If your idea of Mexican food includes huitlacoche or lengua tacos slung out from roach coaches, go to Gustavo Arellano's This Hole-in-the-Wall Life column. There, you'll often read tips on food cooked to please discriminating Mexican palates (read: authentic) and priced so cheaply, sometimes you can pay in pesos. However, if your idea of a good Mexican meal involves nachos or sizzling plates of steak fajitas, then read onward. This week, this side of the page is all about gabacho Mexican restaurants.
These are the kind of establishments that cater to the light-skinned segment of Orange County's population: joints such as Little Onion, Mexi-Casa and Señor Campos have inspired the likes of On the Border and Chevys. All began serving around the early 1970s, flourished through the decades, and have fed people like my white friend, who grew up on the stuff. I enlisted him as my gabacho-restaurant Sherpa. His reward: free meals and margaritas. Our mission: to sample the cheese enchilada and the chorizo con huevos at each eatery. Why those? Because they're standards—and also, we like those dishes.
Our first stop was Santa Ana's Little Onion, rumored to be a favorite haunt of John Wayne himself. It's a claustrophobic space with vaulted ceilings, like a broom closet attached to an open attic. Faded tintype photos hang on stuccoed walls, and a heat lamp warms baskets of freshly fried chips. The salsa that comes with them kicked my ass: Freckled with lethal chile seeds and thicker than oatmeal, this was the devil's dipping sauce—too hot, even when eaten in dabs. It was a totally unexpected encounter, especially since we were anticipating something more like bottled Pace Picante Salsa.
The enchiladas were slobbery, broiled under a velvety sauce until fusing with the melting cheese. The tortilla skin was a thin slip that merely suggested its presence as starch, allowing the oozing queso to shine. Little Onion's chorizo con huevos were griddled to oily crumbles, leeching out yummy red grease that mingled like a sauce for the eggs. It's freshly cooked, but in the dish were burnt bits that tasted like the carbonized, stale remains from the last batch made.
Little Onion doesn't have a liquor license, so that meant no margaritas for my comrade.
On the way out, I asked our server whether the rumor about the Duke was true. "No, not here," she said apologetically. "Maybe he ate at the pizza place next door?"
Next on our tour was Anaheim's Mexi-Casa—no checks or credit cards and absolutely no free soft-drink refills. Any hopes of getting buzzed on margaritas were also dashed—just wine and beer are served. Prices hovered at or below $5, even for combo plates. Not surprisingly, a crowd of like-minded bargain hunters was waiting to get in.
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A labyrinth of rooms plastered with drab wood paneling, the restaurant seems to coast on its low prices and high turnover, and for us, that was the extent of its appeal. Their salsa was so tame it could pass for gazpacho, and the cheese enchiladas were wrapped too thickly, insulating the cheese from properly melting. Mexi-Casa's chorizo-and-eggs plate was inexplicably bereft of fat and, consequently, flavor. This dull-colored mixture of dampness had little to do with the spicy red Mexican sausage it was named for.
Our final stop was La Habra's Señor Campos. Its menu was wide in scope, offering everything from hamburger con papas (yes, that's French fries) to menudo (though only on weekends). The salsa was just the right balance of hotness and chunk; the chips were crisp, warm and abundant. Señor Campos' cheese enchilada was melty and properly saucy, with a made-from-scratch character. My buddy thought it was virtually identical to Little Onion's version. The chorizo and eggs, on the other hand, was the best of the bunch—the perfect amalgam of salt, spice, grease and caramelized, burnt edges.
And since Señor Campos had a full bar, my gabacho-restaurant Sherpa was thoroughly lit up on margaritas, even before the entrées arrived. Without a blink, he even ate a big chunk of tripe from the menudo. If only they had huitlacoche.
Little Onion, 110 W. MacArthur Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 979-1144; www.littleonionrestaurant.com; Mexi-Casa, 1778 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-2612; Señor Campos, 1220 W. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 694-3614.