Taco Maria’s Carlos Salgado Returns to His Culinary Roots

How the long and winding culinary quest of Taco Maria’s Carlos Salgado brought him back to his roots

Carlos Salgado Taco MariaWith its white tile interior, dark wood accents, and chefs wearing selvage denim shirts, Carlos Salgado’s restaurant, Taco Maria, fits right in at Costa Mesa’s OC Mix, a rustic-mod cluster of businesses that is one of the county’s antidotes to ’80s commercial malls. I like to come down here from L.A. and sit at the counter, eat, and watch the cooks work.

Tonight a young woman wearing a bandanna tends the grill. She turns cactus paddles and ribeye cap over the citrus wood embers. “Yes, Chef,” she answers when Carlos calls out an order from the other end of the counter. The tickets lie in front of him, held down by a foot-long piece of dark, fl at wood. He wears small, black-rimmed glasses and what looks like a gray work shirt, though made of fi ner cotton. A few other cooks pivot between counter and stove in the 20-foot-long open kitchen. They hand elements of dishes to one another—a fillet of striped bass dusted with achiote—working quickly to not lose the heat. The cook in front of me finishes a bowl of chochoyotes, shelling beans, and tiny masa dumplings, with a few drops of hot oil that open up all the flavors.

Carlos doesn’t serve dessert at Taco Maria. The space is impossibly tight. He doesn’t want to take even inches from the compact dining room with three tables, or the terrace, the restaurant’s largest seating area that looks out over a small garden. Tonight he’s fashioned a little something, though. Yesterday, at the end of the dinner service, one of his cooks scattered the grill’s embers into a pan of fresh berries from J.J.’s Lone Daughter Ranch. The heat seared them and brought out an earthy quality in the fruit as it cooled.

This morning the berries were cleaned, pureed, and blended into masa, the corn building block of tortillas. Diluted into a drink and flavored like this, masa becomes atole de elote, a warm drink that sidewalk vendors ladle from insulated thermoses. Carlos keeps it in a bowl by the grill. He hands me a speckled cup of the thick, faintly purple liquid. It’s nurturing enough that just wrapping my hands around the cup feels comforting. Cooking the berries mutes their freshness, but in such a way that they harmonize excellently with the ground corn.

Carlos’ menus are full of those kinds of oblique references. They are allusions to home cooking as experienced by a first generation Mexican American in Southern California who in 2015 was voted one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. His dishes elevate without condescending, so the chochoyotes may recall a bowl of pinto beans, and the sliver of red onion steeped in vinegar and hibiscus he might toss— OK, tweezer—onto a lunchtime chicken mole taco is a garnish from a street stand. His version of atole isn’t the expected dessert in an ambitious modern restaurant like this—where pale, dry albariño is served in tumblers—but it’s a perfect way to end a meal.

The reason I keep coming down here is that in Carlos’ fascination with corn I glimpse something metaphorical, a powerful statement about modern dining. Despite so many changes—the open kitchen as stage, for one—chefs often are still painted as artists whose masterworks are recipes. That’s a vestige from a time when a chef was judged on how well he glazed the Dugléré over the paupiettes de sole, evaluated on how long the crust remained crisp around the beef Wellington. Today’s chef might find inspiration when she holds a peach in the farmers’ market or when he runs uncooked Anson Mills stone-ground grits through his fingers. Heritage is using produce that jostled to market on the back of a pickup, a moment of awe before the rippling flanks of a Yukon king salmon, or performing a technique the way a mentor taught. For chefs today, a recipe is not some ritualized set piece but how they get to transmit what speaks to them.

Using an ingredient that is at the root of a heritage is even more compelling. Carlos uses ancient heirloom varieties of corn. The kernels are dry when he receives big burlap bags, and he cooks them in water and powdered slaked lime, or cal. The name for that process is nixtamalization, the chemical reaction that softens the outer skin of corn and makes its many elements nutritionally available. Without that step, ancient peoples were racked by pellagra, a skin-corroding malady; because of it the corn crop became the building block of Aztec civilization.

TacoMaria.OrangeCoast.006His concept of the ingredient was brought home to me one morning when I watched him grind the cooked corn into masa the restaurant would use throughout the day. After retrieving a large bucket of it that had cooked the night before, he drained it over the sink in a perforated pan. I looked at the kernels. Each one had a broad crown and a narrow stem, an elongated shape you don’t see in today’s hybrid varieties. Grown by farmers in milpas, or traditional checkerboard fields, it seemed about as far from a monoculture as you could get. He’d quickly assembled the parts of a five-horsepower mill; on went the hopper, the auger that pushes the corn forward, and two Frisbee-sized millstones carved, like the traditional metate concave grinding surface, from volcanic rock. He’d started to grind, intermittently splashing ice water over the kernels as they churned to get the masa to the right consistency.

But it’s not just the texture or even the flavor he’s after. When he flips one of the handpressed, deckle-edged tortillas on the griddle, he sees a chain of beneficiaries. There’s the corn that finds a vital life in a modern setting, the customer who tastes the integrity of an ingredient, the farmer who’s encouraged to keep growing it, and money that goes toward a local economy.

This broader vision was a destination he had to reach, and he did it with the help of mentors such as Daniel Patterson, from San Francisco’s Coi. Almost immediately after starting there in 2006, Carlos had been struck by the way the kitchen chefs crafted their own butter, culturing the cream, letting it mature, patiently draining off the buttermilk and using it for other purposes. The recipe had come from Soyoung Scanlan, cheesemaker at Andante Dairy in the town of Petaluma north of the city. She’d originally started making it for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Patterson saw it as a gateway ingredi- ent to an entire approach to cooking and—once letters started to arrive reminiscing about sitting on the porch shaking a jar of cream to make butter—of the resonance a single ingredient can contain. Carlos’ journey to this meaningful place—at once intimate and sweeping—would require him leaving Orange County and, just as decisively, returning.

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Salgado visiting Guerrero as a boy

Recounting the Carlos’ life story even close to chronologically requires starting in Orange, where in 1986 his parents, Maria and Gregorio, started a modest restaurant amid the body shops on Batavia Street. La Siesta is still there, and Maria and Gregorio still work at the counter, welcoming mechanics and city workers for an early morning breakfast of eggs and nopales or a lunch of enchiladas, the sauced chickenfilled tortillas moist and filling. Customers might even sit at the table where Carlos did his homework together with his older sister, Silvia (his other sister Amy was then too young).

A culinary story is also a journey, rich in challenges and key moments, though the destination is not a place but a style. It draws on everything that’s been experienced in the heat of kitchens but expresses it in techniques, flavors, ingredients, even the way of thinking about food. Every young cook we see—or do we even really see them?—going to a shift in houndstooth check pants and carrying a knife roll through a city is involved in that learning period. With each bus ride to and from work, with each night’s dinner service, aspiring cooks’ sensibilities are being sharpened, what they have to express becoming apparent, even if at first it’s only to them. In some jobs you come for the information and leave; with others you resist that urge, choosing instead the discipline—and eventual knowledge—that repetition grants. At times, a cook even has to reach a breaking point for matters to become clear.

Carlos was just such a cook one morning in 2006 when he walked up a San Francisco hill toward Coi, knife roll in his backpack. He’d been working under chef Vernon Morales at Winterland, a Fillmore District restaurant that despite chowhound raves about its bacon ice cream and inventive cooking had been unable to attract enough diners in the city’s tough scene. On its last night’s service, after the fi nal order had been put out, beer and bourbon had flowed as cooks and waiters sat on counters, exchanging contacts and sharing in one another’s company as a working crew one last time. When Carlos returned the next day to pick up the tools he’d forgotten in the midst of the previous night’s jovial mood, he found Morales packing up boxes. Feeling responsibility for a young cook he’d come to value, Morales told Carlos there was one restaurant he should apply to in the city—and it was Coi.

There had been a minuscule period of time when San Francisco hadn’t known what to make of Patterson’s serious yet irreverent restaurant. It was wildly ambitious—the culmination of his two previous spots—but putting Coi amid the strip shows and video arcades of North Beach’s Broadway seemed contrarian. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer had described the stakes that July. “Will the third time be a charm for Daniel Patterson,” he’d written in his three-star review, “or is it three strikes, you’re out?” A few weeks later, Carlos was walking inside, looking for a job.

He saw immediately how incongruous the setting was. There was a stripper taking a cigarette break in the alley the restaurant shared with a club. He entered an already busy kitchen, the cooks working at their separate stations all aware—though not pausing in their prep—that someone like them had just walked in. “I found Daniel and asked if he had any positions open,” Carlos recalls. “He said, ‘We don’t have a position, but we have a good group of people.’ ” He was sent to the pastry station and opened the knife roll he’d brought with him, which in addition to a set of knives and spatulas contained a refractometer for measuring sorbet syrups, and his newest acquisition—a digital thermocouple thermometer capable of measuring tenths of degrees.

Technology and food had been wound together for Carlos ever since age 14, when the owner of a neighboring business to La Siesta had asked him to do their data input. They didn’t have the patience for all the disks and drives; it was second nature to him. The world of command, prompt, and the blinking cursor was a type of release from the other one where he’d already been cast a fixed role: the smart immigrant kid.

His mother is from Jalisco (home of tequila), a province that extends from Guadalajara to the coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta; his father is from Guerrero, farther south on the Pacific coast, known for seafood preparations like pescado Zihuatanejo. They had come to the United States separately and met while working at Alphie’s, a coffee shop in Torrance, where Gregorio was kitchen manager and Maria was a waitress. They were focused on their children’s education, and once they realized that the bilingual program in the Orange County schools had lower expectations for students, they insisted all three children attend regular classes (where Carlos was a consistent AP student) and become articulate in English as opposed to Spanish.

The neighborhood around Magnolia Avenue in Garden Grove where the Salgados lived was half Latino and half Asian. Carlos had as many Korean and Vietnamese friends as he had Hispanic ones, all forging an identity in a land new to their parents but not to them. To do this in Orange County added a
dimension all its own. “If you grow up in Orange County, you spend a lot of time at Disney,” Carlos says. Taking the “It’s a Small World” ride was a set piece of cultural confusion. He didn’t recognize his Vietnamese friends in the dolls moving amid gold temples. He certainly didn’t see himself with a sombrero and colorful serape shoulder blanket. “When I took that ride,” he remembers, “I identified with the animatronics.”

By 1998 Carlos was working in the burgeoning Orange County computer industry, riding an early wave of programming, designing systems, and writing code. That was a brief period in the tech industry when a single person could execute a project from beginning to end. “The knowledge base still hadn’t grown so huge that there was a division between engineer, designer, and programmer,” he says. He negotiated a good severance with his employer and when a group of his friends headed to San Francisco— gamers, most of whom he’d known for half a decade—he went with them. Not because he wanted to further his career. But he wanted to get out of Orange County. And he wanted a change. “My greatest accomplishments were virtual,” he recalls.

The group settled into an apartment at 23rd and Harrison. It was a typical gamers’ pad, five people, 20 monitors. When his buddies went to work, he stayed behind, exploring the Mission neighborhood. He loved the deeply familiar smell when he opened the door of La Palma Tortilleria on 24th Street. He’d order tortillas, taken fresh from the rotary fl at-top comal, and carry them back to the house. He liked the sight of the big, tropical papayas the street vendors sold by the entrance of the BART station, and he’d take them back to the house also. Back, too, went skeins of fresh semolina and egg tagliarini he got from Lucca Ravioli on Valencia Street, which he might serve with ground walnuts and black pepper. Occasionally a whole fi sh from the Chinese fishmonger on Mission caught his eye. One thing was becoming clear: a bunch of hungry programmers were coming home in the evening and being greeted with very good dinners. (And
Carlos was becoming less and less interested in programming.)

A family portrait with father Gregorio, mother Maria, and sister Silvia. His parents have for years owned La Siesta restaurant on Batavia Street in Orange.

In the series of incremental steps that led him to becoming a chef, none may have been more important than his discovery of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” Originally published in 1984, and eventually republished after a 10-year revision, the tome is the work of a writer adept in two worlds and able to bring them together in a single work. The first discipline dated from his time in Pasadena, where he studied astronomy at Caltech; the second came from New Haven, where, in addition to a Ph.D. in 19th-century English poetry from Yale, he developed a lifelong devotion to the thin-crust, coal-fired pies at Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street. The book combines both an easily worn erudition with the certainty that scientific knowledge makes one a better cook.

Chefs were not the people who fi rst bought the book. “They had their way of doing things,” McGee recalled, “and they weren’t about to change.” Instead, the people who contacted him were culinary students. All wanted even just a little more knowledge or clarification on matters as diverse as the gelatinization of starch molecules or the role gluten plays in bread structure. Carlos’ copy was soon underlined, cracked at the spine, and barely holding together. As an interest became a calling, he enrolled in the California Culinary Academy on Polk Street, gaining the confidence that led him to first apply to Winterland and eventually to Coi.

At the beginning, Carlos was one more cook in the cranking kitchen of the city’s hottest restaurant. Other than the initial greeting, he wasn’t sure if Patterson even knew he was there. That was fine with Carlos—every young cook wants to keep his head down and prove himself—but it was also about to change. One day, Patterson was attempting to make an Arpège, a trembling, barely set egg often served as an amuse-bouche, in a copper casserole on an induction burner. “He wanted to do it in a two-hundred-dollar Mauviel pot,” Carlos recalls. “But the induction was not engaging with the copper.” From his corner, Carlos mumbled something about how it could never happen, because copper isn’t magnetic, and magnetism is how inductive heat is trans-ferred. Patterson strained to listen, not quite understanding. Carlos grabbed a nearby fridge magnet and showed Patterson that though it was strong enough to hold up a sheaf of papers on the correct metallic surface, it would not stick to the pot he was using. From that day on, Patterson knew his name.

Finding your voice is a curious thing. It’s invariably more a winding than a linear process, so what might seem like an obvious influence doesn’t throw an internal switch. After a satisfying combo platter at El Farolito on 24th and Mission, Carlos didn’t decide he’d devote himself to crafting Mexican food. Instead of such a tidy trajectory, Carlos was about to enter that stage where disparate aspects of daily life lead to those things we want to articulate. Technical precision in cooking had given him an initial docking point, but the end result would be a new appreciation of the rougher, more immediate flavors tethered to his own heritage. As a child, when relatives visited from Mexico, they brought with them a mix of flavors that was foreign to him. They packed cheeses that were just a little tangier, concentrates of mole paste whose smell enveloped the house. And of course there were always candies for the kids. “These weren’t candies like I’d known. They were vegetable or squash or cactus candies. I hated them then for their earthiness.”

After a year at Coi, Carlos had become the pastry chef. He was now responsible for devising a suitable ending to the meal. These couldn’t be what he calls “museum pieces at the end of 11 courses,” but something that went with the rest of the experience—and its convictions. Those were heady days and nights, cycling home after his shift, down the Montgomery Street hill and south on the streets of the Mission, his head full of recipes and possible combinations. Instead of plopping into his gaming chair, he’d now “get in late and try and pirate ‘Iron Chef’ or Bourdain’s documentary on Ferran Adrià,” he recalls. A slow percolation was happening. Ingredients, memories of deep meaning, being reconceived as elements of fine dining.

In 2009, when James Syhabout asked him to be opening pastry chef at Commis, the Oakland restaurant he was planning, Carlos was surprised. “I didn’t think I was good enough to be poached,” he says, laughing at one of the rituals of the business. Syhabout had briefly been a chef de partie, responsible for one of the stations at Coi, but had left weeks before Carlos arrived. They’d met in the world of young chefs in San Francisco where the two bonded over their shared respect for Harold McGee’s work. The two also came from the same modest family-restaurant background and soon realized they had much in common.

The very name, Commis, is the title of a lowly assistant just learning his craft. Carlos was intent on justifying Syhabout’s faith in him, and carefully calibrated meals at the restaurant often came to a perfect ending in creations like a signature black Mission fig tart, served with a perfectly shaped quenelle of lavender, almond, and beeswax-scented ice cream. He had reached a different level than the one he’d been on at Coi. He was no longer the young cook driven by aesthetics, but by relationships between ingredients and even between the restaurant and the community in which it existed. And in Syhabout’s vision, Carlos saw encouragement for his. “He’d call me out when it wasn’t honest,” he recalls of Syhabout’s exhortation to always consider how the small restaurant was interacting and reflecting with its broader environment. That drove Carlos to forage in the hills above Oakland for wild fennel, borage, and lemon balm for sorbets, and it made him respect the $70 price for a five-course tasting menu that reflected Syhabout’s wish to have fine dining remain accessible to those who might not otherwise try it. Reviewers took note of this effort and perspective. “Any restaurant can fill you up,” Josh Sens wrote in San Francisco magazine. “Only a rare few leave you this fulfilled.”

I push my stool back from the counter at Taco Maria. Carlos is busy; his back is to the dining room as he shows one of his cooks how he wants something done. I’ve come to know this mall. During the day, there are olive oil tastings at one store, coffee roastings at another. Taco Maria brings people in, too, and at weekend brunch the counter and terrace fill with towheaded families eating his layered parfait, and molletes, rafts of grilled country bread freighted with a sauce of blistered tomatoes and chiles. At night it gets quiet though, very quiet. I walk out to the large parking lot and start for the freeway. Each time I approach the 405 onramp I’m struck by the knowledge that if I were to head south instead of north, I’d be at the Tijuana border crossing in less than two hours.

That geographical proximity played an indirect role in Carlos’ return. It underscored a tension that, hesitantly, he found himself wanting to address. He wanted his restaurant to be rooted—but what were his roots? And how would he frame what he was trying to express? It was one thing to charge $70 for a tasting menu in Oakland, but in the restaurant he’d grown up in you gave away big baskets of chips, and some customers got ticked off if you didn’t give them a free tub of salsa to take home as well. But Carlos came to understand that having such a heightened awareness of perceptions made it all the more incumbent on him to challenge them.

After discussing it with Syhabout, he publicly announced he’d be leaving Commis in May 2011. Staff changes in Michelin-starred restaurants get immediate
coverage, and the Chronicle wanted to know what he’d be doing back in Southern California. Salgado had an idea for a restaurant, the paper reported, “which
will specialize in what he calls ‘first generation Mexican-American food.’ ” That “what he calls” is rich. It really means, we have no idea what he’s talking about. Carlos wasn’t all that sure either, yet. But he knew he’d found the expressive place inside himself. He could return to Orange County with his knife roll. He was a chef who was ready to be heard.

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