Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
A long time ago, and in a flawed but near perfect world, there existed an epic restaurant: El Poche Cafe, on Mission Boulevard in San Gabriel. To me, as a kid, it was akin to Disneyland slamming into TJ, with all the best trappings of a classic 1970’s Cal-Mex joint. Baskets and pottery adorned the walls; colorfully dressed servers glided across the terra cotta floor; the smell of fresh tortillas on the griddle and charbroiled steaks wafted through the air like the most ethereal of scented dreams. I’d enter wide-eyed every time ready to celebrate my birthday or just for a midweek bite with my family.
Keep in mind, this was during a time when Mexican food seemed as exotic as the South Seas and was a new experience for us well-heeled Arcadia gabachos. Our only experience with said cuisine was Taco Bell (back when they still had enchiritos) and, of course, our hometown’s Taco Lita, a classic mom-and-pop hard-shell taco kind of joint. El Poche started off as the tiniest of barber shops when the owner decided to start serving food instead of corte de pelos. He opened a tiny, humble lunch counter that eventually expanded into all adjoining properties and ended up an epic example of the results that could be achieved with hard work, a solid, soulful approach to food and some solid business acumen thrown in. The story I heard from my late father was that the owner’s son took it over and ran the place into the ground. Apparently El Poche shuttered after a mysterious fire and the following purchase of the property. It was quite a loss. That place was legendary and I’m pretty sure it’s a fucking Wal-Mart now.
So the world turns again here in SanTana with the closing of the equally irreplaceable Rancho de Mendoza. Details are sketchy, but I heard it went to the highest bidder and the current owners got evicted. It’s a shame in a lot of ways. They for sure had the best molcajete (wifey and I couldn’t get enough) and I’ll miss day drinking with the locals. The upstairs was delightfully paisas, with cold beer and cumbias to spare. I liked getting eyeballed by the caballeros at the bar when I walked in, posted up all bleary eyed with their tequila and bombas looking ready for a fight or a shot—or both. But Rancho de was much more than a sum of these parts. It was a haven for locals and their lunch buffet, although slightly lackluster, was a neighborhood fixture, one where you could eat your fill for a mere seven bucks.
Losing a restaurant you love—especially an iconic one—is like losing a friend or confidant, maybe even like losing a loyal pooch. Rancho de is like that for me, a place where I could whisper the most secret of secrets into the warm, welcoming, ear of a bowl of pozole, like two lifelong friends talking about a faded romance or that road trip abroad when they were kids. A singular space where time slowed down, everything came into some kind of a strange focus, and the outside trappings of our vapid, overly-hyped life here in the OC seemed to pleasantly fade. Even if just for a moment.
What’s to become of the space? That’s a good question but my bartender instinct tells me some gastro-douchebags will move in and forever erase the Mexi-mojo that thrived there for so many decades. So vaya con Dios, Rancho de Mendoza: you were loved by many including me. You’ll be missed, and I mean like that little innocent child missing El Poche Cafe.
Follow Stick a Fork In It on Twitter @ocweeklyfood or on Facebook! And don’t forget to download our free Best Of App here!
Chef, writer, bartender, photographer and overall bearer of mirth.