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| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

A Chile Evening

If you can't stand the heat, there's no point in visiting these eateries.

Anita's, 600 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton. (714) 525-0977; 2401 S. Fairview St., Santa Ana. (714) 751-1040.


When I got to Benson, Ariz., a dozen people in jeans and cowboy hats were standing around outside the Horseshoe Cafe on 4th Street, waiting for a table. I figured that was the place to eat. Coming into town after an eight-hour drive across the parched Sonoran Desert, I was thinking about Mexican food, but the only other joint I passed looked empty, which is always a bad sign.

The Horseshoe, on the other hand, was bursting at the seams. The hostess, who had to be in her 60s, was wearing a pink poodle skirt and matching sweater. She looked like Olivia Newton-John in "Grease," except she was about a hundred pounds heavier and several decades older. I sat at the counter and ordered the Horseshoe enchilada plate.

There were two guys dressed as cowboys standing in front of a big Wurlitzer jukebox, strumming guitars and singing cowboy songs. On the ceiling was a neon horseshoe, and on the walls were macrames of local cattle brands.

"You always this busy on a Friday night?" I asked the hostess.

"Heck no," she said. Seems the owner of the Horseshoe, which has been in Benson for more than 50 years, was celebrating some anniversary by offering Southern-fried steak for $1.75 and apple pie for a quarter. Just about everybody from Benson was here for dinner. And nobody was eating enchiladas except me. They were four bucks. She couldn't understand why anybody would pay four bucks for enchiladas when they could have a Southern-fried steak covered in gravy for half that.

Well, the enchiladas weren't very good, but the music was just fine.

The next day I drove to Hatch, N.M., for a chile festival. The food got better. Hatch is about a 40-minute drive north of Las Cruces, if you know where that is, along the Rio Grande. The city sign says 1,136 residents live here, but I think they might be fudging.

Hatch calls itself the "Chile Capital of the World." Farmers grow dozens of different types of chiles with names such as "Big Jim" and "Barker XX-Hot." When I got there, the chile parade was just wrapping up. Actually, there wasn't much to it. Just the firetruck, an ambulance and a couple of tractors pulling flatbeds with the Chile Festival queen and her court tossing candy to the crowd.

Things picked up at the festival. There was a fiddle contest, a horseshoe-pitching competition and some Mexican dancing, but mostly there was a lot of food. Vendors sold chile jelly, rellenos, chile verde and pudgy burritos covered in green or red chile sauce.

My favorite booth was the one next to the guy selling CDs of New Mexican artists such as Steve Chavez where you could get a two-fisted sopaipilla filled with spicy chunks of carne adovada, pork marinated in chile for a day or so, covered with green chile and cheese. I'd eat one of those, my mouth on fire, and drink a lemonade while watching some 9-year-old play the "Cottonpatch Rag" on his fiddle, then go back and get another.

They say chile is addicting. It must be so. For the next three days I had chile, in one form or another, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I never got tired of it. Just as bad, I think I got addicted to sopaipillas, those light, fluffy fried breads that can be stuffed full of meat or dripped with honey.

You'd think that after three or four days of eating nothing but New Mexican food (they get offended if you call it "Southwestern") you'd get pretty tired of it, but the reverse is true. I brought back some habanero, jelly and put that on my English muffin for breakfast, but by lunchtime, I had sopaipillas on my mind, so I drove out to Anita's in Fullerton, a place I'd heard about for years but never visited.

When I was a kid living on Lola Lane in Stanton, there was a family that lived across the street, the Trujillos, who came from Albuquerque. There were three things they really missed about Albuquerque: pine nuts, sopaipillas and Little Anita's restaurants.

Somebody told me that the Anita's in Fullerton was started by the same woman, but I don't know if that's true. In any case, she's not around any more. She moved back to New Mexico, leaving her family, Lori and Michael Tellez, to run this restaurant and another Anita's in Santa Ana.

But this is the real stuff, boy. They get their chiles from the Hatch Valley and their sopaipillas are darn near as sweet and fluffy as the ones Margaret Trujillo used to make for us kids. Anita's has chile ristras hanging from the wall and a large painting of New Mexico that I examined, finding all the places I'd been, while waiting for my order.

I'll tell you how hard it was to decide what to get: I was there by myself but I ordered three meals. "Can I have the stuffy--and maybe the carne adovada. Oh, and give me the chile verde dinner."

My waitress looked at me as if I had some imaginary friends. "Is someone joining you?" she asked. Nope, I told her. Before she walked away, I said, "Can I get an extra order of sopaipillas with that?"

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