We know. You toast at Little Sparrow, you quaff at Good Beer, you sip at Eqeko, you gorge at the Playground. Downtown SanTana makes for one hell of an upscale pub crawl, but sometimes it feels like the beardos in their selvedge denim and Red Wings that have never seen a construction site from inside the fence are taking over.
Well, here's your guide to the top
ten eleven O.G., non-hipster spots, and since we're talking Santa Ana, we're mostly talking Mexican. This is just the tip of the iceberg–we could do a whole month's worth of Best Of Best Of Best Of! on O.G.S.A. alone.
Cubbon between Main and Sycamore, Santa Ana; 714-655-3253
We've been lauding Alebrije's for so long one of our reviews is printed on the side of the truck, next to an OC Register review from the time when their food reviews didn't concentrate on French fries. We've been beating the drum of the taco acorazado, the best $4 lunch in the county, since Gustavo first reviewed it in 2009. But there's much more at this outpost of Chilangolandia (Mexico City, northern version); try the picaditas or the quesadilla con hongos.
2. Las Brisas de Apatzingán
1524 S. Flower St., Santa Ana; 714-545-5584
Pozole. You can get other michoacano specialities here, like sweet-corn huchepos, but no, everyone comes here for the pozole, three kinds. Pozole rojo is the red pozole you're used to; pozole güero (white), and pozole verde, which is the best of the three. Sure, it's in a crusty parking lot, and the building needs updating, but the food is what draws everyone here.
3. La Cemita Poblana
519 S. Main, Santa Ana; 714-664-0892
Every time I go to La Cemita Poblana, I order the same thing: cemita de milanesa de res, con chipotle y quesillo, sin pápalo. And every time without fail, one of the other customers stares and asks where I learned about cemitas. Well, one bite of the huge, sesame seed-studded sandwich and you'll understand; creamy avocado; salty, milky cheese; spicy, smoky chile chipotle; crunchy fried steak. It blows Subway's $6 sandwiches straight out of the water.
[4. El Moctezuma
809 N. Fairview, Santa Ana; 714-648-0402
Everyone's obsessed with Oaxaca right now; mezcal is flowing in the United States like never before, thanks to a movement in Mexico City to reclaim the formerly panned “jugo de campesino” (farmer juice) as a great drink in its own right. The food, too, is a universe unto itself. El Moctezuma fills up at lunchtime with Mexicans who want their amarillo de pollo or verde de cerdo, or their absolutely enormous banana leaf-wrapped tamales. Wander west of downtown and find it.
5. Rancho de Mendoza
104 E. 4th, Santa Ana; 714-547-0345
If you walk down East Fourth at night, you'll hear Rancho de Mendoza before you see it, because someone will be singing a heart-breaking song about unrequited love. During the day, it's a restaurant with an obviously-placed buffet in the front window; at night, it's where actual rancheros go to sip beer and sing karaoke. Brush up on the lyrics to “No Soy Monedita de Oro” if you go.
6. Los Reyes del Elote Asado
Corner of Main and Chestnut, Santa Ana
If only they were open later, Los Reyes del Elote would be the ideal drunk food. But no, you need to have your corn on the cob before 7 p.m. (and never on Thursdays). Yeah, you can get the elote the classic way; covered in mayonnaise and speckled with chile and lime. But you can also order esquites, which is corn off the cob, in a cup, with your choice of toppings, and they have a wide variety of tacos with tortillas hechas a mano.
7. Tacos Rubén y Mulitas
Walnut between Main and Cypress; 714-610-6133
So you're starving after your bougie pub crawl? Head south, my friends, head south; right behind Pep Boys, Ruben's Mulitas is open until 11. Tacos on hand-pressed tortillas (get the al pastor), mulitas, picaditas… and most of the time, while you're waiting for your food to be ready, you can browse a small selection of piratería CDs sold by some enterprising man or others. You'll impress the hell out of your friends.
8. Taqueria Zamora
3121 S. Main, Santa Ana; 714-557-0907
Taqueria Zamora isn't some regional powerhouse. It doesn't serve the food of some forgotten village in the highlands of Guerrero or some kind of special seafood dish you can only get at three palapas on the Sonoran coast. It's a Mexican restaurant, and it's like eating at abuelita's house. Whatever you order, though, make sure it comes with tortillas hechas a mano, because damn, those make the taco.
9. Tortas Ahogadas Los Primos
W. 5th and Hawley, Santa Ana; 714-488-5609
You're not man enough for this sandwich. It starts with salty bread called birote that's deliberately left out to stale overnight. It's stuffed with carnitas, plopped into a shallow tray, and doused with tomato sauce. Fine, so far–but now it's time to drown the sandwich, because “ahogada” means “drowned”, and the drowning liquid is salsa de chile de árbol that will blow your head off. If you order your sandwich “bien ahogada”–approximately “drown the shit out of it”–your lips will sting and be sensitive for hours afterwards. Cool your jets with their jericalla, the flan of Jalisco.
10. Tortillería Flor de Mexicali
1212 S. Bristol #18, Santa Ana; 714-751-4132
Yeah, this isn't a restaurant. It's a tortillería. But walk in and it's all in front of you: the vats of field corn nixtamalizing, the grinding, the pressing… oh yeah, and there's always carnitas bubbling, because they render the lard for their masa para tamales. That means you get to buy amazing carnitas at rock-bottom prices, with hot-off-the-presses tortillas nearly bursting through the bag and salsa that is not geared toward the gringo palate.
11. Trieu Chau
4401 W. 1st, Santa Ana; 714-775-1536
You could be forgiven for thinking that Santa Ana is only Mexican, but the reality is that the ever-expanding culinary juggernaut called Little Saigon extends eastward into our county seat. Trieu Chau is Santa Ana's favorite noodle shop. Choose your noodle, choose your topping, choose dry or soup, but eat the noodles. If it's your first time, go for the house special, hu tieu nam vang, big thick noodles in soup. Go early, though–they close by 5, and sometimes by 4 if they run out of food.