There’s a certain type of Mexican restaurant that attracts an almost exclusively Mexican audience—not the much-debated “authentic” Mexican dive of so much petty blogger chatter and not even an amazing, undiscovered gem. I’m talking about the type of restaurant where the floors are sticky and no one cares, where the menu contains the foods prepared at home but no regional specialties, where the only non-Mexicans who enter either get quizzical stares from everyone else or get gently chided in that benevolently bigoted way only Mexicans can execute. I’m talking about Taqueria Zamora.
Here is a place where the strata of Santa Ana’s Mexicans congregate: the nattily dressed politicos and bums carrying half-empty 40s; the families in their Pentecostal best and the laborers; the girls wearing short dresses two sizes too small, grabbing a bite before clubbing and the homeboys dropping “fucking” before every adjective, noun and verb. The only time I’ve ever seen a gabacho here, he was trying to explain to some pochos that the banda music reverberating from the jukebox reminded him of bluegrass; the pochos remained silent, having never heard of the genre before.
I might be painting a dystopic picture of Taquería Zamora, but that’s only to show it’s about the most Mexican restaurant in Orange County, the type of place where Mexicans go when they don’t want to cook and want giant platters of cheap, tasty comida. All meals start with complimentary refried beans topped with salty cotija cheese, perfect for scooping up with the freshly fried tortilla chips; a bowl of chile de arbol sits on the side, nearly bubbling with its ire. You can order entrées available at any other Mexican restaurant in the county, but Zamora hides some treasures in the most unassuming of choices. A request for a taco produces the largest one I’ve ever met that wasn’t a taco acorazado; the wonderfully misshapen, freshly patted corn tortilla is larger than your average flour version, thick and slightly crispy and tasting of fresh masa. Atop it lie giant chunks of your choice of meat, nicely grilled yet juicy. The taco is so huge, it even veers into that most impossible of Mexican foods: the burrito made with a corn tortilla. These do exceed the $1 limit I usually place on my taco orders, but only by 75 cents—even I’m not so orthodox in my taco beliefs.
And those tortillas! Each Zamora order comes with a basket of floppy, thick, beautiful beasts, even in the other dish I usually order: the crunchy-mushy spicy chilaquiles. Birria, pozole and menudo also work—order anything, even if it’s not great, just to have another crack at some of the finest tortillas not patted out in the rancho. Smear on some beans and salsa, and then show off the rest to stunned friends.
Taqueria Zamora, 3121 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 557-0907; www.taqueriazamora.net.
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This column appeared in print as "The Most Mexican Restaurant In OC?"