Photo by Joy BastIn front of the former Circle K that houses the Mexican grocery El Metate sit derelict shopping carts salvaged from Michael's, Kids 'R' Us, Petco, Ross, Lorenzana Foods, Marshalls and Payless. When I ask about them, manager Rudy Murrietta is discreet. "A lot of our customers don't have wheels, so they need them," he says. Instead of policing expensive new carts, El Metate collects discarded ones and lets customers use them to tote groceries home. A service later corrals them from the neighboring streets and returns them to the store each night. Now that'sknowing your customers.
Orange's tiny El Modena barrio is home to a bustling Spanish-speaking community—and some of the best Mexican food in the county. As you drive up Hewes from Fairhaven to Chapman on a Saturday, you can usually spot paper flowers strung up in someone's yard for a quinciañera. A paper tablecloth threatens to take flight like a bad toupee. With a fiesta about to happen, the ama de casa has surely made a trip to El Metate.
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When I open El Metate's front door, the earthy aroma of fresh masa from the on-premises tortilla factory hits me, along with the buoyant blast of a ranchera ballad. Constellations of shaggy piñatas sway in the breeze of ceiling fans. Their streamers hang so low it's as if I'm maneuvering my cart through a crepe-paper car wash. Cactus paddles as big as tennis rackets litter the produce aisle. Bins of cinnamon sticks and dried chiles tempt you toward a mole-making party, but for takeout junkies, a hot bar does it all for you.
Today there is capirotada, a Mexican dessert traditionally served during the Lenten season that is part bread pudding and part French toast. It consists of house-made bolillos that are halved, fried, ladled with syrup and covered with stewed fruit and sweet, crumbly cheese. I also get a carne asada and an al pastor taco, beans and pickled carrots, onion, and cilantro. My tab: $2.15.
Barbacoa, the Mexican answer to Southern barbecue, is a juicy beef stewed in a lovely orange tincture that is ready to be sopped up with a bolillo. The al pastor-style pork is lovingly marinated in pineapple and onion and cooked on a rotisserie—all succulent shards of porcine goodness. The creamy pinto beans are long on real pork-lard flavor that is only interrupted by the whole-roasted chiles de arbol woven throughout. The tangy salsa verde made from tomatillos and the flavorful quemado made from roasted chiles have the soupy freshness characteristic of salsa made without thickeners. And I could eat a quart of the pickled carrots alone. But I always have plenty of help.
El Metate Market, located at 125 N. Rancho Santiago, Orange, is open Mon.-Sun., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 771-5527. Dinner for two, $10, food only. Beer and wine. Cash and checks accepted. Also at 838 E. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-3913; and 817 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 646 -9362.