Sometimes we want regional Mexican food–corundas and pozole from Las Brisas de Apatzingán or thick, rich moles from El Moctezuma–and sometimes we just want the familiar old combination plate with its orangey rice and its goopy beans and its two enchiladas where the sauce runs into the other parts of the plate, or the thin flour tortillas that envelop carne asada with sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and pulpy tomato salsa.
Mexican-American food is still Mexican. That does not mean, however, that you need to sell your soul to the corporate sameness of Acapulco's or Chevy's; there are good Mex-Am combo plates and bad ones. Here are ten of the best.
As always, discussions and bashing in the comments section are welcome.
10. Avila's El Ranchito
Yes, it's a chain, but it's a home-grown chain. Avila's has spread from South County all the way to the hallowed Orange Circle; the menu is full of all the usual Mexican-American specialties, but the secret is that they have the best caldo de pollo of any of the places on this list. Ask for an extra elote in yours.
9. La Casa Garcia
While La Casa Garcia is close to Disneyland, it's just far enough off Harbor that most tourists never see it; inside, it's a trip back in time. Order the flautas, and revel in the fact that you're sitting in one of OC's oldest Mexican restaurants, whose founding family give out hundreds of meals at Thanksgiving.
As the name implies, it doesn't really matter what you get here, just put lots of their excellent salsa–especially the green one–on it. The menu is similar to Alberto's, but just different enough to warrant its own spot on the list. The kicker? It's open 24×7–so you can get your fatty burrito on at 3 a.m. after you stumble out of the bars in downtown Fullerton.
Mexi-Casa is so old it's rumored to have been started by Father Serra on his church-planting stroll up the coast of northern Mexico. The prices haven't changed in forever, either, and it's far and away the cheapest combo plate. Stick with the usual: enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and tacos, and remember: drink refills are not free at Mexi-Casa, and it's strictly cash only.
6. Mario's Fiesta Maya
Mario's Fiesta Maya is the spiritual home of Bro-Mex, OC's own export of Mexican food. You already know what's on the menu, because it's on the menu everywhere, but instead of kitschy scenes of a Mexico that never existed, it's loud, brash, and full of people whose average age is about 22. It's as much Orange County as Disneyland, surfing the Wedge, and voting for old white Republican men.
5. Little Onion
Ever wonder what a Mexican restaurant circa 1978 looked like? That's Little Onion, a place where the enchiladas are as thin as masa-based crêpes, where the rice and beans are a slightly alarming color but taste like pure heaven, and where you can get an egg put on absolutely anything.
4. Sarinana's Tamale Factory
Despite the fact that Sarinana's has tamales in the name–and the tamales are pretty good–the whole reason anyone goes to Sarinana's is for the hard-shelled tacos. The shredded beef and chicken are great, but the ground beef hard-shelled taco will awaken your mind to what Taco Bell is trying to imitate.
3. El Farolito
Huge platters of crispy carnitas: check. Chips so thick you could build a bridge out of them: check. Awesome beans: check. Self-service (but monitored, don't get any ideas) beer fridge: check. Cheap bill: check. All you have to do is wait for your name to be called.
2. The Entire Al Empire (Alberto's, Alberta's, Albertacos, etc.)
They all have different names, based as they are on the original Roberto's in San Diego, but the menu, prices and signs are the same, whether you're at Alerto's or Albatros. Some are partial to their California burritos, enormous, thick logs of meat and rice and beans and cheese; they're more famous, though, for their carne asada fries (and carne asada nachos). Here's a tip: a half order is plenty for anyone. Seriously.
1. Super Antojitos
When it's not full of students from Santa Ana College across the street, Super Antojitos has soccer matches on, with friendly rivalry between two halves of the restaurant. The chile verde is outstanding–it could be improved only with tortillas hechas a mano–and the combination plates are leagues beyond El Torito and its ilk. The bar is stocked with Victoria, the salsa doesn't need to be spiked with Tapatío, and the service is friendly.