This weekend, your favorite newspaper is holding its first brunch festival. Fresh Toast will happen on Saturday at the Newport Dunes Resort (the site of last year’s wildly successful Summerfest), featuring more than 40 restaurants, from 320 Main to Outpost Kitchen to Taco Maria, Clay Oven and Naugles—yes, Naugles, the legendary fast-food Mexican chain that’s back from the dead and ready to help you relive your high-school days.
You can find the entire list of participants and what they’re offering in our house ad on pages 2 and 3. I love them all and expect to be wheeled out of Fresh Toast at the end, so full and fat will I be. But for this story, let’s discuss the greatest brunch item of them all, the one Orange County has perfected above anywhere else in the world: chilaquiles.
Screw breakfast tacos, breakfast sandwiches—all of breakfast, really, except chilaquiles. This is the greatest Mexican almuerzo (brunch) of them all, a deceptively simple dish that’s fiendishly difficult to master. Most places think chilaquiles give them a license to chop up some stale Guerrero corn tortillas, lightly fry them, then splash on some trashy red or green salsa, creating something softer than mush but not as tasty.
No. Chilaquiles is a fugue: the interplay between the crispy edges and somewhat soft center, the sharp notes of a great salsa that doesn’t sog everything up, the crispness of the cheese tying everything together. It’s been a staple of Mexican households in OC for generations, but enough gabachos have had it over the years to make it a thing here—not yet a favorite at the level of breakfast burritos, but getting there.
And if you’ve never had chilaquiles? It’s coming your way. Late last year, I predicted it would become a national food trend. Already in 2016, The New York Times published a story praising the dish, and Rick Bayless—for better or for worse—offered a chilaquiles recipe. Better yet, hipster chefs who don’t run Mexican restaurants are high-classing it into better and tastier heights.
Of our participating Fresh Toasters, only Cafe Calacas will serve chilaquiles, but mark my words: Your year will end with you eating chilaquiles. And you’ll be the better for it. Have fun at Fresh Toast, and try these spots next weekend!
Danny Godínez’s chilaquiles is the culinary equivalent of Dylan going electric at Newport, or the release of Guardians of the Galaxy for the younger generation: something that was ridiculed and questioned upon its debut, but proved a magnificent game-changer. It was so controversial that on Anepalco’s first day, Godínez only made $40. I was one of the original doubting Thomases because his version doesn’t resemble any chilaquiles ever made. Instead of a field of jagged tortilla strips, Godínez packs together a disk so dense it nearly looks like pâté. Rather than bathing the chilaquiles in salsa, the Anepalco’s version uses a dense, mole-like sauce. To this day, people wince at the chilaquiles when they look at the dish—until they taste it, and then they become acolytes on the level of Paul. But don’t take my word for it: Our own Dave Lieberman put it best when he wrote late last year, “Breakfast, lunch or dinner: whenever you have your first Anepalco’s chilaquiles, it’ll haunt you until you return.” DAMN STRAIGHT! 3737 Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-9642.
One of the few reasons to stop in Laguna Niguel (unless you’re going to the sex dungeon of folks at the Nellie Gail Ranch), Chaparosa Grill is as good a South County Mexican restaurant as you’ll find. Its chilaquiles run toward the crispier part of the spectrum, with a light sauce—a great starter for folks who’ve never had them. 30271 Street of the Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel, (949) 363-9888; www.chaparosa.com.
I’m glad this place is still around long after it became a Chowhound (see how old it is?) obsession. From my review long ago: “[The chilaquiles is] a big plate, with big portions of each—look at that fluffy, perfect mound of scrambled eggs. But the actual chips in the tortilla section achieve the impossible—a meeting between the just-hardened-and-fried pieces of my mom’s chilaquiles and the softness of Zamora’s. And the sauce—a tomato-based condiment that nevertheless sneaks up on unsuspecting sinuses—is as intricate as a harp.” 2200 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-1422; www.mexicancafecostamesa.com.
The most underrated Mexican restaurant in SanTana prepares better dishes than its chilaquiles, but that’s like saying Lou Gehrig was the fourth-best Yankee after Ruth, DiMaggio and Jeter. It pays great attention to the creaminess and cheesiness aspects, per its michoacano roots. 1819 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-1744.
It’s just doors down from legendary dive bar the Fling, and the smart set knows to start drinking at 6 a.m., get shit-faced, then sober up at the Mini. From my review after I did such a thing: “Mini Cafe’s chilaquiles is simply magnificent, even if not fully Mexican. Instead of the rice that customarily accompanies the dish, the cooks sauté potato slices until they’re a crisp golden-brown. The pinto beans have Cheddar cheese on them instead of queso fresco. But it doesn’t matter: The chilaquiles are as perfect a testament to the beauty of the genre as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is to Cubism.” 2370 N. Tustin Ave., Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 648-0891.
Carlos Salgado is the king of Orange County chefdom right now, named a Food and Wine Best New Chefs last year and having his Taco Maria deemed the second-best restaurant in Southern California in 2015 by the Los Angeles Times and best in OC by the Orange County Register and this infernal rag (two years in a row!). And he just got nominated as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award’s Best Chef In the West. But in the world of chilaquiles in la naranja, his awesome chilaquiles, enlivened with chicken confit and chile cascabel, only ranks in the top 10. Better luck next year, chef! 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444; www.tacomaria.com.
Next to Anepalco’s, here are the most inventive chilaquiles in OC, namely because the kitchen stuff the dish into a French roll and call it a chilaquiles torta. The tater tots that accompany it are superfluous because chips-on-bread is sweet stuffiness enough. 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 263-1555; c4deli.com.
EL CAMINO CAFE
Old Town Tustin has long underachieved as a place for great food, but the opening of this small bistro signaled a dramatic change. If this place ever opens for dinner, expect it to become one of the most hailed Mexican restaurants in Central County. In the meanwhile, comfort yourself with its chilaquiles. From my original review: “And then come the chilaquiles: perfect, striking the ideal balance between crunch and softness, with an egg downright gossamer in its look. Yeah, I wish the salsas were spicier, but this is down-home Mexican food for the masses—so folks should sneak in some chiles de mordida if they must.” 195 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 573-5898; elcaminocafe.com.
You can find me at this food stall at the Fourth Street Market at least once a week, so addicted am I to the chilaquiles of Felix Barrón IV. From my review (can you tell I’ve been writing about chilaquiles a lot in my career?): “And lest you think Barrón is all fancy paisa, [his chilaquiles is] already among my top five in the county: crispy, saucy, amazing. Did I mention chilaquiles is the one dish I’m most biased against, given my mom makes the best on Earth? Move over, mami; there’s a new master in town.” 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 418-5010; ktchndtsa.com.
My all-time favorite restaurant chilaquiles in OC: a gargantuan plate of slightly crispy masa. This is my personal office—no joke. The primos here know my order (green chilaquiles, with a goblet of fresh-squeezed jugo de naranja to wash it down) and never bother giving me a menu, so committed am I to these. 3121 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 557-0907.
Not content to dominate Southernfied meals, this classic introduced chilaquiles to its menu last year. Memphis differentiates itself from everyone else by highlighting the chilaquiles with Hatch green chiles, the Yeezys of the food world. Add in tortilla strips featuring blue corn, smoked chicken, pinto beans, queso fresco and two eggs poached hard, and it shows Memphis is as vital as ever. 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685; memphiscafe.com.
The future of chilaquiles in OC: a non-Mexican restaurant treating the dish with the reverence a previous generation of Corona del Mar residents had for its yachts. Black beans, green onions, sturdy chips and a big ol’ fried egg—BOOM. 3029 E. Shore Ave., Corona del Mar, (949) 723-0502; tackleboxoc.com.
I don’t get why it puts radishes around the chilaquiles, and the portion is so big you won’t finish it, no matter what you may promise. But this pioneering Chicano restaurant makes a chingón rendition. Wash it down with whatever agua fresca it has for the day. 324 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 662-2002; www.cafecalacas.com.
RICK’S ATOMIC CAFE
It’s not on the menu every day, which makes this the rarest chilaquiles in la naranja. So follow Rick’s Atomic Cafe on Twitter and pray for when Richard LeBlanc decides to whip up his version: baked, tarted up with a fresh tomatillo salsa and worth the wait. Chilaquiles forever! 3100 Airway Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 825-0570. Twitter: @ricksatomiccafe.
Fresh Toast at Newport Dunes, 1131 Back Bay Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 729-3863; www.newportdunes.com. Sat., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $35 in advance; $40 at the door. Tickets don’t include parking, and parking’s going to be nuts, so get there early. Buy tickets online at www.ocweekly.com.