Karl Marx once wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses but on this day of the lord, El Campeon restaurant in San Juan Capistrano was poised to put Jesus out of business. The Champion of Mexican restaurants, located in an old school wooden paneled shopping center in San Juan Capistrano, was starting to splinter. Inside, the chipped white tile bar that hung from the walls had people eating shoulder to shoulder. Outside, where the unbalanced tables roam, patience was a good start but by no means guarantee to finding a seat.
The chaotic scene inside was punctuated by the florescent red, yellow and, blue menu, which hovered over the hot chafing pans of food. For those fighting the food conformity of bourgeois chains such as Chipoltes, Jalapenos and Baja Fresh, El Campeon’s menu is a beacon of hope. Some of the radical items this establishment offers include tacos, tortas and burritos filled with beef head, pork skin, tongue, and goat.
After ordering food I turned to the juice bar whose banana, pineapple and orange lining made it impossible to miss. On top of bar rested six glass barrels full of what looked and then tasted like fresh fruit drinks. I chose the sweet platanos drink that was balanced with the flavor of un-ripe bananas. The ice-cold semi thick texture of the drink turned out to be the perfect companion to the spiciness of the food.
After luckily finding a seat outside, I turned my attention to the pozole soup. The rich beef broth had a sparkling orange shine on top, which let me know it had been cooked right. After squeezing lime into the broth, its sweat beef flavor popped with notes of sour citrus. The beef itself may have been a bit dry but its plastic fork tenderness more than made up for the dryness. The hominy added nice texture but overall the beefy broth stole the show.
Next were the tacos. For me, the tortilla makes or breaks not only the taco but also the restaurant. A restaurant may commit many sins but non-more
grievous than a store bought plastic tasting corn tortilla. I love the baked corn flavor of homemade tortillas. I like them flakey tender not gluey and overpowering of the meat. Unfortunately, when I took the first bite of my pork skin taco I did not found the balance I was searching for. The skins ahi pink color may have dominated visually but the two large tortillas overpowered the protein. In addition, the skins pasty texture along with the absorption of the two tortillas made for an extremely dry taco The lime and salsa, from the salsa bar inside, gave some relief but overall, all the tacos suffered from dryness. On a good note, the meats inside were all well done. Both the tongue and beef head, even though I could not tell the difference between them, were well seasoned and extremely tender. And the goat’s gamey flavor added a new dimension to the tacos I typically eat. With the addition of salsa and lime the tacos were definitely juicy enough to appreciate.
Finally it was time for the gravy of Mexico, mole. Having learned at a young age how to cook meat sauce from my Italian grandma I have had a deep appreciation for cultures slow cooked sauces. The moles rich chocolate color, I needed three sips from my platanos drink to get ready for the next bite, made me excited. Fortunately, the thick sweet cinnamon flavor was kept in balance with a kick of spice that lingered well past the last bite. It would have been nice to have a fresh flower tortilla to fight the mole with but the juicy chicken on the bone made the dish well worth the while. I then turned to the sweat pineapple tamale to bring my meal to an end.
Leaving El Campeon with mole stained fingers and a half eaten pineapple tamale I felt l had been treated well. I had eaten a lot of inexpensive good food that left me wanting to come back. The pozole, mole and wonderful fruit drink made me eager to experience more of El Campeons diverse offerings.