Orange County is not bereft of cutting edge dining options – in fact, the OC restaurant scene has been surprisingly vibrant with creative, chef-driven establishments popping up in the most unexpected places. Several of them were on Brad Johnson’s list of 10 noteworthy restaurants you should know and, admittedly, it was difficult limiting the list to 10, but one that immediately comes to my mind is Anepalco’s Cafe. Chef Daniel Godinez has successfully captivated adventurous diners and lovers of Mexican food with his unique cuisine of traditional Mexican flavors infused with French technique at Anepalco’s Cafe in Orange. Godinez opened his first Anepalco’s in a tiny, strip mall facing Main St. with St. Joseph’s Hospital looming overhead and developed a loyal following that, a year later, prompted owners of the Ayres Hotel to contact him when they were seeking a restauranteur to breathe new life into the hotel’s on-site dining.
The street signage announces Anepalco’s Cafe at the Ayres Hotel with an image of the Eiffel Tower forming the “A” in Anepalco and the subtitle “Le Mexique French Cuisine” that piques your curiosity as to what deliciousness will emerge from the kitchen of the otherwise rustic rancho-styled dining room and shady covered patio. Serving brunch, lunch, and dinner, out of towners are discovering the French-influenced Mexican cuisine at the deft hands of Executive Chef Daniel Godinez and his loyal, capable staff.
On a recent visit for dinner, we talked at length with Chef Godinez about what he’s been doing for the past year – traveling around Mexico, researching the cuisine of different regions, and planning the opening of his third restaurant, El Mercado. He is most excited about developing the menu for his new concept which will feature small plates representing different regions of Mexico and is expected to open in Santa Ana at the close of 2013. With the burgeoning food revolution happening in Santa Ana, staff that has been with him since day one, and passion and talent such as his, Godinez and El Mercado is sure to be a welcome and exciting addition to the Orange County dining scene.
Although the breakfast/lunch menu at both locations includes sweet and savory crepes, dinner (only available at the Ayres Hotel restaurant) is where Chef Godinez can spread his wings and really showcase his unique Mexi-French cuisine. The menu includes small plates from Queso Fundido to Pan Seared Frog Legs along with Pork Belly Tacos, Shrimp Cassoulet and the MUST HAVE Pambazo Ahi Crudo.
Pambazo Ahi Crudo | raw sushi grade ahi with avocado puree, seranno chile, fresh lime juice, topped with spiced toasted ciabatta, radish + micro greens
Seafood is almost always my choice but it was not easy choosing one from among the alluring names of the entrees: Huachinango (Red Snapper); Costillas al Vino Rojo (Short Ribs Braised in Wine); Cielo, Mer y Terre (Scallops, Shrimp, Chorizo, Jidori Chicken), Arrachera (Hangar Steak); Carre D’Agneau (New Zealand Lamb). After much deliberation, my friend chose the Costillas al Vino Rojo and I the Serrano Beurre Blanc Tilapia.
I was delighted with my choice and in awe of how Chef Godinez transformed ordinary tilapia Serrano Beurre Blanc Tilapia into a refined dish bursting with tongue-tingling serrano buerre blanc sauce and silky potatoes. The fish was delicate, perfectly seared and rivals any I’ve had at fine seafood restaurants. We also shared an ahi tuna tartare with egg yolk where your server will ceremoniously break the egg imparting a richness to the tuna. For me, the meat dishes are a bit heavy and heady with rich complex sauces but there were many satisfied diners surrounding us and I made a note to return to try one of their tempting burgers.
With over 892 Yelp reviews and high ratings on Urbanspoon and Chowhound, Anepalco’s is well known in the cyber foodie world, but maybe not so much to the general public of Orange County. Having cut his teeth at a two of Orange County’s finer dining establishments (Charlie Palmer and Stonehill Tavern) and tread the learning curve of legal, permit and management issues involved in owning a restaurant, Godinez realizes that one of his biggest challenges with El Mercado will be to introduce new customers to their food. Godinez constantly strives to attract new clientele but predicts a loyal following of patrons will support his team at El Mercado.
Anepalco’s is famous for their chilaquiles which are repeatedly described as the BEST chilaquiles ever by online reviewers and I concur.
This description by Edwin Goei is spot-on and better than I could come up with: “The dark, thick sauce is a secret seven-chile blend harboring smoky, sweet and complex flavors of all the species of capsicum that went into it. Everything from the muted crispiness of the chilaquiles to the folds of a perfectly cooked egg to the cooling touch of crema takes on deeper resonance and depth when combined with spoonfuls of the stuff. And you’ll eat every speck—eventual heartburn be damned.”
The same Chilaquiles with a green chile sauce that rivals the complexity of the red sauce, possibly less heartburn inducing, and pepitas.
Chiles en Nogada | roasted Pasilla chile, red onion, red pepper, queso fresco, walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds
Other popular breakfast/lunch items that my friends and I have devoured:
truly unforgettable Guava French Toast (opening photo), Savory Crepes, Fraises et Créme Crepe, Anepalco’s Pork Sandwich, and a Poblano Omelette .
If you haven’t been, you’re definitely missing out and need to give Anepalco’s Café a try – asap. And keep your radar up for news on the opening of El Mercado.
Visit their website for address and hours of operation as it varies between the locations.