Sunday, April 15, 2007

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Orange

One of the nicest parts of food blogging is discovering new places to eat. Even better is when my dining companion has tons of stories about the restaurant or the owners, or at the very least can steer me toward what's good on the menu.

So when Christian Z of Orange County Mexican Restaurants invited me to lunch at Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen in Old Towne Orange, I couldn't pass up the chance.

Unlike my blog which is a collection of whatever I feel like cooking up and photographing, or wherever I happen to eat, or my occasional forays into gardening and crafting (Hey! My blog has a theme. It's about my comforts.), umm, where was I? Oh, yeah, so unlike my hodgepodge blog, Christian actually has a theme and a purpose to his - he plans to eat at and write about every single Mexican restaurant in Orange County. Read that again, every single Mexican restaurant in Orange County. I'm thinking he'll be busy for the next decade or more. He's hit 90+ restaurants so far. He's so plugged in that he first reviewed Gabbi's when the restaurant had only been open for a week. He has since written lots of follow-ups, including menu additions.

Gabbi's is located in Old Towne Orange, which has a central plaza roundabout, where streets off of that feature antique stores and restaurants. Gabbi's is located at the south side of Glassell Street. And if your sense of direction is as bad as mine, means do not rush toward a Glassell street simply because you saw a sign, especially when you're running a little late because a portion of the freeway that should have taken 20 minutes in fact took 50 minutes because of traffic, so instead of arriving way early so you can leisurely browse the shops, you were running 10 minutes late. But out of courtesy for the person waiting, I rushed and wasn't paying attention to direction, of which I don't have much to begin with, and walked quite a few blocks on the north side of Glassell before reversing direction and fighting my way through the traffic of this quaint but quite large roundabout to the south end.

It also doesn't help that Gabbi's has no signs to indicate the restaurant at all. Knowing this, I peered into each storefront carefully to make sure I didn't miss it. It doesn't help though when I was on the wrong side of Glassell in the first place. Fortunately, Christian was nice enough to patiently wait for me in front of Gabbi's so my harried, directionally-challenged self could actually find the restaurant.

Christian explained that the owners intended to put up a sign, but after hearing feedback from diners and reading reviews about how the lack of a sign made diners feel like they discovered a "hidden treasure," they may very well never put one up. That's just fine with me, I don't want you to be in front of me if there's a line for tables. Anyway, it's not that difficult, just look for black awning and those funky leather chairs.

The building dates to 1904, I believe, and the inside was lovely with brick walls and metal lamps. Just look at the pictures, I'm not gonna bother describing it when you can see for yourself.

This is the view facing the front of the restaurant from my seat.

Staring straight above me was this painting and fabulous scrollwork on this lantern.

To my right was the bar.

And just beside the bar and a little behind me is the tortilla maker and the kitchen. Christian really liked the colorful plates on the walls. I wish they could have served the food on those plates.

And our table and chairs were solid heavy wood, the seats padded and covered with real leather. So fancy eh?

First to arrive at our table were complimentary tortilla chips, including red and blue tortillas, and salsa. As far as tortilla chips goes they were warm, thin, and tasted fresh. The salsa was a little bland and was smooth instead of chunky. Nothing remarkable, but still quite tasty.

Christian ordered the tamarindo drink, I got horchata. $2 each. My horchata was light with just the slightest hint of cinnamon. It was sooo good later with dessert.

Christian suggested sharing the quesadilla tropicales and when I saw the ingredients list of mangoes, plantains, pineapples, cilantro, roasted peppers, and cheese, I immediately agreed. This was so good. Stuffed fat with yummy goodness. I think this was $7?

Here's a close-up of the inside. I guess I could have used my flash to give you a better view. But hey, this is how the food appeared to me inside the restaurant and I want to give you the same experience. ;)

I ordered the $12? mole oaxaquena, chicken enchiladas with a chile-chocolate mole sauce, creme and sesame seeds, served with rice and beans. The sides were good but nothing remarkable. But the mole sauce. Oh man, from the first bite, I could taste the slight bitterness of dark, dark cocoa, melded with complex flavors of the roasted chiles. The shredded chicken merely served as a backdrop for all the great flavors going on in the sauce. I would have loved it even more if the chile was actually spicy.

Christian ordered the pozole de puerco, a pork stew with garbanzo beans and a side plate of cabbage, cilantro, onions, and limes. I think this was $8.

I was stuffed to the gills but after tasting how great my appetizer and entree were, I wanted to see what Gabbi's does with dessert. The menus are all attached to heavy wooden boards. Gabbi's definitely went all out with their decor.

We opted for the trio of banana, chocolate, and vanilla flans for $8. The flans were good, a nice gelatin firmness with the smoothness of custard. The banana flan though tasted too much like artificial banana extract.

The capirotada, Gabbi's version of Mexican bread pudding with creme anglaise. The bread pudding was incredibly moist, studded with raisins, and the puddles of creme anglaise on top had flecks of vanilla bean. This was definitely my favorite of the two desserts. Next time, I'm skipping the flan and ordering the Mayan chocolate tart topped with Mexican chocolate truffles.

Christian and I also had a discussion about what is "authentic" Mexican cuisine since some of the more upscale restaurants he reviews are good but some people don't consider them "authentic." I think the same points could also be raised about all ethnic cuisines. Does it have to be a hole-in-the-wall to be authentic? Gabbi got the recipe for the mole sauce from a peasant in Mexico, but serves it in an upscale environment.

I'm more familiar with authenticity when it comes to Vietnamese and Chinese food, especially my family's beloved com ga Hai Nam (Hainanese chicken rice) we scoff at those who take shortcuts. Afterall, it's in the method - cooking the chicken just short of boiling and soaking, draining, sauteing, and cooking the rice in the broth - that makes it com ga Hai Nam. You can call those other methods chicken rice, just don't call it com ga Hai Nam, I say rather snootily. Because it's the process of preparing the rice and cooking it in the broth that infuses all the flavor. That's akin to pouring a cup of broth and a cup of wine over cooked rice and calling it risotto. There's a method to making some dishes that if skipped, removes all traces of authenticity. It's obvious that Gabbi uses real dark cocoa in the mole. I could tell because I can taste the bitterness that comes from good dark chocolate cocoa. What if she substituted with, say a Hershey's milk chocolate bar? While the chocolate ingredient would still be in the mole, and it would probably still taste good if a little different, the "authenticity" of it is gone. To me, "authenticity" then is partly based on ingredients and partly based on method. So to me, Gabbi's is authentic Mexican food, but served very nicely.

So when it comes to Mexican food, or your ethnic cuisine, what is "authentic"? And what's the line between "authentic" and "Americanized" and "fusion"?

Because no matter what you label it, Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen is very good food. And don't you dare pour chicken broth over cooked rice and tell me it's com ga Hai Nam. Or I, and any other Hainanese, will literally laugh out loud because to us, that's just not "authentic."
Oh, and I almost totally forgot, near the end of our meal, I saw a group of Red Hat Society ladies wearing brilliant purple dresses and fabulously outrageous red hats. I would have loved to have taken a picture but we were sitting so far back that I didn't have to time to rush to the front and by the time we left, they were long gone. So keep your eyes peeled if you're ever in Old Towne Orange.

For much better pictures, read Christian Z of Orange County Mexican Restaurants' initial review of Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, or his subsequent follow-ups.
Elmo of Monster Munching also reviewed Gabbi's.

Other Mexican restaurants:
Carnitas Michoacan - Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights)
King Taco Restaurants #11 - El Monte (Garvey Ave.)
Los Cinco Puntos - Los Angeles
Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina - San Diego
Senor Fish - Alhambra
Tacos Baja Ensenada - (East) Los Angeles
Taqueria Chihuahua - Los Angeles (Mar Vista)

Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
141 S Glassell St
Orange, CA 92866-1421
11 a.m. to 11 p.m.


  1. Great report as always! If it weren't for Christian, I would've never discovered Gabbi's, Taco Rosa, or Taleo.

  2. I've heard that banana oil is difficult to use because it tends to taste "artificial". Everything looks delectable - great find, WC!

  3. Oh WC, you've hit on a pet peeve of mine! I just had a conversation with someone recently about "authentic" ethnic food. (And I appreciate your risotto comparison!)

    Yeah, authenticity is to be appreciated, but that's not going to stop me from enjoying food that is tasty just because it deviates in technique or ingredients a little. Cooking and eating at best are a celebration of life and comfort and community and tradition--but sometimes it's just about having a good time. Personally I think a lot of people who bray about authenticity tend to be a little pretentious, but that's just me.

    This place looks like fun! Will have to check out Christian Z's blog--wow, so ambitious.

  4. Wow... so many Mexican restaurants in Orange County! Maybe it's becos you guys are nearer to Mexico?

    I like the artwork on display at Gabbi's.

  5. You mean you ate in the dark...hahahaha....(from " the food appeared to me inside the restaurant and I want to give you the same experience)

    First, the restaurant has no signs; then they make you eat in darkness(almost)...I'm sure they're up to customers discovering them as a hidden gem.

    I hardly eat Mexican food. What is it that make it Mexican ?

  6. I don't think a "mole" that I make using peanut butter would be authentic. Maybe I should just call it peanut butter.

  7. Elmo,
    I still haven't hit Taleo's or Taco Rosa.

    Hmmm. Maybe it was banana oil, but I didn't care for the artificial taste.

    Yeah, I also remember saying over lunch that culture doesn't stand still so adaptation is to be expected. Fusion or Americanized food can be tasty too.

    I think there's probably just as many Mexican restaurants up north. Just depends on if you're looking out for it. :)

    A lot of Mexican food has become so much a part of America that people don't even think of it as "Mexican" anymore. Surely you've eaten chips and salsa, tacos, burritos?

    Hehe. I'm sure your peanut butter "mole" is tasty, just call it a peanut butter marinade. ;)


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