Sunday, September 17, 2006

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
(714) 633-3038
141 S. Glassell
Orange, CA 92866

17 Comments:

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Elmo,

Awesome write up. My ass is so there next month, and I'll be bringing a boba straw with which to suck up all of that tasty mole.

- CP

 
At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Seth Chadwick said...

Elmo,

Great write up as usual. I am curious though if you have had experience in the past with sweet moles, because moles should never be sweet (a la Hershey bar). Moles are made from chocolate, but it is the ground cacao bean (very bitter and not at all sweet) which is toasted and then used like a spice in mole.

Because of the way we treat chocolate in America (where cacao powder is mixed with lots of sugar and dairy), I am not sure you would experience the same taste sensation with the absence of the sugar and milk. So, you probably did taste the chocolate (and lots of it), but it didn't trigger the "chocolate" part of your taste buds that is expecting a Hershey bar.

One thing I love about moles is that they are very much a home cooking staple in central Mexico and each household has a different version (much like chili here in the U.S.). Friends I know have great recipes for mole from Grandma that you could never find.

Chicken Mole and a Cheese Crisp. YUM! Now I have two things to share with you when you ever get to Phoenix. :o)

BTW, the interior of Gabbi's looks incredible!

 
At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Passionate Eater said...

Although I am not a churro connoisseur, I love the ones with the chilled, ice cream-like interiors, and the crisp, crumbly cinnamon-sugar dusting. That was my first experience with "the churro," and ever since, I've believed that that is how they're supposed to taste.

I love this review Elmo.

 
At 3:39 AM, Blogger googiemel said...

Is this place hidden somewhere in between Aldo's and the Mustard Cafe? That building is brand-new. I'll try and convince some of my classmates that it's worth heading down there between classes, but it's a little out of a student's price range (although for me, good food's worth spending for). We Chapman kids tend to stick to our Rutabegorz. :)

 
At 8:49 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

C.P.

Hope you like it. It was my first time tasting mole, and I believe Gabbi's set the bar quite high. Next up for me Taleo, which I hear is even better!

Seth,

You got me Seth. Actually, I've never had mole before, ever. At least not knowingly. So, you are absolutely right that I was looking for the wrong flavor profile. I kept looking for something resembling chocolate as we Americans know it. I didn't think that cocoa would be used sort of like a spice! I need to pay more attention next time I have mole.

I'm more curious now than ever to have more samplings. The more I get, the more I'll know what this sauce is all about. I also heard that they sell the stuff in jars at Mexican grocery stores. I can't imagine if those would be any good.

Chicken mole and cheese crisp! When I get out to AZ, I'll hold you to that promise!

P.E.,

I'd love to try the churros with the "ice cream-like" interiors! That sounds decadent! I heard of stuffed churros being sold at a cart at our local entertainment complex. I wonder if it's similar to what you had.

googiemel,

Hmm...I don't get out much to Orange, so I'm not sure where Gabbi's is related to Aldo's and Mustard Cafe. One thing I remember is that it was south of the turnabout, in a non-descript building with no sign. I think the best way to find it is by looking for people milling about the front, waiting for a table.

 
At 10:00 AM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

googiemel, my blog entry that he linked to shows a picture of what they look like out front. I've got three entries on them with a bunch of different pictures and info . . . including why they may never have a sign.

 
At 6:13 PM, Anonymous esther said...

I got my Civic EX for 19.4. But I didn't have Navi on mine. North Hollywood wasn't a bad dealership. I went to Norm Reeves in Cerritos first, but haggling with them was taking too long. Good luck!

 
At 2:59 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

I haven't had Mexican in years! Unless you count that Taco Bell kick I was on when I was pregnant. And Taco Bell hardly counts. You made me want to try it again. There's a nice place in Schaumburg that looks family owned. I'm not much for the chains, either.

 
At 4:42 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Esther,

Thanks for the info. Especially about Norm Reeves.

Juliet,

When the mood strikes me for Mexican, I usually go for one of my usual. It's either, carne asada nachos, fish burritos, or carne asada burrito from Alertos. Or sometimes the occasional fish taco. My palate veers to the Asian side of things most of the time, as I suspect yours does too. But Mexican sure does hit the spot when you need it!

 
At 6:18 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

Oh, right! Fish tacos! I guess I have had Mexican this year! Gotta forgive the mommy dementia. LOL
Yeah, I usually prefer Asian food, too. But every now and then, some heavy dairy and gas are in order. :-p

 
At 7:30 AM, Anonymous Joy said...

Hi Elmo -- For the record, I liked the gazpacho-tasting salsa. No, it wasn't that hot. But salsa isn't only about how much heat you can pack into it: you get points (or at least, I think you should get points) for a more complex flavor profile too. So I'm intrigued when I have a salsa and instead of thinking "ouch - so hot & bitter" or "eh, another competent salsa" I find myself thinking, "hm, what did they add to this, that's interesting"...

 
At 10:59 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Juliet,

"But every now and then, some heavy dairy and gas are in order. :-p"

LOL!

Joy,

And here I thought you didn't care for it. You're right, of course, better a complex tasting salsa than a scorching one-note one.

 
At 11:29 PM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

"But every now and then, some heavy dairy and gas are in order."

If you know how to do Mexican right you can cut down on and/or completely eliminate the typical subsequent experiencing of gas, and you can have it much less grease-laden than normal as well.

 
At 7:59 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christian,

One word: BEANO! HAHA!

 
At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

been her many times and it was good except for:

I only got sick once, diarrhea, 24hours later. it was the only place I had eaten.

 
At 11:29 AM, Blogger bonnindesigns said...

I'm so there tonight for my birthday. Got my "priority reservations" and we're all set, but hmmmm what to order?

 
At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gabbi's Mexican Rest. is not mexican food at all!! The only place to go for high quality Mexican food is the tacos at Jack in the Box!!! The only reason Gabbi's is open is because the owner thinks he is hot shit---I have news for him--he is old news!

 

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