The Goat That Stares at Men
The Santa Ana lonchera La Cascada surely has one of the stranger ads in Orange County’s dining scene. A vinyl banner hanging from its side features a jungle; its inspiration, a waterfall, rushes down the right side into a lagoon in the center. The scene is lush, an imaginary oasis in a rough neighborhood, a refreshing respite from the asphalt-and-concrete reality that dominates the lives of so many santaneros . . . and then, to the left, the illusion is shattered by a quizzical goat staring directly at you.
Goat is the name of el juego at La Cascada—birria, to be specific, the stew more associated with Jalisco than Apatzingán in the state Michoacán, from where the owners hail. A cardboard sign taped to the driver’s window says that the birria sold here is estilo Apatzingán, but that’s more a marketing ploy to grab the attention of Santa Ana’s massive michoacano population than any true regional specialty. That said, the birria pleases: roasted, then left in its juices until someone orders it, at which point it’s hacked into soft strands and—depending on your choice—placed in a plate alongside beans and rice or a Styrofoam bowl along with its broth. Regardless of your choice, the corn tortillas are all-you-can-eat.
Cumin, chiles, garlic, astringent touches of laurel leaves, bracing cloves—all get absorbed by the birria, and the flavors magnify when you sip the broth. La Cascada offers three salsas, each with a specific purpose: the green, redolent of cilantro and lime, finds a perfect home on the rice; a red seeps into the refried beans to complement their earthiness. But the king is the salsa de aceite, made from the smoky chile de arbol, dark and as viscous as Castrol. Its thickness clings to the birria and clumps up its juices to create little bubbles that pop directly onto your palate while imparting a furtive heat—okay, maybe not literally pop, but the goat flavor seriously gushes with every bite.
As great as the birria is at La Cascada, I prefer just a simple cup of the goat drippings as a meal, steaming and dressed simply with cilantro and onions. It’s liquid chivo—the flavors concentrated, the mixture of spice, sweetness and gaminess unequalled by any goat presentation on Earth. Add in salsa de aceite and squeezes of the juicy limes, and you’ll have one splendid pepper belly in the evening. But, hey, that’s what the gaseous, sugar-cane-derived bottles of Jarritos are for. It’s the Mexican Alka-Seltzer!
La Cascada, Central Avenue between Baker and Bristol streets, Santa Ana. No phone number.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.