Café Calacas answers the question all Orange Countians have on their minds: What will happen to our fair land when the Mexicans take over for good?
The answer comes when you order the Don Benjamin, one of many sandwiches this newly owned cubby hole of a restaurant offers. It seems like a straightforward tuna-salad sandwich, down to the carrots and red onions that play off the salad's tangy mush. But what's that piquing your palate? A made-that-morning chile-and-garlic spread, potent and judiciously distributed. Why is the bread so fluffy? Because the deli uses telera rolls, a cousin of the more-famous bolillos that Mexicans use to make tortas. And the condiments? A galaxy of Mexican hot sauces, from Gringo Bandito to Tabasco, Salsa Huichol and even the notorious El Yucateco, neon-green, habanero-derived and strong enough to bore through steel.
Owners Rudy (the Mexican) and Jackie (the Midwestern gabacha) Cordova are well-known in Santa Ana for their Chicano curio shop, Calacas, and for helping to organize the second-largest Día de Los Muertos event in Southern California just outside their storefront. But they're also wily businesspeople—when the space next to theirs opened up last year, the Cordovas swooped in and secured a lease: to provide a much-needed community space for the city's youth, sure, but also to bank on the hundreds of federal workers just across the street at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse who pour out every lunchtime looking for a quick, cheap meal. As a result, most of Café Calacas' initial offerings are safe, satisfying bets to ensure return customers—a crunchy Caesar chicken wrap, for instance, or deli sandwiches that include tomatoes from the Cordovas' back yard and inventive pairings of meats and sauces. Rudy's Roast Beef, for instance, features a sharp onion-and-mayo concoction that plays well against the meat's fattiness.
But where Café Calacas excels right now is its Mexican offerings, which are limited but growing. The licuados are already some of the best in la naranja: The Pancho Pantera has a cinnamon nose and uses Mexico's version of Quik, Choco Milk, while the one of nuez tastes just like a nuez paleta, which is to say it has a gritty texture, subtle notes of walnuts and almonds, and features another Mexican product, La Lechera condensed milk. And the biónico, a fruit salad of chopped-up wonder, will wrestle down a heatwave like Tito Ortiz taking on a 100-pound weakling.
The Cordovas are planning to open in the mornings now, due to customer demands for a proper cup of café de olla. And while the horchata they have next to the cash register in massive jugs is uneven, the limonada is perfect: not too tart, not too sweet, but just right. It's the Mexican takeover of OC in a plastic, compostable cup.
This column appeared in print as “Deli-cioso!”