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O.C. Eats

El Cholo Builds on Tradition

Cantina offers pared-down menu featuring favorites.

August 17, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since 1927, the El Cholo restaurants have pretty much defined Mexican restaurant food in the Southland (and, by extension, most of the rest of the country). If you've ever wondered who drew up the blueprint for the standard Mexican American meal of enchilada, refried beans and Spanish rice plus margarita, look no further. So El Cholo Cantina, which opened in Irvine this year in the bustling Alton Square strip mall, has a heck of a pedigree behind it.

This L.A.-based chain has all the trappings of success. You can order its tamales sent anywhere in the world by calling a toll-free number, and you can learn to make them yourself from "The El Cholo Cookbook." There are El Cholo T-shirts for sale, and El Cholo caps, paintings, pottery, glasses, souvenir chimney bricks and a packaged margarita mix.

It's obvious that the chain glories in its history, yet El Cholo Cantina represents a change from its tried-and-true formula. This is sort of a Cliff Notes version of El Cholo. The large regular menu has been pared down to feature the most popular dishes.

Even though the ever-popular green corn tamales and combination enchilada plates are available at the Cantina, the short-form menu lacks the depth that makes the other El Cholos stand out from the competition. The confit of duck tamales I've enjoyed at the Los Angeles El Cholo, for example, didn't make the cut. But the Cantina's menu still features a reasonable selection of the chain's greatest hits, served in a pleasing hacienda environment in which autographed black-and-whites of minor celebrities line the walls alongside Diego Rivera prints.

The top culinary draw here is those green corn tamales. Served from May through October, coinciding with the availability of fresh corn, they're made with a moist, sweet masa dotted with corn kernels, filled with a mild chile strip and melted cheese that oozes out when you cut the tamales open. They're too sweet for some tastes--to me, they're practically dessert tamales--but everyone I know loves them.

Although they're not listed on the menu by themselves, traditional pork tamales are also available. They're featured on the Taste of History combination plate, which provides a comprehensive sampling of El Cholo's take on Sonoran cooking. Cheers to you if you can finish this huge plate--cheese enchilada, beef taco, chile relleno and tamale, along with ample servings of refried beans and rice.

El Cholo has been serving these items for more than 70 years, and in this combination plate, the repetition shows. The pork tamale suffers from dry, almost chalky masa, and the enchilada is almost indistinguishable from the taco. Only the light, non-greasy chile relleno stands out.

If you're determined to go old-school, try the Sonora-style enchilada, a traditional dish rarely served in Mexican restaurants anymore. That's a pity, because when it's made right, as it is here, this is a delicious and distinctive dish. Moist, shredded chicken breast meat is layered between corn tortillas and topped with melted cheese, olives and a fried egg. A savory tomato, cilantro and onion broth surrounds the whole thing. The egg makes this dish, adding an interesting flavor and texture to the mix.

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Of the other enchiladas, I like the blue corn chicken and the crab versions. The blue corn enchiladas are filled with the same moist, shredded chicken breast meat as the Sonora-style enchilada, and are topped with tangy tomatillo sauce, sour cream and avocados. The crab enchiladas are a bit more adventurous. The crab filling is notable for the sweet flavor of the shellfish, and the jalapeno-pesto sauce, amazingly, is subtle enough that it doesn't overwhelm the crab. This is a newer dish for El Cholo, and one that's certain to stick around awhile.

Tamales and enchiladas are El Cholo Cantina's traditional strengths, but some of the specials warrant attention. The carnitas plate is a volcano-shaped mound of roast pork chunks erupting from the center of a massive plate. These carnitas are perfect--slightly charred on the outside, moist inside, and with side servings of an avocado relish, pico de gallo, rice and beans they make for a grand meal. Add warm corn tortillas to the mix, and you won't feel tempted to order any of the fajitas platters.

Also impressive are the tacos al carbon, soft tacos bursting with grilled bits of top sirloin steak. What separates them from so many other versions is the addition of bacon. Some schools of Mexican cooking rely heavily on bacon, and these tacos benefit from this little touch of authenticity.

The chili con carne is a meaty, savory meal by itself, but avoid it--it's served in the burrito dorado, a typical massive burrito packed with this chili plus rice and beans. The combination makes for a mushy blob of food with no distinctive flavor.

A few miscalculations aside, El Cholo Cantina sits easily in the upper echelon of the big chain Mexican restaurants in Orange County. El Cholo Cantina is moderate. Appetizers: $3.45 to $6.45; entrees: $6.95 to $12.95.

BE THERE

El Cholo Cantina, 5465 Alton Parkway, Irvine. (949) 451-0044. Sunday-Thursday.

11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.- 10 p.m.

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