Salsa clubs in Orange County are few and far between. That's why many salsa fans make the trek to Los Angeles, where there are plenty of them. But if you like dancing to Caribbean sounds, then Tia Juana's Restaurante in Irvine is a great alternative to the L.A. scene.
Finding a parking spot is tough at Tia Juana's, so consider showing up around the time the venue opens, or you'll have to settle for parking near a fast-food restaurant and a five-minute walk.
Once inside, notice the dance floor, which is right in front of the orquesta. It is usually filled with well-dressed clubgoers who, for the most part, seem to have their salsa and merengue dance techniques well-choreographed.
Those who aren't so prepared don't seem discouraged, however. Some simply started dancing at the opposite end of the building.
It has taken a while for the nightclub, which is visible from the Santa Ana Freeway, to build an audience. Alex Lemus of Salsa Star Promotions said it has taken about six months since the club opened last fall to pick up its average attendance of about 300 people.
"When I came here, nobody thought that salsa would happen in Irvine," said the Guatemalan-born promoter. "I was told not to do it [open the club at the restaurant], it would be a mistake."
What Lemus did to boost attendance was logical: Promote it through Spanish-language radio and hand out fliers at other clubs. He has experience too. He helped promote Orchids in Orange, a salsa club, from 1995 to 1997 until it shut down. Next he plans to open a club in Fullerton featuring salsa, Latin American house and rock en espanol.
On a recent evening at Tia Juana's, the mostly easygoing patrons also didn't seem to mind that it felt a little stuffy. The majority Latino crowd ranged in age from about 21 to the mid-40s.
"It's a good place to hang out at and dance at the same time," said Sabrina Bonahora, 32, of Fountain Valley.
If you feel sticky from all that perspiration or just need to rest your tired feet, the patio is equipped with chairs and tables where most patrons smoked cigarettes or cigars.
In case it rains, don't worry. The roof hangs over the patio, and there is plenty of lighting.
The bar inside is at least 30 yards long, decorated with drink bottles displayed like championship trophies. Corona and Carta Blanca flags adorn this area, as well as some neon signs.
Beer ranges from $2.25 to $3.75. Cocktails and well drinks run $3 to $7. Mexican food is served for the early birds, but only until 9:30 p.m.
Not confident about your salsa steps? Try perfecting them before the club opens. At 8 p.m., lessons are offered at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels for $10.
If you're open to the idea of some small talk or making new friends in a salsa atmosphere, then Tia Juana's is the place to be on weekends.
Tia Juana's, 14988 Sand Canyon Ave., Irvine. (714) 215-6362 and (949) 551-2998. Doors open at 9 p.m. and close at 2 a.m. $8 cover charge on Thursdays with orquestas; $10 on Saturdays. 21 and over.