Holy Mole!

Photo by Jack GouldWhen I want to impress upon a visitor that Orange County isn't just a Lysol-redolent bedroom community but rather a land of rare wonders and hidden virtues, I'll usually take them to Taco Mesa and let the seafood specials or blackened-calamari tacos do the talking.

When I'm looking to kick back with fellow locals, though, we'll just as often go to Costa Mesa's El Matador. Not that Taco Mesa doesn't also serve as a fine local kickback. It's just that its original Costa Mesa location near me has that slanted patio, which is discomfiting for persons such as myself who spend a lot of time worrying about falling off the planet.

El Matador, meanwhile, is a comforting place. With its scaled-down Olvera Street interior—simulating brightly painted adobe walls and sloping roofs—its red-leather booths draped with festive blankets, the hanging piñatas and the requisite paintings of romance-novel-quality Aztec heroes on the walls, it reminds me of the Zorro-era Mexican restaurants of my youth. Add a non-youthful margarita or two to that, and it's a verycomforting place.

El Matador is now in its second generation of family ownership, hosted by genial brothers Marcial and Cesar Gallardo. The place has sat behind its brick-façade location since 1966, largely unchanged and decidedly old school. That doesn't necessarily mean much: there's another equally venerable establishment around the corner on 17th Street where the food is merely tired gringo bait, and tired gringos keep biting at it.

At Mexican restaurants, you can often tell just by the first dip into the salsa bowl if a place is any good. El Matador has a splendid salsa—fresh, tangy and heavy on the oregano. And it just gets better from there.

Though the prices, I'm sad to note, nowadays rival the trendy Chimayo-type eateries, the menu offers few concessions to nouveau cuisine or regional fads. Instead, you'll just find heaps of good food, with close to 100 items you can make a meal of, including 27 combination plates, ranging from the filling $7.45 deluxe tostada to the $15.95 halibut steak platter (I haven't tried that yet, but the $14.95 del mar pescado à la Veracruzano boasts a very nicely balanced Veracruz sauce).

My favorite items are the shrimp dishes. The spicy shrimp tacos rise majestically over most fish tacos (which El Matador also does pretty well). Better yet, the chichiniza is a big messy platter of shrimp, scrambled eggs and two cheeses topped with an orange ranchera sauce that you can play with to your heart's content.

The tacos al pastor, with grilled top sirloin strips and guacamole, are splendid, and even the simple ground-beef enchiladas are fine. The marinated-chicken fajitas are at least as good as any you'll find in the formerly trendy Southwestern restaurants. The only things I've tried that I'm not enthused about are the tamales, which are good-sized but not very flavorful.

With so much of Mexican cooking assimilated into the American mainstream, chicken mole remains one of the few holdouts yet to be Del Taco-ized. Even I, intrepid eater of spikedscalyslimysuspicious things, have at times taken a bite of some place's 30-weight mole sauce of chiles, chocolate and whatever and reflected, "This thing that is in my mouth should not be in my mouth. Help."

At first bite, El Matador's version seemed an unassuming, mild mole, making me wish I'd ordered the tried-and-true arroz con pollo instead. Then the mole started to pick up steam, becoming cumulatively hotter and more complex with each mouthful until I was sopping up the last of the sauce with my tortilla.

The place also has a powerful breakfast menu—including a mighty machaca platter—which is pretty good considering they're not even open for breakfast. You can, however, order those items all day.

El Matador, located at 1768 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 645-0324. Full bar. Dinner for two, $12-$40, food only. Discover, MC and Visa accepted.


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