This Hole-in-the-Wall Life
Orange County's richest dish: the amarillo at CASA OAXACA, a brightly decorated Oaxacan restaurant near the Santa Ana River. Typically, an amarillo ("yellow" en español, but here referring to one of the seven moles native to the southern Mexican state) platter features beans, rice and a chicken drumstick, with thick amarillo mole sauce slathered atop the hen. But Casa Oaxaca's amarillo expands the meal to absurd proportions. For one, it's not served on a plate—instead, the amarillo is transformed into a soup that fills a bowl large enough to quench a St. Bernard's thirst. Beans and rice get tossed in favor of potatoes, green beans and an elote—corn on the cob. A chicken breast is included alongside the drumstick. Hungry yet? I haven't even described amarillo's flavor: decadent, slightly spicy, slightly sweet, with traces of nuts, raisins and dozens of other ingredients overloading your palate until it zonks out in ecstasy. The steaming amarillo serves four, yet it's all for you, baby. Nevertheless, you'll only finish a third of its intensity, much to the consternation of the waitress, who'll shoot you a dirty look and state, "That's it?" with the disappointed tone of a high school virgin who has finally experienced her boyfriend's lingam. All of this for six measly bucks.
The other moles at Casa Oaxaca are also must-eats: the spicy coloradito, chocolate-infused negro and estofado, a brownish mole created with almonds that I actually enjoy more than the amarillo. They demand your immediate attention, but Casa Oaxaca is one of the few restaurants where you must work through the entire menu to fully appreciate its greatness, as each entrée reveals a different facet of the best regional cuisine in the Americas. Don't bother looking for burritos here, and don't be surprised when the chile rellenos (bloated with ground chicken) and enchiladas (topped with stringy, slightly sour cheese called quesillo) you order are like nothing you've ever tasted. Empanadas are really quesadillas crossbred with gorditas and stuffed with that gorgeous amarillo, crispy squash blossoms, or huitlacoche, overripe corn kernels that American farmers trash but Mexicans prize for its fungusy charm. Chorizo is lean, crispy and made with beef instead of pork; cactus salad refreshes the soul. The only tacos on the menu are of tender, stringy goat, while the tamales come wrapped in a banana leaf and layered with mole negro. And no Oaxacan meal is complete unless you nibble on chapulines: fried, salted grasshoppers. Don't get grossed-out; just wash down the little critters with melon-spiked horchata.
CASA OAXACA, 3317 W. FIRST ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 554-0905.
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