Photo by Jeanne RiceA true Mexican restaurant is named after an unpronounceable Mexican town. Its tequila is so sweet that you will drink the proverbial worm and so potent that when you throw it up six hours later, the worm will not have been digested. Its wall will be decorated with a mural of a Mexico so idyllic you wonder why the owners left it in the first place. The mariachi will be singing (in Spanish) century-old songs that celebrate death, destruction and the hatred of anything North American. It will be located in a neighborhood in which the only English is on the stop sign at the corner. It will serve dishes the Taco Bell Chihuahua would have trouble pronouncing, let alone making.
Now let us apply these criteria. Tlaquepaque (which means "learn Nahuatl and find out") Restaurant is located in Placentia's Old Town. "Old Town" usually signifies elderly whites meandering through antique shops; this old town is in the heart of the Placentia barrio—the same neighborhood where Placentia's city fair was held for many years until the City Council found out Mexicans lived there and moved it to a nicer part of town. Tlaquepaque is next to a taquería stand and a store that sells pan dulce. Leave these treats for later and proceed to the restaurant foyer, where a glass engraving of an Aztec warrior and a charro—Mexico's two great cultural icons—greets you.
Tlaquepaque is cavernous, with papelitos (colorful paper designs) crisscrossing the ceiling and the predictable sombreros, saddles and ropes hung on the walls. At the west end of Tlaquepaque is the stage where the house mariachi plays—more on them later—and behind the stage is the mural. It is a scene probably taken from Tlaquepaque's town square on market day. The men are on horseback, the women are wrapped in shawls and the vendors hawk their merchandise; everything is Edenic. Nowhere do you see poverty, the PRI or pendejos—the bitter reality of Mexico.
The food is delicious, if a bit expensive. You can try the buffet, with tacos, tostadas and other items you can get at Taco Bell, but you want Mexican Mexican food, not Mexican cuisine courtesy of a glass tower in Irvine. Try real Mexican entrées—carne asada, enchiladas, chile rellenos (peppers stuffed with cheese and cooked in egg batter—pure ambrosia), and a dazzling array of shrimp dishes. Be adventurous and order the mole, a chile and meat dish that is pronounced "mo-lay." The meat—chicken, beef or pork—is covered with a bizarre salsa with the texture of ketchup. The salsa can be made either of the sweetest ingredients of this planet—chocolate, sugar, honey—or spices harvested from Satan's flower garden. The mole at Tlaquepaque is both, a compromise appealing both to the Mexican and non-Mexican palate.
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The bar is huge, offering every beverage known to Ted Kennedy. If you want an authentic Mexican hangover, ask for the deans of Mexican alcoholism: José Cuervo tequila or Presidente brandy. Mix with Coke, and it will hammer you so hard you'll start singing with the mariachi.
And what a mariachi! Mariachi Imperial de México is the best house mariachi I have ever heard. Besides playing standards like "El Rey" and any song Vicente Fernández has sung, they play the traditional revolutionary corridos that any serious mariachi must master.
There is no Ricky Martin here, no Chihuahuas. You can't get more authentic than this unless you parachute into Mexico—or at least Santa Ana.
Tlaquepaque, located at 111 W. Santa Fe, Placentia, is open Tues.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7-midnight; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (714) 528-8515. Dinner for two, $40, food only. Visa and MC accepted; Mariachi Imperial de México performs Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., 9:30 p.m. & 11:15 p.m.; Sun., noon-3 p.m. Reservations recommended for show times.