It takes a lot of moxie to invest years of design and recipe refinement in Tustin’s low-key Old Town, only to serve Mexican cuisine most diners don’t recognize. Yet as of late August, Gabbi and Ed Patrick of Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen are using Chaak to show off the county’s most sophisticated take on the regional and indigenous fare of Mexico’s wondrous Yucatan Peninsula.
Most likely, this is not the food you ate during those resort stays in Cozumel or Playa del Carmen. Dishes here pull from the region’s distinct palette of wood smoke, charred chile rubs, achiote marinades, sweet limes, and intense Seville oranges. Techniques vary from ancient to modern; what they have in common is complexity born of many steps and long spells of time. A good example is the braised turkey with a near-black paste (recado) of peppers and chiles. Or the tamal colado, a silky tamale of strained masa steamed in a banana leaf and topped with wild mushroom ragu and nubs of spicy pork sausage made in-house.
This is a scratch kitchen where Gabbi and chef de cuisine Vincent Espinoza faithfully craft key components, such as long-simmered poultry stock amped with smoked chicken feet, finger-size handmade veal sausage, blue-corn masa flatbread, and some serious habanero salsa, among other essentials.
Lucky for us, those labor-intensive tasks are necessarily performed in advance, and though service isn’t taqueria-speedy, the handsome, sun-splashed space begs you to relax. Designed by noted architect (and O.C. native) Leason Pomeroy, sliding Roman shades under a retractable glass roof are the striking focal point that first impresses. But do not overlook the embedded rock wall, comfy banquettes, and sleek 18-seat bar with black iron accents fabricated by a Tustin blacksmith shop. It’s a dazzling setting.
Definitely start with sikil pec, a shareable dip of roasted, ground pumpkin seeds. Its nutty notes and grainy texture pair well with dippers of crisp cucumbers, freshly puffed chicharrones, and thick tortilla chips the menu labels totopos. This is as close as you’ll get to chips and salsa, and it sets up your palate for adventure. Albondigas, not soup but three rich pork meatballs wet with guajillo-tomato sauce and glistening onion escabeche, are a lively start, as is the Angus filet tartare dotted with creamy avocado and raw quail egg yolk.
Lunch is when you can order a mighty torta layered with deeply savory cochinita pibil (the Yucatecan predecessor of pulled pork), avocado aioli, and xnipek, a bracing relish fueled by habanero. There are salads for eating lighter, but I’m mad for the sopa de lima, a steamy poultry-bone broth boosted by shredded smoked chicken and bright green beans. I’ll take those lunch choices over the masa flatbreads or oft-oily salbutes.
Since the Yucatan is a dry forest blessed with vegetation, a considerable coastline, and a history laced with interlopers who left their culinary thumbprints, Chaak can offer dishes that truly appeal to avoiders of gluten or meat. Cocktails are similarly diverse, and the wine list is uncommonly interesting, with many by-the-glass offerings.
Ordering dinner is a challenge. Many mains are meant to be shared, and it’s easy to over-order. Ask your server for guidance on quantities.
For a table of four, I suggest the cochinita pibil (with extra tortillas), rajas con queso for gooey heft, and perhaps the esquites, grilled corn niblets with marrow, lime, and pecorino. Fill any gaps with fried chayote squash or a smoked half chicken. Perhaps share a whole branzino that highlights the classic flavors of bitter orange, achiote, and the sassafras-y herb hoja santa. When among steak lovers, share the bistec en recado, a 32-ounce prime bone-in porterhouse. It’s $95 but can feed more than five if you add sides such as the enchilada en cazuela or the green bean and asparagus dish labeled ejotes. Desserts are a tiny bunch. A plate of four sugared bombas with two sauces looks popular and tastes like good doughnuts.
Expect future tweaking at this lofty but still young venue. The Patricks are looking to add a singular marinated and grilled meat dish called poc chuc, upscale desserts, and new aperitif cocktails. Be warned, though: The room is ferociously loud when busy, so plan accordingly.
It took the Patricks 13 years to open their second restaurant, and they’re not taking the cut-and-paste approach. Rather, they’re celebrating a lesser-known region of Mexico in an erudite fashion. They might never win over the quesadilla crowd, and that’s just fine. It leaves the good stuff for the rest of us.
215 El Camino Real
5 BEST DISHES
➜ Sikil pec
➜ Cochinita pibil
➜ Sopa de lima
➜ Carne cruda
➜ Tamal colado
Lunch, $8 to $28; afternoon snacks, $8 to $14; dinner, $8 to $95
Chaak is the Mayan rain god.