Chef Danny Godinez doesn't offer rice and beans either. Yet Anepalco Restaurant is one of the best Mexican restaurants I've dined at in recent memory. You might not even notice it if you were just driving by; from the outside, it looks like a former Denny's wedged into the corner of a hotel.
In place of chips and salsa, Godinez offers a paper-lined tiny burlap sack snug with mini bolillo rolls. This addictive bread is Mexico's answer to a French roll, except his are a little saltier and more moist. He bakes several batches of them throughout the day and serves them like dinner rolls with a whipped butter dip that he infuses with dried red chiles.
"This is what we give to our customers who ask for rice and beans," he says, pointing to a dish he jokingly named "Holy Mole" to get the attention of his mostly gringo customers. The rice takes the form of a puree, as well as a few grains puffed on top of the sous vide-cooked, caramelized short rib. The beans are actually al dente black eyed peas dusted with mole powder.
This kind of Mexican restaurant—one that breaks the mold of a typical Mexican joint—is called a cocina de autor, a restaurant style that originated in Mexico when native cooks refused to follow their fancy French predecessors in order to focus on redefining what Mexican food can be. The soft-spoken Godinez has successfully achieved this at Anepalco in a way that no other Mexico-born chef has done before—and of all places, in Orange, California, just a few steps from the Interstate 5 freeway.
This kind of approach is not to be confused with the other Mexican food movement currently building steam in Southern California, known as Alta California cuisine (a term that dates back to 1822, when California was the territory of Mexico). Alta California cuisine evolved into a mix of traditional Mexican food, American comfort food, and the flavors and produce of California made famous by USA-born Mexican-American chefs like Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria just a few miles away, Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish, Eddie Ruiz (formerly of Corazón y Miel), and Wesley Avila of Guerrilla Tacos.
Godinez's interpretation of Mexican food is rooted deep in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico—his hometown. He grew up eating at his mother's puesto, a Mexican food stall. When he decided that his father's carpentry business was not for him, he enrolled in culinary school in Mexico and proceeded to dedicate the rest of his life to food. In 1999, he left Mexico to live with his family in Texas when he was 18 years old. The allure of California's perfect weather, however, proved to be too strong for him to ignore. He moved to Orange County approximately a year later and got a job under Michael Mina at the defunct Aqua at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach Hotel, where he worked his way up the line from being a dishwasher.
He eventually tired of working at other restaurants and opened Anepalco four years ago. Still, he points out that he has never stopped being a student of culinary arts—a philosophy that he has passed on to his small staff at the restaurant. During my visit, Godinez brings out his take on a Peruvian tiradito. He uses raw hamachi and fruity Mexican manzano chiles instead of the traditional aji chiles. But in lieu of explaining every little detail of the dish to me, he puts his head down and allows his passionate and poised server the honor.
The same goes for his shrimp ceviche, which involves a not-so-simple base of emulsified cactus and lime juice—and so on and so on for every single dish of the night, including a braised octopus dish named #BorrachoProblems that he serves on top of a tequila bottle, and a pan de elote dessert topped with huitlacoche ice cream inspired by a quesadilla.
"We don't have workers here—we have students," Godinez says.
To celebrate Godinez's historic restaurant's historic five-year milestone, he tells me that he will be opening a restaurant in Pasadena this fall. He is calling it Maestro and is hoping that the LA demographic will be ready for his modern-Mexican-meets-Orange-County approach.
Or, as he now calls his signature food, cocina de barrio.