Mini Cafe Masters the Perfecto Middle
A perfect plate of restaurant chilaquiles is as elusive an achievement as hitting for the cycle in baseball. Most eateries are content to serve the Mexican breakfast of tortilla strips buried underneath salsa, cheese and eggs in its most common iterations—mushy and wet, or fried so that what you eat are tortilla chips. Such excesses can be delicious, but cooks who rely on those extremes don't understand the alchemy involved in the perfect plate: slightly hard strips soft enough for a teething baby, salsa that burns only slightly, eggs that act more like a flavorful binding agent than an up-front ingredient, and a cheese that doesn't overwhelm all those flavors. Even my favorite local chilaquiles—the floppy masterpiece over at Taqueria Zamora in Santa Ana, as well as the brittle beauties at Costa Mesa's Amorelia Café—can't achieve that ideal middle.
In fact, I know of only one place outside my mother's kitchen that can: Mini Cafe in Santa Ana, which most Orange Countians probably know better as that small Mexican restaurant next to legendary diving hole the Fling that people stare longingly into late at night after one too many. Indeed, you'll see many Fling old-timers begin their day with breakfast at Mini Cafe, go next door to the Fling, emerge for lunch, then back to the Fling, and end their day with dinner there—a revolving door of alcohol and the manna needed to soak it up (you can even take your food into the Fling, so symbiotic is the relationship).
Mini Cafe's chilaquiles are simply magnificent, even if they're not fully Mexican. Instead of the rice that customarily accompanies the dish, the cooks sauté potato slices until they're a crisp golden-brown. The pinto beans have Cheddar cheese on them instead of queso fresco. But it doesn't matter: These chilaquiles are as perfect a testament to the beauty of their genre as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is to Cubism.
Mini Cafe is a rarity unto its own: a true Mexican-American diner, the kind that straddles that hyphen comfortably, that can master the breakfast burrito as easily as a short stack, where customers rave as much about the burgers (juicy, grilled just a little bit longer, à la carne asada) as the enchiladas (gooey and fat and fabulous). Chicken-fried steak and horchata? Sí, please. And while we're speaking about the beauty of perfect middles, the French toast comes crisped on the outside, with a middle as creamy as custard.
This column appeared in print as "The Perfecto Middle."
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