Inside-out tamales. Photo by Matt Otto
Inside-out tamales. Photo by Matt Otto

This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

You can't get more unassuming than Rivera Mexican Food. The only decoration so far at the new Garden Grove restaurant is a giant painting of a koi pond with Chinese characters. The music is generic ranchera. It's located in the center of a shopping plaza. The waiters are dressed in white and black—no sombreros or guayaberas for them. And the menu is equally mundane: seafood platters (cocktails, ceviche, soups and shrimp prepared nine ways), carne asada and lunch and dinner combos you can get at El Torito or your neighborhood lonchera.

Yet small touches hint at something grander lurking inside the big eatery. The horchata is sprinkled with Chocomil (the Mexican version of Nestle Quik), which imparts a gritty layer of sweetness to the three-milk extravaganza. The chips and tortillas taste like they were store-bought but are vessels for Rivera's wondrous salsa, a thick version derived from chile de arbol—a smokier cousin of the habañero that's almost as spicy. All the meals are large, flavorful, cheap—and if you dine in by next week, you get a 20 percent discount.

But the most compelling reason for visiting Rivera is their corundas, the latest proof that Orange County is one of America's great ethnic food havens. Few stateside restaurants stock the treat, a type of tamale native to the central Mexican state of Michoacán that's a staple of the Purépecha Indians. Triangular masa slabs made from white corn are steamed, then topped with pork sluiced in a gentle salsa—an inside-out tamale, essentially. A dollop of crema ranchera (Mexican sour cream) oozes down the masa and the meat. Tamales are famous for their filling, gentle charm, but the corunda is the culinary version of eating a pillow—you won't want to do anything for the rest of the week after feasting on these lovelies. The masa is moist and puffy, the pork lean and shredded, the crema ranchera salty and sweet. Placed on top of each other, you can taste each individual flavor or mash them up.

Remember to take this review when you order the corundas, though. Rivera's menu lists them as tamales—technically true, but that's like saying a banh mi is nothing more than a sandwich. And, to complicate matters further, Rivera also sells regular tamales—good, but forgettable in comparison to the corundas. On my last visit, I wanted to criticize the Rivera owners for not advertising their prize dish—"Tell everyone about it! We want to spread it by word of mouth," a kind waiter requested—but instead I had a few more forkfuls of corunda. When your mouth is filled with such rustic bliss, there's not much room for complaining.



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