Tustin, CA 92780
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Joy has submitted another lengthy review after her tour de force review of Taco Rosa, this time of Ricardo's Don José in Tustin:
Ricardo's Don José Restaurants is a chain with eleven locations in Southern California. My partner and I have been to the Don José in Tustin multiple times, and have always enjoyed ourselves. We went back last night to take advantage of a coupon sent in the mail for one free entree with the purchase of an entree and two beverages (they also post coupons on their web site sometimes). Again, we had a satisfying, filling, and pleasant meal. I didn't take any pictures, so I'll try to describe the food with plenty of detail to make up for it.
Walking into Don José, it may not seem like a very authentic Mexican restaurant: most of the customers are white, and everyone speaks English. However, this is far from the Americanized Mexicano-slop I was served in the Midwest: with only two exceptions (potato skins and mud pie), the menu only includes standard Mexican items, and the flavors are similar to what I've eaten in restaurants that drew primarily Mexican customers. The decor is colorful and cheerful without being either too kitschy or too much like a soulless chain restaurant, everything is clean and well-kept, the wait staff is efficient and nice, and they don't play music so loudly that it interferes with conversation. There are often many people waiting in the lobby to be seated, but the line tends to go pretty quickly. There are two dining areas. The one on the left has a large TV, usually playing sports, and includes a short bar with a few bar seats. The right side is larger and is all booths, which make for comfortable seating.
The service is consistently good. Within a minute of being seated, someone brought us chips and salsa, and a minute later our server came to take our drinks order. I didn't keep track of the time after we ordered our dinner, but it came amazingly fast -- no more than five minutes. That was especially impressive because the restaurant was packed. Everything else we asked for (refills, dessert, bill) also arrived quickly.
I really like the Don José chips; they are exceptionally thin and crisp, and often still warm when they arrive at the table (I think they are made of flour tortillas). You only get one choice of salsa, which is pretty good. It's chunky, as I like it, rather than smooth. It's just spicy enough to be interesting, if not as hot as I like it: you can clearly taste the raw onions, cilantro, and chile peppers, in that order. The salsa has been better on other trips, which I think is due to the varying quality of the tomatoes.
In many past trips, I've ordered the Chicken Sonora plate. I especially like the "Sonora corn" served as a side. It also features a marinated and grilled chicken breast, a chile relleno, refried beans, rice, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, tortillas, and I think some other side or salad. But this time I was determined to order a chicken taco -- based on an earlier conversation with Christian on this blog. I ordered the combination plate #7 (soft chicken taco, chile relleno, and chile Colorado, $9.75) and my partner ordered the combination plate #6 (soft shredded beef taco and tamale, $8.75). Both come with refried beans, rice, and some lettuce. My dish came with so much food that I had a full plate's worth left over for lunch the next day. My partner ate almost all of his dish, though.
Don José serves my favorite chile relleno in this region, that I've found so far, at least. On the menu, they call it "grilled chile rellano." I'm trying to figure out how they cook it, because it's distinctly different than most restaurants. (I don't know if that means it's inauthentic, or if it represents a different part of Mexico. Maybe spelling it rellano rather than relleno signifies a different region, or maybe it's just a misspelling.) I think that what they do is fry the batter by itself first, like a thick eggy pancake, then wrap it around the cheese-stuffed chile and reheat the whole thing in the sauce. The result is a delicious, distinct egg flavor in the coating, without any of the oiliness or bits of undercooked batter you can get with deep-fried versions. Also, they use a relatively small amount of cheese, which allows much more poblano flavor to come through. The sauce is a light tomato-based sauce: not very spicy, but interesting enough to add to the dish.
The soft chicken taco was served on a separate plate. Even though it had two corn tortillas, there was so much filling that I couldn't manage to pick it up to eat it until after I'd eaten about a third of it with a fork. Even then I made a total mess of my hands in the process. The taco was good, with fresh-tasting ingredients and big chunks of chicken. It didn't stand out much, though; later I realized that all it needed was a dash of hot sauce (which they don't have on the table, but I could have asked for some).
The chile Colorado was also good. The sauce was flavorful, although again, I wish I would have asked for more chiles or hot sauce. The meat was also good, although a few pieces were somewhat chewier than I'd prefer.
(To clarify about the heat level: although the food here isn't as spicy as I'd like it, I seem to have a greater tolerance for heat than others, so don't think the food's not flavorful. For example, it's still spicy enough that my white-bread parents and sister would think most dishes were too hot.)
I'm not fond of the refried beans at Don José. I prefer my beans to have more texture, whereas their beans are smoothly mashed. But worse, they don't have much flavor. Also, they put too much cheese on top for my taste (I keep forgetting to ask for less or no cheese on the beans). My partner likes his refried beans smooth and cheesy, and after adding a bit of salt to perk them up, he liked them fine.
My partner liked his taco and tamale. Being the very neat person that he is, he somehow managed to pick up his overstuffed taco and eat it without dropping filling bits in his lap and without getting sauce all over his hands (it's his special superpower). I didn't snatch any of his taco before it was gone, but I got a couple bites of his tamale. I don't generally enjoy tamales because I find the masa to be too thick and/or dry, but this was pretty good. There was relatively more filling and less masa dough than usual, and the masa wasn't as heavy tasting (probably because, according to their site, they use vegetable oil rather than lard -- definitely not traditional). Also, the masa dough was somewhat crispy on the outside. Maybe they fried it straight up, without the corn husks (if so, is it still a tamale?), or maybe they burned it on purpose to get this crispy edge, or maybe this was an accident and it doesn't normally taste like this. I don't know, but it made a really nice contrast with the soft filling.
My partner was too full for dessert, but since I was saving half my meal for lunch, I still had room for more, and ordered the fried ice cream ($4.25). It turned out to be the only dish I didn't like, although it couldn't have been too bad, since I ate it all! The coating was not at all crunchy or crispy. Since the ice cream was still hard, I think the ice cream wasn't fried for long enough or the oil wasn't hot enough. However, it would still have suffered from the fairly flavorless coating: I like a pronounced flavor of nuts or cinnamon or both, but this had neither. The ice cream ball was served in a fried tortilla shell, which was also lacking in flavor; there was a sprinkling of cinnamon on the bottom, but it really needed more fat/oil flavor, and maybe some powdered sugar. Even the whipped cream was disappointing. They also offer flan, but we've never had it, since we rarely order desserts.
On previous visits, we and our dining companions have ordered many -- possibly almost all -- of the other dishes on the menu. I don't remember details, other than my in-laws loving the fish tacos, just many happy meals and no significant disappointments. This is a really good, cheery, dependable restaurant, although not what I'd call a really good traditional Mexican restaurant. What's missing is more Mexican touches, such as more salsa options, condiments on the table, drinks such as aguas frescas. I give it a Speedy Gonzales rating of 4 out of 5.
Thanks, Joy. Always open to more reviews.