While it is still true that the county's best Mexican food is found in obscure little places, the upscale Mexican chains seem to be improving. I recently visited two and surprised myself by having a pretty good time at both of them.
Spoons might actually balk at being called a Mexican restaurant and prefer to be known as Southwestern. The specialty here is mesquite grilling, and the menu is loaded with Tex-Mex creations--pizza with taco meat, quesadillas with spicy chicken and the infamous taco salad. Even so, the heart of its cooking is still south of the border.
Eat there on a Monday night, as I did, and you'll run into the Monday Night Football crowd, a bunch of rowdy tank tops who like to scream their heads off whenever anybody burrows into the end zone for a touchdown. The restaurant is pretty lively the rest of the week too, especially in the bar.
In the Buena Park restaurant, a plant-filled room with tables topped in handsome Mexican tiles, the liveliness is built in. Hand-painted tin bucket lamp shades and a whirl of cactuses, ceramic animals and mock pre-Columbian artifacts add a breezy air.
I'm ashamed to admit it, but I like Spoons' queso fundido (referred to simply as "queso" on the menu), which can be described as Cheez Whiz with an attitude. It's a gooey dip of melted Mexican cheese flecked with pimento and jalapeno, and it justifies eating all those tortilla chips before dinner arrives.
This menu is awash with fajitas and burgers, but the best reason to be here is the mesquite-grilled ribs and chicken, which, aside from the excellent value, also taste very good. For only $7.95, Spoons is now serving a rib and chicken combo, with Southwest beans, Spoons' slaw and toasted French bread. It's a tough act to follow.
This is actually decent and authentic tasting barbecue, hefty portions of good-quality meats that are thoroughly permeated by the flavor of wood. The skinless marinated chicken is coated with a rich but sugary sauce that keeps it from drying out. The ribs are even better--saucy, firm and tender.
I didn't mind the side dishes at all, which are often inedible at Mexican chain restaurants; the unctuous beans were dosed with an intelligent amount of cumin, and the coleslaw was decent, and rendered eccentric with fresh corn. As to the rest of this menu, though, I wasn't crazy about much of it. Various tacos have a savorless ground meat mixture that seems beneath the dignity of a professional kitchen. The greasy chunks of breaded onion called onion nuggets will never replace onion rings. And there are no desserts at all, except for frozen drinks such as a strawberry murgarita, if you count those.
Still, Spoons is fun and I'd go back without a gun to my head.
Spoons is inexpensive to moderate. Appetizers are $2.75 to $5.95. Burgers and sandwiches are $3.75 to $5.75. Southwest platters are $5.95 to $8.95.
There's no identity crisis at El Paso Cantina, a Los Angeles-based chain that is currently expanding with a vengeance. This restaurant is Mexican to the core.
The cutesy menu, in the form of a small town newspaper, boasts about the original La Cienega Boulevard branch on its front page, trumpeting delicacies available there: duck breast tacos, fire-roasted rack of lamb with pasilla chile sauce. Inside the menu, these specialties are nowhere to be found.
Instead, this menu is dominated by the expected mix of tacos, enchiladas, chimichangas and burritos, with a few substantial dishes such as fajitas and broiled swordfish thrown in. You've seen most of them before.
Happily, they're reasonably well done. The Garden Grove restaurant is a large, sunny place with a 20-foot ceiling and a big atrium, its adobe walls filled with Western tack and Mexican bric-a-brac. The tables are shaded by mammoth canvas beach umbrellas.
There are 10 sauces you can choose with your dishes, ranging up the thermometer from creamy tomatillo to salsa caliente, which is actually still mild by vaquero standards. The best is probably pico de gallo --chopped tomato, onion and jicama with cilantro--which you get automatically with your chips. Unless it's the roasted pepper rajas: strips of poblano chili mixed with onion, cream and herbs.
The food here is standard Cal-Mex fare, generously portioned. Fajitas, either steak or chicken, are just fine, the meat cut into big chunks and served with a sizzle. Chile verde is surprisingly good, just like what you'd get in one of those little neighborhood Mexican watering holes. The meat is lean and the sauce has depth, with a smooth taste of fresh chile and juicy pork. Warning: Huevos rancheros can be deadly here. The ones I got were so rubbery you could have used them to play Frisbee.