Photo by Jessica CalkinsThrow your burrito in the trash can. Chuck your pan dulce to the raccoons. Forget everything you knew about Mexican food. Go to El Fortin in Fullerton. They serve Oaxacan food.
There's an Oaxacan restaurant in Orange County!
Don't excuse my enthusiasm. Oaxacan cuisine has rightfully become a culinary sensation, getting lengthy features in the New York Timesand Martha Stewart's empire. But Oaxacan food's magic doesn't originate solely from its complex flavors, unbelievable richness and dishes that—while ostensibly Mexican—are not of this world, much less its native country. No, the food of Oaxaca is part of a still-evolving story that's testament to the entrepreneurial will of immigrants.
Hailing from one of the most impoverished states in the Mexican union, Oaxacans are ridiculed for their short stature, bronze skin and adherence to indigenous ways (oaxaco is commonly used as a pejorative term by other Mexicans). But Oaxacans have found success in the United States, improving their lives possibly more than any other recent immigrant group by opening outstanding restaurants featuring the cooking of their homeland.
And now they're in Orange County. El Fortin is the county's first full Oaxacan locale. Opened three years ago by Mario Ramírez of San Felipe Ixtapa, Oaxaca, and his fellow villagers, El Fortin's strip mall of culinary delights is located in the middle of a busy street away from any stop signs but worth risking a crash to enter.
El Fortin extends the foods of its state that are familiar to you in entrées only—and even then, the items have new-for-you-but-ancient-for-them purposes. Instead of tortillas accompanying your meal, for example, El Fortin makes clayudas, a paper-thin tire of flour served plain or buried under cheese, guacamole and beans. The beans are the black legumes of the tropics rather than the ubiquitous pintos. And Oaxacan tamales are corn bricks wrapped in banana leaves and painted with a sturdy salsa.
These are just the side offerings; all of El Fortin's dishes twist your Mexican meal logic. Try the entomatada: two folded flour tortillas drenched in a tangy tomato sauce and topped with repollo and quesillo (the Oaxacan variety of cheese famous for its stringiness and sharp, salty flavor). Their cheap combos (including a fabulous chilaquile rendition) come with your choice of quesillo, chorizo (spicier than the chorizo you're accustomed to), tasajo (sliced, grilled, salted beef round) and cecina enchilada (a spicier version of tasajo). Get past the shock value of their chapulín (that's grasshopper) quesadilla and you'll discover a delectable morsel, with the salty, spicy yet sour insect crunching nicely along with the thick cheese.
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To accompany these meals, you can down traditional Mexican sodas such as Jarritos and Fanta but I recommend their horchata. Oaxacan horchata is richer than the horchatas of Mexico because its addition of nuts, melon slices and a small jigger of fruity red punch gives it a naturally sweet taste better than any faux-sugary beverage.
But El Fortin's greatest asset is its mole dishes. In a country where each state has its unique version of the curry-like dish, Oaxaca is king, and El Fortin offers four varieties of the royal family. The coloradito has a subtlety that can only be appreciated after the meal is finished while the amarillo's fire will have you licking sand. The mole negro is simply stunning. A work of art involving more than 20 ingredients, it's slathered over your choice of chicken or pork and has a smoky sweetness defying explanation but partly explained by the chocolate bits sprinkled throughout. And I won't even bother describing the house mole, as my tongue cannot possibly articulate this creation—only eat.
El Fortin also doubles as a community hub for the county's growing Oaxacan population, flying in their ingredients directly from Oaxaca and acting as couriers by transporting food, photos and money between people here and there. "We use to sell Oaxacan food at fairs and found out that there were many Oaxacans in Orange County," says María Ramirez, wife of owner Mario. "So we decided to open this restaurant and help them out, too."
El Fortin, located at 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, is open Sun.-Fri., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. (714) 773-4290. Beer only. Dinner for two, $12-$15, food only. Cash only.