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Can Tacos Gavilan Break the Losing Streak of L.A. Mexican Food Chains in Orange County?

1:47 PM PDT on May 31, 2018

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]s there a gentleman's agreement between Los Angeles and Orange County Mexican restaurants to never open a spot in each other's turf? I've always thought so. Nothing else explains why the pioneering King Taco chain never ventured into O.C., leaving those of us who love their salsa roja to hit up the Whittier or Long Beach spots. Or why la naranja's Taqueria de Anda focused on dominating O.C. but has never dared cross into L.A. County.

Or maybe it's superstition. Tacos Mexico did have some spots in Orange County earlier this decade, but is reduced to just a Garden Grove location. Lynwood's La Huasteca opened in a mostly empty Buena Park mall in early 2017 to little buzz. On the other side of the mythical Orange Curtain, Danny Godinez of Anepalco's fame in Orange left his Pasadena project Maestro almost as soon as he opened it to tepid reviews. And...that's about it for O.C. trying to invade L.A.

El Torito technically counts — but founder and East L.A. native Larry Cano moved down to Orange County by the 1960s, right before the chain exploded across the United States. Really, the only Los Angeles Mexican restaurant to conquer Orange County is Rick Bayless' Red O — but that's because Newport Beach doesn't know any better.

But now comes Tacos Gavilan hoping to break L.A.'s side of the losing streak.

A comer, mi gallo!
A comer, mi gallo!

The chain has 12 spots, mostly in Southeast L.A. County and the San Gabriel Valley. But last summer, Gavilan (which strangely goes by both Tacos Gavilan and Tacos El Gavilan in its marquee and website) quietly opened in Santa Ana, in a former Denny's.

It was a gutsy move. The city has multiple late-night taquería options nearby, like a 24-hour Taqueria de Anda just a mile away and the homegrown Taqueria Tapatia. But Gavilan must've heard from O.C. eaters that the quality of Taqueria de Anda has gone downhill over the past couple of years because it seems to have picked up most of De Anda's clients over the past couple of months.

The SanTana outpost is massive, with televisions inside, LED marquees, and a grill line as long as an old-school Cadillac. Gavilan offers frijoles de la olla for free, as it does and all of its locations, and machine-made horchata that's better than usual.

Good quesadilla, so-so taco, on-point frijoles

Gavilan doesn't have the most adventurous menu — tacos, burritos, some tortas, and mulitas. The best thing they do are the quesadillas, massive and engorged with your choice of meat and cheese. And the salsas do what they have to do.

But it doesn't even crack the top 10 list for SanTana taquerias, let alone the Orange County one.

Some of the crowd
Some of the crowd

Nevertheless, business was slammed on a recent Saturday night, as homeboys, hipsters, paisas in their quinceañera best, and even travestis lined up. In a city with a huge lonchera scene that unfortunately closes down by 10 p.m., Tacos Gavilan has become a godsend. It's open until midnight Sunday through Thursday, and open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The success of Tacos Gavilan in Orange County should serve as a lesson to L.A. Mexican chains: We'll embrace y'all if there's something to embrace. Here that, Guisados and Guelaguetza? Open up down here!

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