Sitting at Taco Maria’s kitchen counter, I’m mesmerized by a flurry of mise en place action that’s intense and hushed. A blossom plucked here, a radish shaved there, steamy broth ladled as if it were holy water. Clearly my four-course prix fixe dinner is painstaking business. Each dish is a marvel of deeply considered modern Cal-Mex cuisine from chef-owner and O.C native Carlos Salgado. Even the stripped-down setting feels designed to direct all attention to the food.
Pink cara cara orange segments atop ruby beet slices are two layers of sweet-mellow versus vivid, pulled into focus by thick crema, puffy toasted quinoa, and dribbles of juicy jalapeno sauce. Poppy seeds freckle a butterfly-shaped tostada bearing fresh Dungeness crabmeat adorned with gems of tart kumquat, velvety avocado, and edible flowers. It’s oddly dainty for this Spartan venue, but tasty enough to mute the “precious” factor. Entrees with more machismo include earthy sunchokes with mushroom-based chorizo you wouldn’t guess is vegan, and the elegant pozole starring meltingly rich pork cheeks, cracked hominy, and umami-lush broth pungent with fermented Hatch chile. Lunch offerings are less reverent; this menu boasts the glorious, mole-laden tacos that enthralled Taco Maria disciples from its food truck beginnings. Go ahead, fall in love with the soft handmade corn tortillas. Everybody does. Also endearing is the huge Caesar salad that sparkles with silver ingots of fresh anchovies.
The dishes may be titled in Spanish, but they taste utterly of California. How lucky we are to have Salgado return from his years in the cutting-edge, restaurant-rich Bay Area. He labels Taco Maria’s fare “Chicano cuisine,” but I can’t resist translating that to emphasize the “ahh” in Chicano.
Prix fixe dinner: $52, wine pairings for $26 more; lunch: tacos, Caesar salad.
Dinner Wednesday through Saturday; lunch Tuesday through Saturday.
3313 Hyland Ave.
OC Mix 714-538-8444 tacomaria.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.