One of the best parts of my job is expecting one thing, then getting a freakishly mind blowing experience I wasn’t expecting. For instance: hearing about a new Mexican restaurant in an Irvine Whole Foods parking lot, my preconceived notion would be that of a beige building surrounded by a palm tree-lined lot filled with German import cars, where they bore you to death with salty chips, a mortar bowl of guac, and an overly sweet margarita made with Cabo Wabo for $15.
Enter, Puesto, where if I’d done some basic Googling, I would have found out I was in for a real treat.
“Let me start you off with some mescal and a nopales sorbet topped with a pinch of Tajin,” says Lucien Connor, Puesto’s beverage director and manager. The spirit, La Venenosa Raicilla Sierra De Jalisco, is a big citrus bomb with some sweet alcohol heat in the mushroom cloud. “The sorbet will cut through all that, balancing it all out,” he continued. And it did. I can’t say I’ve ever had cactus sorbet or that particular spirit for that matter. Let’s just say this is a strong first impression, and one I won’t soon forget.
With a beverage menu that’s the size of the food menu, Puesto is a veritable “choose your own adventure.” There are specialty cocktails (mostly $12), margaritas, and micheladas, and you can also tour Mexico via Baja wines, cerveza artisinal (craft beer made in Mexico)—not to mention tequila and mescal flights, served on a festive vintage tortilla comal.
If you’re not sure what to start with, the margarita of the month is a safe bet. For March, Lucien’s version puts the lime in the coconut and shakes it all around…that is to say it has reposado tequila, coconut water, and makrut (kafir) lime, giving it a nice viscosity and subtropical vibe that smells fresh and springy.
Many of the specialty cocktails are standards with south-of-the-border riffs, such as the Burro Blanco (tequila mule) and the Mescal Old Fashioned. I went for the Desperado (Vida Mescal, Carpano Antica, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau Noir, and walnut bitters) which is quite complex yet easy to sip at the same time. Grilled citrus notes in the drink meld into hints of maple-toffee from the walnut bitters. The sexy cocktail is served in a sombrero-wide, long-stemmed coupe and is incredibly satisfying.
Naturally, a flight of cerveza artisinal is recommended to match the flight of tacos, of which the fried Oaxacan cheese-wrapped filet mignon taco steals the show. The plump and weighty blue corn tortilla fold is a delicate bite of tender meat, buttery cheese, spicy serrano, and cooling avocado that manages to Chuck Berry guitar solo all of my taste buds from front to back. The taco paired well with the sweeter Cerveza Fauna Mala Vida Belgian Blonde…no Chuck Barris gong moment was had. (RIP Chucks!)
Overall, chef Katy Smith and Lucien Connor are culinary spirit guides of Mexico. Whether you choose to sit at the indoor/outdoor bar, in the main dining room, or at the well-lit, in-kitchen tables, you’ll get the sense Puesto is the type of place where you’ll never order the same thing twice because there’s so much to discover, and the knowledgeable staff is more than excited to take you on your next adventure.
Puesto, 8577 Irvine Center Drive, Los Olivos, Irvine // eatpuesto.com