Not all locations in chains are created equal—consider the El Moctezuma empire of Oaxacan restaurants in Orange County. Its original location in Santa Ana is one of the oldest Oaxacan eateries in the county, but it’s not one I frequent much—it’s too tiny, the music or television is usually too loud, and it has a bad parking lot. The second branch is the one I like the most: a large space not far from my old Anaheim stomping grounds, but if I’m in its Garden Grove shopping plaza, I usually head for Mr. Pollo across the big parking lot instead. The third El Moctezuma is the one I visit most frequently, but it’s also the most difficult to find: It’s in a strip mall, like so many Orange County restaurants, but one of the rare ones that run perpendicular to its feeder street.
The only constant of the El Moctezuma family is the quality of food: excellent standard Oaxacan feasts of moles, brick-big tamales, ropy quesillo (the milky Oaxacan cheese reminiscent of mozzarella) and dishes that have yet to enter the American Mexican cookery outside of froufrou Rick Bayless acolytes. The easy dish to order is the tlayuda, a gargantuan tortilla crisped, blackened gracias to a vigorous smearing of lard-spiked black-bean paste, and then topped by shredded cabbage, unmelted quesillo and your choice of meat. It’s a tostada writ large, best enjoyed as an appetizer shared by four, especially when the meat of choice is the thin, salted beef called tasajo. If it’s a lighter appetizer you seek, the ensalada de nopal—diced cactus mixed like a pico de gallo, but more fulfilling—is fine. But better are the molotes, fried masa cigars wrapped featuring a mixture of chorizo and potatoes, greasy and brilliant. And remember that the Oaxacan empanada isn’t the tiny, flaky pastry of so many panaderías, but rather a huge, savory meal more quesadilla than turnover—and here, it’s filled with mushrooms.
Moles and Oaxacans are like corn and Nebraskans, and El Moctezuma prepares five of them. If you must choose one at any of its three spots, go with the mole negro—smoky, sweet thanks to the dark chocolate used, multilayered like a Mayan calendar. Just one mandatory rule: When you order the horchata, ask for it preparada (prepared). Don’t, and you get a chalky, pasty drink. Do, and that beverage is transformed into a milky rainbow spiked with prickly pear syrup, melon bits and cashews.
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El Moctezuma 809 N. Fairview St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0402; 12531 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 658-8482; 1740 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-0080.
This review appeared in print as "Mondo Molotes."