Review: Cal贸 Kitchen + Tequila Wows in Laguna Niguel

Expect top-notch execution and a gorgeous setting
Dramatic chandeliers add to the chic vibe. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

If not for the thrum of traffic on Crown Valley Parkway, Cal贸 Kitchen + Tequila could pass for a chic and breezy spot in a Baja beach resort. Bronzed ladies occupy at least half of the black-on-brass stools at the dramatic white marble bar manned by three frenzied margarita makers. It鈥檚 hard not to stare at so many people sitting close together, unmasked and beaming tequila-fueled smiles. The next normal has arrived in Laguna Niguel, and the locals couldn鈥檛 be giddier.

In May, after months of watching construction of the sprawling 160-seat newcomer, diners instantly swarmed this vibrant replacement for a long-fallow TGI Fridays. It鈥檚 hard to step wrong serving Mexican food in these parts. There鈥檚 always room for more.

Cal贸 already knows the dishes we can鈥檛 resist because its creators are the group behind Carmelita鈥檚 of Rancho Santa Margarita. The connection isn鈥檛 mentioned, but fans might detect culinary resemblances on the Cal贸 menu鈥攕ay, buttered white rice, hearty queso fundido, or the gratis black bean dip with high-grade chips. The 4,000-square-foot place demands a menu stuffed with choices, and the all-day lineup here overdelivers with familiar prospects. You鈥檒l find nothing new or original amid scores of聽starters and specialties, which include combination plates. Innovation isn鈥檛 the point, so execution is everything.

Who needs trendy takes on guacamole when the sole choice is this fresh, creamy, and precisely seasoned? It disappears pronto, followed by a generous mound of simple, immaculate shrimp ceviche destined to finish off that bowl of hefty chips. Fresh house salsa is mild, if people pleasing. Turn up聽the heat by asking about the chef鈥檚 habanero elixir hiding in the kitchen.

Shrimp ceviche, creamy guacamole, and hand-formed gorditas go well with modern cocktails such as the Mexico City Cosmo and Tamarindo Sour. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

To me, margaritas are mandatory with this fare. Cal贸 agrees, offering approachable, well-poured variations you know and love鈥擲errano spicy, fresh blackberry, and crisp cilantro cucumber. Cocktails with a Mexican accent have more modern allure鈥攔eposado and tart tamarind dovetail in the Tamarindo Sour; Tequila Honeybee splices Lobos reposado, mezcal, lemon, honey, and orange bitters. Warm queso fundido jazzed by mushrooms and longaniza sausage is ideal for offsetting such boozy indulgence. Hand-formed gorditas filled with garlicky potato and longaniza are also worthy cocktail neutralizers.

Portions across all categories are so generous that leaving here hungry is unimaginable. I could swear the grilled chile relleno loaded with carnitas grew bigger as I was eating it. Deliciously retro crispy beef tacos seem like diet food compared to the mighty short rib enchiladas with their thick tortillas, rich sauce, and roof of crispy onions. The perfectly ratioed chile verde tamale under smoky salsa quemada borders on oversized, but leftovers reheat well for a fine midnight snack. Corn and mushroom tacos are meatless, but they trounce the mild potato enchiladas, in part because they include umami-rich cheese and well-caramelized 鈥檚hrooms.

Be very hungry, or maybe split the best entrees. Crispy-edged juicy carnitas are as luscious as I remember them from Carmelita鈥檚. I鈥檓 betting it鈥檚 the same recipe, the one that uses the transformative powers of Coca-Cola in the marinade. The seafood trio is a deluxe affair showing off shrimp and lobster three ways. Pan-sizzled fresh halibut makes for laudable tacos鈥擝aja-style and almost virtuous compared to baked crab and shrimp enchiladas, laden in sour cream.

Agreeable desserts are the expected birthday suspects鈥攆lan, churros, tres leches cake, and fried ice cream. Not into something sweet? Consider a sipping tequila from a roster of choice bottles, from Casa Noble to Chinaco Negro.

Diners swoon over this in-your-face-fabulous setting, wide open and drenched in natural light. Theatric chandeliers cast a modernistic attitude, swaths of tile work show artisan finesse, and the neutral color scheme is of the moment. If not for a few fancy tequila bottles, you wouldn鈥檛 know this venue serves Mexican cuisine. Service is tiptop. The snappy team is well trained and well chosen. Servers have instant answers, and hosts are confident and gracious. Dirty dishes disappear like magic. This place is hyper intentional.

What a delightful reward for patient South Countians. Craveable eats, snazzy spirits, and welcoming hospitality ensure this high-profile corner is a winning destination once more.

28141 Crown Valley Parkway
Laguna Niguel

Shrimp ceviche
Chile relleno
Short rib enchiladas
Halibut tacos
Tamarindo Sour

Starters and salads, $12 to $26
Mains, $14 to $35

There are no reservations, but you can join the Yelp waiting list once you鈥檙e within 10 miles.

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