The Great Mexican Unifier

If you've lived here longer than a few weeks, you already know the story of Richard M. Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant: in San Clemente to recuperate from the hard work of bombing Vietnam, the president was asked to name his favorite Mexican restaurant. “El Adobe de Capistrano,” he said. Except that El Adobe wasn't Mexican. Legend—or maybe marketing—has it that El Adobe became a Mexican restaurant that night the way little wooden boys become human—because someone, in this case a man armed with nuclear missiles, loves them right into the fullest expression of themselves.

The days when Orange Countians contented themselves with Mexican food that wasn't Mexican are over, of course. County eaters now know the joys of taquerías and seafood joints, lunch trucks specializing in Guadalajaran tortas and charbroiled chicken dives, pricey diners and women who sell tamales from their car trunks.

But until Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, Orange County lacked a place where the high and low met, where Mexicans two days removed from Oaxaca could enjoy the mole raved about by Newport Beach trophy wives. This cozy restaurant in Old Towne Orange's hippening antiques district is a great union of Mexican cuisine's many charms and features regional cuisine alongside Tex-Mex classics, offers both wines and tequilas, and pairs English music with ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar.

But a word to the wise: make reservations long in advance.

Tipped off by readers, I called Gabbi's on a Friday afternoon for reservations that night. “Sorry, we're booked solid through the night,” she said, and added that the wait was at least two hours. We went anyhow. Gabbi's is a narrow restaurant with high ceilings and brick walls that have supported the structure for nearly a century. Large paintings of Mexican art clichés (peasants, street scenes) pretty the walls. A high bar stocks the best in tequila, from Cazadores añejo to the sweet fire of Corralejo. It was 9 at night, and the wait extended out the front door.

A waiter told our party of three we could wait at a table on the sidewalk. There, we munched on salsa and chips. The salsa struck me as tasty but tepid—mild enough to outrage even a South Dakotan. I asked the waiter to crank it up to 11, and he did, returning with a habañero salsa that is already the Orange County restaurant world's best. It's a bright, cone-shattering orange in color. I think. Could be yellow: the dim night and multiple shots of Corralejo and Cazadores impaired my color perception. Its scorching fire is complemented by sweetness and a rumor of sour. I finished one habañero bowl and asked for another. And another. At the time, I felt nothing but fiery bliss—like hell if Jesus ran it—but the next day, my stomach felt its wrath.

A table finally cleared, and we ordered. Despite Gabbi's busy night, our appetizers arrived quickly—queso fundido, and a trio of empanadas and panuchos, a Yucatecan version of sopes. The queso fundido wasn't the melted cheese vat of other Mexican restaurants but chilled queso ranchero sprinkled with chorizo and perfect for stuffing into Gabbi's fresh, small corn tortillas. The substantial empanadas tumbled forth with flavor—I especially liked the subtle spices of the chicken. The panuchos, meanwhile, crunched with salad, black beans and slightly toasted masa.

More friends arrived, and more food too. Out came the sizzling parrillada: carne asada, chicken, and sausage piled upon grilled bell peppers and green onions. My girlfriend ordered shrimp bathed in a green mole from Veracruz—neither spicy nor sweet but a tart flavor. I perused the three-tacos-for-$11 menu, with such options as shrimp, carnitas and carne asada. Three tacos for $11 is a bit much for anyone—and certainly for someone who grew up in a Mexican's kitchen—but I can't deny the joy of Gabbi's tacos de rajas: long strands of shredded pepper topped with cream. It's street food glammed up for the rich but still rustic enough for wabs like me.

Gabbi's isn't perfect. The tilapia ceviche didn't pucker lips like a good ceviche should, and my horchata tasted like grout. But for a restaurant still finding its bearings, Gabbi's already bests most Orange County restaurants for ambiance and culinary daring. Give it time, and Gabbi's might very well be Orange County's finest Mexican restaurant. If only Nixon were alive to enjoy it.


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