These are heady times for Orange County dining.
Costa Mesa’s Taco Maria and Hana Re earned a star apiece in the Michelin Guide’s latest California listings; five restaurants scored a Bib Gourmand honor. Even more won general praise from Michelin’s critics, who didn’t get everything right. (Summit House in Fullerton, des imbéciles? That’s where area high-schoolers go on prom night!)
Diners from Los Angeles and beyond haunt the county like never before, to eat at Santa Ana’s loncheras and in Little Saigon, to explore Irvine’s Persian wonderlands and Anaheim’s Little Arabia, to eat French food in Newport Coast. A decade of local chefs on television shows, from Amar Santana to Jason Quinn to Dee Nguyen, has broadcast O.C. food to the world.
Yet the local restaurant that has intrigued me the most over the past few years is a fast-food Lazarus, a place only Gen Xers may ever truly love: Naugles Tacos.
It was a rival to Taco Bell and Del Taco in the fast-food Cal-Mex wars of the 1970s, until Del Taco acquired the company in 1995 and unceremoniously shut it down. The erasure was so complete that when local food writer Christian Ziebarth petitioned the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2012 to take control of Naugles’ trademark, arguing that Del Taco had done nothing with it for decades and he was therefore legally allowed to revive the chain, the feds sided with him (Del Taco is still fighting the ruling).
Ziebarth knew what Del Taco didn’t: Culinary nostalgia is a powerful, lucrative force. And Naugles is Cal-Mex gold.
The opening weeks of Naugles’ Fountain Valley location in 2015 were so hectic that fans fainted in line because of the hours-long wait and excitement. As recently as May, a pop-up at Euryale Brewing Company in Riverside drew more than 700 people — far more than the 200 who reserved online.
“A common thing we heard,” Naugles wrote on its Facebook page after the event, “from people when they were picking up their food was, ‘It’s been so long since we’ve had Naugles, so gotta stock up!’ ”
Ziebarth’s hope is that fans won’t have to binge-eat much longer: He wants to open more than 100 Naugles across the country. A second permanent spot is slated for Stanton this summer (a summer pop-up near the Huntington Beach Pier is open).
I think Ziebarth’s saga deserves its own movie à la Richard Montañez, the Frito-Lay janitor turned inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. But for a generation of Southern Californians raised at the teat of taquerias and regional Mexican cuisine, the appeal of Naugles is almost indecipherable.
Ziebarth worked with former employees and associates of founder Dick Naugles to try to replicate his recipes. Which means that Naugles serves 1970s-era Americanized Mexican food — mildly spiced one-note entrees insulated with cheese and served in gargantuan portions. The default tacos come in hard shells and don’t veer from ground beef or chicken; the “soft” ones are what we now call “tacos”: a tortilla stuffed with something. Calling them “soft tacos” nowadays is like italicizing “sushi” in a food review.
Culinary highlights? The cheese burrito is just a massive flour tortilla rolled up with melted cheddar inside and sinks into your stomach like a lead plummet hitting the ocean floor. The bun taco is just a hard-shell taco masquerading as a burger. A chicken club salad burrito — recently introduced after Ziebarth discovered it was an off-menu favorite at a Fullerton branch in the 1980s — is cold on the inside, warm on the outside, and tastes like a refined version of the Ralphs wraps someone inevitably brings to a back-to-school night potluck.
Naugles aims for nothing higher than to function as a nostalgia factory, down to the endless surf and skate videos that air on flat-screen televisions and the original orange-yellow-brown color scheme reminiscent of the San Diego Padres’ uniforms when Dave Winfield and Ozzie Smith were on the field.
The easy critique is to label Naugles a culinary retcon that deserves to stay in the graveyard of bad restaurant ideas, like Sambo’s and pupu platters.
But it’s also the wrong critique.
I didn’t know what to expect when Ziebarth announced his plans, because I wasn’t familiar with Naugles’ food. I mostly knew the name because it made all my Mexican friends laugh: “Naugles” sounds like a homophone of “nalgas,” Mexican Spanish for “asses.”
But one day, Ziebarth dropped off some taco sauce at my old office: thick, sweet and nothing like a salsa because it wasn’t trying to be one.
That’s when it hit me: Ziebarth wasn’t trying to Columbus anything; he wanted to revive a part of Southern California history. And so I should enjoy the food for what it was: satisfying and important.
I’ve eaten at Naugles at least 50 times since.
Cal-Mex food is in danger of dying. The El Cholos and Casa Vegas and Mitla Cafes of SoCal aren’t Internet-famous, and only draw people who grew up with the food and the youngsters they drag along for birthdays or retirement parties. Naugles is an important reclamation project, because it shows you how far Mexican food has evolved in this country; but the past it represents wasn’t bad either, no matter what Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless would have you believe.
Naugles sneaks up on ya. On my last visit, I ordered a “combo cup”: a medium foam cup of ground beef, refried beans and cheese with a side of tortilla chips.
A thin film of grease topped the contents when I opened the lid on my commute to the L.A. Times office. The beef was salty; the beans, too soupy. I took three bites, using the sturdy chips as a spoon, and put aside the rest to throw away, figuring the meal was little better than empty calories.
Twenty minutes later, the cup was empty.
Location: 18471 Mt. Langley, Fountain Valley; (657) 845-7346; nauglestacos.com
Prices: Burritos, $3-$6; tacos $2.50-$4; cups, $4-$5.50; hamburgers, $4-$7
Details: Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking. Dining room and restroom are wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: Cheese burrito; bun taco; taco salad cup