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A Buffet With Ole!

Sunday Mornings at El Matador, the Price Is Right and the Crowd Is Enthusiastic


I hadn't considered El Matador--a dark and aging establishment on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa--a brunch destination. But it came highly recommended by regulars.

We arrived on a recent Sunday and there they were: throngs jamming the tiny restaurant for the all-you-can-eat Mexican food and champagne.

This is not an after-church crowd. I overheard one patron saying the buffet is excellent hangover therapy, and it's true that some customers looked as if they were extending their Saturday night into Sunday morning.

If noise (ear-splitting) and enthusiasm are any indication, El Matador's buffet is a popular choice for brunch. One reason is the price.

We visited with friends, one of whom had grown up nearby and found El Matador the perfect hangout for a couple on a strict budget. They said they ate like kings on a pauper's paycheck.

For about $11, you can party hearty on giant platefuls of refried beans, rice, enchiladas, taquitos, chili relleno, machaca (shredded beef), carnitas (roasted and fried pork) and scrambled eggs.

Another reason may be the atmosphere, which is decidedly funky. El Matador's decor is to interior design what Costa Mesa's The Lab anti-mall is to South Coast Plaza.

Pinatas and Mexican hats hang from the ceiling and posters of Spanish bullfighters adorn the walls. The pink and green walls and Mexican rugs lend a festive touch.

I'm told the interior has not changed much since the place opened in 1966.

Brunch begins with salad (iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, olives, sour cream, cheese and other toppings) and a good fruit salad selection, which combines the ubiquitous melon slices with kiwi, oranges and strawberries.

Chopped onions and tomatoes were on hand the day we visited, but unfortunately there was no guacamole or chopped cilantro, which to me are essential accompaniments to fresh tortillas and carnitas.

A long table filled with steam trays of enchiladas, rice, beans, bacon and various Mexican standards comes next. You won't find anything gourmet here, but you will find vats of rice and beans and several dishes, most of which hold up pretty well in the trays.

The best main dishes are the carnitas, lean, crunchy pork that is best rolled in the warm fresh tortillas that waiters bring to the table, and cheese enchiladas. Also good were shredded-beef machaca and scrambled eggs.

A potato and onion combination provides a good accompaniment to the meat dishes, and the taquitos stay crisp despite the time they spend in the steam tray. Some of the courses would be better served straight from the kitchen, such as the chili rellenos, which get soggy waiting around on a buffet table.

The problem with the buffet line at El Matador is that there is too little room for customers to line up and help themselves. The table is so cramped that the only way to serve yourself is to place a steam tray lid on top of another tray, thereby holding up the line.

Diners here, however, don't seem to care. What's a little inconvenience when a bargain and plentiful food are at stake?


El Matador, 1768 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa. (949) 645-0324. Sunday brunch hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Price: $10.95 for adults and $6.95 for children. Includes limitless champagne. Diners can also order off the menu.

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