When I first arrived in SanTana as an adult a decade ago, all of my pals said I had to go visit Restaurant Mary. There was no urgency to their recommendation—no buzz dish to try, no colorful chef, just a good restaurant that santaneros took their mamis to, where eldery tías out for a night on the town would gather to eat and gossip for hours. "It's great, don't get me wrong," one pal would always say. "But no hurry—it's always going to be there."
A decade passed. I've excavated nearly all of SanTana's spectacular food scene in that time, from hipster trends to some of the best Mexican food in Southern California—but I never bothered with Restaurant Mary. Even after I moved into the city, and my work commute required I drive past its humble structure on South Main Street every day to reach Weekly world headquarters, I still ignored the spot. But one day, stuck in rush-hour traffic, I finally decided to stop in. My friends were wrong; this is a gem, one that shouldn't be thrown on the mañana, mañana pile.
Restaurant Mary is best characterized as a fonda, a homestyle restaurant where the service is leisurely, the atmosphere homey. The bright, ornate chairs seem to come from a Gabriel García Marquez novel, decorated with suns, moons and other pastiches; street vendors and musicians will pop in from time to time, hawking their wares to the 10 or so tables in the restaurant. There is no door or window separating the kitchen from the dining room, meaning the air fills with the smell of freshly cooked beans and patted-out masa hitting the comal as the cooks prepare the restaurant's thick, beautifully misshapen tortillas.
Restaurant Mary, 1819 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-1744.
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If you had to shove the restaurant into a genre, I guess you could call the food here Michoacán-style: The enchiladas are made in the tradition of the state (not fused into a roll with cheese, but rather folded as though a taco and stuffed with barely melted cotija), there's a focus on quail and Cornish hen, and the kitchen even makes aporreadillo, an awesome breakfast dish that finds shredded steak cooked with chunks of scrambled eggs, all drenched in a light tomato sauce—think of it as chilaquiles for carnivores. But the emphasis here is on the pan-Mexican favorites—chiles rellenos, tacos, moles—prepared with extra care, knowing the customer base is Mexicans looking for something nicer than a taquería. The house salsa comes in ramekins; the chile rellenos are offered dry or in a potato-based soup (just the way Mexicans like them). This is an excellent family place, not a spot for the compas. Now, excuse me while I find my amigos and yell at them for making me ignore Restaurant Mary for a decade. . . .