301 Cafe Is a Cal-Mex Shrine

If you haven't checked out our cover story this week, make sure to do it now: It's one big love letter to beer in OC, pegged to promote our latest OC Weekly/KCRW Happy Hour, this one scheduled for Feb. 7 at the awesome Bruery in Placentia. Entrance, of course, is FREE, and Taco María, Soho Taco and Seabirds will serve the food ($5 specials!) while everyone gets happy drinking the Bruery's amazing crafted beers . . . in Placentia?!

I still have trouble believing that anything edgy, food-wise, is happening in Placentia. Nothing against the city, home to my favorite cousins, badass good-government activists and the spectacular Rubalcava's Bakery, but the food scene there has historically been the most contained in Orange County, a suburb with restaurants only the locals could love. Rose's Pizza, Mini Cafe, King's Teriyaki (which is reopening in April), and the Mexican Bradford Avenue quartet of El Farolito, Q's Tortas, Tlaquepaque,and El Cantarito are all fine, but few outsiders come to these places—most of Placentia's favorite eateries are stuck in the 1980s and proud of it. Even more comfortably provincial is 301 Cafe, a dive screaming for gentrification. The booths are Naugahyde; the long bar bereft of any alcohol is made of wood panels stolen from Boogie Nights; the windows are the fogged kind preferred by cantinas; the jukebox stopped updating around Los Cadetes de Linares. Yet here is a reason for outsiders to visit Placentia for culinary reasons, for fabulous Cal-Mex cuisine served for people who grew up on Cal-Mex.

This is where the combo plate rules, where the chile rellenos shine with grease, where the meat of choice isn't al pastor, but chile colorado or verde, where enchiladas and chimichangas dominate instead of regional Mexican. The king of the entrées is the wet burrito, a mass of beef and ever-present melted yellow cheese, with canned red salsa on top. It's a seemingly mundane thing, and the puréed guacamole resembles something out of a Sunset article from the Nixon administration. And yet . . . it all works. The salsa served tableside tastes more like New Mexico-style green chile: not just relishy, but with heat. The side of pickled carrots and jalapeños is a wholly Mexi innovation. It's an artifact of another time, but one that remains relevant, such as a date shake or a chicken pot pie. So make sure to visit Placentia three times this year—one for Rubalcava's, another for 301 Cafe and Feb. 7 for the Happy Hour. See you then!

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