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El Campeon

31921 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA - (949) 489-9767
Posted By Michael Stern on 11/23/2010 5:21:00 AM
Orange County sports many stylish restaurants that beckon to gentry and gentry wannabes. It also has more than its share of fast-food franchises. And it has El Campeon, an inexpensive, cafeteria-style restaurant serving Mexican street food. This is not prettied-up and plated Cal-Mex. I knew I was on the right track when I called to find out what hours the place is open and nobody at the other end of the line spoke any English. One person with whom I talked did catch my drift and repeated, "tarde, tarde."

It is a large and lively place -- bakery and fresh juice source as well as restaurant -- and seats are limited to counter stools and a few outdoor picnic tables. Some customers simply stand and dine a capella either indoors or outside on the shopping center sidewalk. A lot of business is take-out. The menu is displayed on the wall above the service line where meats and garnishes are arrayed in pans, ready to be stuffed into tacos, tortas, or burritos; and here, the Mexican dishes are in fact translated for gringos. So those of us illiterate in Spanish are reminded that cabeza de res is beef head, birria is goat meat, and lengua is tongue. But there are more familiar meats, too. You can order carnitas (roasted pork) or barbacoa (sauced roast beef), chicken or ham, and have your burrito filled with red or green chili along with arroz, frijoles, cebolla, cilantro, and ensalada. You will need to know how to count in Spanish. Once your order is placed, you get a ticket with a number on it. When the meal is ready, they call the number, but only in Spanish.

One evening I tried a trio of tacos, each of which was grand, the carnitas rich and robust, especially well complemented by hot green salsa available at a serve-yourself bar in the center of the dining area. Barbacoa, in the form of massive shreds, delivered big beef flavor, sopped with spicy sauce. Carne asada, sprinkled with cilantro (which the server does not apply unless you give him the green light) was rather dry, a condition beautifully remedied by an application of vivid red salsa. To drink: horchata (rice milk), cinnamon-sweet and perfumy.

I thought I was done with dinner. But then, in strolled Brendon Crawford and Paco Valentine, members of the band Blonde Bazaar (www.blondebazaar.com). I had met them earlier in the day at a nearby event, where they told me they are from Los Angeles and offered all kinds of suggestions of where to eat in the city. (One theory they proposed is that the more graffiti in the neighborhood, the better one's chances of finding a good meal.) But they didn't know where to get something honest and delicious in Orange County. I had found El Campeon the day before and recommended it to them. They showed up with dates, two women who both asked to be described as Blonde Bazaar groupies. Paco is from Mexico and his fluency in the language as well as the cuisine helped me also discover El Campeon's gorgeous torta (sandwich), which he got stuffed with barbacoa, beans, sour cream, melted cheese, guacamole, lettuce and tomato. He drank watermelon juice, which was amazing: concentrated essence of watermelon, even sporting pulp to assure you that it's real.

There is much more on the menu at this place, which I surely will revisit next time I head south of Los Angeles. If you are looking for real Roadfood in an otherwise bleak culinary landscape, check it out. El Campeon is Spanish for champion.

6 out of 8 people found the review helpful. Was it helpful to you?

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Scorecard

5 - Overall: Legendary - Worth driving from anyplace
Overall: Legendary - Worth driving from anyplace
Fresh Juice
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Torta
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Reviewers Photos [Upload Your Photos]

Carnitas means little meat, but there is nothing small about the savor of the shreds and hunks of roasted pork in this taco.
"Carnitas means little meat, but there is nothing small about the savor of the shreds and hunks of roasted pork in this taco."
Michael Stern





Barbacoa is really messy, making this taco a multi-napkin eating experience. I was licking every bit of it off my fingertips before I was through.
"Barbacoa is really messy, making this taco a multi-napkin eating experience. I was licking every bit of it off my fingertips before I was through."
Michael Stern


Carne asada, pre-sauce
"Carne asada, pre-sauce"
Michael Stern


Fresh juices are a specialty at El Campeon. This is watermelon. Not watermelon-flavored water, but real watermelon juice.
"Fresh juices are a specialty at El Campeon. This is watermelon. Not watermelon-flavored water, but real watermelon juice."
Michael Stern


The sweetened rice milk known as horchata glows with a refreshing halo of cinnamon.
"The sweetened rice milk known as horchata glows with a refreshing halo of cinnamon."
Michael Stern


Among the juice flavors available at El Campeon are melon, tamarind, strawberry, orange, and mango. You also can drink a strawberry, banana, or papaya shake.
"Among the juice flavors available at El Campeon are melon, tamarind, strawberry, orange, and mango. You also can drink a strawberry, banana, or papaya shake."
Michael Stern


Here is how you get your tacos, ready to unwrap and eat off counter or dashboard.
"Here is how you get your tacos, ready to unwrap and eat off counter or dashboard."
Michael Stern


Three tacos getting built at the counter
"Three tacos getting built at the counter"
Michael Stern


Some sandwich! All sorts of tortas are available, the grand champion containing whatever meat you like along with beans, ham, head cheese, grilled cheese, guacamole, sour cream, chipotle sauce, lettuce, and tomato.
"Some sandwich! All sorts of tortas are available, the grand champion containing whatever meat you like along with beans, ham, head cheese, grilled cheese, guacamole, sour cream, chipotle sauce, lettuce, and tomato."
Michael Stern


The lengua taco, with plenty of savory beef tongue.
"The lengua taco, with plenty of savory beef tongue."
Cliff Strutz


The large bowl of menudo comes with fresh limes, sliced onion and parsley on the side.
"The large bowl of menudo comes with fresh limes, sliced onion and parsley on the side."
Cliff Strutz


El Campeon is located in a small shopping mall with plenty of parking outside. Its honest, low-cost food served with utmost informality is an anomaly in this part of the world.
"El Campeon is located in a small shopping mall with plenty of parking outside. Its honest, low-cost food served with utmost informality is an anomaly in this part of the world."
Michael Stern


Brendon Crawford and Paco Valentine, members of the band Blonde Bazaar, along with ''groupies'' Stephanie Crawford and Giselle Otamendi, at the counter inside El Campeon.
"Brendon Crawford and Paco Valentine, members of the band Blonde Bazaar, along with ''groupies'' Stephanie Crawford and Giselle Otamendi, at the counter inside El Campeon."
Michael Stern



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