a bowl of menudo at 8:30 a.m. and get on with his day. Alfonso Calderon, one of the six brothers behind the operation, says his uncle Jos started the business in 1979 with one lunch truck that he parked around Santa Ana. Recognizing an opportunity for something unique, he rounded up his six nephews and eventually opened six taquerias countywide. My favorite is the one on Anaheim Boulevard, a shop of magenta, mustard and papaya-colored walls complemented by Javier Solis and Los Tucanes de Tijuana on the CD player. In one booth, a couple discusses the terms of his probation; at another, lovebirds slurp oysters on the half shell and drink Bohemia.
That was the only action during my recent daytime visit. Between midnight and daybreak, though, the place is packed. That's when the after-hours crowds arrive for the tiny, doubled corn tortillas filled with chicken; marinated, slightly gamy asada; or smoky, chile-tinged rotisserie pork doused with chopped cilantro and white onions. The latter, tacos al pastor, is my favorite. There's a salsa bar filled with limes, marinated carrots, and vats of fresh tomatillo and chile salsas. The chicken burrito is a celebration of sabor, the tender meat cooked in its skin to seal in moisture. For breakfast, I like the chilaquiles, chips covered in red sauce with rice, beans and guacamole.
The goat logo on the menu and signs doesn't just refer to the juicy goat (birria) tacos, burritos and other popular menu items. Soccer fans recognize the menu mascot's jersey as identical to that of Las Chivas, the hugely popular Guadalajaran soccer team. It's that kind of Jaliscan camaraderie, along with the authenticity of the food, that makes these brothers and their tacos so recognizable in the community.
Alfonso Calderon's most recent project, the Chiva Mobil, will bring the taqueria full circle back to its Santa Ana taco-truck roots. He has just completed a turnkey customization of the gleaming, quilted-metal food truck with the smiling goat on the side. Parked in the pitted asphalt lot of Dora's Liquor at Bristol and Chestnut, it stands out like a purple-and-orange beacon with indoor and outdoor speakers blaring ranchera music. The truck opens at 5 p.m., but Calderon says the real crowds come between 8 and 11. He works that spot on Friday and Saturday nights and moves to Centennial Park on Sundays for soccer games. The Chiva Mobil has an express menu: just tacos, burritos, tortas and drinks. It's not the same as being in the full-menu taquerias, but the Brothers Calderon get huge points for taking their operation back to the streets.
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Taqueras Guadalajara, located at 520 N. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, is open 24 hours daily. (714) 758-1370. Also in Santa Ana, (714) 953-1191 and (714) 547-7515; Fullerton, (714) 992-5325; San Juan Capistrano, (949) 487-7421; and La Puente, (626) 918-6861. Beer only. Dinner for two, $8.50, food only. Cash only.