Why would anyone open a restaurant during this pandemic? Are the founders of Chato’s Bar and Grill crazy? Probably. Chato’s has that degree of unhinged bravado it takes to go against odds that would make sane folks blanch. Local operators Christopher Pham and Joey Sanchez have faith in the future, and it fuels the most distinctive Mexican newbie since Tustin’s Chaak launched in 2018.
Open since October, Chato’s has a familiar Santa Ana address: 400 N. Broadway has been home to three previous chef-centric eateries in the past seven years. Michoacán native Sergio Ortega is executive chef. His menu is tightly tailored to include comfort favorites and the unexpected from a notoriously small kitchen. It’s a malleable seasonal lineup unlike the broad, mostly fixed offerings at his previous posts at Descanso, AnQi, and Raya.
Perfect weather allowed Sunday brunch on the sidewalk patio for a first visit. These quarters didn’t exist pre-COVID-19, but tables are chock-full and we snag the remaining high top in the far reaches. As I’m wondering if our location will make us invisible, a waiter appears, returning in a flash with drinks. My perfectly fine Bloody Mary is outshone by the Saigon Lychee with dry ice vapors wafting out of a glass bubble. Despite the showmanship, the fruity vodka cocktail is truly balanced, refreshing. Ruby pomegranate seeds glint like jewels on the zesty pepita-studded guacamole that disappears aboard terrific fresh chips.
Sweet peppers and grilled onions add juicy dimension to chorizo hash beneath fried eggs that arrive still hot, thanks to our waiter’s hustle. That lean and mean chorizo is by Santa Ana’s beloved Aurora’s. The aromatic corn tortillas are made here, with a touch of guajillo paste for an ocher tint. Tangy-sweet pork al pastor makes chilaquiles extra special, though chicken is another option. Seemingly endless orders of flan-battered French toast with guava jam pour from the kitchen. Ortega reports it’s a recipe he has been tweaking for eight years. Steak and egg tacos are the other brunch-only dish. Selected appetizers, tacos, and desserts also appear at dinner.
When permitted, dinner indoors is when you can enjoy the retooled dining room and bar. Bright graphics and flat-screen TVs are the noticeable additions. At press time, the unfussy space was off-limits, but when 100 percent capacity returns, it can hold 76. Banquettes and bar stools are the best seats for watching the open kitchen action, which is like witnessing a miracle when you see how the crew produces so much from such a tiny galley.
After dark is the time to explore bold flavors and the culinary character that sets Chato’s apart. Start with a modern margarita, say the Avalon with cucumber-infused Pueblo Viejo tequila, cilantro syrup, and floral St-Germain. Ortega predicts new cocktails ahead, but let’s hope this one remains. Sweet potato blue corn taquitos are a perfect bar snack, rich and crunchy tangling with bright citrus slaw and salty cotija crumbles. Elote tatemado challenges your favorite roast corn. Charred and off the cob, the sweet kernels counter notes of carbon in burnt chili aioli, chile negro ash, and sultry heat from Hatch chile ragout. Tart lime and pungent epazote bring notes that shout Mexico. The flavors are complicated and wonderful. Like so many of Ortega’s dishes, its colors are Kodachrome bright.
Sunset-hued hamachi ceviche is sized to share and stars sushi-grade slices of yellowtail baptized with yellow peppers, pineapple, jicama, mango, and red onion for the freshest, almost tropical ceviche to grace a tortilla chip. A gallery of tacos includes every style and filling you could want, but these are not humble street tacos. Most are knife-and-fork affairs. The NY steak taco isn’t chopped, it’s a slab of rich beef dressed with crispy cheese and salsa roja. Guero chile arrives as a whole fresh chile brimming with sweet shrimp plus spicy lychee slaw, splayed over a corn tortilla. The roasted chicken taco eats like a mini meal of pulled seasoned meat, mashers, caramelized onions, and queso fresco garnished with, what else, a potato chip.
Of the large platos, corundas are reason enough to visit, as you won’t find them elsewhere, and Ortega’s take on the Michoacán dish is illumining. The deconstructed tamales rely on a base of heavenly steamed masa, feather light and fragrant. Intense red salsa and simmered green Hatch chiles bring juicy heat answered by silky coconut crema. This proud carnivore never missed the meat filling typical of conventional tamales. Tender pork ribs painted with citrus-agave is the call when craving animal protein—think sophisticated carnitas. Two pounds of Prime beef in a Tomahawk cut paired with colossal tiger shrimp wants to be shared by diners who might be less devoted to Mexican cuisine.
Stay tuned for updates on the rollout of lunch, happy hour, and new beverage offerings. But don’t wait long. Daring newcomers deserve timely support. Follow the lead of Chato’s and go for it. Tonight.
400 N. Broadway Santa Ana
5 BEST DISHES
Elote tatemado (roast corn)
NY steak taco
Brunch, $10 to $17; Dinner, $9 to $23; $127 tomahawk steak
Chato’s is named after co-founder Joey Sanchez’s grandfather.
→ O.C. Sips and Bites: The Saigon Lychee Cocktail from Chato’s Bar and Grill in Santa Ana
→ This Week’s O.C. Food News (Oct. 26 to Nov. 1)