Taco Towns

Illustration by Bob AulMany Mexicans nowadays don't identify themselves primarily as "Mexican" since there are so damn many of us here. Instead, we classify ourselves by the Mexican state or region of our roots, with fierce rivalries between groups (I remember epic P.E. basketball battles between tapatíos—people from Jalisco—and kids from Guanajuato), usually precluding any pan-Mexican unity. To make matters more provincial, many of us still associate with cities thousands of miles away that relocated virtually intact to Orange County during the past three decades.

You can see these transplanted Mexican communities in the names of businesses like Zapatería Jerez (an Anaheim shoe store saving the soles of people from my ancestral city in Zacatecas), Sahuayo Tires and Carnitas Uruapán. But if you want to experience these cities-within-cities without buying shoes or getting an oil change, there is an appetizing alternative. Some of these Orange County ranchos have gone into the taquería business as a way of creating a space where people can meet and eat meat. Two of the better ones in terms of hosting good community and food are Taquería El Granjenal in Costa Mesa and Anaheim's Taquería Arandas.

Taquería El Granjenal is probably the most authentic taco stand in the county. The 15-year-old open-air, sit-down, no-frills eatery with a delightful pastel color scheme is located in the heart of Costa Mesa's barrio and close to the section of Santa Ana where many people from the Michoacán village first settled in the United States.

Although El Granjenal serves all Mexican fast-food staples (the tortas are especially noteworthy), stick to their exquisite tacos. The price ($1.85) may seem a bit expensive, but while most taquerías serve tiny offerings of their main dish, El Granjenal's rendition is titanic. The owners deviate from taco protocol by using full-sized corn tortillas and pile on chunks of your choice of grilled meat. The salsa is also extraordinary, a dark-red lava extract whose burn factor is unknown outside Paricutín.

Though the culinary side is splendid, the restaurant seems to have lost its community roots. Nothing other than its name suggests that thousands of people from El Granjenal now live throughout Orange County. When I asked the man working the counter why this is so, he told me that the taquería's founder sold the restaurant a couple of years ago and remodeled the place, removing most vestiges of its roots (pictures and a map of Michoacán, etc.). However, the new non-El Granjenal native owner didn't change the name out of respect for the community; too many people from El Granjenal still come here to remember their rancho through food.

Taquería Arandas' pride for its namesake is more obvious. I discovered this place after my arandense friends (all with homes in Anaheim and the city of about 70,000 in Jalisco) started singing its praises last year. Arandenses are braggarts about their town, and this taquería shows it.

Before you even enter, a window painting of Arandas' landmark San José Obrero Cathedral (which also serves as the restaurant's logo) greets you. Inside, you'll find two pictures of the same church (one recent, another dating back to the 1900s) and another of the largest bell in Mexico, which lies within the church's premises.

The hole-in-the-wall's tacos are like those at most taquerías: miniscule, cheap and tasty. But one thing that distinguishes Arandas' version is its selection of rare-for-taco meats like buche (pig stomach) and tripas (cow intestines). Regardless of which meat you choose, the restaurant uses down-soft tortillas as a base, cramming them with huge chunks of savory onions and cilantro and topping them with a salsa more tangy than spicy to make their humble specialty a gourmet meal.

It might seem weird for populaces to rely on taquerías to maintain civic unity; I mean, haven't they heard of community centers? But El Granjenal and Arandas prove not only that it's important to maintain ties with your townspeople but also that you can have a taco with them. I don't know about you, but great food would have me talking to my degenerate neighbors any day.

Taquería El Granjenal, located at 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, is open daily, 7 a.m.-midnight. (949) 645-4964. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10, food only. Cash only; Taquería Arandas, located at 305 S. Brookhurst, Anaheim, is open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 520-7935. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $8, food only. Cash only.


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