Santa Ana has so many Mexican dining options—from tamales sold out of car trunks to banquet halls, from loncheras to carnicerías, from fusion tacos to tacos acorazados, from Cal-Mex to bro-Mex—that trying to make sense of it all feels akin to the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, your mind rushing through options until it collapses into itself and transforms into a giant bowl of menudo. Because of this, it's criminally easy for eaters to overlook gems in the city. Because of that, I ignored Antojitos Don Juan ever since it opened.
It's the perfect place to dismiss—inside a former KFC, in a shopping plaza best known for its 99 Cent store and infamous Las Vegas Bar (which I reviewed in our dive-bar column last month). The design scheme is Taos meets Tijuana, with tacky suns, fake masonry and garish signs everywhere. It might be the only Mexican restaurant in SanTana where Priuses outnumber pickup trucks in the parking lot because the hipster set has adopted this restaurant as its own. But don't hold that against Antojitos Don Juan; here stands one of the most iconoclastic, surprising restaurants you'll find in OC. Sure, you can get your tacos, burritos and enchiladas here, and they're pretty good. But the man who runs this restaurant reminds me of the Mexican uncle who wowed his extended family for years with his carne asada Sunday creations, then one day decided to open a restaurant on a lark. Where else in Orange County will you find escargot in a beautiful mojo sauce, or frog legs bathed in tangy tomatillo? Who else has the guts to not offer guacamole, just because he doesn't feel like it? And while other restaurants might combine shrimp and chorizo, no one else will do it with techniques and flavor out of Escoffier.
To get a hint of Antojitos Don Juan's playfulness, consider the mentada, a dish wholly of their creation. The word itself roughly translates as “serious insult,” and it would be to Baylessistas: a mestizo croque monsieur that finds a grilled cactus paddle, beans, flayed jalapeño, grilled onions, pinto beans and bisteck on top of two corn tortillas, surrounded by broth. The only thing “authentic” about this mentada is its genius: cheesy, meaty, earthy, it's all the flavors of the Mexican kitchen on one gigantic plate, with telenovelas on the flat-screen and the husband/wife/son trio that runs the place checking in on you every minute or so. Good horchata here, too!