Javier's Cantina & Grill Gets Bested
In which two food writers decide to check out our readers’ assertion that Javier’s is OC’s best restaurant
We may never know how Javier’s got enough votes to win Best Restaurant on our annual Best of OC Readers’ Poll this year. But Gustavo Arellano couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. Short of demanding a recount, examining the hanging chads and sulking, the man who lives to give Weekly readers the scoop on where to find the best holes-in-the-wall proposed that we go together to experience it for ourselves. This was either going to validate the results, or confirm our worst fears that Javier’s was a tortilla torture chamber.
It must be said that neither of us had been there before, but we knew its reputation as expensive and exclusive—two things that go against the very fiber of Gustavo’s column. Plus, the women of The Real Housewives of Orange County are said to love the place.
But we were going to go in with open minds and give them a fair shake. We’ll call it as we see it, we said, nothing less.
I met Gustavo in front of the restaurant, where the valet was choked with freshly buffed Beemers. Inside, glittery Newport Beach bodies garbed in designer jeans filled the seats. But our eyes were focused less on the people and more on the surroundings, which were palatial. Long sabers, alit with flames, lined the entryway. And the deeper we went into the rabbit hole, the more we realized how big the place was. We passed through a labyrinthine network of fire pits, Pottery Barn furnishings and interior-design opulence. If this was Architectural Digest, my review would end here and proclaim the experience a triumph.
Unfortunately, I have to write about the food. This was a night of combination plates, heavy on Spanish rice and refried beans, meals designed for deep-pocketed guests to reminisce about resort vacations past. But for me, it was a reminder that I’ve had dinners just like this at the usual Tex-Mex spots—most notably, Mexicasa, a cash-only joint in Anaheim that I only mention now because what we paid in tip here could’ve fed a family of four there (not that I’d recommend it).
And on Javier’s refried beans, we were flummoxed: What the heck did Javier’s do to them? Gustavo tasted a heaping forkful and dismissed it. I dissected their weirdness as an academic exercise. They stuck to the fork tines like mashed potatoes, disintegrated in the mouth like paste, and looked purplish like Hawaiian poi. The rice took less time to decipher: The overcooked grains were clumped together where they weren’t mushy.
On the rest of the three-item combo plate, sour cream was piped via star-tip into swirls usually reserved for cake frosting, but its artful appearance is for just that: appearances. Yes, the meat inside the tamale, the enchilada and the taco was fine, but the taco shell was stale even before it arrived, and the enchilada sauce tasted like it came from a jar.
To my surprise, Gustavo, who has been known to chug hot sauce from the bottle, thought the salsa wasn’t horrible. He was less than ecstatic over the ceviche de camarones, though. I’m understating his reaction here because this was actually the dish he ordered to compare with that of his favorite mariscos dive. But it would’ve faltered on its own, with shrimp overcooked to rubber and sluiced with lime juice to a one-noted sourness.
We both liked the queso fundido, a fuming plate of rapidly congealing gooey cheese, olives and chorizo, its spicy, red-tinged grease forming glistening pools. If it weren’t for the barely warmed and less-than-pliant store-bought tortillas, we would’ve lapped it up for the blatant harbinger of heartburn it is.
Gustavo enjoyed his steak picado, though he qualified it with the remark that it takes no genius to cook steak, just good meat. I nodded in agreement as I ate Javier’s mole poblano, a dish consisting of two capably cooked hunks of their “natural” white-meat chicken (as to what they mean by “natural,” your guess is as good as mine). But the dark, watery sauce draped over it conveyed one flavor: salt. Squint as I might, the complexity I’d expected of mole—the cocoa bitterness, the smoky spices—just wasn’t there.
Then we had a margarita each and two desserts—thus maxing our expense budget. (On queso fundido and combo plates? Sadly, yes.) The margarita softened the pain of seeing the Angels lose to the Yankees, and despite the damp-sawdust texture of the corn flakes that covered the outer surface, the deep-fried ice cream and its buñuelo basket was better than the unremarkable flan.
Is Javier’s the best restaurant in OC? Our answer is an unqualified no. But as they say: there’s no accounting for taste. If you like it, you like it. Besides that, the food here seems to come in a distant third to the glitz and the scene. But to those who voted for it, I implore: Read our columns more, will ya? We’ll show you things.
Javier’s Cantina & Grill, 7832 Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 494-1239; www.javiers-cantina.com. Dinner for two, $50-$80, food only. Full bar.
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