Photo by Gina Ferazzi / LA Times
Push open the screen door at Peña’s Restaurant in Santa Ana and you’ll find reclaimed relics of California’s rancho past: rusted ranch equipment, hollowed-out gourds, a poster promising gold and glory from the pockets of Pancho Villa. Occasionally, a jukebox flips on unprovoked, pumping out the wheezy bellows of an accordion. Down a skinny stretch of the dining room that runs along the kitchen, saddles serve as retrofitted bar stools, bow-legged seats that help Peña’s accommodate every eater.
And during the restaurant’s busiest lunch hours, that extra capacity is crucial, as Peña’s can pack in some hungry crowds. The restaurant isn’t big by any means — only two of its tables can even seat three or more — but it does run entirely in the family, with Ramón and Lourdes Peña handling every aspect of their nearly year-old business. So that small size is ideal for the couple, both of whom tend to the food from prep to plating to service from their compact kitchen right out to those saddles.
Beyond the pibil, Peña’s also plays up itsbirria de chivo — and for good reason. Thebirria isn’t as versatile as the cochinita pibil, but it’s a fine fit for stouter appetites, smoky stewed goat paired with sides of rice and beans.
There aren’t many desserts at Peña’s, so consider an unorthodox choice like anuchepo, a Michoacán-style solid corn tamale. Served à la carte, the uchepo is topped with a streak of crema, crumbles of cotija cheese and a subtly spicy tomatillo sauce. It doesn’t taste like a typical dessert (there’s no sugar-smacked sweetness), but it can work as one, playing off a natural pairing in which the corn cuts the tomatillo sauce’s heat the same way as, say, a mango dusted with chile powder.
Up until your final bites, Ramón and Lourdes will be right there with you, serving up smiling suggestions. And although that personable pride is likely to stick with you long after you leave the restaurant, it’s only one of the enduring memories you’ll take away from Peña’s.
Peña’s Restaurant, 1221 E. 1st St., Suite C, Santa Ana, (714) 571-0415. Tacos, $1.25; tortas, $4.25 to $5.50; platters, $7.75 to $8.50. Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, until 7 p.m Sunday. All major credit cards. Lot parking. No alcohol.