When someone finally does a history of non-Mexican Latinos in Orange County, restaurants must get a shout-out. For sure, there would be Regina's in Garden Grove, which has long served as a gathering spot for homesick Argentines wanting to scream, “¡Hijo de la gran puta!” when its national soccer squad underperforms in yet another World Cup. Also on the list would be Mil Jugos (for being the first Venezuelan restaurant to open in Orange County, if not Southern California) and Inka Mama's (for popularizing Peruvian food in South County).
But topping them all has to be Mercado Corona in Laguna Hills. Opened in 1992 by a Mexican immigrant from the state of Durango, the tiny storefront at first resembles the dozen or so small Mexican markets that thrive in South County, from the money-transfer booth near the aguas frescas to the bottles of Tapatío on all the tables in the dining room to the menu above the counter: quick-service Mexican standards such as chilaquiles, tacos, tortas and burritos. But once it's your turn to order, you start seeing hints of another reality. Next to the soda fountain are papers advertising Argentine empanadas, Colombian candies, Brazilian health supplements. Then you hear the lilting Argentine Spanish emerging from the meat counter and take a glance at the aisles, each divided by Latin American countries, each groaning with goodies. Fact is, Mercado Corona is the most seamless culinary marriage of Mexico and the rest of Latin America in Orange County, if not the Southland. It's the type of place where paisas in their streaked painting overalls stand alongside retired Ecuadorian abuelitas loading up their minivans for the ride back to Laguna Woods, where the music can go from Carlos Vives to Marco Antonio Solís, and no one raises an eyebrow, but rather everyone silently mouths along. Best of all? The alcohol: Argentines share a good Malbec, while a Mexican finishes off his tall boy of Modelo.
While the Mexican food is fine, I prefer the Argentine specials, available only if you ask for them. From pastas to parrilladas, sandwiches to seemingly all the alfajores on Earth, Mercado Corona is as fine a South American restaurant around. And the best dish of them all? The milanesa torta: fluffy bread, buttery breaded beef, served in a portion as big as Tierra del Fuego, with the nice Argentine butcher offering a free roasted chile, equally Argentina and Mexico. So . . . who wants to write the book?