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DISCOVERY

The Ambiance Is 1887, the Cuisine Mexican

December 08, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

If Javier Moreno put much stock in omens, he might have opened his restaurant somewhere else, because in its early days the place gave fragility a new dimension.

According to accounts of the time, 1 month after it was dedicated, the building blew down in a Santa Ana wind.

Fortunately, the Quakers who hammered it together in 1887 were a stoic and dogged bunch, so they built another one right away. The second wooden building, which was used as a church and meeting hall, turned out to be substantially more solid. It was used by the Quakers living in or near the El Modena neighborhood of Orange for nearly 80 years, surviving to inherit the title of the oldest church in Orange. The building was declared a historic landmark in 1977.

When the Quaker congregation abandoned the building in 1967 and moved to a new home about half a mile away, Moreno bought the property--which included an L-shaped building next to the old church that had been used as a Sunday school--as a real estate investment.

"One day," Moreno said, "my wife said, 'Why not try to do something with those buildings?' and something kind of clicked. Also, I knew . . . an architect, and would you believe he fell in love with the place and said it would be a great place for a Mexican restaurant?"

The Morenos were already running a Mexican restaurant nearby, an operation that had begun in 1968 with a Mexican bakery. The business expanded 2 years later to include a 50-table restaurant.

But, Moreno said, the old church looked as if it could be converted into a promising dining and banquet room, and so the Moreno family embarked on 2 years of extensive interior remodeling.

"At first," he said, "we were just trying to get the doors open. But today we're still doing improvements and work on it. We still think of it as the heart of what used to be called El Modena."

The old church still looks like a church, at least from the outside. A fine example of the countrified architecture of the time, the exterior has been preserved as it was in 1888 when the rebuilt church was dedicated--minus the bell in the belfry, which was removed and installed in the new Quaker church.

Inside, however, the conversion is nearly total, with ornamental iron railings, tile, a bar and seating for several dozen (it is only used for banquets or when the crowd is too large to be accommodated in the regular seating area).

The adjacent Sunday school building was converted into the main restaurant area, Manager Jean Hernandez said, and an expansive patio, dominated by a huge pepper tree, was installed between the two buildings.

On the opposite side of the church, the Morenos continue to operate a Mexican bakery.

Moreno's Mexican Restaurant can seat up to 600 people, he said. Slightly more than half that number were served Sept. 14, when President-elect George Bush included a breakfast stop there during his presidential campaign. Bush and his wife tried their hand at making tortillas by hand.

"My son got married that same week," Moreno said. "Between that and the vice president coming to my restaurant, I couldn't sleep for a couple of days."

MORENO'S MEXICAN RESTAURANT AT A GLANCE

Where: 4328 E. Chapman Ave., Orange.

Restaurant hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday (Sunday brunch served from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.).

Bakery hours: 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Mariachis: Friday through Sunday and during Sunday brunch.

Information: Restaurant, (714) 639-2181. Bakery, (714) 639-0451.

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