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For the Real Tastes of Mexico

Devotees of home-style dishes will be satisfied by fare at El Farolito.


If you'll pardon a rather sweeping generalization, I see two kinds of Mexican food here in Southern California. One is the hard-core stuff cooked for the those who grew up on strong flavors such as goat meat (in birria) and tripe (in menudo). The other is toned down for those mostly interested in having a melted cheese orgy with chips and salsa (and, of course, potent margaritas). Rare is the Mexican restaurant that satisfies both tastes.

El Farolito ("the little street lamp") is just such an anomaly. In business in the same Placentia location for 26 years, it attracts a bustling and diverse clientele that includes numerous lifelong menudo- and birria-eaters, plenty of melted cheese- and margarita-lovers and even a cult following of Argentines who haven't had a better steak milanesa since they left the pampas.

This is a family business in every respect, and the restaurant's history is worth recounting. It was started by Gerion Sandoval, who died in December. Sandoval and his children grew up in a small village in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. The elder Sandoval came to California as a farm worker, worked his way into a factory job and eventually saved enough money to start the restaurant as a side business in 1974, with various family members pitching in to help.

The family insists that Sandoval never had any formal training as a cook; he was just one of those people who loved to taste and tamper with dishes until they reached a peak of folksy perfection. As the business took off, one by one various relatives gave up their day jobs to work at the restaurant.

Today El Farolito is run by Gerion Sandoval's children--two sons and five daughters--plus various in-laws and a growing number of the late founder's grandchildren. Having myself defected long ago from a family food business, I am in awe of this extended family's ability to provide good food at a brisk pace without killing one another.

"The whole family has breakfast together at the restaurant every morning," said Arturo Sandoval, the restaurant's president and nominal spokesman, after my last visit. "So we're always tasting everything. We know when something's not working. We cook all day long in small batches. We grew up in a village remote from the city, and most of the ingredients are things we grew up with--tomatoes, garlic, chiles and onions."

As you might have gathered, El Farolito serves serious home-style cooking that's basic, satisfying and economical. The heat factor is certainly present in a number of dishes, but the place uses fairly mild peppers, more for flavor enhancement than for burn. So the food treads a fine line between satisfying the capsicum-sensitive and chile-heads like me. (I must say I like the option of having a real three-alarm salsa in addition to the nice but mild pico de gallo and salsa diabla available here.)

The Sandovals' small-batch approach to cooking rewards the diner in numerous ways. The Mexican-style rice, for instance, is moist and redolent of fresh chicken stock, a notable contrast to the mouthful of wet sawdust this omnipresent side dish so often is. The refried beans and even the simple boiled beans are especially flavorful.

But the entrees are what keep the tables filled. Most meat dishes are cooked long and slow, giving them buttery softness with an enticing depth of flavor. The carnitas, marinated pork simmered for five hours, are about as good as you'll find anywhere, and I also enjoyed the chile con carne, which features chunks of tender pork doused in an unusually mild tomato-chile sauce with a nice garlicky reverb.

Another fine dish is the chicken in enchilada sauce; the chicken is moist, and the sauce that covers it is actually a mole--not the chocolaty mole poblano variety but a light sauce of tomato-infused chicken stock given a nice high note by a dash of cinnamon and sesame seeds. The steak picado is one piece of meat that is not cooked long hours--it's strips of steak, after all--and it's a bit chewy. Nice peppery red sauce, though.

The Mexican standards--such as enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas--are comfort food, delectable troves of molten cheese mingled with shredded beef or pork. There's also a luscious rendition of nachos, generous with the cheese and tossed with a hearty meat sauce.

Seafood proved the least consistent category on the menu. I like the general approach to the fried whole snapper, which comes in four versions, including snapper Cancun, in which the fish comes in a light tomato sauce covered by strips of onion and jalapeno, but the fish itself tends to be dry and overdone, although it has a nice crust.

The camarones al mojo de ajo are also disappointing. The shrimp have a good, firm texture, but the sauteed garlic seems an afterthought--the result has surprisingly little flavor. Camarones a la diabla, by contrast, come in a pungent chile sauce that packs decidedly more wallop.

As a room, the restaurant is unlikely to appear in Architectural Digest any time soon. The decor is the familiar assemblage of artificial flowers, imitation Tiffany lamps, and no-frills dining hall furniture. But this all fades into irrelevance after a round of sweetly light margaritas and the friendly family atmosphere have been enjoyed.

All in all, El Farolito as the feel of an easygoing roadside cantina, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's still around in another 26 years.

A la carte items run $3.50 to $4.75; full dinners $5.50 to $9.75. Full bar.

* El Farolito, 201 S. Bradford Ave, Placentia, (714) 993-7880. Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-8:45 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-9:45 p.m.

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