Monday, June 06, 2005

El Portal, Orange - Our specialty is chicken or ice cream with your menudo on a Monday or enormous pinatas

We have passed this place many times and what always grabbed my attention was the sign outside the store. I always love to go to places that specialize primarily in one thing and do things well. Zankou chicken, Pho places, In & Out Burger, etc. So this is what I thought this place was. I thought they specialized in Rotissere Chicken. I have never seen the word Rostiseria and got all excited about this. Maybe this was a whole new type of food only the Hispanic people were privy to and I was going to discover it and let the whole world know about it. Never mind that it says in small signage "pizzeria" & "neveria" underneath it. Their specialty MUST be Mexican Rotisserie chicken because its in the big letters. I was planning on discovering the Hispanic Zankou!

Located in a strip mall next to Albertsons on E. Chapman in Orange. Keep in mind this place is very small and the space is narrow. As I list all these things they make, you have to keep that in mind.

I walked in and grabbed a business card. In big letters it says Taqueria & Neveria and in small letters it says Rosticeria, Jugos Naturales, Ensaladas de Frutas. Totally different than the sign. What is this place?!

Looking around I see a serving line with all kinds of meat. Menudo on a Monday (you usually only see it on the weekends), another soup, some kind of carmalized bananas, grilled peppers and jalepenos, some sort of potatoes, Rotiserie chicken, some kind of dark sauces, beans rice. There is a full on ice cream counter, A juice station and then all of these Mexican pastries like in a bakery! There are huge pinatas all over the ceiling. I am talking big ass pinatas.

Huh, what's going on here? There is no menu, no prices listed anywhere. I can't even figure out how to order. I see specials and there are so many varied things on there that I can't figure out what regional cuisine this is. There are pictures of various things that are the standard items as well. I am totally lost. You have your basics, Tacos, burritos, tortas, but then you have things like pupusas, carintas stuffed in Pablanos, cuban sandwhiches, pambazo, Enchiladas and all kinds of things with combinations you don't typically see.

I ask the counter girl (thank God she speaks great English), How do I order? She is confused though by my question. I ask her about the Rotisserie chicken and she says I can get a whole one or 1/2 with beans and rice. I say OK. Mrs. Dog is Hell bent on getting pupusas. She orders one. "What kind?". Oh please oh please stop.... We had no idea. She said you can get cheese, carnitas, beans and some other things we couldn't understand. We stood there like deer caught in headlights. You have to remember there is no menu or signage that you can mull over to make your decision. Then she says "or I can make a combination".. Bingo! We'll take that. Mrs. Dog also orders a Bean and Cheese burrito. I tell her "You are going to eat all that?" She says yes. So not to be out eaten I ask her if she has Tacos Dorados as I have been fixated on Titos Tacos lately. She says "yes" even though they are not on any of the pictures. I get a Mexican Lime Soda and Mrs. Dog gets a med drink. Total comes to $19.75

First the pupusa. Incredible. Perfectly cooked. Nice soft yet with a thin thin layer of crispyness. Creme Fresh made it awesome. The filling of beans, meat, and cheese all worked in harmony. Mild corn flavor. I just loved the texture of this whole thing. But the BEST THING I HAVE HAD IN A LONG TIME was the slaw that comes with it. Its a vinegary cabbage slaw but with a spicyness to it. Not a hard hitting spicyness, but a flavorfull, slow to come on spicyness. It was so unique and seriously delicious!

The chicken was awesome as well. So incredibly tender. Nice firery roasted taste with Mexican mystery spices. Totally different than something like Zankou, but similar in its wow factor. Not like El Pollo Loco either. More of a red chili kind of taste. Skin is soft rather than crispy. Throw it in a corn tortilla and you are there. When you put the sauce on it, the flavor totally changes. The sauces doesn't accent the chicken in its original state. It totally changes it. But its a good thing. I can taste hints of honey in the sauce and its kinda spicy. Hard to describe. The beans were a little bland, but good. They are the runny kind with the Mexican White Cheese. The rice was awesome. Such a great firery red flavor. Is red a flavor? Too often Mexican rice is bland and lacks complexity. This rice is one of the best.

Mrs. Dog said the bean and cheese burrito was "OK". A little bland. It was huge though. With all the choices on the signs and pictures, I have no idea why Mrs. Dog would pick this.

Finally the Tacos Dorados came out. Its nothing like a fried taco like I pictured it. Its more of a taquito. I thought Mexican places called these "rolled tacos" Anyway it was excellent as well. I think they make the meat differently for these. It was beef, but it was very stringy. It was also very dry. Like it was fried for a long time. But it was perfect this way. It made it less greasy and the whole thing crispy. The corn tortilla had a strong corn taste. It was perfect in how it worked with the stringy beef. The sauces on it were great as well. Watery guacamole and more Creme Fresh.

Here is my theory of what this place is all about. I saw a older Mexican lady in the back cooking. I think she cooked for her whole family at one time and the whole family consisted of other Latinos from various countries and regions that married into the family. So she had to get very good at cooking various regional dishes. Then she combined some of them. Then she thought "I could sell this and make money because I kick ass at making food" Then she opened a restaurant. One of the other family members specialized in Rotisserie chicken and did that somewhere else. (There is a newspaper article featuring the chicken only and some Hispanic man on the wall. It was all in Spanish.) And since they want to appease a wide audience, hey, throw in an ice cream counter and juice counter. Why not a bakery as well? Something is missing...Hmmm.. Oh Yeah..Pinatas! But you have to remember, they do everything so well and you can tell by how they plate this stuff (this is NOT a sit down kind of place) they really care and take pride in what they are making.

I think if you asked them to make anything and just described it to them they would make it for you and it would be insanely good. A lot of Mexican places fall under certain categories "Americanized" "Taquerias" "Seafood" "Baja style". This place can not be categorized by me and I was so taken a back by its uniqueness.

I encourage all of you to try this place because I think its so unique and it could be one of the places that everyone agrees is niche and unique and a great discovery. I would love to be the one that exposed everyone to this place and to have other rave about it like I am.

By the way, I thought the carmelized bananas were plantains similar to Cuban cuisine. But they were served as a desert. Someone next to us got it. It looked so good! But we were too full.

I never saw any pizza or pizza like ingredients anywhere in this place.

If someone can explain what region this place represents in their cuisine or has a better theory of what its all about, let me know. It doesnt matter though as I will continue to come to this place often as its a great find and there is so much I still need to try here

El Portal de Verdcruz
4530 E. Chapman
Orange, Ca 92869


Anonymous Jo said...

Greetings! I believe that "Pupusas" are from El Salvador. I say that because I have seen restaurants that claim to be Salvadoran advertising pupusas. I think your theory might be fairly accurate.

Regardless, this is a fabulous post and I enjoyed it very much. I also followed a link to your Dog's site. Beautiful animal. My husband used to train but had to quit because of shoulder problems. After the dogs passed (old age) he started with a new dog but had to give her up because we had to move to an apartment.

Thanks again for the great write up!

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous comment. Pupusas are mostly from el salvador. They rock! When you go back, ask if they have pupusas de loroco. Loroco is a kind of vegetable that I find similar to chive flowers. You know the chive pocket things you can get in the hot food chinese breakfast line at 99 Ranch (i too am Taiwanese!)? Like the stuff in there, except they don't put THAT many chives in the pupusa, just a few. It's delicious! And I find it's better than the pupusas revueltas (the combo you got) b/c i find the whole beans/pork combo to be a little heavy, especially when i mostly like the slaw so much anyway. :) As for the other stuff, i think you're right, it seems like a big mesh of different regions/countries' foods. As for the name of the restaurant, El Portal de Veracruz - Veracruz is a state of Mexico, so that may give some indication of where the restaurant mainly identifies itself with, at least, even if its food seems to say otherwise! :)

I enjoy your site alot - came across it randomly from chowhound. It was like reading a blog full of my own opinions on restaurants i'd never been to! Fun! Thanks for the great write-ups!

10:57 AM  
Blogger LeRoy Rowland said...

I am going to check it out tomoro. I will give you an update anlong with the people I will be meeting ther also.

7:38 PM  
Blogger ChristianZ said...

You never comment on my blog. If it's because you think it sucks let me know how it could be improved.

10:28 AM  
Blogger LeRoy Rowland said...

oopssorry for the no-reply. My trip to El Portal was great. If it wasnt for this blog i would have never found it.

Thanks for the awesome tip :0

10:39 AM  
Blogger ChristianZ said...

I should clarify that my comment was meant for Diamond Dog who I believe calls himself a professional food blog commenter yet he has not made a comment on my blog yet. My blog is:

Orange County Mexican Restaurants

I was just wondering if it's because he doesn't know about it yet or if he does but perhaps thinks it's not worth his notice.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Vanessa said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Vanessa said...


I came across your blog randomly today as I was looking for restaurant reviews in Orange County. I'm from Orange, and my dad and mom had just opened El Portal when you tried it out. (My dad spent lots of time there--curly black hair and a red apron) He had been in the Mexican food business since childhood, and we grew up in it too. Most of the employees at El Portal followed him there from the Mexican food business my dad had with his brothers.

I was really pleased with your honest description of the place (and my dad would have been too)--definitely a mishmash of regional Mexican dishes, as well as Salvadorean foods like pupusas. The menu was never the same. Throw in fruit smoothies, salads, and ice cream and you've got a really diverse place haha. I think that's what he was going for. (The pizza wasn't as big of a hit so they stopped serving it after a short while)

It was named "El Portal de Veracruz" to appeal to the largely Veracruz-based Mexican population in the area. Many of the employees were from there. My dad had roots in Sonora and my mother in Jalisco.

My dad sold the place late 2006 and he passed away early 2007. I haven't visited since. Anyway, your blog brought a lot of wonderful memories. Keep up the great work.


3:20 PM  
Blogger tracfonedealseeker said...

If they sell "pupusas", then I believe this is probably an El Salvadorean owned restaurant. Though other central american countries also have "pupusas" but they are all very things. In Nicaragua, a pupusa is a pastry in the shape of a V. Pupusa is is also spanish slang for V as in Vagina which is why Nicaraguans call the above mentioned pastry a "pupusa".

8:48 PM  
Blogger Loctuz said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. After reading this, Im going to try that place! :D

6:11 PM  
Blogger Edlyn34 said...

Oh my, I most certainly will have to go here and try some their food, it all seems so delicious!

3:04 PM  

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