Photo by Tenaya HillsFordecades,LosVacitoswasOldTowne Orange's dirty brown secret: a dingy pool hall off the Circle frequented by Mexican men who weren't afraid to brawl with one another or the crusty gabachosat Paul's Place next door. Los Vacitos was a place where beer bottles greeted faces, where witnesses knew better than to sing, a place even my father avoided when he was a drunken louse—and he's been sober since the 1980s.
But the antiques-searching grannies and Chapman University pseudo-scholars can breathe easier now. Late last year, Mario Marovic of 2J's Cocktail Lounge fame bought Los Vacitos. He stripped away years of grime, kept the glimmering neon sign with a curvy girl in the back, hung some flat-screen plasma televisions on the wall and colonial-style chandeliers from the ceiling, hired Dave Mau to run the kitchen and re-christened his expanse the District Lounge. Now it's a different anomaly: an Old Towne Orange dive free of geriatrics or rednecks, a place where foodies and families alike can tear through the joint's ferocious Texas-style barbecue.
Marovic's kitchen smokes out most of the barnyard in a style almost worthy of Burrell's. The tri-tip's middle is pink, its skin charred yet juicy, and it arrives about eight lengths to an order. Ribs plop off easily, and enough chewy meat hangs off the bone to fill you and create a separate hamburger. The brisket is tough but smoky and gnarled. Chicken wings slap the tongue with their salty, mesquite burn and await a dunking into a thimble of great mustard-ranch dressing. Sides such as sweet red beans with snappy andouille sausages, a gritty red-potato hash, and delish cornbread seem stolen off a chuck wagon. The District Lounge's 'cue is serious, and Reverend Morton's Savory Bar-b-que Savior Sauce—a relishy, sweet glop the District crew administer judiciously to all meats—could score a ribbon in a Kansas City cook-off.
With such stellar kitchen chops, however, it's a pity the District Lounge's design scheme is annoyingly schizophrenic. The epic Naugahyde booths are wonderful, but the long, backlit bar is too pretty and looks as if it were crated in from Corona del Mar. The jukebox growls out Johnny Cash regularly, but the Man in Black would return from his Folsom in the Sky just to smash those shiny TVs whenever they broadcast Jessica Simpson, as they did one recent Saturday afternoon. And while band nights are always welcome at any meat house, DJ spinning is not—leave that to the hipsters at Memphis.
But it's with sandwiches that the District Lounge justifies its tasteful gentrification. There's the Two Brothers sandwich: brisket and pulled pork shoved into a five-gallon bun and topped with a devious melted slice of pepperjack cheese. And there's a Texas-style Philly cheesesteak with steak slices more burned than usual, but the cheese melts over the blob perfectly. All sandwich orders come with more of that cornbread and a big pickle slice radiating a slight jalapeño twinge.
Only the cheap prices remain from the days of Los Vacitos—that, and the brawls. In January, a massive scuffle broke out, clearing the joint, leaving glass shards scattered across the concrete floor and sending four to the hospital. Marovic has hired more security since that stormy night, but he should let bygones be bygones. Once a honky-tonk dive, always a honky-tonk dive, I say—and if the spectre of fights dissuades eaters from frequenting the best Orange County barbecue west of the 57, then they deserve the Tony Roma's gross-out they're going to get.
THE DISTRICT LOUNGE, 233 W. CHAPMAN AVE., ORANGE, (714) 639-7777. OPEN DAILY, 5 P.M.-2 A.M. FULL BAR. DINNER FOR TWO, $15-$40, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.