¡Viva México, cabrones! This weekend will bring many tacky restaurant celebrations in honor of Mexican Independence Day. Our favorite: a local radio station's "Skindependence Day" bikini contest. ¡Que caliente! But don't kid yourself with these quasi-racist promotions—take our partial city-by-city tour of some of la naranja's más sabrosos Mexican restaurants. And another thing: go, Bernard Hopkins—¡que se vaya Oscar de la Hoya a la chingada!
DINNER FOR TWO:
¢ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Less than $10!
$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10-$20
$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20-$40
$$$ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¡Eres muy rico!
MARISCOS LICENCIADO #2
Mariscos Licenciado #2—#1 is in the 909—sells Sinaloan seafood but lies landlocked in the same decaying commercial pocket JC Fandango calls paradise. Nevertheless, a coastal breeze flows through the simple eatery. It starts somewhere in Mazatlán, sweeps past the tiled counter where men in tejanas sit and curse at televised soccer matches, and cools giant vats of boiling octopus and shrimp with a salty Sinaloan soul. 1052 N. State College, (714) 776-3415. ¢-$$
TAQUERÍA EL GRANJENAL
Named after a Michoacán rancho that has sent thousands of its residents to Orange County, the colorful restaurant makes the best tacos in the county. They deviate from taco protocol by using full-sized corn tortillas and pile on chunks of your choice of grilled meat. The salsa is extraordinary, a dark-red lava extract whose burn factor is unknown outside Paricutín. 899 W. 19th St., (949) 645-4964. $
With two lonchera stands in the parking-lots-always-full Cypress Swap meet, Mex Express' menu doesn't stray from Mexican grub, specializing in ginormous dollar tacos slathered in a tomato-y salsa. They also serve liver tortas (I don't eat organs, but my dad vouches for their delectableness) and a great goat-stew birria. 9179 Valley View St. ¢
HARBOR CAFÉ & TACOS
Sample a turkey torta Mexican sandwich. Along with the usual ingredients, the large French rolls are filled with delicious thin slices of white turkey meat. Go with the ham chorizo filling if love handles aren't a concern. 16540 Harbor Blvd., (714) 839-8542. ¢
In a country where each state has its unique version of the curry-like mole, Oaxaca is king, and El Fortín offers four stunning varieties of the royal family. I won't even bother describing the house mole, as my tongue cannot possibly articulate this creation—only eat. 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., (714) 773-4290. $
TAQUERÍA DEL AMIGO
Taquería del Amigo only roasts its barbacoa (barbecued lamb) on weekends, and even then, they're out of it by midday. But each teeny-tiny barbacoa taco is worth the seven-day wait—stringy, juicy throughout and embellished Hidalgo-style, meaning the taco men follow the renowned barbacoa tradition of the central Mexican state by roasting their ewe with maguey leaves (the plant from which tequila is distilled) that contribute an intoxicating glow to the lamb's mellow charm. 11915 Euclid, (714) 537-8740. ¢
ARRIBA BAJA CANTINA
Chef Alvaro Villalba fuses multiple influences to produce (pick one): California cuisine/healthy Mexican/gourmet Mexican/Cajun Mexican/damn this is good. These influences are shown best in some of Arriba's tastier items, including the blackened mahi mahi torta; blackened chicken dishes; and terrific fish tacos, both battered and charbroiled. 126 Main St., Ste. 201, (714) 960-4690. $
EL CHOLO CAFÉ
First served up by Rosa Bórquez in 1923 in LA's Sonora Café (which was renamed El Cholo Café two years later; her grandson Ron Salisbury owns the restaurant group these days), the place's green-corn tamales are a Southern California dining institution. On bites two and three, you'll find oozing sharp Cheddar cheese and Ortega chiles, which combined compete against the sweet corn with a snappy alternative. 840 E. Whittier Blvd., (562) 691-4618. $$
Casa Olamendi is the sort of place in which you ask for a balcony seat for a sunny lunch or come later and watch the sun sink into the sea over the two T's: tamales and tequila. Tamales typically arrive on a combo plate, served without the husk and covered with a little cheese, with good corn masa and delicious, tender chicken chunks. 1100 S. Coast Hwy., Ste. 202, (949) 497-4148. $$
LA COCINA DE RICARDO
This place, formerly a Salvadoran joint, caters to the soup-eating set, serving up menudo, pozole and other Mexican regional specialties. 23532 El Toro Rd., Ste. 11, (949) 586-1477. $
Coco Reno's, adjacent to its tattooed-hipster sister bar the Reno Room, serves what can only be described as delight on a platter. Better known as carnitas, the cooks will even make 'em to order for those who are carb-challenged. Cancel the rice and beans, smother the succulent pork in cheddar cheese, slop on the sour cream and guac, and cheat just a little with a toasty tortilla. 3400 E. Broadway St., (562) 438-9381. $
Ah, the chicken chimichanga: seasoned (but not molten), tender chicken in a deep-fried tortilla with ample salsa, guacamole and sour cream flying atop the thing like a Mexican flag on a submarine. Cheap! 25571 Jeronimo Rd., Ste. 8, (949) 768-0401. $
A family-owned and -operated Mexican restaurant open for more years than any of us can remember, it's a fun place with a huge outdoor patio featuring lots of shade trees and a great reception room. The best thing about Moreno's is that nothing changes. The atmosphere, the food and the service are consistently good. 4328 E. Chapman Ave., (714) 639-2181. $
Q's is unique because it's one of the few restaurants in la naranja exclusively devoted to the torta-making trade. And the local landmark, having been there for nearly a quarter-century, does not disappoint, turning out juicy monstrosities only slightly smaller than the King James Bible. 220 S. Bradford Ave., (714) 993-3270. ¢
A classy, non-chain Mexican restaurant that makes its own tamales and features the Kick-Ass Margarita, which apparently does. Also impressive is the menu missive restricting children to their seats at all times. Nice patio, friendly servers. 215 S. El Camino Real, (949) 366-5202. $
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO
ADOBE DE CAPISTRANO
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The favorite Mexican restaurant of el Presidente Richard Nixon. Stop by the presidential booth and order the President's Choice (guacamole, chile relleno, chicken enchilada, beef taco, Spanish rice and refried beans). 31891 Camino Capistrano, (949) 493-1163. $
Where else can you dine on tender barbecued goat in a smoky sauce and swaddled in steaming tortillas made on the premises? The only thing I like better is the house specialty: a mild white-fish filet stuffed with shrimp, mushrooms and mixed vegetables. 130 N. Fairview, (714) 836-1254. $