They Were Expendable
Can ustedes do me a big favor, gentle readers? It’s quite simple: Any time you eat at an American-style deli or sandwich shop, order the items you’ve never heard of, the ones that clue the gourmand to the ethnicity of the dive’s owners. The meals too many ignore. I made the same request a couple of months ago for Irvine’s Signature Café (the beautiful gourmet-wrap restaurant whose owner had to drop most of her Ethiopian items because of a lack of interest), and I’m making it again after visiting Lina’s Deli.
I came to this Mission Viejo sub place looking for a good hoagie. Instead, I found a clandestine Argentine outpost in South County lost in an industrial park, overshadowed by its iconic next-door neighbor, Rocky’s Chicken. The pampas is just a small part of the menu, placed as an afterthought alongside an encyclopedic overview of cold and hot American sandwiches. A miga was what I wanted, the classic Buenos Aires take on tea-time sandwiches. But the young cashier sadly shook his head. “We don’t sell miga anymore,” he said, before yelling back to the kitchen to make sure. No miga: No one ordered them, and the tough economic times precluded them from stocking the ingredients. We both sighed; another cashier took an order for a massive tuna salad.
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“Do you want an empanada instead?” the man asked. Lina’s only sells six kinds of the turnover, but one of them, the jalapeño empanada, you won’t find anywhere else in Southern California. Argentine cuisine doesn’t bother with heat, but maybe its stateside cooks should: Lina’s combines delicately spiced ground beef (was that cinnamon I tasted in the meat juice that dribbled across my cheeks?) with a buttery, soft shell and enough jalapeño shavings to tingle, not scorch. Argentines and Mexicans have never gotten along, but the jalapeño empanada is the bridge toward tolerance.
The empanada isn’t the best meal, though. The cashier recommended I try the milanesa sandwich, a breaded beef or chicken cutlet pounded thin. Only tomato and lettuce accompany the meat, and that’s all the accouterments needed, so tasty the milanesa is. I chose the beef, and the milanesa stuffed into a large Italian roll was so big, I could’ve folded the edges that spilled out of the bread and nearly wrapped the meat around so that the two ends met. No grease spoiled the crunchy sweetness of the cutlet; herbs inside refreshed the palate. You can find milanesa sandwiches at many Mexican restaurants and all the Argentine spots, but not like this—so order it lest Lina’s also scratches it because of a lack of love.
Lina’s Deli, 24001 Via Fabricante, Ste. 902, Mission Viejo, (949) 855-9999; www.linasdeli.com.