Puesto’s fresh take on Mexican cuisine has been the buzz for months. The excitement grew after the new restaurant in Los Olivos Marketplace (near Irvine Spectrum) won rave reviews from attendees at two popular Orange Country culinary events – SOS Wild and Crazy Taco Night in Costa Mesa, as well as Ooze Fest Cheese Festival at DTSA.
Tacos are at the heart of Puesto’s Mexican street food menu and the two events gave diners insight into their signature taco strategy. Both offerings showcased their fillings wrapped in crisp cheese, a blanket of fried and melted queso Oaxaca and a Mexican melting cheese that is somewhat like mozzarella. The cheese wrapping is dubbed “costra” in Spanish. It translates as “scab” in English, not a very alluring appellation that is in fact appealing.
The Ooze Fest taco was a pork belly and goat cheese wonder; it combined pork belly (braised-then-seared) with a chorizo and goat cheese crema, encased in a sheet of cheese. Teamed with pickled red onion and two salsas – creamy jalapeno salsa and salsa negra – the tang of the goat cheese tamed the rich pork in a delightfully balanced way. (It’s not on the restaurant’s menu, but is sometimes featured as the Taco of the Month – don’t lose hope, but they have a dynamite carnitas taco on the menu with traditionally braised pork, classic guacamole and tomatillo.)
At SOS’ event, the Hero Taco met with glowing approval. Filet mignon and lobster claws won over the crowd, the rich duo filling bundled in signature crisp cheese sheet. A similar filet mignon taco is featured on the menu, but the Hero is available by request from the “secret menu.”
Chicken al pastor tacos shouldn’t be overlooked, the tender bird teamed with hibiscus and chipotle tinga, avocado, and pineapple habanero pico de gallo. And take note of the Shrimp Tamarind Tacos, crispy shrimp napped with tamarind-chili sauce, plus guacamole and cilantro.
Endless Just-Made Fresh Blue Corn Tortillas
The from-scratch sauces and fillings made with fresh ingredients shine through in their tacos, but for me, at the heart of the success are the freshly-made blue corn tortillas. Katy Smith, Puesto’s Executive Creative Chef and self-confessed tortilla snob, explained that the prepared blue corn masa is delivered from Kernel of Truth in Los Angeles every other day. Smith said that the fresh house-made tortillas, pressed and then cooked on heated rotating comals, are prepared throughout the day; they stay warm and malleable only about ten minutes.
When asked what separates Puesto from other Mexican eateries, Smith said that the restaurants are casual yet they feel very special. A lot of time and effort is put into the food and drink of course, but also into designing the space. It feels like an upscale setting. Two snazzy contemporary stainless steel chandeliers hang near the entrance. “Puesto” is spelled out in letter cutouts in a skylight, and poured geometric concrete tiles line many walls and counter fronts. Light pours in through spacious windows and green indoor plants abound.
There’s a semi-private room with a living plant wall, and a private patio. The main patio, complete with a steel agave fire pit and separate bar, can host a 100-person fiesta.
A family-owned concept that started in La Jolla, then grew to San Diego and now Irvine, Puesto is operated by brothers Eric and Alan Adler in partnership with their cousin Isidoro Lombrozo. Eric Adler told me that one of his goals in Orange County is to build a connection with guests, noting that because the restaurant isn’t in a tourist area, it’s extremely important to build customer relationships. With that in mind he pointed out the 18-seat (three tables of six) kitchen dining area where guests can get a close-up look at the culinary action. In addition to everyday menu offerings, he said that they are featuring special test kitchen dinners with a set menu to give guests an opportunity to sample unique dishes that might end up on future menus.
He said that Puesto will never be defined as a “chain,” because each design is unique and they like the design process.
Getting back to the menu, drinks, snacks and desserts shouldn’t be overlooked. Lucien Connor, the mastermind behind the tempting cocktails, and extensive lists of Mexican craft beer and wine, prepared the Margarita of the Month for me. His Garden Margarita is a real palate pleaser; it tastes as if a very refreshing gazpacho was spiked with tequila. A gentle pinkish-red, it includes Persian cucumbers, fresh fennel, fresh parsley and tomatoes (Tomatoes on the Vine).
There are also flights of Mezcal, beer, tequila and Valle De Guadalupe wine.
Conner told me that in Mexico there is always something to snack on when having a late afternoon drink. Puesto’s long list of snacks includes crunchy chicharrónes, crackling pork rinds with fresh lime and chili powder. In summer, those oh-so-crisp crunchers will find their way onto the Mexican Caesar Salad as a garnish.
Save room for two of the best desserts. The Plantain Bread Pudding with Cajeta is crowned with a big scoop of delightful Mexican chocolate ice cream. And the dairy-free Nopal Lime Gelato sprinkled with Tajin (a mix of Mexican chilies, lime juice and sea salt) is ambrosial.
Puesto in Los Olivos Marketplace is at 8577 Irvine Center Drive in Irvine. A second Orange County restaurant will open at Park Place, 3395 Michelson Drive, Irvine sometime in the summer.
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.”