Sergio Ortega combines boundless culinary passion with well-grounded skills. As executive chef at Descanso in Costa Mesa, one of our 2019 Restaurants of the Year, he showcases his mastery of classic Central Mexican cuisine in a tantalizing variety of street-inspired dishes. Menu items at this modern taqueria range from chicharrons with salsa to grilled white corn with aioli and Cotija cheese, sweet corn pozole verde to mezcal-glazed shrimp.
It’s the tacos that haunt my treat-seeking dreams. I was overjoyed when he consented to show me how to prepare his Costra de Hongos, irresistible mushroom-filled tacos with crispy cheese. Don’t think there is anything ho-hum about these beauties. A wide variety of wild and domestic mushrooms make their way into the mix: oyster, yellowfoot, abalone, lobster, and cordyceps cozy up with more commonplace cremini or button mushrooms. Long strands of red-orange cordyceps were new to me, and I was delighted to see them in the mix.
The made-in-house tortillas are two-tone, one half made with blue corn masa, the other yellow corn masa; they are a tribute to the tortilla-making tradition in Ortega’s home state of Michoacán, Mexico. In the process of making the tacos, one side of the tortilla is crusted with a mixture of three cheeses: Manchego, Cotija and Jack. The cheese is browned on one side, giving it alluring richness and texture. The cheese wrapping is dubbed “costra” in Spanish. It translates as “scab” or “crust” in English, not a very alluring appellation that is, in fact, very inviting.
Once spooned onto the cheesy side of the tortilla, a topping of salsa frita is added. The tasty cooked sauce incorporates a combination of tomatoes and tomatillos along with chiles, onion, and garlic; it’s an inspired marriage of flavors.
A native of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, Ortega studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of California in Santa Ana and has worked at AnQi in Costa Mesa and The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. He lives in Costa Mesa with his wife Paulina and two children. He credits his wife as a source of culinary inspiration.
Influencer: His grandmother, Eugenia Mena, inspired him with her mole. He describes it as spectacular, a true piece of art. Based on mole in Morelia, the recipe was passed down from his great-grandmother, but his grandmother’s interpretation was her own. He recently made mole for his cousin’s wedding. The conditions for its prep were challenging, but his wife told him that his grandmother was helping him from heaven.
Secret Talent: He has a very good memory for faces, people, and details about past experiences. His friends tell him that he is the only one who can remember everything.
Drink of Choice: He likes beer, but also enjoys trying good gin (Four Pillars is a favorite).
Few Know: He loves to learn about history. Whenever possible, he reads and researches different historical subjects and watches history-based documentaries.
Favorite Food Truck: Orgullo Oaxaqueno on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles is a favorite. They serve Oaxacan specialties, such as tlayuda, a Mexican pizza constructed on a big toasted corn tortilla.
Descanso – A Modern Taqueria
1555 Adams Ave.,
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”
Descanso’s Costra de Hongos (Mushroom Tacos with Crispy Cheese)
Yield: 3 tacos
3 cups assorted wild or cultivated mushrooms, cleaned, cut coarsely or sliced (such as oyster, yellow foot, abalone, cordyceps, or lobster)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup finely diced white onion
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 or 2 arbol chiles, see cook’s notes
1 splash of white wine
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
2 Roma tomatoes
4 tomatillos, husks removed, washed
4 Morita chiles, toasted, see cook’s notes
3 garlic cloves
1/2 small white onion
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Cheese blend: 1 cup shredded Jack cheese, 1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese, 1/4 cup ground Cotija cheese
For serving: vegetable oil, 3 corn tortillas, Cotija cheese (crumbled), microgreens and/or cilantro, mint or epazote
Cook’s notes: Arbol chiles are small and potent Mexican chiles that are narrow and about 2 inches long. They start out green and turn bright red color as they mature. Morita chiles are smoked, red-ripe jalapeno peppers, much like chipotles. The main difference is that Moritas are smoked for less time, which leaves them softer and retains their slightly fruity flavor. To toast chiles, place whole on griddle or sauté pan over medium heat; turn until chiles are fragrant with brown spots. Do not over-toast.
- For mushrooms: Add butter to large deep skillet on medium heat. When melted, add garlic, onion, and arbol chiles. Cook until chiles are toasted and fragrant and the onion is softened. Add mushrooms to the pan and continue to cook until mushrooms soften. Add thyme and wine. Cook until skillet is almost dry. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; keep warm.
- For salsa frita: Warm canola oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Carefully add tomatoes and tomatillos in a single layer; brown evenly. Cover pan and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Once tomatillos and tomatoes are cooked, add onion, garlic, and Morita chiles. Continue to cook for 4 more minutes, until the garlic softens and onion is translucent. In a blender, whirl until smooth and season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
- For cheese blend: In a bowl, toss cheeses together until well combined. Set aside.
- For assembly: Heat a lightly oiled griddle or cast-iron skillet or nonstick skillet over medium heat (medium is important here). Add tortillas and heat on both sides until a little crisp. Remove tortillas. Add one pile of cheese blend; when cheese starts to melt top it with one tortilla. Press down lightly. Cook until bottom of cheese is nicely browned and sticks to tortilla. Turn and cook tortilla for additional 10 seconds. Place cheese-side-up on plate. Remove thyme sprig from mushrooms. Top tortilla with a couple of spoonfuls of mushrooms. Top with salsa, Cotija cheese, and herbs. Repeat with remaining two tortillas.