Alebrije’s Grill - Santa Ana
The subtitle of this post is "My lunch with Gustavo Arellano", because the story is also about who I was with, as it is about what I ate. To me, eating at this taco truck in the heart of Santa Ana with Gustavo was like teeing up with Woods; jamming with The Edge; or, to put it in terms a foodie would appreciate, eating with Bourdain in New York.
We were in his element. Gustavo Arellano -- the man, the myth, "The Mexican" -- is the sage of all things O.C. food, especially about SanTana's loncheras. He wrote the definitive story on the subject, a behind-the-scenes tale of everything you ever wanted to know about OC's taco trucks but were afraid to ask. And this was Alebrije’s Grill, the lonchera at the heart of the article, which coincidentally, Gustavo proclaimed, was one of his favorites.
"The thing to get here is the tacos acorazados" he said as soon as I met him on the street.
A common mistake people make, he tells me, is not going beyond the usual and forgoing the specialities of the house...er, vehicle. With only a rudimentary knowledge of Mexican cuisine that doesn't extend past al pastor at my usual hole-in-the-wall taquerias, I certainly would've fallen into that trap. So it was easy to say yes to everything. I was in good hands, like masa to be molded. Whatever he told me to eat, I was going to eat!
"What do you want to drink?"
"Don't you want Jarritos?"
Now that he mentioned it, of course I did.
With a few quick words to the owner, our lunch was ordered. Using a cloth towel, the lonchero started by wiping off the ice from two bottles of mandarin Jarritos. He gave the chilled drinks to Gustavo, who popped the caps off, and handed me one.
I took a swig and felt the surge of its nectar -- a throughly refreshing orange soda, made with real sugar and without the sickeningly sweet, lingering aftertaste of high fructose corn syrup that often weighs down its American cousins.
Later came the food. And despite the name, the taco acorazados didn't look like a taco at all. At least not initially. It is an "eventual" taco. First, it exists as a pile of food so massive, you hardly notice that beneath it all, there is a hand-formed tortilla the size of a dinner plate.
"Acorazado" is the word for "battleship", Gustavo explained. Battleship tacos. Well, now it makes sense, I thought. Though "aircraft carrier" might be more apropos.
Also the contents didn't look like your standard taco fillings. It starts with rice, spread out in layer, eclipsing the tortilla below from view. Then on goes acres of milanesa: a beefsteak, breaded with the concentrated flavor of spice, pounded thin, fried to a crispy brown, sliced into strips -- the best country fried steak I've ever eaten. Finally, creamy avocados, pickled jalapenos, carrots, and my favorite of them all: piquant fingers of marinated and briefly grilled cactus.
On top, I saw Gustavo squirt orange day-glo hot sauce, a house blend offered in squeeze bottles chilled under an avalanche of finely crushed ice. Afterward he added pickled onions with miniscule bits of finely diced habanero dotting its surface. I followed his example, though I was decidedly more timid in the amounts I applied.
As we began to whittle away at our bounty, I relished how well it all worked together. The crisp with the soft. The rice with the protein. The fried with the pickled. All was lashed together with the unifying force that is the hot sauce.
Noticing the streams of sweat now pouring down my face, Gustavo said, "Here, you want this shade?"
"Oh no, it's not the sun. It's this!" I pointed at my food.
Eventually, I had nibbled off enough toppings to fold up the tortilla as a taco. But in my enthusiasm to blot out the fire, I had consumed most of the meat. All that was left to eat with the dense and coarse tortilla was the rice and pickles. And by then, I was stuffed.
We paid a ridiculously low price of $8 for the both of us (though I'm sure it had to do with the fact that the owner knew Gustavo). After the meal, I thanked Gustavo for bringing me here, but also for the ulterior motive for our meetup: he was giving me the OC Press Club Award we won for last year's OC Weekly Food Issue.
Since there was only one trophy, he insisted that I take it. But he had one condition: he wanted to take a picture with me. Of course, I obliged. That's the least I could do. Still, I couldn't help but think: How surreal is this?
On Cubbon Street between Main and Sycamore streets
Santa Ana, CA 92701-5724
To read Christian's review on
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