In terms of diversity, Fullerton probably has the best selection of Mexican restaurants in Orange County, besting even Santa Ana. It's the birthplace of Taquería de Anda, the county's largest homegrown taco chain, and boasts representatives from nearly all the Mexican food phyla: regional Mexican with El Fortín, Cal-Mex via Pepe's, a menudo cult at El Camino Real, Mexican-American at Super Mex, more than a few cantinas for the college crowd, the great panadería Plaza Bakery, and Matador's attempts at Rick Bayless heights. And we're not even counting the many chains, from Chipotle to El Torito, that keep Fullertonian panzas fed well into the night.
But the best of the bunch is Taquería La Bamba, the epitome of an unassuming taco shop that tries its damnedest to not let the public know its true specialty. The main menu features a litany of taquería standards—burritos, quesadillas, tacos—alongside tortas, licuados and enchilada platters. But just next to the counter, on a small dry-erase board, is the restaurant's true focus: comida chilanga, Mexico City-style food.
Order the quesadilla and out comes a juggernaut of crisped tortilla, longer than a foot in length but not as wide, the folded product looking more like a dosa than anything Mexican. Inside are ingredients best loved in the megalopolis: flor de calabaza, squash flowers sautéed alongside onions to create something as savory as ratatouille, elevated by a cheese nearly as creamy as Brie. The huitlacoche has a sharper, muskier flavor, while the spicy chicken tinga is shredded so finely it looks like ice shavings. Whatever your choice of stuffing, the cooks add a layer of cabbage, queso fresco and crema fresca, creating the best quesadilla in the county.
But even better is the pambazo, Mexico City's favorite sandwich. Cooks dunk two slices of a bolillo into a red salsa, then place them on the grill until the salsa seeps inside and the seeds toast and embed themselves on the crust. La Bamba actually lets the bolillos burn, which is a good thing because the process sweetens the bread to the point at which the cheesy flavor is exactly like capirotada, the legendary Mexican Lenten bread pudding. But this is no dessert—inside is a mash of potatoes and chorizo reduced to charred grains that imparts cracks of porcine funk as jolting as chewing on a Lifesaver.
Though always busy, the owners care for customers, calling the males jefe and women doña. And they make fresh salsas daily: a chipotle one as thick as ketchup, smoky and furtive; blindingly hot habanero-and-jalapeño; simmering chile de árbol; and a funky avocado salsa—not as runny as the muck that too many Southern California restaurants have served for generations, not as thick as a guacamole, but a great balance between buttery and furious, chunky and smooth, chido y chingón.
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This column appeared in print as "El Queso Grande."