Little homey Mexican restaurants remain one of our staunchest cultural resources. I visited a pair of outstanding examples of this genre just last week, and I'm still savoring the authentic flavors.
Chilangos is the Mexican slang term for people who live in D.F.--Distrito Federal, the place we know as Mexico City. It is also the name of a terrific little Dana Point cafe, run by Mexico City natives Roger and Rene Samano.
Because this location is far from our main concentration of Mexican-Americans, you might expect a diluted version of authentic Mexico City style cooking. Not to worry. Chilangos delivers full-flavored dishes that would be at home in any of Mexico City's neighborhoods, even the classier ones such as Coyoacan or San Angel.
Roger Samano is quite an ebullient and able host. After regaling you with stories of his stint in the U.S. Navy, he'll point out sepia-tint photos of various generales crowded onto the cafe walls. Now you are ready to sample some of his brother Rene's piquant and delicious Mexican dishes, easily among the best of its kind in South County.
Two soups get things off to a hot start. Sopa de tortilla is a hearty bowl of shredded chicken, stewed vegetables and corn tortilla strips, enlivened by a clear, spicy broth.
The other soup, caldo de marisco , is a masterwork, and a great bargain at only $4.95. Chef Samano uses sea bass, shrimps, calamari and whatever else is fresh, but the high point of the soup is the rich, light seafood broth, which captures the very essence of the sea.
One of the house specialties is filete de la casa , a grilled filet mignon stuffed with cloves of garlic. It's a tender chunk of meat, and the garlic comes tumbling out when the meat is cut.
Pollo con mole is chicken breast with the classic sauce mole poblano, a dark, mysterious concoction flavored with bitter chocolate and spices. There's calabacitas con puerco , diced pork sauteed with zucchini, corn and tomato. Another pork dish to sample is the cubed pork with a green tomatillo sauce, which goes by the name of guiso verde .
All these entrees come with elegantly fluffy Mexican rice, hot fresh tortillas, beans a la olla (whole beans simmered in their own juices) and a superb house salsa, made with smoky hot chipotle peppers. Perhaps the one concession to local tastes is a degree of lightness. Lard and butter aren't terribly popular here in diet-conscious Dana, so this kitchen doesn't use any.
Chile relleno is about the only dish at Chilangos that doesn't go quietly down this austere path. It's one of the cheesiest stuffed chilies around, enrobed by a thick, filling, deep-fried egg batter that even a true Chilango might not be able to finish.
Chilangos is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $5.95. Entrees are $7.95 to $11.95.
Drive down South Main in Santa Ana and you pass one Mexican cafe after another: carnitas stands, seafood houses, taco emporia.
One of the standouts is La Perlita, a down-home place belonging to Humberto Huerta, who hails from the state of Chihuahua. It takes its name from the "Little Pearl," the nickname of Maria de Jesus Gutierrez, who was one of Pancho Villa's generals (and the inspiration, I suspect, for the heroic sister Gertrudis in the film "Like Water for Chocolate.") She inspires my appetite, that I know.
The restaurant is a gem, exactly as its name implies. I love the romantic, unpretentious feel of the ramshackle, cantina-style decor. The hideaway atmosphere is enhanced by live musicians almost any night of the week.
But the real drawing card here is terrific northern Mexican cuisine. Just open the colorful, partly handwritten menu, and you'll grasp why this restaurant is a local institution, and a favorite haunt of a number of chefs.
Huerta loves to feature fresh seafoods ("freshissima," as he likes to say) and a few hard-to-find specials.
One night I had tender beef tongue en escabeche with a spicy tang. On another visit, a special was costillitas --amazing, deep red braised pork ribs, contrasting with pale green strips of cooked nopal cactus.
If oysters on the shell are available, grab them. Huerta serves the oysters with a light red dipping sauce, and they are an absolute steal at $4.95. The cocteles are Mexican-style seafood cocktails: cooked fish (shrimp, abalone, conch or octopus) piled into a bowl filled with a cold, piquant liquid. You eat the cocktails with lots of hot, salty tortilla chips and a fine pico de gallo sauce.
The huge caldo de pescado is all spicy, deep brown stock and chunks of snapper. It couldn't be more different from the delicate version served at Chilangos, but it is equally satisfying. Fried fish--likely to be perch or catfish--is available either simply fried or blanketed with a variety of sauces. The words al ajillo mean the fish will come in a light garlic sauce, and a la Veracruz refers to a salty sauce of tomatoes, onions and green olives.
Also, many of the better known regional Mexican favorites are found on La Perlita's ambitious menu, such as steak Tampico, grilled meat accompanied by a cheese enchilada; terrific chile verde, pork in a green tomatillo sauce; and gallina en mole , chicken in the distinguished Mexican chocolate-based sauce.
Expect to eat hearty on a trip to La Perlita. Almost everything comes with wonderfully flavorful rice that has been cooked in chicken stock, and with a puddle of lard-rich, politically and nutritionally incorrect refried beans.
La Perlita is moderately priced. You should eat your fill here for around $12-$15 a person.
* LA PERLITA
* 1307 S. Main St., Santa Ana.
* (714) 834-9544.
* Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
* MasterCard and Visa.
* 34155-D Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point.
* (714) 489-0313.
* Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. daily.
* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.