Sunday, September 13, 2009

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, 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?

Alebrije’s Grill
On Cubbon Street between Main and Sycamore streets
Santa Ana, CA 92701-5724

To read Christian's review on
Alebrije's Grill
French 75 - Laguna Beach


At 7:44 AM, Blogger imjustatree said...

first! haha that looks so damn good...i'll have to mark this for a place to try in the future for a taco crawl =) and now i also know what a milanesa is!

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Diamond Dog said...

not fair not fair! ;)

You know that if Gustavo recommends a place, its going to be great. It predictable.

With that being said, I gotta try this place

At 10:01 AM, Anonymous rey said...

You tricked us with the link to the photo! It's good to remain mysterious though. :) The food looks and sound delicious...I'll have to give it a try.

At 10:07 AM, Anonymous JB said...

I agree with Sawyer...
that looks so damn good.
The milanesa, the avocado, the carrots, even the rice on the bottom.
Where else but a "lonchera" in "SanTana".......

Miss Jones, cancel my reservation at The Ritz, I'm headed to Main Street for some of those ah-...ah-...acorazados.
And hold all my calls while I'm gone!

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Melissa said...

Glad you two got to have lunch together, especially at the kind of place he knows so well! Congratulations again!

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

What an experience that must have been for you! An authentic Mexican meal with someone who knows what's what. Sounds like the taco was big enough to share, too. Did you have any left over?

At 4:59 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I just don't understand how you don't get recognized everywhere you go. That big mouth, the fuzzy fur, the wide eyes. You should be usurping Paris Hilton in the tabloids and having hordes of papparazi after you. Just think of the headlines, County famous food critic on a sugar high rampage, the effects of real sugar sodas reveal the ugly side. More photos inside!

At 5:28 PM, Anonymous Evelyn Lee said...

Wow, congratulations Elmo! (And lol at the picture... I really thought we were going to get a glance at you!) I'm glad so many other people enjoy reading your blog as much as I do. :) Keep up the wonderful writing.

That taco looks sooo mouthwatering. I'm craving one. Love the generous slices of avocado on top and ... grilled cactus?!?!! I LOVE THAT STUFF. Had it once in Taiwan (Taiwan - of all places!), and it was the most delicious thing ever.

At 8:21 PM, Blogger joanh said...

yum! ok, i'm torturing myself by looking at your site when there's nothing that compares in taipei

At 9:29 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


I know I say this a lot, but I swear, I've been craving that milanesa all day today. Looking at the picture in hi-res by clicking on it, doesn't help. Had to resign myself to cooking something for dinner because I wasn't sure whether the taco truck would be there come dinnertime.


Gustavo's recs *ARE* always predictably good aren't they!? Trust me, it's even better when he's there with you!


That was Gustavo's idea, obscuring my face. I nudged him to make it Elmo himself! Though I think he would've used him anyway.


And don't forget the cactus! It was my first and it won't be my last! Snappy like a eternally crisp green bell pepper. Damn that was good.


Thanks! Still surreal to me, all this. But my real award for this blog and such, are the friends I've made, like you....AWW, warm fuzzy alert!


It was huge, but we actually ate our own portions. I didn't need much dinner later though. I finished all of mine, except for half a tortilla. Toooo full!


LOL! Well, to evade the gossip rags, I wear another disguise, that of a geeky Asian guy with glasses and a F.O.B. haircut. No one wants a picture of that...NO ONE!


Thanks for the nice words! And I, too, am glad people still read this blog and my inconsequential blabbity-blahs. I don't know how many actually do, but as long as I know there is one, I'll keep doing this.

And it sounds like you have the answer to joanh! They sell edible cactus like this in Taiwan!!! Amazing!


Check it out! Above! Someone in Taiwan has had cactus...though I think the acorazado might be harder to procure. Steel yourself with all the freshly steamed XLB you can eat!

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Eddie Lin said...


Congratulations on the Press Club Award. You are the man! Well deserved.

At 3:49 PM, Blogger EatTravelEat said...

8 dollars for two? That is very affordable for such a large portion of delicious food. I paid 8 dollars for a torta which didn't taste or look as good as these battleship tacos.

LOL on the photo! I thought your face would not be censored at first but anyway...Elmo must be happy to see his face in the media :).

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Gustavo Arellano said...

Edwin: Actually, we got the sodas on the house, at the insistence of the owner; the tacos cost $4 a pop, although they're "tacos" the way a '66 Cadillac is a "car." Edwin RAWWWWWWWWWKS!

At 9:54 AM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7:14 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Thanks! That was just me riding on Senor Arellano's coattail, but he still he let me keep it!


The real Elmo would probably not like these tacos as much. The hot sauce would get stuck all over his fur!


AAH! I knew there was a little bit of discounting goin' on. But $4 is still insanely cheap! And no: You rock!!

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great writeup as always ! Do you know if that truck is located there during lunch hours ?

At 4:34 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Thanks! And yes, they are indeed at that spot during lunch hour, and perhaps a few hours after that. I'm inclined to say they are there all day and all week, but I don't know that for sure.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Gustavo Arellano said...

Anon: They're there every day from 9am to 9pm!

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Madison said...

How do you stay so trim eating all this stuff? To say that I am jealous is an understatement!

I am going to have to check this place out. So thank you for this lovely review as always.


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