This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Mil Jugos would seem to have synthesized every bad Latino cliché in a single Santa Ana location. Loud yellow paint. Parrots hanging from the ceiling. Speakers bubbling with hyperkinetic merengue music. Spanish. Caramel-skinned beauties manning the register and kitchen. Wacky font for the restaurant's name. Foreign currency decorated with the faces of long-dead caudillos.

But this tiny restaurant—there are just four tables and a small counter—is an anomaly in Southern California: it's the region's only Venezuelan restaurant. To ensure its survival, Mil Jugos (that's “1,000 Juices”) speaks the universal language of the licuado, or fruit shake. Zaftig owner Norah Briceño and her all-lady crew grab fruits from freezers and baskets, toss them into blenders along with ice and sugar, and blend fiercely, pouring out frothy licuados as thick as ice cream and just as tasty. Along with popular fruits like apples, mangoes and oranges, Mil Jugos also stocks some unexpected choices: pulpy guanabana, earthy oatmeal and a sharp tamarindo licuado are the better ones. Forget ice cream or Icees: a Mil Jugos licuado is your best guard against the pounding August sun.

In addition to the licuados, Mil Jugos lures a steady lunchtime crowd with such traditional sandwiches as hamburgers and Italian subs. But forget the sandwiches and even the licuados: you're at Southern California's only Venezuelan restaurant, so order the specialties, the arepas and the cachapas. The former look like inflated dwarf gorditas: lightly toasted cornbread muffins split in half and stuffed with meats and grilled veggies. The carne desmechada arepa is heavy on garlicky shredded beef and bell peppers; the pabellon adds black beans and salty white cheese. Though a bit expensive at $3.25—think of them as Latin American sliders—each arepa is filling and flavorful, and an added dash of the house ají (South American salsa that looks like watered-down guacamole) will singe you with a minty blast.

But well-worth its cost is the cachapa, one of Orange County's great meals. It seems simple enough: corn batter grilled and then flopped over stuffings to create an impromptu omelet. But the corn is so fresh that its kernels will stick between your teeth, and a dash of sugar brings out the corn's natural candy wonder. The cachapa con queso blanco contains slabs of salty white cheese and sweet cream. Better is the one with pernil, shredded, smoky pork. And there's no excuse for even the most persnickety American to ignore the cachapa with ham—it's Norm's for the cosmopolitan set.

MIL JUGOS, 318 W. FIFTH ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 836-4601.

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