Early in our meal, the diplomatic waiter explains the fare at Sueños “is different than Mexican food.” Clearly, folks have been asking about chips and salsa. Fair enough. Mexican food is beloved in Orange County, and we’re in Laguna Beach, sitting an easy walk from seven Mexican spots. But here, the fare blends the foodways of Mexico with those of Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Puerto Rico for a contemporary view of Latin cuisine.
Born in Mexico City, executive chef Alan Sanz has a worldly resumé. His early career involved top kitchens from Chile to France to Spain. Most recently and most locally, he saw action at Gracias Madre and Puesto. His kitchen horsepower is further boosted by culinary director Yen Wu, who also oversees the cuisine at Costa in Costa Mesa.
Retooled for Ocean at Main, which closed in 2020, the village venue’s conversion to Sueños is mostly cosmetic. Dreamscape murals by local artist Carlos Roda loom large over the dining room, and two mega flat-screens dominate the bar. Hues of weathered gray and lavender update the lovely patio with its vintage fountain, though it’s engulfed by a tight mass of fourtops. The dining room is quite roomy, rather bright, and nearly empty on my visits when diners clearly opted for the cramped patio. Until Sueños, I have never known a spot where the dining room is busy only when other options are taken.
The menu is succinct and novel—starters and entrees total 14 dishes plus three desserts. There isn’t a dedicated bar menu, but there’s a fine Cuban sandwich stuffed with pork belly, pickles, and black mint aioli that begs for one of several craft beers. It includes yucca fries and seems ideal for a game night dinner.
Starters lean toward bold flavors and layered textures. Take the blue corn masa gorditas filled with black beans, chicharrón, chopped octopus, cashew cream, cotija, and bright-green salsa. They sound overdone but deliver a modern, har- monious take on octopus. Arepas are winners, too—two hefty corn cake pockets oozing cotija and Parmesan cheese under savory, saucy slow- cooked birria. Lighter, zippy options include a mango-jicama ceviche with a tame leche de tigre, and an upmarket red and golden beet salad. Crisp fennel, crunchy hazelnuts, and togarashi jazz up the greens mixed with sweet orange and tart grapefruit.
Entrees are amply portioned and often include vegetable or starch companions. Bone-in duck with blackberry mole is a wondrous pairing. Tart, sweet, bitter, and spicy all at once is the miracle of mole sauce, an intricate recipe with complex results. Glazed carrots and fluffy couscous supply a straightforward counterpoint. Lamb chops play second fiddle to the wildly flavorful black risotto heavy with huitlacoche. Grilled asparagus provides some break in the extra-rich action. Sanz translates pasta with pesto into tallarin verde: spaghetti with a pesto of pungent epazote, an ancient herb that makes basil seem boring. Hefty chunks of precisely cooked beef tender- loin rest atop a tangle of pasta, forest green with aromatic pesto.
Mixed fresh fin and shellfish star in arroz de mariscos, a delicately seasoned paella-esqe dish built with beer-simmered long-grain rice. Sanz reports the Pistachio Mole & Cauliflower is increasingly popular. Why not as it’s the sole vegetarian entree and so distinctive it can easily cross over to carnivores who won’t miss the meat thanks to the grill- crisped cauliflower with nutty mole plus capers and brined carrots for punctuation.
House-made desserts are a precious few, but unusual and enough to share with two or three. I saw plenty of the tiramisu-like Colombia on tables, but the lively passionfruit creation is what I would reorder. The coconut cake is so well suited to the tropical fruit curd.
Unfailingly gracious and knowledgeable service is almost a surprise, given labor challenges in the industry. Drinks are problematic, though. Those I enjoyed on my first visit were notably creative but quickly vanished, and their replacements tasted like disappointment. But I can praise the teensy wine list with solid boutique offerings we haven’t seen before. Craft beers are a worthy lot and chosen to complement the fare.
Sueños is so new, certainly younger than most places reviewed here. That said, expect noticeable changes as it finds its feet over the winter. There likely will be adjustment in personnel, changes in dishes offered, and tweaks to hours, days, and meals served. For example, weekend brunch started at the holidays, and new cocktails are in development. Sueños is navigating the same playing field all restaurants face these days, but it has the advantage of a daring, talented kitchen intent on being one of a kind in a town that treasures artistic spirit.
222 Ocean Ave. Laguna Beach
5 BEST DISHES
- Gordita de pulpo y chicharrón
- Arepas de birria
- Blackberry mole duck
- Tallarin verde
- Coconut passionfruit dessert
- Starters, $14 to $18
- Entrees, $25 to $39
- Desserts, $15
- Cocktails, $15
*FYI Live music on most nights