Ever heard of Querétaro? It has next-to-no name recognition in Orange County, unlike so many of the other Mexican states: no mass migration to these parts à la Zacatecas and Michoacán, no transcendent reputation à la Guanajuato and Oaxaca, not a tourist hub such as Baja or Mexico City. Ask me to name a distinguishing feature about the state, and I'd point to its soccer team, perennial also-rans in Mexico's first-division league.
But it's from Querétaro that one of the best Mexican restaurants to hit la naranja in some time hails: Potzol den Cano, a strangely named chain that recently opened its first American location in a Santa Ana strip mall. This isn't some dive where Spanish is the only language and sonidero blasts from the speakers; there's money invested in this prototype. There's a nice outdoor eating area, and the chairs are individually crafted from iron in the Spanish colonial style. The waitstaff is usually bilingual; the setting, clean. And the menu is an audacious trip through the cuisine of Querétaro, a land at the crossroads of many regional cultures but culinary masters of seemingly all of them.
Potzol den Cano takes its name from pozole, the impossibly rich soup of pork and hominy that nourishes even better than menudo. Instead of just serving red broth, Potzol offers a milky white broth as well, while allowing you to customize the cuts in your soup—some pork head, maybe, or shoulder or leg. It's up to you to decorate it with radishes, salsa, tostadas and lettuce, making a bowl of already-dense bliss even heavier. But sticking to the pozole here, as rich as it may be, neglects an encyclopedic menu chockablock with regional specialities. You'll find burritas—not burritos, but rather a type of quesadilla made of ham, yellow cheese and tomato that you drown in a vinegary jalapeño salsa. Breakfasts riff on a simple eggs/beans/cheese/rice quartet, just as Lalo Guerrero did with his pachuco boogie, never deviating from brilliance while switching around the salsas, the cheese and the style of beans (here are the best pinto beans in Orange County, silky and served with so much broth it nearly qualifies as a soup). Tortas and tostadas offer their own Thomas Guide of options. And while enfrijoladas (tortillas smeared with bean paste) are generally associated with Oaxaca, no Oaxacan restaurant makes them as gloriously as they are here: stuffed with chicken and queso panela, then topped with so much chorizo that the results look like someone ground up an entire pig in front of you.
Potzol den Cano, www.potzoldencano.com.
Are there a lot of Querétaran in Orange County? Beats me. But one visit to Potzol will make you a fan of the state forever—so much better than that wretched Jalisco, ¿qué no?
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This column appeared in print as "Querétaro Power."