Photo by Rain LaneCall it Guanaco Row: two restaurants, a café, a courier service, a travel agency and a beauty salon/record store side by side on Santa Ana's Main Street between Richland and Highland. It's the epicenter of the county's 100,000 guanacos, as the Salvadorans call themselves.
Even the Salvadoran government knows the importance of this strip to its exiled compatriots. When the country's vice president visited SoCal a couple of years ago, he visited the district and praised its entrepreneurs for their continued support of the homeland. And dinner? At El Carbonero, of course. It's Guanaco Row's anchor and was Orange County's first Salvadoran restaurant.
In 20 years of operation, remarkably little has changed at El Carbonero. Twinkling Christmas lights hang from the ceiling year-round, illuminating idyllic but faded travel posters and a jukebox that spins everything from cumbia rarities to rock en español and the stray new-wave synth-out. The opening of another El Carbonero branch in Anaheim about a decade ago remains a simulacrum of the original, right down to the partitioned dining room and tacky red chairs.
Owner María de Jesús Ramírez also ensured that El Carbonero #1 and #2 used the same recipes of her hearty native cuisine, the primary reason why El Carbonero persists while so many other Salvadoran restaurants disappear. Imitate the regulars and order at least one pupusa, the masa griddle cake that Salvadorans consume from crib to crypt. Ramírez patted out the county's first pupusas, and they continue to impress—tinted a slight orange by the flavored grease, grilled longer than normal until they attain a delightful crispiness, bubbling inside with salty cheese and your choice of pork, beans or loroco, a subtly bitter flower bud.
Pupusas theoretically constitute a filling meal, but that would insult the rest of El Carbonero's menu. Ramírez's salpicón salad is almost Thai in its grainy, limey sourness, and the ground beef and onions are minced so fine you can almost sniff it into your bloodstream. The Salvadoran chile relleno embarrasses the Mexican version with its battered bulk. There's no cheese inside the two-fisted bell pepper; it's stuffed instead with grilled pork cubes, onions, carrots and tomatoes. El Carbonero trumps Mexico again with its carne asada, as charred as the best taquería asada but with a gourmet taste derived from chimol, a wildly tart salsa made from plum tomatoes, jalapeños and cilantro tossed with red wine vinegar and a dash of salt and pepper. And El Carbonero's horchata, heavy with cinnamon and toasted rice, makes Mexican horchata taste like a Tijuana gutter. Too bad Salvadorans can't beat Mexicans at anything else.
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El Carbonero #1, 803 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-6653; #2, 9304 Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-4542.