I wasn’t feeling great. Like a lot of people, I contracted the flu over the holidays and had been trying to shake its lingering effects for weeks. Thanks to a persistant cough, I craved soup almost constantly. Takeout pho, homemade chicken noodle, Olive Garden’s zuppa toscana—if it seemed as if it could soothe my throat, I wanted it. Then, a few days after New Year’s, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw a picture of pozole. It was from Alta Baja Market, and it looked perfect. It was the one soup I hadn’t slurped throughout my illness, and that image of the brick-red brew—served on a plate with all the trimmings—called out to me. It also reminded me that although I’d reviewed all the 4th Street Market vendors when the downtown Santa Ana food hall opened three years ago, I hadn’t been back since. More important, I hadn’t tried Alta Baja, which opened a year after my visit.
Alta Baja Market—which specializes in goods from all over Southern California, the Southwest and Mexico, curated by owner Delilah Snell—is also a café. And at 4th Street Market, it’s the largest landmass in a sea of food-court vendors that dole out items in paper baskets and disposable bowls. Alta Baja is the only venue there where you can eat a real meal on actual plates with actual silverware. And unlike at the food court, sitting at one of Alta Baja’s long picnic tables next to the windows, I felt as though I was eating at a country store somewhere along Route 66—far away from this bustling downtown hotspot surrounded by hipsters.
The menu is simple: egg dishes for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and dinner. As for the pozole, I realized after reading the fine print on a Facebook post that it’s only offered the last Sunday of the month. But it didn’t matter. I wanted everything the menu offered—after all, breakfast food is comfort food.
After I placed my order, Snell asked if I wanted anything to drink. I told her I’d heard a lot about her micheladas, which are akin to Bloody Marys, but made with beer. Being a big fan of neither beer nor Bloody Marys, I opted for the passion-fruit michelada.
It was a revelation. Its closest equivalent is a mimosa without the harshness of champagne or tartness of OJ. But unlike that brunch-time excuse to imbibe, this drink was light, refreshing and invigorating instead of intoxicating. And with every gulp—after licking the chile powder from the rim of my glass—not only did I relive my last Hawaiian vacation, but the brew also hydrated my throat with its effervescence. I never thought a michelada could be the antidote to my cough, but on that morning, it made me feel better than I had in days.
I was tempted to order two more, but thankfully the solid food appeared. The blue corn-hatch chile cakes arrived with a thud; a cross between cornbread and hotcakes, the two pancakes were a savory lot. They were topped with two fried eggs and served alongside a side of salsa roja, crema and seasonal citrus. This was a massive meal.
Since it was already embedded with rounds of hatch chile, I didn’t need to amp up the heat. But when Snell dropped off a gigantic squirt bottle labeled “Marge Sauce,” I couldn’t help myself. This fermented-green-chile concoction of her own making should come with a warning: The salsa was so addictive I covered every edible surface with it. And as my brow dampened and my pores opened up, I realized there’s no better cure for what ails you than a surge of your own endorphins. I felt great. But most of all, these blue-corn cakes tasted good, warm and wholesome. It was food that doesn’t make you feel like crap—important when you already feel crappy.
Since the pancakes were filling, I probably didn’t need to order the chilaquiles, but I’m glad I did. Though not traditional in any sense, it, too, was a bowl full of warmth and comfort. The corn chips—which were cooked with heirloom beans and topped with fried eggs and sliced avocado—straddled that tenuous line between crisp and soggy. I also showered it with loads of Marge. And although I will have to wait until the end of the month to try the pozole, it seemed appropriate that a sauce that Snell named after her dog, Marge, who’s named after The Simpsons matriarch, was one of the things that nurtured me to better health—or at least to a better mood.
Alta Baja Market at 4th Street Market, 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 783-2252; www.altabajamarket.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Dishes, $6-$8. Beer and micheladas.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.