Danny Godinez, Food Genius

Danny Godinez has always been working and learning. Born and raised in Acapulco, Mexico, he helped his mom to make pozole for her restaurant starting at age 5. It would take days to prep the hominy kernels, but his mother insisted on nothing less. He learned that making everything from scratch was the hard but right way—an ethos he still holds to at the two Anepalco's restaurants he owns and operates.

Godinez, 32, began his Orange County career in food at the age of 18, after moving here from Texas. He bussed tables at PF Chang's in Mission Viejo, cooked at Splashes in Laguna Beach, and still somehow managed to also put in a few shifts at French 75 while taking classes at Saddleback College.

Since then, he has punched time cards at just about every uppity OC beach resort you can name. The last job he had before he set out on his own to open Anepalco's was at Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern, where he worked for about five years. But it wasn't just experience he gained all those years toiling in someone else's kitchen. When it came time to open his dream restaurant, he called upon the friends he made at the Surf and Sand Resort and the Montage to be part of his team.

He met his most important team member 13 years ago: Amarilly, whom he would marry five years later. But she isn't just his wife; she's also one of the hardest workers at his restaurants. She tends to the front of the house, washes dishes, does whatever needs to be done, and in the off-time takes care of their 5-year-old daughter, whom Godinez affectionally refers to as his bambina.

With the two restaurants doing well, these are good and happy times for Godinez and his family. But it wasn't always like this. On the opening day of the original Anepalco's in Orange, the now-beloved institution netted only $40. Having already secured a few bank loans and borrowed money from his mother-in-law, it was a depressing take. But Godinez waited and waited, and before long, word spread about his French/Mexican concept—a restaurant that went beyond what he calls “rice/beans/chips” Mexican. These days, it isn't uncommon for the chef/owner to serve the same customers up to five times a week.

And why not? His dishes combine the refinement of French cuisine with the soulfulness of Mexican recipes. “What is a crepe but a French tortilla?” Godinez muses. And why not infuse the beurre blanc with a serrano?

But ask him what inspired the smoky, red-chile sauce he smothers on the huevos divorciados, and he'll tell you it was from an enchilada he had as kid with his mom back at his hometown's mercado.

The dish he serves in its honor is one of OC's best, as is Godinez himself.

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• “I go [to The Crosby] often. The chef is really great. I didn't always like it before, but now it's one of my favorite restaurants when I go. I like everything, especially the lobster taco.” 400 N. Broadway St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543; thisisthecrosby.com.

• “I usually run for an hour or ride my bike when I get up, before I go to work. But when I can, I go to Top of the World Park in Laguna Beach. It's a lot of fun up there. I go for the adrenalin rush and the exercise.” At Alta Laguna Park, 21601 Treetop Lane, Laguna Beach; laguna-beach-info.com/top-of-the-world-park.html.

• “I used to work [at Stonehill Tavern]; it is one of the best restaurants in Orange County. Try the lobster and Japanese Kobe steak. It's really nice—its version of surf-and-turf. The lobster is Australian; it has a rich flavor. I also like the chef tasting menu.” 1 Monarch Beach Resort N., Dana Point, (949) 234-3318; michaelmina.net/restaurants/locations/stoc.php.

• “I used to go to Disneyland two to three times a year. I spent many Fourths of July there. My daughter went a few weeks ago.” 1313 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim. (714) 781-7290; disneyland.disney.go.com.

• “Salt Creek Beach: It's a great beach. Lots to see. I really like to watch the surfing. I used to boogie board there. But it's good to just watch my friends now.” 33333 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 923-2280 or (949) 923-2283; ocparks.com/saltcreekbeach.

• “I like Soho Taco, who do really great tacos, but there's this taco truck with no name usually parked near 17th Street and Bristol, close to Santa Ana College and 7-Eleven. It's before the bridge. It's the most ghetto truck ever, but it does phenomenal tripitas tacos.”

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