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Taste Machine

Despite its tortilla-making device, Mexican food is not an assembly-line effort at Chevy's, which bans frozen products.


IRVINE — Just about all my foreign friends want to eat Mexican food when they're in California. I recently took a group of Finns on a hot quest for margaritas, fiery salsas and spice-rubbed, mesquite-grilled meats. We ended up at one of the four Orange County branches of Chevy's, a national chain restaurant specializing in fresh Mex cooking and something called the El Nino margarita, made with tequila and blue Curacao.

Fresh Mex means that the tortillas, salsas and sides are made on the premises, and that the products used are never frozen. The result is surprisingly good.

The restaurant's trademark is a giant tortilla-making machine some cross-cultural genius has dubbed El Machino. This clever contraption, sort of see-through convection oven with a wire mesh conveyor belt, looks like something from a Roger Corman horror movie.

El Machino works, though. When the restaurant is busy, it's spitting out hot, fresh flour tortillas nonstop, and they come to the table stacked in cute little wax paper bags. My friends, heroic eaters all, did their level best to keep pace with the machine.

Chevy's design may look a bit contrived, but there is a pattern at work. The dining area is vast and warehouse-like, with a concrete floor and panels of corrugated metal overhead. Empty Corona boxes are stacked halfway to the ceiling, and the tables are covered with pastel oilcloths. Serapes, guitars, driftwood and neon cactuses are tacked up on the walls, just as they are in brassy cantinas on the Mexican Riviera.

The menu explains the concept in detail. Read it and you learn, for instance, that every tortilla is served within three minutes of baking (El Machino, FYI, can put out 900 in 53 minutes), that the salsas are blended hourly and that the restaurant uses no frozen meat.

The first course is a basket of hot tortilla chips and a charred tomato salsa good enough to make you say "Yo quiero Chevy's." The salsa has a subtle smoky flavor offset by onions and jalapenos, and it is truly hard to stop eating.

(The El Nino margaritas are good too. One of my friends ordered three for himself and bristled when the waiter asked him if he was serious. "This is nothing," he told me. "You should see me in Russia.")

Chevy's pork or chicken tamales make a good prelude to the hearty main dishes. They're made by hand on the premises every morning, and you get three to an order, steaming in their husks. Another good appetizer is spicy mesquite-grilled chicken wings, meaty and flavorful and definitely hot.


You may be surprised by the entrees, which go well beyond the usual taco-burrito-quesadilla range. The restaurant offers fresh fish all year; at the moment, it's yellowtail or salmon. We had the latter, and it was very well prepared, nicely charred across the top. But the yellowtail was both fishy-tasting and overcooked, the one dish I've had here that wasn't up to snuff.

It's possible to taste many of Chevy's best dishes by ordering the plato gordo ($13.99 apiece, two-person minimum). It's a massive platter of mesquite-grilled meat: chicken, thin strips of delicious flank steak, shrimp in spicy red sauce (camarones diablo) and, best of all, terrific baby back ribs rubbed with a subtly sweet jalapeno-honey glaze.

An even better choice would be the carnitas, unlike any I know. Most of our Mexican restaurants, after roasting pork shoulder in the oven, serve it in big hunks slightly browned around the edges. Chevy's cuts the meat into bite-sized hunks and puts them on the mesquite grill until completely browned on all sides--the best carnitas I've ever had.

Chevy's offers three bean side dishes. You can get the traditional refried beans, a rather moist version made with a good deal of canola oil. The vegetarian black beans are better; they're topped with a dab of chopped tomato and, upon request, a spoonful of sour cream. The best of all are beans a la charro, cooked with flavorful minced ham. These smoky beans are filling, but they round out the entrees nicely.

You also get chopped tomatoes, tangy cabbage slaw, a few jalapenos, some guacamole and a scoop of rich sour cream on the side, so you can doctor your flour tortillas to taste. (If you don't want to do the work, try one of the restaurant's super-fat burritos, such as the delicious Texas BBQ wrap, made with three kinds of meat plus rice and beans.)


Chevy's desserts are creative. If you're not put off by the name, consider the dirt cake, a fudge brownie crammed into a ramekin and layered with vanilla ice cream and an inch-thick mantle of crumbled Oreos. Sopaipillas are deep-fried flour tortillas dusted with cinnamon and drenched with honey; they taste almost Greek. I also like cajeta, vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted coconut and topped with hot caramel sauce and thick whipped cream.

Chevy's is moderately priced. Appetizers are $4.99 to $9.99. Salads are $3.99 to $7.99. Main dishes are $6.99 to $13.99.


Chevy's, 4700 Barranca Parkway, Irvine. (714) 559-5808. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Other O.C. Chevy's are in Anaheim, Fountain Valley and Laguna Niguel.

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