Gustavo's Top Five Hole-in-the-Walls of 2008
1. Las Brisas de Apatzingan: Yeah, it's in a seedy part of SanTana, and the restaurant can sometimes get dirtier than what's acceptable even for dives, but few other places specialize in the cuisine of the Mexican state of Michoacán--and no one can deny the power of their green pozole, a bowl I described thusly:
Their green pozole stew comes in a large bowl and features a broth the color of AstroTurf. On the side is a plate of cabbage, diced onions, pumpkin seeds, some chicharron pieces, an avocado slice, a cotija cheese-stuffed jalapeño and two potato taquitos. Dump the cabbage, onions, chicharron, avocado and pumpkin seeds in the steaming pozole to make the cauldron cool. Eat the jalapeño (don't worry, there's so much sweet, unmelted cheese crammed into the swollen pepper that it wrestles the heat into a tasty truce) and dunk the taquitos into the pozole. Finish the sides, and start ladling the pozole into your mouth.
1524 S. Flower St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-5584.
2. Bangkok Taste: Thai Nakorn might get all the buzz, but I keep returning to this SanTana treasure because of the funny owner and a dessert of roti covered in frosting. Have yet to meet a bad item on their substantial menu, and I haven't even tried their famed green mussel omelette yet. 2737 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 532-2216. 3. Paul's Cafe: I was once accused of elitism by someone for preferring hole-in-the-wall restaurants to higher-end places--something about racism and exotification of ethnic cuisine. HA! I wish that moron can read this and wonder why I'm so obsessed with this Fountain Valley Coffee shop's chicken-fried chicken, a crispy blanket of greasy yummies. All other entrees will please, but the chicken-fried chicken is a work of Americana as iconic as all the Marine insignias hung around the walls. 16947 Bushard St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-7879.
4. El Amanecer: Salvadoran cuisine tends to get recognized for only one thing: pupusas. But the cuisine of this Central American country is amongst the tastier in the Americans, and they also prepare one of the vegetarian world's best meals with casamiento, a mixture of black beans, white rice, goat cheese, and tart sour cream. At this small SanTana cafe, the casamiento comes in a sandwich that is, penny-for-penny, as valuable as a banh mi. 733 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-6993.
5. Jack's Bakery: I used to date some chick who lived near here, and I never quite found out about this place even though she mentioned it all the time, confusing it for an Armenian market next door that closed down. This was years ago, and someone finally told me exactly where it was. Forgo the menu items and concentrate on the baked goods--fresh pita, delicious cookies, and batches of lahmajun, what every unimaginitive food critic calls Lebanese pizza...uh-oh. 10515 McFadden Ave, Ste. 107, Garden Grove, (714) 775-6773.