Mexican eateries can be divided into two camps. The first includes your El Toritos and Acapulcos—the upscale to mid-range places, usually chains, where the margaritas are more of an attraction than the food. Then there are the burrito joints and taquerias—places where the food is cheap but good, and the atmosphere, if it exists at all, is crafted through years of accumulation and whimsy, not by a commissioned interior designer.
Until recently, El Matador fell into the latter category. A Costa Mesa institution since 1966, the restaurant looked like a Cinco de Mayo party-supply store. It was cramped and cozy. Colors clashed. Piñatas dangled. But with a change of ownership came a change in focus. The old El Matador still exists, but walk a few steps to the right after entering and into another room, and you may as well have flown a thousand miles. Delicate blown-glass sombreros act as light fixtures. A full bar is decked out in mirrors and glimmering liquor bottles. Designer art is color-coordinated with the paint on the walls.
This new space, I'm told, was claimed from a tire store that closed up shop, and the remodel has turned El Matador into a bizarre hybrid: a Costa Mesa hole-in-the-wall grafted with a cosmetically enhanced, trendy Newport Beach hot spot.
Though I never tried the food before the makeover, the menu appears to be largely unchanged. The usual parade of combos are listed first, with endless permutations of enchiladas, tostadas and tacos. The main combo was something dubbed the House Special. Ridiculously portioned over two plates, it included a cheese enchilada, a tamale, a ground-beef taco and a bean tostada. Of course, there's the obligatory rice and beans, which was draped in cheese and had a made-from-scratch texture.
As for the rest of the combo, we laughed at the wanton excess of it before we gushed at how it all tasted. The enchiladas were cheesy, slobbery, oozy things, drenched in plenty of red sauce and so scalding hot it burned like magma in our mouths. The hard-shell tacos were girthy, filled with nicely seasoned lean ground beef. The tamale was fine, too, if a bit dry, but since we're normal humans with normal-sized stomachs, the tostada ended up in the doggie bag untouched.
Thanks—or not—to a basket of bottomless chips that kept getting refilled, our shrinking appetites could only make a dent in the chichiniza, a dish made up of a generous helping of shrimp cooked until it curled into fetal balls, tossed with scrambled eggs, melted cheese and a creamy pink sauce that smacked of chile and cumin.
The Mexican pizza we saw on the specials list inspired this exchange:
"Isn't that a Taco Bell Corp.-patented invention?"
"No, you're thinking of the MexiMelt®."
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But what showed up on the plate resembled neither. It was larger in size and deeper in taste. Its "crisp flour tortilla" base—which started out crunchy—succumbed within seconds to the sopping power of the pile. The sloppy-tasty shredded beef, tomatoes, onion, peppers and melted cheese fought for dominance and won, leaving the defeated tortilla layers to limp along.
The cheese crisp also suffered a similar fate, being neither particularly cheesy nor particularly crispy. The ultimate victors were the beans, the well-seasoned chunks of beef and the avalanche of lettuce that covered the mass. Despite the short half-life of the flour-tortilla shell, the rest of it was great fodder for scooping with some corn tortilla chips.
I didn't forget the margaritas. Everyone in the gussied-up side of the restaurant seemed to be sipping one, so it didn't take a lot of urging to get one of my friends to do the same. What I failed to notice was whether the diners on the other side, at the old El Matador, were following suit. Wouldn't it be bizarre if they weren't?
EL MATADOR, 1768 NEWPORT BLVD., COSTA MESA, (949) 645-0324. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $40, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR WITH MARGARITAS!