The big sign outside the old frame house reads Cafeteria, or to be more precise, La Casita LC Cafeteria. While you're decoding these faintly contradictory messages, you might see the sign in the window that explains it all: Home Made Tortillas.
This is a homey place, yes, and a little quirky--you get your own drinks from a coldbox (opener at the cash register, glasses on demand), and the walls are decorated with religious art, a photo of Raul Iglesias and several signs pointedly reading, "Skinny Cooks Can't Be Trusted." Above all, though, it is a sterling little Mexican restaurant that resolutely makes everything itself, down to the tortillas and the chorizo sausage.
Or perhaps I should call it a Tex-Mex restaurant, because the proprietress, a sturdy, knowing woman named Lilian Gutierrez Cordaway (she's the LC of the name), is from Texas. The menudo and the tamales are Texas-style, and every table has, alongside the oregano shaker, a bottle of Louisiana-style hot sauce rather than a Mexican brand.
There are no corn chips and salsa lying around. If you want salsa, order something and it will arrive: A simple, vivid tomato-based sauce that doesn't sneak up on you, it's hot from the first touch like a steam iron. The best way to enjoy the salsa is with a quesadilla, two big tortillas with melted cheese between them. This also is a good way to try the tortillas, which are wonderful--soft, chewy and fresh-tasting, about twice as thick as the cardboardy supermarket flour tortilla.
Service is rather basic. The quesadilla, for instance, comes on waxed paper rather than a plate. If you want a plate, you'll have to order one of the items that come with rice and beans, but I personally would eat this rice (faintly flavored with aromatic lard) and these beans (sweet and simple boiled beans, not refritos ) off wax paper any day.
The two basic plates include one with two cheese enchiladas in a vivid brown sauce full of cumin and the LC Plate based on "chunky beef," a simple, unmistakably Mexican stew of beef with green peppers and a bit of tomato. A blackboard will list another rice-and-beans-equipped plate, a special of the day that may be tender, sweet pork carnitas or carne asada, a roughly cut pile of fried beefsteak, oily and garlicky.
The tamales come without rice and beans, Texas models about as thick as a good-sized carrot and still wrapped in cornhusk. The basic model has a spicy pork filling. There also are a couple of burritos (another way to get more of those good beans in a fresh tortilla) and some tacos. I find the beef taco not quite up to the standard of the rest of the menu, but despite the dullness of the beef filling, I'd still take it over most tacos around--if only for the tortilla.
This place does considerable breakfast business based on eggs, chorizo, potatoes and beans in various burrito combinations or as a single big combination plate. The chorizo is noteworthy because it's homemade, which means it's meatier than just about any commercially available chorizo. Have you ever read the ingredient label on a package of chorizo? Pork lips, snouts, cheeks, salivary glands . . . .
On Saturday mornings, La Casita serves the best menudo I've ever had, the only menudo I've ever looked forward to. This may mean nothing to you. Most Americans can get along indefinitely without tripe-and-hominy soup, and there's no denying that the stuff is funky. Mexican families that regularly cook menudo keep a camp stove on the back porch for that purpose, or they'd never get the smell out of their furniture.
But this is quality menudo. Only a freckling of fat on the surface, the broth rich and unctuous (made with pig's feet among the tripe), it's so well made that I don't even bother to put in the traditional garnish of chopped onions lest it interfere with the rich, funky, faintly dusty aroma of tripe and yellow hominy. I'd never have imagined that you could say such a thing, but this menudo has a kind of purity about it.
Desserts at La Casita are limited to Mexican pan dulce (the only thing the restaurant doesn't cook itself), chocolate chip cookies baked by Lilian Cordaway's daughter and sweet tamales. That's right, tamales made with sweetened dough studded with either cinnamon and raisins or fragrant shreds of pineapple. They taste sort of like steamed cakes. Well, I guess they are steamed cakes.
Prices are so low it's a little surprising to see that La Casita takes credit cards. The specials can run over $5, but the menudo and the plates are $2.95 or $3.95; tacos, burritos and tamales, $1-$1.85 (sweet tamales 95 cents), and tortillas 35 cents.
LA CASITA LC 209 E. Lincoln Ave., Orange
Open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday, for dinner (until 8:30) Thursday and Friday only. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Everything available for take-out.