Mario Ramirez's Oaxacan Experience
As I walked inside Restaurante El Fortin I could not help but to feel like I was stepping into an authentic Oaxacan establishment. The traditional sounds of Oaxacan music welcomed me,while colorful walls and the smell of spices blended with freshly-made tortillas transported me to a Mexican countryside.
In September 1999, a young twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur named Mario Ramirez opened Restaurante El Fortin located on the east side of Fullerton, hoping to bring authentic Oaxacan cuisine to Orange County. Ramirez’s trips to his native state of Oaxaca inspired him to bring a taste of his homeland to the many folks who reside here in the United States.”I wanted to have the first authentic Oaxacan Restaurant in Orange County. Whenever I wanted to taste my native food I would have to drive to Los Angeles to get a meal.” He said with a smile on his face.
Ramirez takes pride in the quality he provides for his customers. “We import most of our ingredients right from Oaxaca in order to make sure we create the Oaxacan Experience,” he passionately explained.After a great conversation with Mario, I began my meal with a complementary appetizer of homemade chips topped with mole negro and queso fresco. The mole, which is what the state of Oaxaca is known for, had a slightly smokey flavor at first, then suddenly an unexpected sweet-chocolate taste. This unusual paring of flavor delighted my senses. I also ordered the Horchata Oaxaqueña, which is not your typical horchata. The traditional beverage is topped with small chopped pieces of melon for freshness, walnuts for crunchiness and finished with a bit of “tuna,” which is the cactus flower fruit.
For my main entree, I ordered a clayuda, which is a giant, handmade, thin-crusted tostada topped with black bean paste, a touch of lard (for authentic flavor), and quesillo (like string cheese, but better because it melts with a smoky flavor that compliments the mole). All this goodness was smothered with cabbage and finished off with queso fresco. The size of the tortilla can be intimidating to the uninitiated, but once you start eating, you simply cannot stop.
I had the chance to talk to the employees, who are all originally from Oaxaca. Azucena was in the kitchen making homemade tortillas to order. No Mission or Guerreros here, only handmade freshness, which made me feel as if I were right back at mi abuela’s house.
Maria my waitress insisted I must have desert. She then brought a small homemade “gelatina de mosaico” which are small squares of different colored jello combined with vanilla bean-cinnamon flavored jello. This traditional Oaxacan dessert was better than I expected. The creaminess of the vanilla bean complemented the lemon and strawberry -flavored pieces of jello to perfection,leaving me completely satisfied.
As I paid my tab Mario came over and checked on me to make sure everything came out perfectly. He ran to the counter and handed me a small bag of “chicles” bubblegum, the kind little kids sell in Tijuana. With a genuine voice he said “Muchas gracias por venir a un pedacito de Oaxaca” Thank you for coming to a little piece of Oaxaca .” I will most definitely return to El Fortin.
620 East Commonwealth Avenue Fullerton, CA 92831