Photo by Gustavo ArellanoOn a tiny strip of Garden Grove's Westminster Boulevard, Argentina lives.
Here, Argentines nostalgic for the motherland flock to Regina's Restaurant to partake in the grandest passions of a famously passionate populace: soccer and food. The restaurant's reputation for each is impeccable: soccer emanates like a looped tape from Regina's three televisions and is watched by dozens who come to eat at Regina's at least thrice a week.
I visited the restaurant over the course of Argentina's three World Cup matches, the best time possible to experience Regina's exemplary distribution of Argentina's ardors. I ate, talked soccer and politics, and cheered on the Argentine squad. But mostly I ate.
It's three hours before the Argentina-Nigeria match, but I'm already too late. All 76 seats are reserved, and half of them are filled with fans consuming pasta, beef and wine. Owner Elías Niquias is gracious enough to give me a seat but reserves the right to boot me if necessary.
The tiny eatery is enchanting, with the color scheme of the Argentine flag—pastel blue and white—everywhere from the solitary Greek column in the middle of the restaurant to the parking lot wall outside. Inside are vines, roses and pictures of Argentine heroes such as Formula One legend Juan Manuel Fangio and singer Carlos Gardel,giving the restaurant the feel of a Buenos Aires café.
For my first meal, I order the brocheta de carne, and it matches every expectation I had of the beef-dominant Argentine diet. It's composed of beef, beef and beef and is served with grilled tomatoes, onions, beef and lemons. The meat is lightly salted and tender, with a lemony tinge to it, but the tomatoes are the most remarkable aspect. They're burnt in a way that makes them taste almost like meat. I hate tomatoes, yet I devour these.
But I have a task at hand, which is to ask everyone the stupidest question imaginable: "Why are you here to watch the opening game of the Cup?" Most replies are like the one Carlos Opuez gives me: he laughs in my face.
A large joy of a man from Mission Viejo, Opuez has lived in Orange County for more than 20 years but makes Regina's his home. "It's like Argentina here," he says. "Soccer, to us, is in the blood, and it's not the same seeing soccer alone. All of us come here any time there's an important match to have dinner, relax and talk."
Ana Karina Marino agrees. A 27-year-old graduate student at UC Irvine, the porteña (native of Buenos Aires) has lived here less than a year but has already made Regina's her own. Like Opuez, Marino comes to catch up with her compatriots, partake of Regina's delicious food (tonight she shares a parillada, made of five kinds of beef) and cheer Argentina's opiate.
"For us Argentines, the Cup is a passion," Marino says. "When we are winning in the Cup, we forget all of our problems as we unite to celebrate our football team."
But Marino mutes her enthusiasm with sociopolitical reality. "Sure, it would make people happy," she says when asked if an Argentine Cup victory would ameliorate her country's economic destitution. "But I don't think multinational companies will somehow leave Argentina if we win the Cup."
Oh, yeah, the game. Argentina dominates Nigeria and wins 1-0.
A word of advice: don't talk to an Argentine during a soccer match. I ask a man during an Argentine attack why he went to Regina's four times a week. "I told you already. The ambiance," he snaps. Then he tells me the seat I'm sitting in is occupied so get off!
Tonight is the highlight of the Cup: Falklands IV, Argentina vs. England. It's so early in the morning (4:30 a.m.) that full meals are not being served; instead, it's just pastries along with café con leche. I partake of a particularly yummy empanada with peanut-butter-based cream inside and drink my strong-yet-sweet coffee out of a mug emblazoned with the Argentine flag. It's time to kick some limey arse, carajo!
Or is it?
Photo by Gustavo Arellano
"It's an invention of the newspapers," says Dino Pilón of Westminster regarding the rivalry. "We're indebted to the English because they invented the sport."
He seems hesitant to say anything bad about the English side but then concludes with a sly grin, "We'll be like brothers when they return las Islas Malvinas [the Falkland Islands] to us."
Others are not as diplomatic. "I hate them," says Fernando Vasquez of Anaheim. "They came from far away to take our land. I had a friend who fought in the Falklands War and turned crazy."
It's Vasquez who urges the restaurant to leave their early morning coffee and rise up in unison when the Argentine national anthem is played. And it's Vasquez who leads the catcalls when "God Save the Queen" follows. Pilón seems mistaken: the game hasn't even begun and already the packed restaurant is screaming for blood.
But once the action begins, the room suddenly quiets. Shouts of "Elías! The volume! What's going on?" soon fill the room. Once Elías turns up the volume, the room quiets once again.
Soccer is a volcanic sport, with long lulls interrupted by explosions of passion. Opuez is correct: you have to have it in your blood, and Regina's patrons do. Any time Argentina touches the ball, Regina's sounds like an air horn going off—probably because someone has in fact brought an air horn. While most stay quiet, an older lady offers a running commentary throughout the game. Whenever an English player goes down, she yells that he's faking it. Eventually, the woman calms down and simply yells, "¡Sucios!" (Dirty ones!) each time England touches the ball.
"They say God is Argentine," someone comments after a Michael Owen shot hits the post. But not this morning. Argentina loses to England 1-0; everyone walks glumly to their cars, a gray sky greeting them instead of pastel blue.
"You better not bring us bad luck or . . ." The older man lets the beat pass.
"I didn't the first time," I reply.
"You did the second time," he counters.
Though the food is great, the regulars a delight (albeit sometimes threatening), and the atmosphere impossible to match anywhere in Orange County, what makes Regina's a dining experience par excellence is owner Niquias. Before buying Regina's about 18 months ago, Niquias was the manager of a Greek restaurant in Tustin, which explains the excellent spanakopita and other Greek dishes that Regina's offers in addition to Italian and Argentine food.
"People like to be in a friendly environment," says Niquias' wife, Shayra, originally of the Dominican Republic. "Many times, you go to a restaurant, and no one pays attention to you. Here, it's different. Everyone knows one another, and if you're a stranger, you'll be presented so that everyone knows you and you know them."
It's hard for me to interview Niquias because he's constantly running around, greeting everyone by their first name and a kiss on the cheek. "I call him 'El Besador' [the Kisser]," Shayra says with a laugh.
Tonight, I savor the ñoquis en salsa suave, a sort of pasta soup drowned in tomato sauce with cream. The broth is cheesy and perfect for dunking bread in, but please don't lest you draw the same admonishing looks I got for so lacking class. Partnered with my ñoquis was a glass of Torrontés wine, a wet white wine (one of more than 30 native Argentine wines that Regina's has in stock) that's light and not too potent, perfect for wine novices like myself. It is only later that the waiter tells this wine swine that I should have ordered the Malbec red to go with pasta.
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The atmosphere is muted tonight. This is a must-win game for Argentina, and they come out roaring but not scoring. The crowd begins to get restless, and after Sweden scores on a free kick, cries of "¡La gran puta!" and "¡Hijo de la puta!" are screamed at the screen.
Nothing goes right for Argentina. Scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity is thwarted by either the Swedish goalie's spectacular play or boneheaded mistakes (two bench-riding Argentines are ejected for talking too much trash). After falling behind early, Argentina scores a goal in the 88th minute on Hernán Crespo's penalty kick, making the final two minutes (plus about four minutes of extra time) agony for Regina's. They are on their feet yelling, trying to inspire their countrymen thousands of miles away. But alas, the 1-1 tie eliminates Argentina, a favorite to win the Cup, from the opening round of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. What's more, it dents the national soul, even in Garden Grove.
"I want to kill myself," a woman tells her companion before dashing for the restroom with her hands covering her face. The crowd at Regina's quickly dissipates; many have tears in their eyes. But they'll be back. God may not be Argentine, but El Besador has created a little bit of heaven at Regina's.
Regina's Restaurant, located at 11025 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, is open Mon. & Wed.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (714) 638-9595. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20, food only. All major credit cards accepted.