Taste Test: Bella & Baja Restaurant "Where Italy Meets Mexico"

Taste Test: Bella & Baja Restaurant "Where Italy Meets Mexico"
Edwin Goei

Baja & Bella. Stella's and Bella. La Fogta Baha Grill. Depending on where you look, these are the many names and aliases that this puzzler of a restaurant that recently opened on MacArthur Blvd. near Bristol uses. But that's not the most beguiling part in all this. The restaurant that can't decide what it wants to be called also doesn't quite know whether it's a Mexican restaurant or an Italian one...so it has become both.

The restaurant serves both Italian and Mexican dishes out of the same kitchen, simultaneously, with a menu that sees tacos and burritos on one side, pizza and pasta on the other. Its tagline is "Where Italy Meets Mexico", but mistake this not for some sort of fusion restaurant. There's a clear dividing line between the disparate cuisines and that line is never, ever crossed.

Taste Test: Bella & Baja Restaurant "Where Italy Meets Mexico"
Edwin Goei

They've got a salsa bar, complete with escabeche. Next to the counter, a row of display plates are wrapped in Saran wrap just in case you don't know what a taco salad or spaghetti and meatballs look like. But it's a lovely space and they seem to mean well. If some of the food suffers, I'm chalking it up because it's still in search of an audience.

What follows is a Taste Test, where I try two dishes and only two dishes. This, I repeat, is not a formal review of the restaurant. With that said, when I go again, I think I'll be sticking to the Italian menu. In the enchilada I ate, the carne asada was soggy, and the almost-mole that draped the tortilla gave the impression of sweet barbecue sauce. The beans were watery and the Spanish rice side dish was unfortunately dry, perhaps that way because it had been waiting all morning to be served and eaten. I was one of four customers who decided to lunch there.

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The spaghetti was much better, and it was what it is: spaghetti and meatballs. On the deep-welled plate, three big, beef meatballs engorged and fattened up with possibly breadcrumbs are tangled up and surrounded by slightly too-soft noodles in a thick marinara with two butter-soaked garlic bread hunks piled on top. I assume the latter is cut from the same rolls they also use to make their meatballs sandwiches. It was a satisfying plate of spaghetti. But if I was really trying to be critical, I'd say it was just spaghetti.

I remain curious of their pizza, their hot sandwiches, and their fajita platters. And I hope they fix that enchilada. Though I do wonder if they've ever seen that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry convinces restaurateur Babu Bhatt into changing his overarching international menu to one that serves just Pakistani food. We all know what happened to Babu when he followed Seinfeld's advice.

1501 W Macarthur Blvd., Santa Ana, CA 92704; (714) 755-7000

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