Bristol Food Court: Multi-Culti Mexi

Perhaps no shopping plaza in Orange County is more Mexican than the one occupying the southwest corner of Bristol Street and McFadden Avenue in Santa Ana. It's an area anchored by a Northgate González Market and chockablock with the businesses essential to a Mexican immigrant's life: a tortillería; birriería; shady medical clinics; immigration lawyers; a doughnut shop in which viejitos gossip the day away; gummy, coin-operated rides for kiddies; money-wiring services; and more clothing stores than any working-class block could ever possibly need.

And there's a swap meet, of course, called, appropriately enough, the Bristol Swap Mall. It's nowhere near the best Latino swap meet in la naranja, but has an adjoining saving grace: the Bristol Food Court, a long hallway of stalls that face one another, with tables down the middle. These tables are packed with families from morning until night, each chomping on whatever they might want on a particular visit, and the Bristol Food Court is a microcosm of what Mexicans really want to eat. There's Chinese food in the form of Hon's Wok; it's passable, although its pho beats any other dish not named orange chicken. May's Ice Cream and Juice sells what its title advertises, but it's more accurately a Mexican snack shop, with most families ordering a plate of tostilocos, the nachos-on-steroids from Tijuana that's slowly infiltrating Southern California. Mariscos El Camarón Loco sells seafood; Pacific Bakery stocks wedding and quinceañera cakes; South Coast Pizza has an outpost here; all three gamely serve their function.

Then there are the three stalls that deserve their own restaurants. Taquería La Fiesta lines up balls of masa near the counter so it can make fresh corn tortillas upon order. Their tacos are large and fine, but far better is their barbacoa—not Hidalgo-style, like so much of what's offered in SanTana, but estilo Texcoco, which finds the lamb barbacoa stringier, softer, better per the legendary tradition of the central Mexico state. El Pollo Amigo specializes in grilled chicken, but its real specialty is Guerrero plates—awesome pozole verde, radiant pipián smothered over silky chicken breast and leg, and gargantuan chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves; a typical one, once unfolded in the origami that is the steaming banana leaf, is bigger than a Thomas Guide.

Whither the Turkish restaurant? Flaming Chicken and Ribs is spectacular, with kabobs worthy of Little Arabia and even some off-menu whoppers—but the stall is almost always closed. Its loss: an army of Mexis await.

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