The Cuisine Scene
Brenda Hill

El Mexicano

Forest Falls, CA

I found heaven yesterday. Well, not literally, thank goodness, but as close as I could get without having to pass through those Pearly Gates.

Claire, my editor, asked if I’d ever been to the Mexican restaurant in Forest Falls. I didn’t even know where Forest Falls was, but I immediately perked up. A forest? Falls? Even though I'd been raised in Louisiana, I’d spent fourteen years in the cool climate of northern Minnesota and now I wilted in the heat. Any place with a name like Forest Falls was worth investigating, especially when she told me that it was only about fifteen minutes away. On the way to Big Bear, she said.

I scoured the Internet and discovered that the little town of Forest Falls even has a website. voilà! Loaded with directions, my camera, and my friend Kathryn accompanying me, I headed for Forest Falls. At 6pm, Yucaipa’s temperature was 93 degrees.

If you’ve traveled Highway 38 to Big Bear, you know how quickly the scenery changes. One minute I was driving in an open valley with scrub brush on each side of the highway and the next, I was in a canyon. Scrub brush gave way to trees. Kathryn pointed to a sign informing us that we’d entered The San Bernardino national Forest. A dry riverbed paralleled the highway and it might’ve had a trickle or two but I couldn’t see. We were constantly climbing and, glory be, the outside temperature dropped. Oh happy day.

About two miles later we came to a turnoff featuring picnic tables nestled under large trees. Day use only, the sign said, 6am to 10pm. The temperature dropped to 85 degrees and I turned off my air conditioner. If Forest Falls was like this, I was going to love it. How much farther was the turnoff, I wondered, and could there possibly be a waterfall? Eagerly, Kathryn and I continued on, enjoying the mountain vista and cooler air. Then we saw the sign.

Exactly nine miles from turning onto Highway 38 from Bryant Street, we came to El Mexicano, the only restaurant in town. The building, painted blue wood resting on a stone foundation, harmonized with the towering trees. A bright neon sign announced they were open and other signs advertised various beers.

Inside the main seating area, a wood stove standing next to a wooden bear holding menus suggests a casual atmosphere. Tables and booths sat under windows draped with serapes, and the colorful reds, oranges, and blues added a touch of cheer.

With his thick accent, David, the server, was welcoming and friendly while he seated us. We passed a covered amplifier in the corner and David said someone comes in around 7pm on Friday nights to play. We chose the narrow windowed porch overlooking the road so we could watch the occasional car pass by, but mainly we wanted to gaze at the treed forest beyond the town. The walls were painted a muted yellow and a sombrero hung next to a velvet painting. A wooden Mexican figure stood in the corner. It took a while for David to get back to us as he was the only server on duty, but his cheerfulness and eagerness to please made up for any delay. He brought chips and salsa and I dug in. The chips were crunchy and the salsa with tomatoes and onions was delicious, but after I swallowed, the fire crept in. I gasped. David looked concerned. Trying to maintain some semblance of dignity, I managed to let him know I was okay, that he didn't have to call the rescue squad, but broke down and asked if he had something with a little less bite.

"I'm a gringo with a capital G," I told him. Not quite hiding his smile, David brought a serving of green sauce which I managed just fine. 

The menu had more to offer than I would have guessed, and it said their food is made daily. They have a la carte, such as tamales for $3.60, chile rellenos dipped in egg batter and deep fried for $4.35, and of course tacos and burritos, all under $5.00. They offer a dinner salad topped with grated cheese for $3.35 and a Mexican salad with lettuce, tomato, topped with grated cheese and guacamole for $6.25.

The standard breakfasts such as ham or sausage and eggs with toast are served until noon and priced around $7, with pancakes and hash browns for $8.25 and steak and eggs for $9.25. A variety of omelets are between six and eight dollars, and pancakes for around five dollars. They stop serving breakfast at noon except for their Mexican breakfasts of huevos rancheros, huevos con chorizo, and machaca, which are available all day, each served with rice and beans and prices range from $7.75 to $9.25 for the shredded beef machaca.     

Both their dinner especiales and combinations are served with rice and beans. For combinations, they offer a variety such as cheese enchilada with a taco and bean tostada for $9.75, bean tostado for $7.25, and an assortment of burritos and enchiladas for around eight dollars.

Under their especiale, I wasn’t even sure what some of the items were but they sounded good. Gallina ranchera or mole style . . . Mole? One of those creature that live in dirt? I should’ve asked and one day when I go back and David isn’t so busy, I will. But whatever it is, the price is $9.25. Another unfamiliar dish is carnitas. It says pork with guacamole, pico de gallo, served with warm flour or corn tortillas. It’s $9.75. I chose number 25, chile relleno with a bean and shredded beef burrito served enchilada style for $10.25.

Kathryn also chose the chile relleno but had the cheese enchilada as the side. Both choices arrived hot and accompanied by a nice helping of rice and cheese-topped beans.

The dinner was good, everything tasting fresh, but their chile relleno had more batter than I would have liked, so I just forked the chile from the batter. There was enough on the platter that I didn’t leave hungry. They even had fried ice cream if I wanted, but I felt so full that I declined. This time.

We enjoyed our leisurely dinner overlooking the quiet road, and next time we’ll try the patio. I can imagine how it feels to dine in the evening under the stars.

When we finished, we decided to explore past the few houses and small wooden buildings housing a real estate office and a general store. I still wanted to see a waterfall. The road climbed higher and just around another curve, we came to a park area, a place so beautiful that I’ll certainly visit again. Picnic benches, tall trees and rocks. Everything a nature lover could ask for. The riverbed was below the park and I could just imagine how it all looked in spring.

Only one thing was missing. I still hadn’t seen a waterfall. On our way back down the road, I saw a resident in her front yard and I stopped and asked. “Is there truly a waterfall in the area?”

Veronica, a Yucaipa native and Forest Falls resident of about seven years, suggested that I get out of the car and cross to the other side of the road. She joined me and pointed to the dip between the distant mountains. “See it?” she asked. Finally, looking between two twigs of the branch on an oak tree, I saw the splash of white. The falls. I stood silently gazing at nature’s beauty, amazed that something so awesome could be so close to home.

On our way home, Kathryn and I talked about our experience and our wonderful evening. Turning onto Bryant, I noticed that the temperature had climbed back up to 87 degrees and wished I could go back. I’ll visit again soon, though. Since it’s only about ten miles away, I’ll go back and have another burrito or walk around the park, watching the squirrels chase each other through the trees and listening to the leaves rustle. Truly a slice of heaven in Southern California.

El Mexicano, open Monday through Thursday 11am-8pm, Friday 11am-10pm, Saturday 9am-10pm and Sunday 9am-8pm.
Forest Falls

El Mexicano is also located in Oak Glen

El Mexicano
Forest Falls, CA