[Hole in the Wall] El Chile Picante Goes Easy on the Cheesy
Easy On the Cheesy
Does a name like that for a Mexican restaurant inspire much confidence, o brave Hole-in-the-Wall devotees? It sure didn’t for me; I passed by this Santa Ana storefront for years, always assuming it was a holdover from the days when “Mexican” restaurants served tamale pie and baked everything with yellow cheese. But its constantly busy tables and continued existence eventually clued me in to another OC regional Mexican gem.
El Chile Picante must’ve been a club in its previous incarnation, with its high ceilings, ample floor space, bucolic Mexican mural looming over the heads of diners and rarely used jukebox toward the back. And a lot of the food they offer is probably a carryover from that era—tacos, tostadas, seafood and the like. They serve a great machaca, and the chilaquiles remain crispy even under a sea of green or red salsa. But you have to dig a bit through the menu and disregard its many misspellings (don’t worry: the picadillo is not “miced meat,” despite its English translation, but rather ground beef enlivened with mint) to find El Chile Picante’s best entrées.
One of them, pozole verde, isn’t on the menu. Good thing it’s painted on the window! The version here isn’t as stunning as the one served a couple of blocks over at Las Brisas de Apatzingan, but its nevertheless a find, a bracing stew of pork, hominy, onions and chiles that do what chiles do at their best: not napalm your senses, but rather open the palate. Another is the Michoacán-style enchiladas. Don’t expect tortillas glued to your plate with melted cheese; these come four to an order, corn tortillas folded in half instead of rolled like a cigar, and the cheese inside each is crumbly cotija cheese served fresh, not melted. Coupled with a slightly spicy enchilada sauce, you have a surprisingly light meal you can enjoy for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The chavileca is kind of like a quesadilla, and it doesn’t show up on Google. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
What if you’re not into Mexican? A breakfast feast of two eggs, two pancakes, two sausages, two slices of bacon and hash browns goes for five bucks. Even Norms can’t match this bargain.
Finally, a word about one of the owners, a stout, dark woman with a sing-songy, somnolescent accent straight from the rancho. She’s at El Chile Picante from morning through night, cooking your food to order and slapping out tortillas. One time, I was a dollar short on my bill, but she didn’t mind. “Don’t worry about it,” she said in Spanish. “Next time, you’ll pay me back.” And I did.
El Chile Picante at 1904 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 557-2514.
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