When it comes to El Tapatio in East Santa Ana, let's not mince words.
If you know and like authentic Mexican food, this is the place for you.
But if Mexican food makes you think of El Torito or Don Jose's, this still is the place for you. Tasting your first enchilada or chili relleno or carnitas or carne asada at El Tapatio will be like the blind suddenly seeing, the deaf, hearing.
The best Mexican food can hold its own against French and Italian when it comes to the subtle yet rich sauces and textures. It is bold but not hot. (You like it hot? You can make it hot with any number of condiments.)
El Tapatio is as close to the perfect place to taste it as you can imagine. It evolved from a family tamale shop opened in 1963 by immigrant Antonio Salmeron, after whom the restaurant is named. (El Tapatio means "the man from Guadalajara.")
It has stayed in the family and been handed to the next generation, to young Mark Salmeron. He's introduced a few modernizations, such as credit cards and catering, but has maintained the high quality of the food and the unpretentious setting.
This is a place to experiment.
Breakfast? If you're put off by the tripe in menudo, despite the soup's well-deserved reputation as a morning-after restorative, try pozole ($2.50 or $4), which substitutes roast pork.
Never tried Mexican seafood? El Tapatio has a large seafood menu. Have abalone soup ($6.50) or shrimp in any of five styles ($7).
Really, really hungry? Try the No. 12 plate: carne asada (a super-thin steak with a mysteriously rich taste) with two enchiladas (marvelous), tortillas, rice and beans ($10).
Beer, which seems a part of almost every Mexican meal, is reasonable: $1.75 for domestic and only 25 cents more for any of 10 Mexican brands. No hard liquor, although a bar may be in the future.
The authenticity extends to service. Some servers struggle with English. And don't wait for a check; they won't bring one. That's considered rude in the Mexican culture. When you're ready to leave, your check will be waiting at the cash register.
It's no surprise that a restaurant this authentic would be found in a Latino neighborhood. Head south on Standard Avenue from Edinger Avenue, turn left almost immediately onto Pomona Street, and you're there.
El Tapatio, 1214 E. Pomona St., Santa Ana. Open Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; till 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (714) 835-4264.