What is Santa Ana Food: Episode 2
As you approach El Toro Market (Ward 5), you see a mural of a bucking bull, an orange sun, and written in Spanish: "If you don't know El Toro, you don't know Santa Ana."
I was still very new in town, when a county health worker asked me, "Do you want to know the real Santa Ana?"
I found myself following him miles out of my regular turf towards a part of town I'd never been before. When we arrived, he pointed to the sign, "El Quie No Conoce El Toro, No Conoce Santa Ana."
"Wow, he wasn't kidding?" I mused, the writing is literally on the wall here.
The line was reasonable that first night, but be forewarned, more often you'll stand in a long line, adorned by street musicians and even peddlers selling rare plants and sometimes, rare birds. Take advantage of the time and make a friend or two. Buy a bird. This may be a while.
Unfortunately, no photo ever taken captures the culinary cacophony inside El Toro. Like New York City, you just need to go there, stand in the middle of it and all and feel the hot Santa Ana winds emanating from the meat counter up towards your face.
Expect your eyes to pop out like a cabeza de cabra upon first sight of El Toro's meat case: horse saddle-sized slabs of their famous homemade carnitas piled high like a junkyard tire fire.
Their salsa counter is equally impressive: Hoover dams full of green, red, pico, and even pickled tendons press against the glass, revealing both surface and cross-section views. A recreation-sized lake of guacamole beckons you to take a dip.
Like Santa Ana itself, El Toro has a pretty high learning curve. There is some sort of logic (or maybe it's wisdom) to what on the surface seems like byzantine confusion to an outsider:
"Hecho en mano tortillas? Over there!
Just a salsa? Aquí!
Tacos? Allí, amigo!
Carne? Take a number!"
It's a strange dance at first, but once you've got the hang of it, you realize you're waltzing in the center of town.
You haven't just eaten a taco or picked up a party tray of meat. You've stood amongst the people. You've stuffed your face deep in the immaculate heart of Santa Ana. And it was frickin' delicious!
If you paid attention, if you're senses enlivened, if you talked to the people -- then you know the sign that welcomed you, was no lie.
You now know something you didn't about an hour ago and you also now own a pretty bird.
Story by Ryan Smolar.