Every couple of weeks, I get an urge to try the best damn tamales in Southern California, moist, fluffy masa bricks wrapped in banana leaves, rubbed with mole negro and served the Oaxacan way. It's the type of foodstuff that would spark a visit from Bourdain, that would obsess the crazy Yelp kids, that would create a small fortune for its makers and contentment for the rest of la naranja.
But I can't tell you where I buy this amazing tamale; it's illegal. Nor can I tell you where my family buys miraculous chorizo or milky queso fresco; they're also illegal. See, my family—as with so many Mexicans—gets a large chunk of its food from the cottage-food industry: from people who make food at home to sell to the public. Hipsters recently discovered this art, and Orange County is currently experiencing a renaissance of wondrous home-produced creations: desserts, jams, home-brewed beer and so much more . . . and it's all illegal.
California's onerous food-production laws have stymied many aspiring foodmakers from starting a business from their homes (there is a proposed Assembly bill stuck in bureaucratic hell seeking to remedy this); everyone must look at spending at least tens of thousands of dollars just for the opportunity to be legal, so too few people make the jump from neighborhood vendor to legitimate business.
One of the lucky few is Ochoa's Chorizo in Santa Ana, a storefront plopped in the middle of the city's industrial nothingness. The business is nothing new to the region—for the past 35 years, the barrios of south Santa Ana have consumed with glee the chorizo prepared by the Ochoa family, hand-cranked individually by the progeny of Aurora Ochoa. She's well into her abuelita years now, but a couple of years ago, her children decided to legitimize the family trade, found their current location, and bought professional equipment to boost production. And boy, have they: Whereas the family traditionally made around 500 pounds of chorizo links per week, their current output is around 2,500 pounds per week—more than a ton.
Aurora and her husband still put in an honest day's work in their golden years, but now the children and grandchildren prep the chorizo, mix it with their secret blend of spices, crank the mix into natural casings and twist them into links, and keep them hanging off racks for customers to buy, meters at a time. They sell different chorizos to suit every palate—a mild version, a spicier one with a furious kick, a chicken version, even soyrizo for those vegetarians who need the sausage's charm. And each Ochoa chorizo is only about 10 percent fat—it's a lean cabrón, one that allows the pork and spices to come through, that lets the grease lurk in the background, never overwhelming the party in your mouth that everyone's invited to.
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But Ochoca's fame has spread largely on the strength of its chorizo verde, links as green as a healthy lawn, one of the few places in Southern California to sell this speciality. Made from jalapeños, the chorizo is initially light on the palate, seemingly a bunch of hype . . . and then the heat creeps in, a refreshing one per the jalapeño's sear.
Ochoa's has slowly introduced other foodstuffs over the past year—an awesome beef jerky, for one. And the family wants to sell the chorizo to supermarkets—but again, those damn California (and Orange County, for that matter) health-code regulations. Spend this summer feasting on Ochoa's chorizo, as well as the treasures sold out of homes, but come fall—whether you're Democrat or Republican, a supporter of Romney, Obama, Paul or even batty Lyndon LaRouche—let's all drop our political differences and fight for a California cottage-food bill. Car-trunk tamale lovers of the world, unite!
This column appeared in print as "Chorizo With Amnesty: Ochoa's Chorizo is cottage-food industry done right."