A platinum blond bounces from her car to a shifty beauty salon. She wears skinny jeans, black cowboy boots, a gray t-shirt, and a mien that says, “Now if only there was a decent stylist closer to my loft.” For sure. I turn my attention back to my plate: Mole.
It’s some time in the middle of December. The Lurid LGFats drags Fill and I towards some part of sanTana that should have been targeted by god’s Renaissance Plan. This is the part of town where you can get your speedball and your paleta de coco from the same discreet guy standing at an exit intersection. “Paletas, paletas,” he sometimes calls out to no one in particular.
This is the intersection of Grand and the five (as noted by commenter). This is where ridiculous Orange County drivers become even more ridiculous; where they get so excited at the idea of driving freeway speeds that they lose cool and piss themselves.
This is the intersection of “Oh lord in heaven get me outta this ghetto before a Mexicaan shots me!” and “Phuck, traffic.”
Yesterday this place was a De-eFe joint called, “Tacos Nitze.” Today it’s a Jaliscan joint called, “Tacos y Mariscos Jalisco.”
The Lurid LGFats has a affinity for hand-made things. Old-world buildings. Leather man-bags. Tortillas. In fact that’s what drew him here. While picking up his speedball and paleta a few weeks earlier he noticed a hot pink-colored sign across the street: Tortillas Hechas a Mano.
When we enter we are greeted by Juan, “For here or to go?” he asks. “For here,” I say. We have a seat near the window. The decor is humble if not plain. The television is an annoying sorority sister in the corner of the room: colorful, seeking attention, but somehow fuzzy and self-deceptively empty. Juan brings over warm tortilla chips, their spicy house salsa, and some menus.
The Lurid LGFats knows what he wants: “Yo gustaria la especial de la casa. No mariscos.” He’s been workin’ on that first sentence for some time now. He can also say, “Mi espanol es muy bien,” “Buenos dias muchos,” “Sabado, Sabado, Sabado,” and “Dos, veintidos, veintidos, veintidos.” Despite LGFats’ intermediary linguistic skills, Juan gets him. LGFats wants the house specials recommended to him, anything but seafood. Juan immediately recommends the Chile Verde.
I, on the other hand, scrutinize the menu. “It’s too exhaustive,” I think, “a sign of over-reaching.” I ask what kind of Mole they have. I narrow my eyes at Juan. I think back to my mother’s Mole, a true representation of a Jaliscan Mole (never mind that the trollop hails from Nica). That’s not what they serve here. In fact, rare is the restaurant that serves Jaliscan Mole. Perhaps it’s too time-consuming to be profitable. Perhaps it bows to the ubiquity of the other Moles. Even this Jaliscan restaurant is serving a Mole that is between a Michoacanen and a Poblanen. I ask for a taste. He brings out a hearty sample of it with chips. It ain’t a Jalisco Mole, but it’s damn fine; “Mole por favor.” We’ve ordered and now it’s Fill’s turn. He stares at the menu not for decisionary purposes, but for the drama. “…I’ll just have the tacos,” he says. Oh Fill.
The pork in the chile verde was seared before being stewed with the chile. The searing gives it a delicate crust that pork-trollers delight in, and the meat beyond it is supple with a good chewiness. The size of the chunks of meat are just right for digging into with a piece of tortilla. In terms of the chile, naturally tomatillos come through, but so does a dash of lime. The chile and pork are an excellent pairing, that’s what makes this dish a classic. And here at Tacos y Mariscos Jalisco it’s pretty tasty. The rice is rather bland but, according to LGFats, is great when mixed with the chile.
The Mole is subtly complex with spices rising and fading to and from the surface of my palate. It’s definitely a chocolate Mole. The chicken is super tender. I dig into it with a tortilla. The beans I’ve had better elsewhere. (Like La Sirena on Main where the beans are delish but the day-after consequences are (ahem) grave.)
Jealous of Fill’s taco plate I order one Asada Taco for myself. The taco is pretty sizable, the meat is tender, the garnishes are loaded on, the tortilla is supple, and the smell of the combination is wonderful.
The tortilas. Where is my abuela? Has she been resurrected? Am I in some teasingly disgusting Paz novel? Are these tortillas leaves of magical surrealism? Or have I merely taken too many chicano studies courses?
These handmade tortillas are a refreshing representation of the tortilla. They take me back to madrugadas where I wake to the sound of hands clapping and the smell of wood burning.
I wake up and, with sleep still in my eyes, I get dressed. I step around low beds and sleeping bodies and come out into the kitchen lit only by the morning dim light. I smell sweet cinnamon and roasted coffee beans. Coffee percolates on the stove. My father and grandfather are already outside readying the horses. The semi-open air kitchen (filled merely with tables and chairs, a stove, and a cupboard) leads to the outdoor hearth area. Sheltering this area is only corrugated iron. In the far corner on the left side is my abuela. She sits next to the hearth. Covering the hearth is a large cast iron griddle. Surrounding her is a smooth concrete counter. Full of maza, her red plastic bucket stands erect at her feet. The air beyond this area is cold, but here, in the hearth area, the air is warm. I step into the warmth. My abuela looks up and smiles, I walk over to her, she hands me a couple of ancient mesh bags and wishes me a good day, “Que tengas un buen dia mijo.” I walk outside. The men are silent. We head towards el serro.
Experiences like this form my appreciation for “tortillas hechas a mano.” My culinary experiences exist not in a vacuum. They exist within a context. Is music or television playing in the background? Is it too loud, too distracting? Can I pair this food with alcohol or not? Is there table service, is the service format self-order and wait with a number, or is it self-serve? What’s the location of the establishment? Is it in a historic building? In the middle of nowheresville off the 22? Is it next to a dirt lot? Where does the food come from and what goes into preparing it? Is the time taken to make tortillas, for example, by hand? Tacos y Mariscos Jalisco may be a chink-in-the-dyke, but making the effort to form maza into tortillas scores them points in my book … the sorority sister in the corner I could do without though.
We end our meal with coffee. It’s weak and disgusting but we weren’t expecting anything less … or more.
Tacos y Mariscos Jalisco, 1320 North Grand Avenue, Santa Ana, CA 92701, 714-835-7698. No alcohol, free parking; price range 2-10 bucks.