[This Hole-in-the-Wall Life] The Best Pork Since Bacon
PEÑA'S RESTAURANT in Santa Ana has a large menu with all the Mexican food a native Southern Californian ever needs—tacos, enchiladas, burritos, carne asada. I've never tasted these platters at Peña's, nor do I plan to. Every time I visit this recently renovated dive, I always order the same dish: cochinita pibil.
Of Mexico's various meat-cooking traditions, cochinita pibil is perhaps the richest-tasting, the type of foodstuff that warrants multiple visits, overgenerous tips and even a Yelp post. It's a style of shredded pork native to Yucatan, where cooks prepare the meat with a rub of chiles, garlic, citrus juice and achiote, then steam the results inside banana leaves. The pork cuts are always fatty, which means dabs of lard melt across the cochinita pibil to create something as soft as pudding, as buttery as . . . well, butter. Cochinita pibil isn't a spicy dish, despite the chiles; instead, the fat mitigates the heat into a warm, enticing flavor, suitable even for Iowans. Whether served as a taco, as a torta, on a plate, or in a burrito (more on this take in a bit), a side of pickled red onions is always included to cut the cochinita pibil's decadence.
I only know of three restaurants in Orange County that prepare cochinita pibil—Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen in Orange (as part of their pan-Mexican menu), the Santa Ana Yucatecan bakery Conde Cakes, and Peña's. But Peña's bests them all for the breathlessness their pork inspires. Take just a bite, and their cochinita pibil gushes across your palate. Honestly, just a couple of bites can suffice, but the meat demands you overeat—one taco becomes four, a torta becomes two. That's why the best way to measure your cochinita pibil yen is Peña's burrito. It's not exactly the most traditional of serving methods—the last time southern and northern Mexico really met was when Zapata and Villa posed for their iconic photo. But wrapped in the warmth of a flour tortilla, buttressed by beans, rice and an unexpected dash of cheese—you'll quickly scarf down the half-pound cochinita pibil beast.
One final note specifically for Santa Ana bureaucrats: Peña's is on the southeast corner of the current boundaries for the Renaissance Specific Plan, a massive gentrification scheme that seeks to transform the city's downtown district into a mini-Aliso Viejo. Peña's exists on no subsidies and went into business because the owners—the husband is from Nayarit, the wife from Michoacán—learned to make cochinita pibil after discovering that many Yucatecos live in the county but can rarely find their home state's favored dish in restaurants. The free market rules; Brave New Urbanists drool.
PEÑA'S RESTAURANT, 1221 E. FIRST ST., STE. C, SANTA ANA, (714) 571-0415.
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