It's so, so easy to trash our cousins in the Inland Empire, but we owe our love of Mexican food to them. San Bernardino gave us Glenn Bell of Taco Bell fame; Del Taco's first location was in Yermo; Duane R. Roberts invented the frozen burrito, thereby ensuring the survival of truck drivers and college students. Our love of big burritos was solidified by pioneers such as Rosa Maria's, Baker's Drive-In (originator of a designated drive-through lane for Mexican food) and Taco Tia, the first Mexican fast-food chain in America.
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To try 909-Mex, though, you'd have to get off the 91 or the 15—and who would ever do that? Thankfully, we no longer have to face that prospect gracias to Miguel's Jr., which opened up its first location in Costa Mesa in 2012 after 40 years in the Inland Empire, recently debuted in Orange and plans more OC spots. Think of it as the TK Burger of Riverside County—not necessarily the biggest regional chain, but nevertheless beloved. Its menu is straightforward: hard-shell tacos, nachos, quesadillas, and simple combo plates featuring such Cal-Mex favorites as shredded beef and chile verde. But the reason to visit Miguel's Jr. is its IE-style burritos, exemplars of the region's love for its Mexican food. Although the squat Miguel's Jr. Original is the namesake and delicious, the most iconic is the Garbage Burrito, which is the working-class brother of Chipotle-style burritos—think a bunch of ingredients inside a powdery flour tortilla that's stretched to its physical capacity.
But my favorite burrito at Miguel's Jr. was also popularized in the IE; it's a simple beans, cheese and rice concoction that isn't that big. This was the original burrito that entered the United States in the 1950s, one that's an endangered species in this land of carne asada, fish and California burritos. Miguel's Jr. makes a fabulous version, with silky beans, fluffy Spanish rice and the right amount of Cheddar to bind the two. Sure, it's hard for OCers to forsake their Wahoo's and Chronic Tacos for something new, but visit Miguel's Jr. for your edible, delicious history lesson.
Miguel's Jr., 141 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-2153; also at 1325 Tustin St., Orange, (714) 633-4000; www.miguelsjr.com.