As a food critic, I spend most of my time trying to find restaurants that sell regional Mexican dishes, meals specific to an area of Mexico that most people in the United States, Mexicans or otherwise, are not familiar with. Nevertheless, I still respect the old-school Mexican spots, where the margaritas come out in slushy tureens, the enchiladas are more sour cream than tortilla, and the customers are proudly gabacho and Chicano. We’re not talking taquerías or Avila’s El Ranchito clones: at the old-school spots, modern-day developments are ignored in favor of deep-fried nostalgia. And dirty little secret? Even the most committed Aztlanista has a hankering for nachos or chile colorado more often than not.
OC, of course, has loved Mexican food since the days of Madam Modjeska, and old-school Mexican spots (you can also call them Mexican-American or Cal-Mex) still get a lot of business, and rightfully so. Following, in no particular order, are 10 great old-school Mexican spots—as usual, register your approval or anger in the comments below!
Fred’s Mexican Cafe
In Huntington Beach, you were either a Mario’s Fiesta Maya or a Fred’s Mexican Cafe person—and with the closing of Fiesta Maya, all the lovers of wet burritos and sizzling fajitas go to Fred’s. It’s a little bit more modern than some of the other spots here, but all you need to know about Fred’s is that it has sister spots in Kihei and San Diego, places that love old-school Mex spots as much as they love waves. Good salads—and you only say “good salads” at a Mexican restaurant when it’s OLD SKOOL… 300 Pacific Coast Hwy. #201, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-8226; www.fredsmexicancafe.com.
Mexicasa is so old-school, that I remember taking my high school sweetheart here and wondering how the hell was this Mexican food. Nearly 20 years later, I’ve wizened up: I didn’t stay with her TOO long, but learned to love the $5 combo platters that amazingly still cost this amount. And the wood-panel walls still remember the times when smoking was not only legal inside restaurants but a cherished freedom. 1778 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-2612
Sarinana’s Tamale Factory
The oldest Mexican restaurant in Orange County (since 1936), Sarinana’s is so old-school it used to be a house. It’s so old-school that the main order for tacos remain hard shell—so old-school that seemingly half of SanTana visits here to get their Christmas tamales. And so old-school the only photo I have of them is totally fuzzy…HA! 2216 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8650.
El Adobe de Capistrano
The story is well known: El Adobe served a continental menu to everyone except Richard Nixon, who summarily made them switch over for good after he told the national press his favorite Mexican restaurant was El Adobe. Still a favored gathering area for the few Democrats in South County, who love to badger guest speakers when they’re Mexican—you can look it up! 31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-1163; eladobedecapistrano.com
One of the few things the Orange County Register has ever gotten right is their adoration of this spot, open since the 1950s in SanTana’s Logan barrio. The albóndigas are straight outta Mami’s kitchen, the taco salad is as wide as a basketball hoop, and the regulars remain a bunch of DAs and judges who’ve been coming here for decades—say hola to Tony Rackauckas for us! 906 E. Washington Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8787.
This Placentia classic was formerly a boarding house, which explains its homey feel and the abandoned-yet-immaculate bar that looks like a time capsule from 1977 complete with Naugahyde stools and a wooden refrigerator. The only nod to modernity here is the ramekin of whole pickled jalapeños for those who like their food caliente—but the house salsa is spectacular. 301 W .Santa Fe Ave., Placentia, (714) 996-8001.
Clockwork Coker put it best in his review of their great Burro Bar: “Which came first: Costa Mesa or Mi Casa?” Serving Costa Mexico and Newport Beach for over 40 years, Mi Casa also does a brisk business selling their not-bad salsas. And the margarita bar makes Javier’s seem as exciting as a sheet of blank paper. 296 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-7626; www.micasa1.com
Generations of Orange Park Acres MILFs have spent many a birthday weekend here. The food is good, but far more legendary is the above-average mariachi, which can belt out everything from José Alfredo Jiménez rarities to—ugh—the umpteenth request for “Guantanamera.” 4328 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 639-2181; www.morenosrestaurant.com
The second-oldest Mexican restaurant in Orange County after Sarinana’s, El Patio opened in 1937 and has been a Capo Beach favorite ever since. My favorite meal here: the hot dog wrapped in a tortilla and cheddar cheese—SAVAGE. 34226 Doheny Park Rd., Capistrano Beach, (949) 496-9074 elpatiocafe.com.
But the old-school Mexican restaurant everyone is still raving about these days is the return of Naugles, the legendary fast-food chain that local foodie Christian Ziebarth amazingly raised from the dead in the past couple of years. Their Fountain Valley test kitchen is still only open on weekends, but the fuss is worth it: great bean-and-cheese burritos, a simple-but-filling taco cup, and a mysterious salsa that defies all definitions but deserves to become America’s next president—hey, it’s smarter than all the candidates out there, you know?