Sorry, South County, but your Mexican-food scene sucks. For a region so vast, with so much money and so many Mexican workers, you can count the restaurants worth driving down there for on one hand. There's the Surfin' Chicken in San Clemente, Celinda's in Rancho Santa Margarita, La Cocina de Ricardo in Lake Forest, and . . . and . . . and . . . that's about it. So that's why I was excited when members of Tapestry, the awesome Unitarian Universalist congregation in Mission Viejo, asked me to join them at La Rana in Aliso Viejo. I had long heard great things about the place, even drove past it one time—but what other reason would I have to drive to Aliso Viejo, perhaps the most forgettable city in OC? But the kind Tapestry folks insisted I'd love La Rana, so off I drove down the 5 freeway (fuck the 73 toll road).
I knew this was the real deal upon entering—not because of the Aztec calendar on the wall or the black-velvet painting of an Aztec warrior, but because the tiny restaurant was packed with Mexican men. And not just any hombres, but guys wearing the T-shirts, sweat shirts and vests of construction, arborist, gardening, electrical and plumbing companies. Wanna know what makes a Mexican restaurant "authentic"? It's when the majority of customers are these guys, and our group of a dozen or so radical Christians confirmed my thesis. Out came bowls of silky menudo (both spicy and not) and grande tacos. The regular salsa was hot; the spicy one, puro paisa. The Negra Modelo flowed, and there was even agua de naranja—watered-down orange juice that takes on the magical properties of Orange Bang! La Rana also makes a great cochinita pibil, down to the pickled purple onions and succulent pork as orange as a traffic cone.
Is La Rana worth a trip down from SanTana? Damn straight. Though serving the same stuff as your typical barrio taquería, the quality is superb, the owners kind, and it's a good Mexican restaurant in South County: a rarity worth celebrating as much as an actual swallow in San Juan. Provecho!
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La Rana, 27001 Moulton Pkwy., Ste. 104-A, Aliso Viejo, (949) 643-2899.