Push open the screen door at Peña's Restaurant in Santa Ana and you'll find reclaimed relics of California's rancho past: rusted ranch equipment, hollowed-out gourds, a poster promising gold and glory from the pockets of Pancho Villa. Occasionally, a jukebox flips on unprovoked, pumping out the wheezy bellows of an accordion. Down a skinny stretch of the dining room that runs along the kitchen, saddles serve as retrofitted bar stools, bow-legged seats that help Peña's accommodate every eater.
And during the restaurant's busiest lunch hours, that extra capacity is crucial, as Peña's can pack in some hungry crowds. The restaurant isn't big by any means -- only two of its tables can even seat three or more -- but it does run entirely in the family, with Ramón and Lourdes Peña handling every aspect of their nearly year-old business. So that small size is ideal for the couple, both of whom tend to the food from prep to plating to service from their compact kitchen right out to those saddles.
The restaurant's specialty (as proclaimed by its business cards and menus as well as some modest gushing from the Peñas themselves) is cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan dish of pork wrapped in banana leaves and marinated in orange juice and achiote paste, a red-tinged spice blend that contains everything from oregano and allspice to clove and cinnamon. After the pork is adequately soaked, the pibil is roasted.
It's perhaps served best in a three-bite taco, piled into a fresh-made tortilla and topped with curls of cabbage and red onion, both of which help draw out the pork's slightly sweet acidity. Taken out of the tortilla and packed into a torta, the cochinita pibil is equally good, spreading its electric tang through the whole sandwich.
Beyond the pibil, Peña's also plays up its birria de chivo -- and for good reason. The birria isn't as versatile as the cochinita pibil, but it's a fine fit for stouter appetites, smoky stewed goat paired with sides of rice and beans.
There are plenty of other menu options too, including a hominy-laden pozole verde and a particularly weighty plate of chicharrones, fried shards of pork skin stewed in a spicy red (or green) salsa.
Peña's also includes all the items expected on most Mexican menus -- burritos, quesadillas and the like. But if you want to try something other than those familiar flavors, look instead to the restaurant's daily specials, where passing over a chile relleno or a couple of enchiladas can lead you straight to a surprising supply of dishes like cesina con nopales, shredded beef served over tender slices of prickly pear cactus.
There aren't many desserts at Peña's, so consider an unorthodox choice like an uchepo, a Michoacán-style solid corn tamale. Served à la carte, the uchepo is topped with a streak of crema, crumbles of cotija cheese and a subtly spicy tomatillo sauce. It doesn't taste like a typical dessert (there's no sugar-smacked sweetness), but it can work as one, playing off a natural pairing in which the corn cuts the tomatillo sauce's heat the same way as, say, a mango dusted with chile powder.
Up until your final bites, Ramón and Lourdes will be right there with you, serving up smiling suggestions. And although that personable pride is likely to stick with you long after you leave the restaurant, it's only one of the enduring memories you'll take away from Peña's.
Clements is a freelance writer.
Peña's Restaurant LOCATION 1221 E. 1st St., Suite C, Santa Ana, (714) 571-0415. PRICE Tacos, $1.25; tortas, $4.25 to $5.50; platters, $7.75 to $8.50. BEST DISHESCochinita pibil,birria de chivo, pozole verde, uchepo. DETAILS Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, until 7 p.m Sunday. All major credit cards. Lot parking. No alcohol.