Liquor-store restaurants have a hit-and-miss record in Orange County. On one hand, you have wild success stories such as Peter's Gourmade Grill, Kush Bowl and Kech Cafe; on the other hand, great Korean, Mexican and Jamaican liquor-store eateries have come and gone over the years. May the former result be the fate of Patagonia Empanadas, the latest Argentine restaurant to descend on Orange County, especially since it's starting in a bad space.
It's located at the back of a liquor store in a nebulous region of Santa Ana and Tustin best known for no-tell motels, abandoned restaurants and the 55 freeway. To find Patagonia, you're going to have to pass racks of XXL white T-shirts and shelves of Suavitel and resist the siren song of Boone's Farm. But the walk through that poverty-times gauntlet is worth it, and the end is as simple a restaurant as you'll find: just some tables, a counter, a menu and a wall, on which people write their appreciation for Patagonia's excellent meals. And, oh, do they write: not just youngsters, but also grandparents and non-OC residents, all speaking the lyrical Spanish of Argentina, all attracted to Patagonia's namesakes.
Argentine empanadas have become a staple in OC over the past decade, but you've never had ones like these: gigantic, crust as soft as butter, ingredients spiked with serranos for an extra kick, and rarities (the one called the Arab, zippy with lemon-simmered beef, calls back to the province of Cordoba, home to many Argentines of Lebanese descent) thrown in among the tried-and-true chicken and spinach varieties. All the tables order a couple to complement their pizzas—not just Americanized pies, but Argentine specialities like fugazzetta (just white cheese, white sauce and onions) and another topped with hearts of palm and something called salsa golf, a bizarre concoction of mayo, ketchup and Thousand Island that's as much a beloved acquired taste for Argentines as Marmite is for the Brits.