San Diego loves tacos as much as we do, so it was only a matter of time before Puesto, one of that city’s popular, high-profile taquerias, would plant a flag on O.C. soil. After scooping up local accolades and national attention, 5-year-old Puesto busts out big-time in Irvine, with a flashy venue in Los Olivos Marketplace and a soon-to-open smaller one at the AC Hotel in Irvine’s burgeoning Park Place.
The only nod to Puesto’s “Mexican street food” tagline is its house specialty: delectable tacos. Beyond that, the restaurant oozes an upscale suburban personality with urban Mexican flourishes. Yes, the founding family of two brothers, a cousin, and longtime friend point to Mexico City as their muse, but Puesto numero uno was born in La Jolla. Ensuring the menus at both Irvine shops offer irresistible choices is executive creative chef Katy Smith’s mission. After more than three years in the kitchens of Rick Bayless’ Chicago empire, Smith is fluent in the ways of translating Mexico’s varied cuisines for American diners.
Starters include snacks, salads, guacamoles, and a few mariscos plates. Although just-average chips and two salsas arrive quickly, it’s hard to refuse pre-taco noshing on the Puesto Perfect guacamole, which gets salty oomph from umami-laden Parmigiano-Reggiano. It makes the basic guacamole seem bland by comparison. Cured nopalitos, with cherry tomatoes and a crumble of queso fresco, are zingy and vibrant, making a great foil for gossamer chicharrones, puffy and crispy enough to make a Paleo dieter swoon. My current snack crush is the juicy watermelon rind, quick-pickled in mescal, spices, orange juice, and distinctive manzano peppers. It’s feisty, fruity, and tangy, and you can also order the brine as a chaser shot for a tequila tasting.
Striped bass tiradito (crudo) succeeds as a raw dish, the mild fish buoyed by spicy guava broth, sea beans, and a touch of sesame oil. The seafood cocktail is a riot of flavors and suited for sharing, with its bites of market fish, shrimp, octopus, and avocado, spiked with Tajín-roasted peanuts. Braised lamb sopes sound appetizing on the menu, but they’re dry and lack distinction on the plate. Esquite, fresh-grilled corn niblets, gets lost under a blanket of queso, crema, and chile. It also arrives on a cold plate that steals its heat, turning the dish into spoonfuls of glop.
Tacos are the main event, priced three for $15, and they deliver on several counts. The tortillas are handmade with organic, non-GMO, blue corn masa, but Oaxacan cheese, griddled into a crispy disc, is the silver bullet in most variations, lending a bonus punch of savoriness to all but the seafood tacos. The cheese is especially welcome on two brilliant vegetarian tacos, one starring zucchini and cactus, mixed with corn, tomatoes, avocado, and mild cilantro-tomatillo sauce. The other winner bulges with garlic-braised mushrooms, pickled onions, and stone-fruit jalapeño salsa.
The filet mignon taco, for a $2 upcharge, is a standout thanks to the interplay of luscious seared beef, the griddled cheese, and a squirt of the house-made serrano-pistachio condiment. It rides that line between safe and unfamiliar, so it’s no surprise when Smith notes that it’s popular. The chicken al pastor taco is inherently tastier than the chicken verde, given the more complex preparation accented with hibiscus, chipotle, and pineapple. On the seafood front, the tamarindo shrimp taco sounds better than it tastes; it’s easier to fall for the Baja fried cod’s familiar charms. I suggest passing on the Maine lobster taco (for a $3.50 upgrade) in favor of Smith’s Taco of the Month. These can be gems, so always ask. My favorite so far was June’s Milanesa, fried chicken with black bean puree and spicy slaw. I would also gladly reorder May’s pork shoulder taco with yogurt sauce if it comes around again.
Pass on the overwrought carrot cake by pastry chef Jessica Scott. Instead, splurge on her soft, creamy tres leches cake or the dazzling panna cotta with its photogenic design and racy flavors of prickly pear, passion fruit, and lime. If you prefer your added calories in liquid form, the Cardamom Cadillac margarita is unexpectedly alluring. Aguas frescas are fresh daily, but fruit flavors often sell out.
Too bad the service is so spotty. The enormous venue seems to make servers disappear too often, and when hot foods arrive lukewarm (say, the esquite or the taquitos), it sinks the dish. Contact with staffers is inevitably gracious when it occurs. Employee scarcity is curious given that the place is generously staffed. The casual, energetic vibe attracts families and large parties, the soundtrack evokes a Zumba class, but the cheap metal chairs hardly encourage lingering. This is not a wise call for a date night.
On the plus side, happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday) and Taco Tuesday deals are distinct bargains.
Puesto’s out to conquer a decidedly polished market, with still another restaurant slated to launch by year’s end in Northern California’s Santa Clara.
Here in O.C., where the competition for all styles of Mexican cuisine is intense, Puesto has a few tricks we don’t often see. This helps it feel new. Which is not the same as groundbreaking.
Click to see a photo tour of Puesto in Irvine.
8577 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine
5 Best Dishes
Puesto Perfect guacamole
Starters, $2 to $14 Entrees, $15 to $20 Desserts, $5 to $10
FYI Three booths near the kitchen are most comfortable.