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Taco Maria

This Costa Mesa restaurant serves up a new level of Mexican food.

Carlos Salgado in the kitchen at Taco Maria

There are a couple of idiosyncrasies about Taco Maria that bear noting.

First, dessert is not currently offered, even though the chef, Carlos Salgado, clearly has a talent for pastries.

Second, despite the restaurant’s moniker, there are no tacos on the menu.

Both of these deserve explanation, and fortunately, there are answers – good, satisfactory answers.

Salgado, who offers a tantalizing glimpse into his pastry prowess with a plate of cookies at the end of the meal, became known in culinary circles as a dessert phenom. Having risen through the ranks of some of the country’s foremost restaurants, he originally made his name in the pastry arts before turning his attention back to his Orange County roots and his native “Chicano cuisine,” a mix of flavors representative of both American and Mexican cuisines.

That cuisine was once the darling of food truck disciples, who flocked to Taco Maria’s restaurant on wheels for its short stint as a mobile restaurant. The food truck’s imaginative tacos made with earth-conscious ingredients and a creativity that combined generations of the home cooking of Salgado’s forebearers with his own exposure to fine dining (his work at Commis in San Francisco helped earn the restaurant its first Michelin star) resulted in an elevated first-generation take on the flavors of his childhood. With his family’s 25-year-old taqueria in Orange as a template, Salgado set out to preserve his home-cooked heritage while at the same time explore the thoughtful and innovative approaches to cooking he had learned while working in some of the best kitchens in the nation. Although a pastry chef for much of the time he spent beyond the orange curtain, Salgado had been itching to get back into savory cuisine and the flavors of his youth. He found his outlet in Taco Maria.

Now a brick and mortar location in Costa Mesa’s SoCo, Taco Maria is more than the culmination of Salgado’s culinary dreams. It’s a tribute to his family and the generations of home cooks that came before him, his own parents Mexican immigrants who made their living selling taquitos and carne asada burritos. But Salgado’s cooking is a daring, refined version of that which we’ve come to regard as “Mexican food.” He may refer to it as “Chicano cuisine,” but it’s more than a combination of south-of-the-border and modern American; it’s a distinct passion for his heritage and an almost stubborn refusal to stray too far from it that’s evident in each dish on Taco Maria’s highly edited small plate menu.

Taco Maria’s prix fixe tasting menu, which changes monthly, began with espinacas, a salad of savoy spinach, pink grapefruit, avocado, and coriander. Refreshing and light, its role was that of an opener – a dash of segmented citrus, avocado and a subtle herbal quality that prime the palate for heftier dishes to come. The much-discussed guacamole (at least at our table) followed, accompanied by flax chips. Studded with Concord grapes and pistachio, Salgado’s version of the Mexican classic is at once tasty and disconcerting. Avocado and grapes? And flax in the chips? A veritable conversation piece, the guacamole inspired spirited discussions about a chef’s penchant for risk-taking: Bold or foolish? Too far or not far enough? Eventually, we reached the bottom line: Flavorsome though it was, it was not the guacamole we could see ourselves lusting after long after the meal came to a close.

It was a different story for the two courses to follow. Jardineros, a dish of shiitake mushrooms, rajas (Poblano peppers), queso, and alliums was a creamy wonderland of meaty mushrooms and melted cheese, while arroz con pollo – chicken, toasted farro, hosui pear, and anise – combined comfort food and sophisticated fine dining and came up with something even better. The accompanying, pillowy corn tortillas served alongside are worthy of their own Michelin star.

As for the spectacularly light and toasty cookies brought at the end of the meal? There are no more where that came from (trust us, we asked). Chef Salgado only makes enough for each evening’s diners, proving that Taco Maria is run, finally, on his very own terms.

Taco Trivia
Carlos Salgado started his famous Taco Maria truck with his sister, Silvia, in 2011… Salgado was once on a career path in technology before deciding to leave it for a life in the kitchen… It took Salgado a mere six months after graduating from culinary school to earn the title of pastry chef at Winterland, a cutting-edge restaurant in San Francisco... “Maria” is the proper name of every mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother going back generations in Salgado’s family.

Other Notable Things to Eat...
Taco Maria’s huauzontles – a dish of quinoa fritters, goosefoot herb, ricotta, and green tomato – seems like a play on health food meets the world, but its delicate texture and unique flavor makes it a crowd favorite. The hanger steak with onion, quelites (a type of wild green) and bone marrow is also a delicious choice for the carnivore-inclined.

...And to Drink
Skip the wine and beer and dive (literally, you may want to take a bath in this stuff) into the plum-hibiscus agua fresca. As refeshing as they come, this “fresh water” is exploding with ripe fruit flavors and a touch of tartness. A dash of peppercorn and a sprig of cilantro keep things interesting.

La Cuenta, Por Favor
Taco Maria’s four-course prix fixe tasting menu starts at $42. Prices are subject to change, depending on the month. Beverage pairings are an additional $24.
714.538.8444  ::  tacomaria.com

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