Sorry to break the flow of this issue, folks: There’s nothing particularly sexy about the Orange Coast College Swap Meet, unless you enjoy the many stalls hawking women’s unmentionables, or the packets of men’s underwear featuring pictures of well-endowed hunks. But as the Great Recession has driven your humble scribe to patronize anew the county’s swap meets, I’ve made the delightful discovery of the OCC Swap Meet’s great food scene.
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This vast open-air market, open every Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., was nearly shut down a couple of years ago by the Costa Mesa City Council because they didn’t like the idea of thousands of working-class, mostly Latino shoppers descending upon the college grounds to score great deals. The bargains include grub, and there are food stalls in addition to the produce market, dried-foods table and that guy who sells imitation junk food near the kid who watches over his dad’s collection of vintage Schwinn bikes. On the southeast side of the swap-meet lot is a mango man selling fruit salads and the funky Jaliscan drink called tejuino, a thick, fermented corn beverage whose bitter, salty flavor is cut with a hefty helping of piloncillo (brown sugar). Farther up the aisle is a lonchero who appears to sell straightforward Mexican food. Ignore the regular menu and look for the specials listed on a sheet of cardboard taped to the chef’s window. Look especially for the gorditas, thin-but-expansive masa masses prepared on the spot to the foodstuff’s toasted, moist apotheosis. This stall sells my all-time favorite gordita, rajas con queso—salty cheese mixed with jalapeño strips that don’t burn too much—but these tend to sell out fast. If they’re not available, just move on to the gorditas de chicharrón or requesón (a ricotta-like Mexican cheese)—they’re also among the best gorditas you’ll find in Orange County that aren’t made in a house and/or sold from a trunk.
The southwest portion of the swap meet is where most of the food stands congregate, but not all of them demand your attention. The mariscos sellers offer all the standard Mexican seafood dishes—ceviche, shrimp cocktails, even oysters—but no real specialty. You won’t find any gems at the Chinese-food stall, but the lines of Mexicans here never end. It’s a bit too cold right now for raspados or licuados, but those two vendors will make summer days beautiful. In the meanwhile, spend your time at one of the only places in the county that sells Guatemalan-style enchiladas (closer to what Mexicans call a tostada, but much better). And marvel at the fact that the Vietnamese family who prepare roasted corn sell it to Mexicans speaking English: la naranja at its best.
The Orange Coast College Swap Meet is held in the Orange Coast College parking lot, near Fairview Road and Monitor Way, Costa Mesa. No phone number.