Teriyaki has been a Mexican staple in Orange County for a good three decades now, and it’s been great to see restaurateurs bend the Japanese-American dish to paisa palates: thinner cuts à la carne asada here, green onions instead of scallions there, throw rice and teriyaki beef into a burrito or taco, or offer Tapatío and horchata instead of Sriracha and Coke. But I’ve never seen a spot offer pickled jalapeños as a condiment until I walked into Teriyaki Express in Fullerton.
The awkwardly shaped spot (it’s like an L, and tables are so packed that eaters frequently have to ask other eaters to move so they can leave) isn’t a teriyaki-only place such as Mos 2 or Yogi’s. It sells bento boxes, some tempura and a bunch of forgettable sushi rolls. I never see anyone order the latter because there’s no need; everyone scarfs down bowls or plates, striking a truce between healthy offerings such as veggie and salmon and true Mexican-teriyaki-spot tokens of meat, rice and nothing else. This is workingman’s food, and that’s why Teriyaki Express is always packed. It’s in a small shopping plaza in the middle of Fullerton’s industrial parks, and Teriyaki Express’ neighbors are a massage parlor, a tattoo shop and a turntable store.
The beef and chicken are great and juicy, but the best thing here is the popcorn chicken bowl, which the owner’s kids probably told their parents to put on the menu. Its crunch and slight heat are Instagram-ready—and that’s where the jalapeños come in. It seems like an insignificant development, but this means Teriyaki Express knows its clients, knows Mexicans always appreciate multiple layers of heat (that’s why we’ll pour Sriracha, Tabasco and Tapatío on our chips). Here, the pickled jalapeños take on the role of kimchi. They offer a bit of heat but work better for its tartness, for cleansing your tongue, for the way it adds vegetal texture to what’s usually a protein bomb. Pickled jalapeños on teriyaki bowls is like a rear-view camera on a car—you never realized you needed it until you finally tried it, and now you can’t imagine life without it.
Teriyaki Express, 2433 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 626-0947.