Taco Maria - Costa Mesa, CA

Dinner - Friday, July 25, 2014

When Carlos Salgado decamped from Oakland's Commis some years ago, it made me sad - this was a man who was responsible for one of my favourite desserts of 2010. Then I heard he was moving to Southern California to run a food truck, and hope returned. Yet, as with many things, I never found the time. Indeed, it took four years, the opening of Salgado's brick-and-mortar location, and some pictures from Trey Foshee to prod me into action.

We stopped for dinner on the way up to LA. The small restaurant offers a 4-course prix fixe, with two choices per course. We ordered one of each, covering the whole menu. All I can say is, I am so glad that we finally managed to visit.

"Guacamole in the Japanese style"
Furikake, garlic chives, shiso
In lieu of bread, the kitchen sends out chips and dip - here, thick corn chips dusted with seaweed, served with a thick guacamole a la Japonais. Furikake is good on everything, so why not? The combination was fun and delicious (really, it's too bad they don't offer unlimited refills).

"Carne Apache"
Serrano, lime, crisp rice, egg yolk
Finely minced beef heart tartare, spread thin. Great, beefy taste balanced by the equally bold acid and heat. Relatively simple, but a very nicely seasoned dish.

Harry's tomatoes, queso fresco, avocado
Beautiful. Bright papalo (butterfly herb) leaves, flitting about a garden of baby tomatoes and avocado mousse. The herb has a peppery, punchy flavour - I've heard it can be challenging to some, but I've seen it used fairly liberally in tacos or sandwiches. The tomatoes were the best I've had this summer, just bursting with sweetness. Beneath the garden lay a mound of creamy queso fresco - I suppose that makes this a Chicano caprese.

"Gazpacho verde"
Cucumber, avocado, fennel, hyssop, blueberry
"Taco de Calemares"
Local squid, spot prawn, peanuts, chile-lime, purslane
The squid ink tortilla was expertly made - supple, flavourful, sturdy. Still, the fillings made for a few messy, but delicious bites. The contrast between the fleshy purslane, crunchy peanuts and seafood was especially delightful.

"Pescado al Pastor"
White sea bass, citrus, braised lettuce, squash blossoms, tomatillos
"Tomatillos fritos"
Fried tomatillos, cotija, chipil
"Lomo de Puerco"
Shelling beans, lavender, quelites
One of the cooks spent the evening devotedly grilling pork loins to perfection in front of our eyes - note the slight rosiness of the meat. Quelites is an umbrella term for a number of Mexican greens - tonight, I actually believe we were served radishes. The tender beans soaked up the porky (but light) broth - indeed, the whole dish was bright and refreshing.

"Mole de Pintada"
Carrots, fig, nasturtium
Ah, the pièce de résistance! Roasted guinea hen, crisp skin and all, atop a deep, earthy, thick mole. The mole was so good - a touch of heat, just enough to tantalize, with a panoply of spices lurking below the surface, none able to dominate the others. For sweetness, there were dried, wizened carrots - concentrated essence. A great meat course.

And with the delivery of some poppy seed brittle, the meal was over. No desserts from the humble Mr. Salgado these days, although there is hardly space for pastry, with just 3 or 4 cooks slinging dishes in the small kitchen - I loved the bare-bones cooking. No fuss or pretension - this is Costa Mesa, after all. A better deal would be hard to find. I hope to make it back here in short order.

Taco Maria
3313 Hyland Ave.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Phone: (714) 538-8444