Heard the stereotypes about SanTana being rundown, super-Mexican and sketchy AF? First-timers will think of them when they visit the intersection of Standard and Edinger avenues—the Florence and Normandie of Orange County. Rows of aging apartment complexes stand nearby, with drunks and meth heads stumbling around the alleys even in the morning. Working-class Latinos stream into the awesomely named Estandar Lavandería to wash their clothes; cantinas legal and not dot the area. Drop in someone from the Orange County Business Council, and they'd probably melt in fear and call for a Town Car.
I describe the above not to sensationalize—the drunks are nice, the residents hustling, and the meth heads will leave you alone if you don't gawk—but because I don't want anyone complaining about the scenery if they visit El Picante. And all y'all absolutely should: Here are some of the boldest, most delicious Mexican flavors to come out of a hole-in-the-wall in years. Its trick is twofold: It specializes in the food of Michoacán, and most of the dishes are guisados. Stews are made every morning and kept bubbling throughout the day. Chicharrón is simmered until it's so fatty it makes pork belly seem as rich as a pencil. Huilotas (squab) come bathed in a bright tomatillo salsa; birria arrives in a bubbling bowl or dry, the better to put inside tortillas so fresh that when you bite into them, the inside of the thick beauties can scald you. The chavindecas (here, spelled Michoacán-style as “chividenkas”) are stuffed quesadillas with your choice of meat and those amazing tortillas. Even better is the aporreadillo, the best huevos rancheros ever: The meat is cecina (dried, salted beef that's like jerky but sweeter), and it's in a red salsa that will burn you if you're not careful.
There are burritos and tacos here, but why bother? El Picante is spectacular, homey—and, yeah, it's in a tough neighborhood. So? Move to Scottsdale if this bothers you, and leave SanTana to us gentle cabrones.
El Picante, 1610 S. Standard Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 285-0642.