El Coyotito is so under-the-radar that it only has 58 Yelp reviews — after 25 years in the same location.
Hidden in a vintage strip mall that runs perpendicular to Alipaz Street, this little Mexican cafe is easy to miss. It’s a tiny place with a squeaky screen door and minimal air conditioning. The dining room consists of merely six or seven tables, plus a few stools that surround the kitchen counter, which doubles as a tortilla prep table, cashier station and the bar.
“Do you mind if I play the jukebox?” I ask. The reason I ask is because the television is tuned to a Mexican soap opera but nobody seems to be paying attention to it.
“Of course not. You can do whatever you want,” says the waitress (whom I perceive to also be the owner and head chef). “Make yourself comfortable.” She points a vintage remote toward the TV, and the picture goes silent.
I stuff a few dollar bills into the machine and scroll through the CDs: Banda Machos, Gerardo Ortiz, Juan Gabriel, Julio Iglesias, Enrique Iglesias, Christina Aguilera … and settle on the younger Iglesias, plus The Eagles, The Cars and Eric Clapton.
The Eagles’ 1979 hit “I Can’t Tell You Why” begins to play, and everyone in the dining room seems to approve, even the two guys in the corner who are wearing dusty cowboy boots and sharing an ice-filled bucket of beer.
Pay no attention to the menu board that decorates the wall above the kitchen. Well, don’t ignore it completely. Just don’t look at the prices.
They changed the menu years ago but it was too much trouble to take the original down. Now, it’s just an art piece, but many of those dishes pictured are still available, and they look just the same. They simply cost a little more, maybe even double. If you see something on that picture menu that no longer exists on the “new” menu, just ask. There’s a good chance they can still make it.
My eye is drawn to picture No. 67: langostinos al gusto, a platter of prawns that are split down the middle with their heads and tails still attached. The chef submerges the prawns in a red chili salsa before slapping them onto the hot grill, then squishes them beneath a sizzling cast-iron press. Moments later when the flattened prawns are plied from the grill, the salsa has charred to a sultry black crisp around the edges yet the tails are still supple and the heads are filled with savory, spicy goop. They are fantastic.
You might notice picture No. 25 on the board, which shows those same langoustines a la plancha as a combo plate with rice and beans. That version didn’t make it onto the new menu, but it’s still available if you want it that way.
The menu is fairly vast: tacos, sopes, gorditas, tostadas, huaraches, tortas, burritos, enchiladas, ceviches, whole grilled fish and five-pound stone molcajetes overflowing with carne asada, chicken tinga, queso fresco and some of the best chorizo you will ever taste. That’s a lot of work for such a minimal kitchen crew, but everything seems to be made from scratch. I still have a long way to go before I can say I’ve sampled even a quarter of the menu here.
When ordering tacos, you have a choice: regular street-style tacos or, for about a dollar more, slightly larger tacos that are made with homemade corn tortillas. Almost everyone orders the latter, which the staff is constantly pressing in an antique wooden contraption made for that purpose. Pretty much everyone who works in the restaurant (three or four people at most, most days) floats from one position to another. The person who takes your order might be washing dishes a few minutes later, or squeezing limes to make a margarita, or toasting the bolillo for a torta to be filled with carnitas and jalapeńos.
“Would you like another Michelada?” she asks, looking up from the tortilla press.
I nod my head up and down because she’s caught me with my mouth full of nachos. And then I watch closely to see if I can figure out her secret, which turns out to be a glug of Clamato juice followed by a couple dashes of Worcestershire, a few drops of Tapatio and a quick squirt of chamoy.
Thinking about that superb Michelada a few days later, thirsty for another, I open my kitchen cupboard and contemplate making it at home. I quickly shut the cupboard, get in the car and drive back to El Coyotito instead.
32141 Alipaz St., San Juan Capistrano
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.