Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Orange
In a county dominated by corporate franchises with interior designers on the payroll, Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen isn't another boilerplated, adobe-ladened, focus-grouped vision of an El Torito or Chevy's. Instead it has one of the most genuinely gorgeous spaces in Old Towne Orange, itself an area rich in history and steeped in the heritage of a bygone America.
The design choice made by the owners, Gabbi and Ed, was to keep it simple. Strip the walls clean to unearth the original brick masonry. Expose the awe-inspiring century-old timber trusses overhead. And finally, install wrought iron lanterns to warmly highlight it all. The result is a room both inviting and airy, brimming with timeless appeal.
Despite the fact that Gabbi's is so brand new it bears no signage, the place was hopping on a Wednesday evening -- a rare sight anywhere in O.C. With the din of conversation and the clatter of silverware on china, it felt like Saturday night in Pasadena.
You can blame O.C. Weekly's Gustavo Arellano if you can't get a table. But it was like this even before his excellent piece on it ran last week. From the moment it opened, good old fashioned word-of-mouth spread faster than an Internet rumor. And the grassroots support of fellow food-blogger Christian, of Orange County Mexican Restaurants, who got the scoop and wrote the first reviews, only compounded its popularity.
So when Christian invited me to dinner at Gabbi's with Joy, and Omar from Squeeze OC, I took my camera along, anxious to see what the commotion was all about.
We started with oozy Quesadillas ($7) served with a scoop of chunky guacamole. The silken slobber of queso mingled with fruity chunks of mango, wrapped in a flour tortilla gently griddled to a wafer-crisp.
Corn tortillas, which rode along with a pork dish, was made from scratch from a coarse masa crumb and tore apart with a slight flick of my thumb. Floppy thick, and a pallid white in appearance, it ate like polenta pancakes -- spongy, hearty, and substantial.
My main course of two white-meat chicken enchiladas, draped in mole, was called Mole Oaxaqueña ($12). Mole is sauce culled from dried and roasted chiles, concocted from a recipe Gabbi and Ed were able to procure from a peasant family in Oaxaca.
It has a smoky heat, but not spicy in the strictest sense of the word. Gabbi's mole is light on the tongue, but piercingly direct, like a backstage exposé on the flavor complexities of Mexican chili peppers. It's also pulpy, with the gritty seeds and flesh of the fruit milled into the consistency of apple sauce and slow-simmered to the color of soot.
Although chocolate is mentioned as a main ingredient, none was detected in the sauce, and in that regard I was both disappointed and relieved. The mole didn't need more flavor, and certainly not from a Hershey bar.
The only complaint was that I need more of it. Gallons more. More to enliven the tortilla-wrapped white-chicken meat on which it was poured. More of it to mix into the Spanish rice and refried beans.
I think the only way I could've been satisfied is if they dropped off a boiling cauldron of it next to me so that I can dunk stuff into it like fondue. The quesadilla. The tortilla chips. My napkin. My face.
For dessert, we sampled the Churros ($6) after Ed mentioned that he had just hired a guy who specialized in making this South-of-the-Border donut. But judging by what we had that night, the churro guy needs a few more weeks to get used to the deep fryer.
It started well enough. The dusting of cinnamon sugar was caked-in so densely that the accompanying chocolate and caramel dip didn't even stand a chance. And the rippled ridges of the hard outer shell crunched and crumbled like the best graham cracker crust in the world.
But disappointment set in when I reached the still raw and pasty churro core, which clung stubbornly to my teeth and upper palate like peanut butter. If you were the kind of kid who licked off cookie dough from the mixing bowl, you'd love this churro, but I didn't.
My dining companions also echoed Gustavo Arellano's earlier dissection that the salsa accompanying the obligatory basket of chips was tame, tasting more like vinegary gazpacho. But misfires are to be expected as the young restaurant calibrates itself. As it matures, Gabbi's is poised to become one of the best upscale Mexican restaurants in O.C. El Torito be damned.
Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
141 S. Glassell
Orange, CA 92866