Nancy Puebla Restaurant

Photo by Matt OttoAt first visit, Nancy Puebla Restaurant in Santa Ana seems no different from every Mexican restaurant you've ever visited. A Virgin of Guadalupe altar guards the entrance, and a bucolic mural spans most of the restaurant's length. Horchata and pineapple juice churn inside a transparent soda machine near the cashier. A television broadcasts gunfire-heavy narco-films. There are burritos that need two hands to lift, gooey enchiladas, a chilled salsa bar, and puckering shrimp cocktails with the proper alchemy of Tapatío and tartar sauce.


But lurking within Nancy are delicious, complex rarities from the central state of Puebla, platters more familiar to an ethnography than an Orange County menu. Consider the mole poblano, a dense, gritty sauce created with about 20 ingredients ranging from chocolate to sweet peppers to a dozen different chiles. Most Mexican restaurants slap together a too-sugary version of mole poblano; at Nancy, they construct the mole with the proper fiery-bittersweet tang. Nancy also nails goat menudo—boiled only on weekends in a brick-red, spicy broth bobbing with gamy, buttery goat innards—in a way that will forever change your aversion to chewing tripe. Sincronizadas, a standard of Pueblan street-side vendors, is really just two quesadillas fused together with bubbling cheese and mini-jungles of cilantro and onion. And the cordoniz, fried Cornish game hen slathered in a green salsa that exhibits citrus wisps and a tomatillo punch, is as fabulous a version of the small bird there is without gorging it with caviar.

There's no rarer Mexican dish in Orange County, however, than the guilota, a breed of quail so region-specific it doesn't even appear in the Royal Academy Spanish Dictionary, the Hispanic world's authority on the Spanish language. I've found only two other restaurants in Southern California that offers guilotas, and none match Nancy's preparation: charbroiled and chopped into the usual chicken cuts, the parts rise like jagged promontories from a small lake of mole poblano that complements the guilota's dark-meat allure. The guilotas are tiny and difficult to eat without tweezers (the bird's drumsticks are about the size of crickets) but worth the mess—it's a crispier, less-greasy turkey. Tracking down this platter is such an adventure even legendary food critic Jonathan Gold was perplexed when he tried to describe it a couple of weeks back in his LA Weekly Counter Intelligence column, a moment of confusion along the lines of Ted Williams taking a called third strike.

Nancy also tweaks the Mexican diet enough to impress even the most devout mami's boy, but I won't bother describing them—just imagine an El Torito dinner special, only edible. I'll praise, instead, the complimentary sides: sturdy, shiny chips garnished with beans and gritty queso fresco; refried beans turned slightly milky thanks to an infusion of sweet Mexican sour cream; and unlimited corn tortillas patted out upon your order. These steaming wraps are the real deal: irregularly shaped, dark-yellow, grilled so the masa's flavor still remains, and as thick as last week's New Yorker.



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