The pretty, unassuming house salsa looks like a recipe stolen from Gourmet. But don’t let its watery consistency fool you: just a drip of the juice, and the sweat beads begin. Get a couple of seeds on your scooping chip, and you’ll reach for a cooling drink. And beware the jalapeño strips and other chunks of chiles inside the small molcajete. One shudders to imagine the Scoville-scale rating this salsa might reach if the cooks bothered to thicken it to stick on your tongue. Yes, it’s muy caliente.
That such a stunner of a salsa is prepared as an afterthought is telling of El Fogón (The Bonfire), a gem of a place in a Santa Ana industrial neighborhood sandwiched between the notorious Minnie and Standard street barrios. Outside, the décor is body-shop glass-and-white; inside, a beautiful collage of pastel shades, Aztec motifs, a flat-screen perpetually tuned to the History Channel en español and a large portrait of Mexican screen goddess Maria Félix. El Fogón specializes in the cuisine of Guerrero, a Mexican Pacific coastal state long famous because of Acapulco, recently notorious because of drug wars, but criminally unknown stateside for its cuisine. The most famous dish is pozole verde, and El Fogón stews it fresh daily, with the stock created from boiling a pig’s head. (Don’t worry: They don’t serve that meat in the dish, but you can order it in tacos.) Pork, pozole and who-knows-what herbs come together in a bowl, radiantly green, hearty and crunchy yet a bit tart—a must-taste soup.
The guerrerense specials hide inside a long menu chockablock with fajitas, ceviches, wet burritos and other American favorites. You can find aporriado at some Michoacán-style restaurants in Orange County, but those are nothing like this: beef dried so that the outside is beef jerky, the inside as succulent as carne asada, chopped up and served alongside rice and beans. “¿Qué pique?” the owner—who’ll remind you of a loudmouthed aunt—will ask. “You want it to burn?” Absolutely, and the resulting salsa pica like the house version, but with more flavor. A thicker, saltier take is used to sauté the longaniza, chorizo’s sweeter cousin. Look on the walls for occasional specials—maybe pansita de borrego (lamb belly, so meltingly decadent it makes chicharrones seem as fatty as a manila folder) or white menudo, the infamous tripe stew now sweet instead of spicy. Visit in the evening, when it’s most likely you can enjoy the tortitas, essentially beef or chicken falafels served with chopped cactus—you can only eat these treats locally at a guerrerense restaurant or during Lent. And if you must eat tacos, don’t order them until late at night, when El Fogón sets up a streetside stand. Don’t mind the cholos, the Mexican transvestites and the drunks from nearby bars; just enjoy the real street taco, not some hipster fantasy.
El Fogón at 1228 E. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 836-8896.
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