A friend told me about a bakery in Santa Ana that sells Bolivian empanadas called saltenas last week and ever since I've been thinking it's time for a trip. I'm pretty unfamiliar with Orange County, but have been hearing there's a large Mexican population in Santa Ana so that added fuel to the fire - there must be good places to eat.
While I didn't find all that much on Chowhound about choices there, I looked up old columns by Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly (this guy's a gem!). I found 60 restaurants he's reviewed in Santa Ana and made a list of the most intriguing - then it turned out many of them were on the same street (westminster ave/17th st). How convienent!
So I headed on down this morning to see what I could find and eat.
First up was La Rancherita which is the Bolivian bakery selling the saltenas on Westminster Ave (full addresses below). This is a small place in a strip mall which sells baked goods and other food. I asked the girl behind the counter what was in the saltenas (I wasn't sure if there were different kinds to choose from - there weren't). She said vegetables and other things. Okay by me! I got six to go ($2.05 each) and for good measure got a Pan Boliviana (I think) (75 cents). This was a round, soft bread with cheese sprinkled on top. Very good - I think it would be excellent for a sandwich or with soup.
Although I got the saltenas to go, I couldn't wait once I got to my car. So I tried one, it was still warm. These are more domed than Argentinian empanadas I've had with an egg glaze on top. With the first bite, I found the dough sweeter and less flakey than an empanada (I hear Bolivians eat these before noon). Then next bite I found scalding tasty sauce that rushed out of the saltena (note to self, no more white turtlenecks on chowhounding expeditions). There were potatoes and peas, along with ground beef and shreds of chicken and raisins. Nice combo of savory and sweet, but too hot for more than those two bites.
Next down the street was the Produce Warehouse. Outside the store were signs advertizing specials on various Argentinian meats mainly. Inside I found sections dedicated to Argentinian, Columbian, Peruvian and Indian foods. Many different brands of yerba mate (with special containers and straws). There was a fairly large produce section, but nothing really caught my eye here, except the very interesting selection of dried herbs. There was a fairly big meat/deli counter and the man ahead of me in the cash register line got some good looking sandwiches. There were also lots of tasty looking alfajores (some from Grand Casino Bakery in Culver City). One kind in particular caught my eye they were stuffed with quince membrillo and coated in white chocolate. I ended up with a jar of dulce de leche and some chorizos.
Since it was around lunch time the next place I stopped was El Rincon Chilango - which Arellano says specializes in food from Mexico City. I wasn't sure I was going to stop here for lunch, but when I saw the outside seating I was sold. I got two tacos, one pastor and one potato ($2.15 total). The al pastor was very juicy and succulent, definitely not cooked on a spit I'd say. But it was tasty. I liked the potato taco as well especially with lots of lime juice squeezed on and the mild green salsa it came with. However, I found myself intensely regretting not getting an order of huraches. Two women sitting near me got these and they looked amazingly delicious - oh well, next time.
My final stop was Tikal Tienda y Resturante which is a Guatemalan grocery store and restaurant. When you enter to the right are the groceries and to the left a small dining area where you order at the counter and pay on your way out. Nice mellow place with a few families eating lunch. Again I had buyers remorse here - should have gotten a tamale, but ended up aiming for soup. Arellano mentioned a hilacha soup, but somehow I ended up with something that was oddly reminiscent of my Mom's pot roast with carrots and potatoes (nothing against Mom mind you!) with rice and pureed black beans on the side ($6.95).
I wasn't so hungry at this point, (I thought soup would be good after the small tacos), so I took most of it home. The best thing here was some lovely horchata ($1.75??). I don't often order this, but I thought I'd give it a try. My first sip I thought this is what eggnog should taste like! Hints of nutmeg and vanilla, so creamy. I have no clue what spices were really in it, but it was good.
I'm sure I missed many, many other interesting places to visit. But after all that food, it was clearly time to head back up I-5 with my prizes & get some laundry done (I hope saltena sauce comes out!).
La Rancherita Bakery
2709 Westminster Ave #B
1225 W 17th St.
El Rincon Chilango
1133 W. 17th St.
Tikal Tienda y Restaurante
1002 E. 17th St.