Memorable | One of the Best
Review by: Michael Stern
Orange County sports many stylish restaurants that beckon to gentry and gentry wannabes. It also has more than its share of fast-food franchises. And it has El Campeon — an inexpensive, cafeteria-style restaurant serving Mexican street food. This is not prettied-up and plated Cal-Mex. I knew I was on the right track when I called to find out what hours the place is open and nobody at the other end of the line spoke any English. One person with whom I talked did catch my drift and repeated, “tarde, tarde.”
It is a large and lively place — bakery and fresh juice source as well as restaurant — and seats are limited to counter stools and a few outdoor picnic tables. Some customers simply stand and dine a capella either indoors or outside on the shopping center sidewalk. A lot of business is take-out.
The menu is displayed on the wall above the service line where meats and garnishes are arrayed in pans, ready to be stuffed into tacos, tortas, or burritos; and here, Mexican dishes are in fact translated for gringos. So those of us illiterate in Spanish are reminded that cabeza de res is beef head, birria is goat meat, and lengua is tongue. You will need to know how to count in Spanish. Once your order is placed, you get a ticket with a number on it. When the meal is ready, they call the number, but only in Spanish.
You can order carnitas (roasted pork) or barbacoa (sauced roast beef), chicken, or ham, and have your burrito filled with red or green chili along with arroz, frijoles, cebolla, cilantro, and ensalada. One evening I tried a trio of tacos, each of which was grand, the carnitas rich and robust, especially well complemented by hot green salsa available at a serve-yourself bar in the center of the dining area. Barbacoa, in the form of massive shreds, delivered big beef flavor, sopped with spicy sauce. Carne asada, sprinkled with cilantro (which the server does not apply unless you give him the green light) was rather dry, a condition beautifully remedied by an application of vivid red salsa. To drink: horchata (rice milk), cinnamon-sweet and perfumy.
I thought I was done with dinner. But then, in strolled Brendon Crawford and Paco Valentine, members of the band Blonde Bazaar. I had met them earlier in the day at a nearby event, where they told me they are from Los Angeles and offered all kinds of suggestions of where to eat in the city. (One theory they proposed is that the more graffiti in the neighborhood, the better one’s chances of finding a good meal.) But they didn’t know where to get something honest and delicious in Orange County. I had found El Campeon the day before and recommended it to them. They showed up with dates, two women who both asked to be described as Blonde Bazaar groupies. Paco is from Mexico and his fluency in the language as well as in the cuisine helped me also discover El Campeon’s gorgeous torta (sandwich), which he got stuffed with barbacoa, beans, sour cream, melted cheese, guacamole, lettuce and tomato. He drank watermelon juice, which was amazing: concentrated essence of watermelon, even sporting pulp to assure you that it’s real.
If you are looking for real Roadfood in an otherwise bleak culinary landscape, check this place out. El Campeon is Spanish for champion.
Directions & Hours
|Meals Served||Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner|
|Credit Cards Accepted||Yes|