Comfort Food at El Pico de Gallo Taqueria

I'm sick of the word taquería. Seemingly every Mexican restaurant in these fair orange acres uses it to describe the food on offer, even when a place might better be described as a puesto, a fonda, a restaurante or a cenaduria. These shops do themselves a disservice, because while tacos are on the menu, they're not specialists in tacos.

Case in point: El Pico de Gallo, tucked away in a forlorn plaza wedged between Harbor Blvd. and its entrance to the eastbound 22 freeway, next to the (also excellent) Delicias de México ice cream and paleta shop. It doesn't seem, menu-wise, anyway, to be related to the El Pico de Gallo Grill in Santa Ana's Floral Park that Gustavo panned last year (for one thing, I and my dining companions were the only gabachos in the place).

Sure, you can get tacos, burritos and quesadillas, and they'll be serviceable, but the smart money is on the specials board, a white board slapped haphazardly against the counter. You may find a platter of carnitas (cut into slices, not broken into chunks); other days you may get a bargain on chilpachole, a spicy shrimp soup.

The first time I went in was a blustery cold day, when all I wanted was
soup, and the specials board urged me to have albóndigas, a huge bowl loaded with big chunks of potato, carrot, and zucchini, with six big meatballs and a rich vegetable stock. It came with a side of indifferent Spanish rice; ignore this in favor or a small stack of tortillas. During the week, they're Mission standard, but on the weekend they're soft, tender and hechas a mano.

These same handmade tortillas dipped in salsa and wrapped around juicy, tender, shredded roast chicken are one of the better renditions of enchiladas in the county; they are as far from the Day-Glo orange cheese concoction at Mexican-American restaurants as a microwave 7-Eleven hamburger is from Slater's 50/50.

On another day, costillas en salsa verde con nopales beckoned. Cross-cut pork ribs were simmered in a flavorful, but not overly spicy, green salsa until they slipped off the bones at the touch of a fork. At the end of the cooking, diced cactus paddles were dropped into the salsa, thickening the sauce and providing a green, vegetal backdrop for the pork. I found myself wishing for the handmade tortillas; it would be worth a dollar or two premium to have four of those great tortillas.

None of these dishes cost more than $6.50, and you'll get the required-in-America basket of crisp, snappy chips and a trip to the salsa bar, where you can load up on a mild, tomatoey red salsa, a much more interesting green salsa, or a “burned” salsa. There are also carrots en escabeche, cucumbers and radishes to round out your meal.

A worthy find, and you can head next door for dessert. Just remember to pay more credence to the whiteboard than the mounted menu, and never trust a sign when it says “taquería”.

El Pico de Gallo Taquería, 13470 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove; (714) 539-0169.

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