Being trapped in a gridlocked tourist zone is perhaps my most feared August nightmare. To even consider parking on Broadway in Laguna Beach—ground zero for vacationers right now—the potential for dining pleasure must be exceptional. What a delight to report that Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico is well worth the trek. Open since September, the yearling shop mere steps from busy Coast Highway stays packed with locals—customers with plenty of neighborhood alternatives, including Javier’s, Asada Laguna, and Avila’s El Ranchito. Even during my first test-drives in sleepy winter months, local demand for the virtuoso margaritas in tall tumblers and Mexican fare with a modern edge was conspicuous.
Back then, I fell for the enchilada-tamale combo, which earned a nod in our February cover feature on top Mexican dishes. Ensuing visits to the 55-seat venue reveal impressive consistency and earnest hospitality, even when every seat is taken and the line snakes out the door. The operation already feels poised, undoubtedly because 28-year-old owner Clemente Heredia grew up in his grandparents’ Sacramento-area shop, Carmelita’s Mexican Restaurant, founded in 1962. This is expertise no MBA can touch, and when paired with ambition, doubles the chances for success. Another reason for such early sangfroid: Heredia has tested his concept successfully at the sprawling Rancho Santa Margarita Carmelita’s he opened in 2009 on the suburb’s man-made lake.
But his Laguna restaurant has an intimacy and focus that suits this beach village. There’s a contemporary polish to its setting, and presentation that doesn’t feel corporate or formulaic. Add service that’s both snappy and warm, and you feel welcome and appreciated—a concept all too novel these days.
Start with a graceful margarita of hand-squeezed lime juice and all-agave tequila and nectar; roasted pineapple and a spicy salt rim make a tangy team. Juicy cucumber and cilantro handily define the Mexican gin martini. Both are shimmering glasses of finesse. As is customary, drinks trigger the arrival of complimentary garden-fresh salsa and warm crispy chips. But here, you’re also served a bowl of barely pureed chipotle beans for dipping. Order soon after, or you’ll fill up.
Navigating the single-page menu is mercifully undemanding. Dishes are familiar enough to need almost no explaining, yet distinctive enough to entice. This is genuine Cal-Mex cuisine, through the prism of a second-generation Californian and third-generation restaurateur. Disappointments are rare, signaling chef Jose Colin’s concern for quality and consistency. Everyone starts with the guacamole. Rich and chunky with unctuously ripe avocados, it’s a fine take that vanishes quickly so order a second to complement your short rib enchiladas or halibut tacos.
Consider moving on to the queso fundido, a pot of molten cheese generously punctuated with chorizo and bacon, or the recently added albondigas, or the Costillitas, meaty baby back ribs with a vivid, faintly sweet glaze. Juicy pork peels right off the ribs, served with a bowl of silky salsa dense with spices for dunking. A golden pile of fried onion strands adds another layer of texture and flavor. This dish could sub for an entree, or surely spoil your appetite if you don’t share it.
Shrimp ceviche is squeaky bright with lime, a modest punch of serrano, and many nuggets of shrimp meat. Or, try the simple Caesar salad with its pepita dressing and crumbles of cotija cheese. Waiters are eager to fetch refills, so if you can refrain from eating mounds of the first-rate chips and dips, you’ll probably have room for a most rewarding entree.
Chile verde fans will rejoice over the chunks of toothsome Berkshire pork in tomatillo-rich sauce with mild green peppers. Its accompanying white rice is a dome of masterfully cooked grains studded with corn kernels, an unexpected step up from the usual orange mounds. My porcine preference is the carnitas with Snake River Farms Prime Kurobuta pork. Tender, tasty, and grilled just enough to add some caramelized chew, the meat oozes deep flavor and requires little more than wrapping in a soft flour tortilla.
Steak fans have top options, too, most of which feature Prime beef in roles usually cast with lesser cuts. I was wrong to question our waiter’s assumption that I would “not regret” ordering tampiquena, a pairing of grilled skirt steak and cheese enchiladas. Teeming with clear, robust flavor, the thin steak plays well off the tart, habanero-infused onions and the fresh corn tortilla oozing cheese and lively red sauce.
The steak-and-mango salad is a flavor fiesta: skewers of grilled-to-order meat, slices of sweet mango, fried carrots, fluffy cold greens, and candied pecans, all dressed in a zippy vinaigrette. Plus, a cheese enchilada. Yes, an enchilada. So you can order light and still cheat.
Seafood offerings abound. Soft tacos with fresh halibut, crema, and cabbage nail that craving. Salmon Amarillo gets a boost from roasted lemons and vibrant fresh spinach on the side. Enchiladas de mariscos are twin bundles plump with fresh crab and sweet shrimp, lightly bound with lemon sauce—look out Javier’s, Carmelita’s has put your reign as the coastal king of crab enchiladas on notice.
Desserts, however, don’t dazzle. But who’s got room for them?
I predict Carmelita’s will only get busier as summer wears on. How heartening to have a new go-to Mexican spot, even if some of us won’t visit till the tourists are gone.
Guacamole, costillitas, queso fundido, albondigas soup, Caesar salad, enchiladas de mariscos, halibut tacos, carnitas, tampiquena, Salmon Amarillo, Pollo Serrano, signature margaritas.
Starters, $7 to $16; entrees, $10 to $28; desserts, $8; specialty cocktails, $8
Corkage is $10.
217 Broadway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-7829;
31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949-709-7600
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue.