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Monday, September 25, 2006

El Cholo Cantina - Review #1

El Cholo Cantina
5465 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 451-0044

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El Cholo Cantina -

Since I live and work in Irvine (don't ask how that happened) it's very easy for me to get to Mexican restaurants in Irvine. I try not to focus on them too much to the detriment of restaurants in other cities but I think El Cholo Cantina may be one of the last Irvine Mexican restaurants to cover.

El Cholo Cantina - Interior Shot #1

El Cholo Cantina is part of a chain of Mexican restaurants that began in Los Angeles in 1923. If you read the history on their website you can learn from an interesting anecdote how the chain got its name, and see their claim to have started the nacho craze in America.

El Cholo Cantina - Interior Shot #2

While snacking on their chips I was thinking that I should describe the corn chips at various places in more detail. Shortly after that I got an e-mail from somebody requesting that I describe chips in more detail. So here goes: El Cholo's chips were a little on the thin side and a little on the dry side. On their own they were a little bland but with El Cholo's salsa they perked up pretty good. Most of the chips in the basket were of the standard yellow variety but there were a few red corn chips as well.

El Cholo Cantina - Blue Corn Chicken Enchiladas
Blue Corn Chicken Enchiladas

I went on this visit with two co-workers: Michael and Eugene. We were intending that at least one of the three of us would order El Cholo's signature green corn tamales but after we placed our orders we realized none of us had. Michael ordered a veggie burrito which he said was excellent, Eugene ordered the chile relleno/chicken enchilada platter, while I ordered the blue corn chicken enchiladas. Eugene asked if they were tacos when he saw them and I don't blame him as their tortillas were folded in half rather than rolled up. My dish was $13 plus change on the menu but I was only charged $9.95 for it. I later found out that it is on special on Mondays and Tuesdays.

El Cholo Cantina - Chile Relleno/Chicken Enchilada

When your check comes you get a complimentary little pecan praline cookie for each person in your party. You can also buy bags of these cookies on your way out.

El Cholo Cantina - Veggie Burrito
Veggie Burrito

Speaking of their green corn tamales, these are a famous item but they are only available between May and October each year so you still have about a month to get them before they go out of season again. You can try them at the restaurant or even have them shipped to you.

El Cholo Cantina - Flan

El Cholo Cantina earns a four Speedy Gonzales rating:

Speedy Gonzales Speedy Gonzales Speedy Gonzales Speedy Gonzales

Click on the 'el cholo' label to read our complete coverage of the El Cholo chain in Orange County (we have a separate review for each of their locations):

Mexi-Casa - Review #2

1778 W Lincoln Ave
Anaheim, CA 92801
(714) 635-2612

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Mexi-Casa Exterior

Here we have our first guest review in a while, this time of Mexi-Casa in Anaheim from guest reviewer "GrindzHound." Like James, who reviewed Mexi-Casa for us before, GrindzHound also thought Mexi-Casa's mild salsa tasted like V-8 juice even though they each made their appraisals without being aware of the other's report. Still, they each sing high praises for this long-time, inexpensive Anaheim eatery.

Since the 1960's or thereabouts, Mexi-Casa restaurant in Anaheim has been serving up generously portioned meals at pauper's prices in what was once an area with few Mexican eateries unless of course Taco Bell is considered real Mexican food. They've been doing it long before anyone in OC could even pronounce the word ta·que·ría. It started out humbly enough 40+ years ago down a dark industrial street in a small shack of a restaurant with a close-up view of Interstate 5. More recently Mexi-Casa moved, continuing it's humble journey down to West Lincoln Avenue. Yeah, this is Americanized Mexican food but its consistently tasty and an EXCELLENT value or dare I say cheap? It would be doing a disservice to this not often talked about institution to call it cheap food. Mexi-Casa has been quietly feeding hungry families and college students since LBJ and the Beatles.

Mexi-Casa's loyal following shows up every day whether its faded neon sign happens to be lit or not. This is the type of neighborhood place that I wish were everywhere but then again if it were, it would be called El Tor-eat-oh. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy eating at some corporate dining establishments, but my heart, soul and stomach rumbles for neighborhood joints. Mexi-Casa has "that" character and is a great value, those are two attributes that any hound can admire.

Some menu highlights include (Prices are from memory and are approximate):

*Combination Lunch $3-$4 most are two items with rice and beans. The price, I kid you not!
*Combination Dinner $4-$5 most are two items with rice and beans.
*Cheese Chips - Roasted in the oven to a toasty bubbly perfection. $2.50-$3.25
*Chili Relleno - Cheesy saucy good. $2.75
*Guacamole - Just plain old Hass avocados. $2.25-$3.00
*Albondigas soup - Mild and soothing. $1.75-$2.75
*Side Salad - with homemade blue cheese dressing. (Request that the lettuce is well drained or you’ll get a soupy mess) $1.75
*Chile Verde with tortillas- Mmmmm, clear my sinuses. $4.00
*Beef Tacos - Shell and meat are deep fried together for a meaty roasted flavor. $1.75
*Bean Tostada - Large, simply a tortilla overpiled (if that’s a word) with lettuce cheese and salsa. $2.25
*Meat Tostada - Same as bean tostada (or meat & bean) $3.25

Chowhounder's note: The mild salsa is like a mildly spicy and slightly chunky V-8 juice. The hot salsa is a chunkier, hotter version. Neither will be mistaken for salsa fresca or pico de gallo but they accompany the food well.

More Mexi-Casa entries:

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Review #1

Date of Visit: September 10, 2006
Mario's Fiesta Maya
17221 Beach Blvd
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
(714) 375-6292

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Appetizer: Chips and two types of salsa
Entree: Chipotle Red Snapper
Drink: Horchata

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Coupons

UPDATE: Mario's  Fiesta Maya has closed.

In the Orange County Register's recent 13th Annual Best of Orange County newsmag Mario's in Huntington Beach was mentioned as the hidden gem amongst Orange County Mexican restaurants. They mentioned the location on Springdale and Edinger that opened in 1969 and the location on Main St. in the Five Points Shopping Center that opened in 1975. But they failed to mention Mario's Fiesta Maya near Warner and Beach Blvd. that opened, I am told, in 1994. So I like to think of Mario's Fiesta Maya as the "hidden gem's hidden gem."

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Exterior Shot #1
You have to give him the password to gain entrance

When I arrived they asked if I wanted to sit inside or outside. I asked for outside seating so I could take some pictures of their nice open air patio, but they seated me at a table right next to the only other people out there, a young couple in love who looked like they wanted some privacy, so I took a couple pictures then moved to a table inside.

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Exterior Shot #2
Built in the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple

In addition to their heavy Mayan theme clearly evident inside and outside the premises, Mario's Fiesta Maya has a decidely more seafood-oriented menu than the two standard Mario's. I pikced the red snapper chipotle dish, a fish filet smothered in chipotle sauce, red and green peppers, mostly tender and flaky but crisp around the edges, selecting Mexican mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables as sides in place of the typical rice and beans.

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Open Air Seating

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Open Air Seating #2

Mario's Fiesta Maya has an extensive menu (check it out at their Yahoo! Local listing linked to above; it's slightly outdated but not very much) with plenty of appetizers, children's menu items, hamburgers if you're in a non-Mexican mood, breakfast selections, etc.

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Ceiling Painting #1

The presentation was a little on the sloppy side but I'm thinking it was a fluke since everyone around me was getting very nicely presented dishes (and it all goes down the same):

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Chipotle Red Snapper

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Ceiling Painting #2

As I finished up my own meal I ordered a traditional tostada as takeout to drop off at my mom's place. She raved and raved about it, especially pointing out that it was the best rice and beans she ever had. Now I'll have to get the rice and beans the next time I go.

Mario's Fiesta Maya earns a four Speedy Gonzales rating:

Speedy Gonzales Speedy Gonzales Speedy Gonzales Speedy Gonzales

UPDATE (September 23, 2006):

Went back two weeks later and took a few more pictures:

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Interior Shot

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Painting
Actual hi-res photo of the owner

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Camarones de la Sinaloa
Camarones de la Sinaloa

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Carnitas Taco

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Mayan Decorations

Mario's Fiesta Maya - Ceiling Painting #3

Monday, September 18, 2006

Recruitment Drive and Contest

I'm having another one of those moments where I am feeling overwhelmed with the task ahead of me. To cover all the Mexican restaurants in the county is a huge job. I still have at least 200 hundred more to get to. I try to come up with a sensible list of restaurants to make it to in the near future, then I get recommendations made to me which I always take seriously, and then I find out about brand new places and I try to give those precedent, and it all piles up. It's a lot of fun but I wish I could clone myself.

Mystery Image

Remember that I take guest reviews here. If you have a favorite place you want highlighted here then go ahead and submit your review to me; you will be fully credited for any review of yours posted here. It especially helps if you can take three or four good quality pictures of the restaurant and its food. If you submit a good review and feel like you might want to do more then I can probably set you up with posting privileges here.


Five Speedy Gonzaleses go to whoever can identify the Mexican restaurant this image comes from. Leave your guess in the comments on this post. You can find a hint in my recent The Best of What? entry. A related hint is that this image comes from the next review to appear here at this blog.

MContest Image
Where is this?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Gabby about Gabbi's

This is only one entry we have about Gabbi's and has been outdated and replaced with new and better info. You will get all the info we have about this great restaurant by clicking the image link above. Don't click the link if you only want to read old info.

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen Exterior
There's no sign . . . maybe there never will be.

Finally my reviews of Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen in Old Towne Orange are not the only ones anywhere, in print or online. Gustavo Arellano from the OC Weekly has now reviewed Gabbi's with virtuosic verbosity, even tossing in an oblique Spinal Tap reference. He is right that you should make your reservations well in advance, especially on weekends. He is also right that the salsa they bring you out first is rather mild but you can request it hotter. Finally, he is right that it's proper to expect a new restaurant to take about six months to iron out kinks and fall into a groove but if you want to be in on the new hotspot of gourmet Mexican food in the county then work in a trip to Gabbi's in Old Town Orange. While Gustavo may be better with words, we are better with photos.


Tenny Tatusian has posted her review of Gabbi's on her OC Register Food Frenzy blog. Here's some photos from a visit to Gabbi's with periodic blog contributor Joy, Elmo from Monster Munching, and Omar from SqueezeOC:

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Mole Enchiladas
Mole Enchiladas

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Puerco Poc-Chuc
Puerco Poc-Chuc

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Shrimp Tacos
Shrimp Tacos

The Best of What?

Today's Orange County Register contains the big annual insert pointing out the "best of" in several categories relating to county life as voted on by its readership. In the "Best Mexican Food" entry on page 224 we find that Register readers know only about the most well-known chain type of restaurants: El Torito, Don Jose, Acapulco, El Ranchito, Super Mex, etc. I can go to any of these places and get a good meal so I'm not lambasting any one of them, but when you look at the aggregate of the results it seems highly unoriginal. I have heard that employees at the Register sometimes cringe when they see what people are voting on but that they still have to depict the vote results honestly. Maybe it's to be expected that the most well-known places get voted for the most but that method doesn't help to inform anyone. Who needs to have their attention called to the fact that there's a chain called El Torito? That's what this blog aims to do: help readers find hidden gems all over. In fact, the next review to be posted on this blog is going to be about the Register voters' hidden gem's hidden gem.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

La Salsa - Review #1½

Date of Visit: September 9, 2006
La Salsa
@ Fashion Island
401 Newport Center Drive A-107
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(714) 255-5660

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Guerilla Photography

La Salsa - Food Court

(UPDATE: According to the Fast Food Maven this La Salsa location has closed.) So today we get to look at another one of those chain Mexican restaurants that's a step up from Taco Bell and Del Taco: La Salsa. For those of you who don't habla Español, La Salsa is Spanish for . . . "The Salsa," if we follow Chris Farley's Spanish lesson:

I was trying to take pictures of this Fashion Island food court La Salsa when the shift supervisor saw me and told me that unless I worked for CKE I wouldn't be allowed to take pictures. I was afraid mall security (I like to call them the "Fashion Police") would haul me away so I promised not to take anymore. After that he told me that they didn't want competition coming and stealing their secrets. I was flattered that La Salsa would consider me competition but I revealed my true purpose as a humble amateur food blogger whose sole purpose is to call attention to great Mexican food in Orange County. Once he found that out he really lightened up and we had a great conversation.

La Salsa - Breakfast Menu

He also confirmed my suspicion that they are the only La Salsa location in Orange County that serves breakfast (but also added that most of the locations in Los Angeles do). You can eat a nice quiet breakfast here before all the mall rats invade the place. I ordered the Omelette Mexicano, a "Jack and Cheddar cheese omelette topped with salsa. Served with chorizo, beans, and chilaquiles topped with sour cream and a side of corn or flour tortillas." It made a great breakfast. The chorizo inside wasn't exactly to my liking but you can substitute chicken or steak for $1.90 more. My friend running the cash register told me that the most popular breakfast item is the breakfast burrito but I'm still wanting to try their Huevos Rancheros sometime.

La Salsa - Omelette Mexicano
Omelette Mexicano with Chorizo

Mas Salsa

While I was at the Fashion Island location the employee brought up to me out of the blue that there was a brand new location in Huntington Beach and he raved about its new design. I found out later that it is at the new Bella Terra shopping center (the former Huntington Center) and I went Monday night and took some pictures. The manager told us that they had then been open only eight days. It is immediately across the street from the entrance to the Cheesecake Factory.

La Salsa - Exterior Shot

La Salsa - Interior Shot

La Salsa - Mosaic Map
Mosaic Map of Mexico

La Salsa - Hanging Sign
Hanging Sign

La Salsa - Interior Shot #2
Lots of colored tile

One of the things I've always admired about La Salsa is that they are one of the very few places (I can only think of one other such place) that has mango salsa in their salsa bar:

La Salsa - Salsa Bar

La Salsa earns a three and a half Speedy Gonzales rating:

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Also, check out our review of La Salsa's Chipotle Shrimp Salad in our Salad Wars entry.