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  • The Anonymous Hungry Hippopotamus

Taco Bout It: Orange County, California

Updated: May 16

My California, taco journey has thus far taken me in search of great tacos in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area. This post is dedicated to great taco spots in Orange County, California, which is located between Los Angeles and San Diego. With a population that is 34% Hispanic, it's not surprising that you can find excellent, authentic tacos here.

El Mercado Modern Cuisine

El Mercado Modern Cuisine is located in downtown, Santa Ana. The restaurant prepares traditional dishes from all over Mexico, with a modern spin. You can sit inside the elegant and beautifully decorated dining room, or enjoy the gorgeous, Southern California weather outside on their patio.


Upon the recommendation of my server, I tried two of their most popular tacos during my visit, as well as a dish that is a speciality of El Mercado. My first dish was this taco, made with sautéed shrimp, garlic-ginger sauce, black beans, cabbage and a roasted carrot puree. The carrot puree threw me off, but I am glad I pushed through to experience the chef's vision, as all the flavors worked together wonderfully.

Pork Belly

This taco, like the other, was made using a thick, homemade, corn tortilla, sturdy enough to hold all the juicy fillings. The pork belly had a crispy crust and a moist interior. It was served with roasted potato, cabbage, pea puree, and pickled Fresno chilis.

Chicken Quesadilla

This chicken quesadilla is a speciality of El Mercado. It was made using a blue corn tortilla, plenty of oozing oaxaca cheese, chicken and huitlacoche. Huitlacoche is a corn mushroom, with an earthy flavor, that is also known as Mexican truffle. This ingredient is unique and considered a delicacy.

Tamarindo Margarita

In addition to making great food, El Mercado Modern Cuisine is also known for their craft cocktails. The bartender had me at "tamarind," one of my favorite, tropical fruits. Its sweet and sour pulp paired beautifully with the mezcal's, subtle, smokey flavor.

Stop in at El Mercado for some tacos and a drink, and enjoy the live music that plays on Saturday nights, or come during the week for Taco Tuesday and Thursday.

Tacos Y Birria El Guero

Another great taco spot in Orange County is Tacos y Birria El Guerro, located in Santa Ana. This restaurant has quite the fan following, as evidenced by generally long lines, its inclusion on many "best taco" lists and followers on multiple social media platforms.

Carne Asada and Birria Taco

The signature dish at this restaurant is the birria taco, which is a must try. The taco shell is somewhat crispy, pliable enough to hold all of the juicy, goat birria and sturdy enough to dip in the rich consommé.

In addition to birria, the restaurant also offers other meats. I tried the carne asada taco which was also very good. The tacos are served with the traditional addition of onions and cilantro. Add some of their salsa and you have a winning combination.

Huarache con Carne Asada

While I was in line at the restaurant, a fellow diner recommended that I also try the huarache. "Huarache" is the Spanish word for a Mexican sandal. The dish is named as such because the thick, oblong, corn tortilla resembles the shape of a sandal. Piled high atop the tortilla are smashed pinto beans, meat, lettuce, tomato, crema, cheese and salsa.

The Taco Stand

The Taco Stand was actually founded in San Diego. Due to its popularity, the chain has now opened multiple locations in Orange County (and beyond), which is why I am including it in this post.

Carne Asada Taco

Their carne asada taco is my favorite. The flame-grilled, Angus steak is always tender and comes accompanied by cilantro, onions, guacamole, and salsa.

Sonora Taco

That same Angus steak, is also the star of The Taco Stand's Sonora taco, which comes with melted cheese, beans, guacamole, onions, cilantro and salsa. Rather than their traditional, corn tortillas, this taco is served on a flour tortilla.

Pollo Asada Taco

In addition to steak, The Taco Stand also offers flame-grilled chicken in their tacos and burritos. The pollo asada taco comes with cilantro, onions, guacamole and salsa.

Mushroom Taco

And if you don't eat meat, and/or love mushrooms, I recommend this taco. The generous portion of mushrooms are sautéed with grilled onions, and topped with avocado.

Al Pastor Burrito

I know this is a taco post, but I have to mention the burritos at The Taco Stand because they are very popular. This one was stuffed with marinated, rotisserie pork, fresh cilantro, onions, cilantro sauce, and grilled pineapple.

Mercado González Northgate Market

Northgate Markets were started by Don Miguel González Jiménez, a shoemaker from Jalisco, Mexico. Years after a tragic fire burned his shoe shop down in 1952, Don Miguel and his wife, Doña Teresa Reynoso de González, decided to begin anew in the United States.

Don Miguel opened the first Northgate Market in Orange County in 1980. What began as a small, grocery and liquor store, grew to a chain of markets. In November of 2023, the family opened the most epic of all their markets, the Mercado González Northgate Market, in Costa Mesa.

Mercado González is much more than a grocery store. It is a market hall with over 20 food stalls in the spirit of Mercado de Coyoacán in Mexico City, Centro de Abastos in Guadalajara, and the 129-year-old Mercado Benito Juárez in Oaxaca de Juárez. You can find a little bit of high-quality, everything at Mercado González. Before I get there though, let me start with the tacos, which are after all, the subject of this post.

La Tapatia Birriera y Menuderia

La Tapatia Birriera specializes in birria. It is my favorite taco spot in all of Mercado González.

Birria is meat marinated in vinegar, dried chiles, garlic, herbs and spices and then slow cooked in broth. When it is finished cooking, the meat is fork tender and easily shredded for tacos.

Birria de Chivo Taco

The restaurant offers both beef and goat birria, but the goat birria is my favorite. The meat is so moist that juices run out of the taco when you take a bite. Not to worry; you can sop them up right off your plate with your tortilla.

Los Mesquites Asados

Another great taco spot at Mercado González is Los Mesquites Asados, a restaurant that grills all their meats to perfection. Stand anywhere near the grill and you will smell that unmistakable scent of mesquite, the only wood they use for grilling, stacked high in preparation, all around the food stall.

Pollo Asado

The wood imparts delightful flavor to all their meats and their grilling experts cook everything to just the right temperature and doneness. The pollo asado is chopped after grilling and can be ordered stuffed in tacos, or on its own.

Cecina de Res and Ribeye Taco Asado

The cecina de res taco is a special treat in that it is not a common restaurant offering. Cecina de res is salted, air dried meat. It is akin to beef jerky, but much more tender, not so chewy, and just as flavorful.

The ribeye taco was excellent. It is the most popular taco at Los Mesquites Asados. I recommend ordering it medium rare to experience the quality of the meat as well as for ideal tenderness.

Churrería El Moro

Now onto the other reasons to visit Mercado González. The first being Churreria El Moro. This churreria began in Spain, (the birthplace of the churro) was brought to Mexico City in 1935 and can now be found in the U.S.

The churros here are made to order and can be enjoyed alone, or with a side of melted chocolate, vanilla, champurrado or ice cream.

La Pasteleria

For more sweets, you can find Mexican baked goods including pan dulce, tres leches cake, flan and more, at La Pasteleria, right next door to El Moro.

Tortillería La González

Mercado Gonzalaz also has an on-site tortilleria that churns out fresh tortillas by the minute. You can order yellow or white corn tortillas, or other varieties, including hatch chili and tostadas (fried tortillas).

Sushi El Sinaloense 

Mercado González also has sushi. Sushi at a Mexican market? Did you do a double take? Sushi is actually quite common in the Mexican state of Sinaloa where there are hundreds of miles of coastline and a serious seafood scene. While Mexican sushi has its roots in Japanese cuisine, it departs with the incorporation of salsas, carne asada and more.

El Anthony Tiradito

This dish is made with seared, garlic, hamachi sprinkled with yuzu, ponzu, and chili oil, and topped with sprouts. To me, this sushi preparation seemed more traditionally Japanese from the menu description, but for the fact that when it was served, the fish wasn't so much seared, as it was cooked all the way through. Fully cooked fish is a major difference in Sinaloan versus Japanese style sushi.

Aguas Frescas La Delicias

To wash all the delicious food down, grab an agua fresca. These fresh, fruit juices are amazing. I have ordered them to go and added them to homemade margaritas when I hosted a birria taco dinner for friends (inspired by the tacos at La Tapatia by the way). It's a great way to elevate a margarita and make an ordinary meal feel a little more special. And that is it for my coverage of the tacos and other features of Mercado González.

Avila's El Ranchito

Next, we head to an Orange County institution: Avila's El Ranchito. The restaurant has 13 locations throughout the county, all run by the family. Everything in the restaurant is made from scratch using the recipes of Mama Margarita Avila who opened the first restaurant with her husband, Salvador Avila.

Rolled Beef Taco and Crispy Beef Taco

Whether you choose the rolled beef taco (a rolled, corn tortilla stuffed with shredded beef) or the crispy beef taco (topped with lettuce, pico de gallo and cheese), you will be satisfied, because the slow-cooked, shredded meat is savory and tender.

Crispy Pork Carnitas Taco

El Ranchito not only makes flavorful, juicy carnitas, they finish them off in the broiler so some of the pork pieces crisp up ever so slightly. I love this preparation.

Rolled Chicken Tacos

Like the rolled, beef tacos, this simple, chicken version includes only meat and a fried, corn tortilla. The simplicity translates to deliciousness and levels up with the addition of fresh guacamole and salsa, in which you dip the tacos.

Los Cotija's

Las Cotija's, as you can see from the sign, claims to serve Orange County's best, fish taco. I had to go for myself and see.

Crispy Beef Taco

To get an overall feel for their food, I also tried their other tacos. The crispy beef taco was solid. The meat was flavorful and plentiful and the rest of the ingredients were fresh.

Shrimp Diabla

The shrimp diabla taco was good as well, but it was lacking in spice. "Diabla" means "she-devil" in Spanish and when referring to food, it connotes that the dish is spicy. Given that, I expected there to be some noteworthy heat, which there was not.

Fish Taco

Now, on to the reason I came to Las Cotija's: the fish taco. Their fish taco is served Ensenada style, and to that end, they got all the elements right. The batter was light, the crust was crispy and the fish was not oily. Add to that, warm corn tortillas, a tangy crema and pico de gallo, and you have a stand out taco. Is it the best I have had in Orange County? Yes and no.

No, because technically, my favorite, fish taco in Orange County can still be found at El Taco Nazo, (reviewed here) which has one Orange County location. Yes, because El Taco Nazo is a Los Angeles County based restaurant chain, so I suppose their tacos technically belong to the County of Angels and not the County of Oranges.

Therefore, yes, I would have to say that the best Ensenada-style fish taco I have eaten at an Orange County based restaurant is at Las Cotija's.

Taqueria El Zamorano

Taqueria El Zamorano is another excellent, taco spot in Santa Ana. It has been family run since it opened almost 30 years ago. The restaurant is located is a nondescript building off the main street, with very few parking spots. Blink, and you might miss it. Inside, you will find a no-frills, counter service, taco spot, that for me, serves tacos reminiscent of those I found in Mexico City.

Carne Asada, Lengua and Carnitas Tacos

Zamorano offers a variety of meats. I didn't have the time or the appetite to try them all, so I went with the manager's recommendations. Of these three, there wasn't a bad one in the bunch. All were well-seasoned and well-cooked. I appreciated the uncomplicated toppings. Onions, cilantro, salsa and a squeeze of lime -- sometimes simple is best.

Taco Mesita

I generally review places that I would unequivocally recommend, so I feel a little conflicted about this one, but I am moving forward because I think there are many great elements in the food, and you should decide how you feel for yourself.

Rotisserie Chicken with Charred Corn Citrus Relish

The tortilla, and the charred corn were great, but I thought the chicken needed additional seasoning.

Al Pastor with Pineapple Pickled Relish

The pork was good in that it was tender, but I wasn't blown away by the flavor. That said, I really enjoyed the addition of the nopales, and the grilled pineapple added a nice sweet and smoky flavor.

Wood-fired Steak with Cilantro and Pickled Onions

Of the three I tried, this is the one taco at Taco Mesita, I would recommend without hesitation. The beef was superbly cooked and the toppings were appropriately sparse, allowing the natural flavor of the grilled meat to shine through.

That is it for both my review of Orange County taco destinations, as well as my "Taco Bout It" series -- I think. If there are any other regions in California that you think I should review, please feel free to share.

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