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Taco Maria brick + mortar 1st Report, Costa Mesa - Excellent Tasting Menu

Holy Guacamole, did we have an unexpectedly awesome meal at Taco Maria in the OC Mart Mix last week or what?!?

As a residents of L.A., we don't have much purpose to make OC a culinary destination, but a day chock full of appointments left us hungry, wanting, and behind the orange curtain. This used to be a dilemma, but lately, not so much. With the addition of Nick Weber at The Cannery, some decent Asian fare in the north county and Irvine, and some of the best donuts in the U.S. at Sidecar, we actually look forward to our forays down south nowadays.

And now, with Carlos Salgado (Coi, Commis) opening his brick+mortar offshoot of his truck Taco Maria, we have even more reason to shoot down the 405 for something other than Manpuku.

Housed in the OC Mart Mix which is possibly cooler than anything we have going in LA (sorry Helms Bakery), OC Mart Mix houses Portola Coffee Lab, a nice little cheese shop, a wine and olive oil tasting bar, Shuck Oyster Bar, ARC Wood Oven Restaurant, Greenfield's, a rad climbing coop, and a handful of fun, well merchandised non-chain boutique stores - all dropped in the middle of SOCO - essentially OC's design center...oh, and they have an awesome Surfas Restaurant Supply.

We had eaten at the truck once before early last year and were frankly underwhelmed. Maybe because we were eating in a parking lot on a cold January evening. Maybe it was an off night. But the food we had at the restaurant is very different indeed.

The wine pairing by Thomas (Coi, Central Kitchen) was stellar. Leave the wine bags at home fellas. You don't even want to attempt pair-your-own here.

On the one hand, it makes sense to carryover the Taco Maria name, but it might be confusing to those expecting a tacqueria. This is high chicano cuisine hecho in Orange County, my friends. Think of it as Cocina Maria. Not a mediocre dish in the bunch. Always impressed when a chef can pull off every dish. The tasting menu is four courses with a choice of two, so we managed to order the entire menu.

The quality of the food was superb, the execution near perfect. It was akin to some of our best haute cuisine meals in Mexico City. Service was spot on. Come on...guacamole with figs and pistachio. Ah hem, rice and beans not included.

PALATE CLEANSER
cucumber, cilantro, acid
Wish I knew all of what was in this, but it was light, awakening, herbaceous.

PAPALO
cherry tomato, butterfly herb, queso fresco, radish, avocado, baby watermelon cucumber
2011 Eola Hills Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Oregon

GUACAMOLE
crushed avocado, figs, pistachio, flax chips
2011 Cachett Grenache Rosé Gard Languedoc -Roussillon France

HUAUZONTLES
quinoa fritters, goosefoot herb, ricotta, green tomato
2007 Damien Lareau Chenin Blanc 'Les Genet' Savennieres France

SOPA
corn soup with huitlacoche
2008 August Kesseler Riesling-Silvaner Halbtrocken Rheingau Germany

JARDINEROS
shiitake, rajas, queso Oaxaca, epazote
2010 Marcheti Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi Marche Italy

PESCADO AL PASTOR
pacific ling cod, achiote, pineapple, cabbage
Vinho Verde, can't remember producer, slightly effervescent, we actually could have gone dyslexic with one or two of these tastings

MOLE
mary’s chicken, cocoa bean, chile, date, almond
1994 Blandy’s Malsmey Madeira Spain

ARRACHERA
wood-grilled hanger steak, nopalitos, corn, bacon
2007 Henry’s Drive Shiraz Padthaway Australia

$42 Four Course Tasting Menu
$24 Beverage Pairing

We'll be back before he changes to the Fall Menu.

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  1. Thanks for the report. Mole and Madeira! How'd that work for you?

    2 Replies
    1. re: JAB

      We were a little confused when those tiny glasses came out. Okay, dessert course? Seemed a little earlier, but we're reaching our salient point. Then came the mole.

      It's a genius pairing.

      1. re: revets2

        I'm thinking that the wife is going to have to fight me for her fair share of that course.

    2. Hell, reservation made.

      1. I am glad you liked this place. We have been waiting for this place to open up for a few months now. We will try it this weekend.

        1. FYI they are only open for dinner right now. We made the mistake thinking they would have a similar menu to their truck for lunch. We settled for greenleaf across the fountain. They are working on lunch but didn't have an ETA when I spoke to somebody at the Taco Maria.

          10 Replies
          1. re: js76wisco

            Sorry to not have mentioned that. Correct. Only a tasting menu and only dinner right now.

            Carlos says lunch is planned soon and may look more like the truck menu.

              1. re: revets2

                The salad was great, same quality as the CM and BH location. My favorites are the cobb salad and Mexplosion with chicken. A little pricey for salads but a big portion and quality ingredients.

                I found this location a little hectic. Very crowded and hard to find seating. The staff was also still getting up to speed. We sat down and they give you numbers for your order. On 3 different occasions somebody came and gave us the wrong salad because they recycle numbers. I was there with a party of 8 and it took about 15 minutes for our entire party to get salads even though we ordered altogether. I'm sure they'll get better over time.

              2. re: js76wisco

                They're doing lunch now.

                Completely worth going.

                The place is spectacular.

                The Alma of OC.

                1. re: Stravinsky

                  Thanks for the info. What's on the lunch menu?

                  1. re: revets2

                    Tacos! I am sure it changes. But Mushroom Tacos, Chicken Mollo Tacos, Sablefish (battered), and Hangar Steak + Bacon.

                    Plus various apps. Huazontles. A very interesting guacomole with pistachios, and grapes, and flax chips. A salad of some sort, and a ceviche of some sort.

                    Everything to be eaten with knife and fork though really. It's not you average taco experience at all.

                    1. re: Stravinsky

                      I think their dinner is a better value than lunch. we had lunch there about 10 days ago and I felt the fish tacos at $15 was delicious, but a tiny portion. For that price they should give a side of something like veggies to satisfy you. The hanger steak tacos at $16 was a much better value. They told us they will start brunch soon.

                       
                       
                      1. re: mrsjoujou

                        Did you order an appetizer?

                        I was pretty satisfied after 1 pp + tacos.

                        It's an expensive lunch, but this is also probably the best restaurant in Orange County. One should probably expect to drop $30 on lunch there.

                        I suppose dinner probably is a better value in that you'd get 2 more courses for another $20.

                        Still, it's nice to be able to sample the fare they are offering if you don't feel like putting down a full $50.

                        1. re: Stravinsky

                          Yes we had the Aguachile and it was delicious.

              3. Really enjoyed our meal tonight. They changed the menu up somewhat from the sample menu on their web site and what revets2 posted above. Very comfortable and accommodating. A nice combination of updated classics and Alta Cucina. The Madeira and Mole is an inspired pairing. Get here before they raise the prices.

                6 Replies
                  1. re: mrsjoujou

                    I wish that I had asked for a menu to take home. The Palate Cleanser was a drink that had some spice as well as a granita of melon a nice contrast. The first course was the Papalo as described above and a cauliflower dish with pumpkin seeds and dried blue berries. 2nd was the Guacomole and Hauazontles. 3rd was the Jardineros and Pescado al Pastor. The Jardineros were one of the best vegetable dishes I've ever had. 4th was chicken mole enchiladas with the inspired pairing with Madeira and pork chile verde which had the only pairing mistake of the night with a heavy red. We were given 2 pecan sandy like cookies for desert as well. Are you still going this weekend?

                    1. re: JAB

                      Thank you and I just made my reservation. Hopefully our experience will be as great as yours.

                      1. re: mrsjoujou

                        We have been customers of Taco Maria truck for a long time. We even went to their last truck service at SOCO and stood in long lines and because of high demand ended up with a couple of veggie tacos, since everything else was sold out. We waited a few months for their restaurant to open up and talked about them constantly. They opened right before we were leaving for vacation, so when we got back, we made reservation for their chef counter and were not disappointed. Right now they only serve dinner with brunch and lunch coming soon. We had read that they only offered a four course tasting menu for $42, but when we got there our waitress informed us that we could order À la carte also. Since this was our first time and we wanted to support them, we went for the tasting menu. For each course, you had two choices. My husband ordered a glass of Pinot Gris. We were surprised how small the pour was and when I mentioned it to our waitress, she informed us, that it was a five ounce pour. We started with Melon Granita and it was a very refreshing start. Papalo was Cherry Tomato, Butterfly Herb, Queso Fresco, Radish, Avocado. This dish was our favorite; the tomatoes were the most delicious and flavorful tomatoes we have had since Bestia. Califlor was Cauliflower, Sunflower, Dried Blueberry, Piloncillo Vinegar; it was very tasty and pretty. The roasted Cauliflower went very well with the sweet blueberries and the vinegar gave it a nice acidity. Guacamole was Crushed Avocado, Figs, Pistachio, Flax. It was a nice twist on Guacamole but it needed a little squeeze of lemon to brighten the flavors. I really loved the home made Flax Chips that was served with it. So far we were up to a great start and were really impressed with the food. Huauzontles was Quinoa Fritters, Goosefoot, Ricotta, Green Tomato. It had a nice earthy taste and it went very well with the green tomato sauce. Pescado Al Pastor was Grilled Amberjack, Achiote, Pineapple, Fennel, Cabbage. We have never had Amberjack before and it was prepared on the wood burning grill. We really enjoyed the taste of the mild fish with the crunchiness of the cabbage and sweetness of the pineapple. Jardineros was Shittake Mushrooms, Rajas, Queso Oaxaca, Epazote. By this time I was kind of full and thought it was a nice dish, but nothing exciting. At this time we were treated to a taste of their Madeira and some other wine. We thought it was very nice of them to do that. We moved on to Chile Verde and it was Berkshire Pork, Tomatillo, Carrot, Crema, Warm Spices. I took two small bites and it was a very flavorful dish with a delicious Tomatillo sauce. I enjoyed the left overs the next day. My husband had the Mole Enchilada that was Mary’s Chicken, Chile, Chocolate, Date, Almond. I tasted the Mole and it was nice, but he said the chicken was on the dry side. We concluded our dinner with delicious cookies and went and shook Chef Carlos Salgado hand and thanked him for a wonderful dinner. We can’t wait for brunch and lunch to start. We finally have a Modern, high quality Mexican food in OC.

                      2. re: JAB

                        Yup, seems like pork chile verde would need to go back to the Riesling.

                        Now you've got me itchin' to go back. I'm in LA, but it's totally worth the drive!

                        1. re: revets2

                          Or a Pinot Noir at the heaviest if they insist on a red pairing.

                  2. Thanks for the report!

                    Sounds like a winner and will definitely be trying soon.

                    1. What a pleasure to have dinner here last night. Chef Salgado said he's trying to start lunch service next week.

                       
                      1. Another great meal at Taco Maria for Chef Carlos Salgado's October menu. All the wine pairings were solid as well except for the last course. Probably just not our style of wine. Can't believe it's only $42 for the tasting menu and $24 for the pairing. Patchwork Festival was there at the same time and it made for a great food day.

                        This is very exciting for Orange County!

                        ESPINACAS
                        savoy spinach, pink grapefruit,avocado,coriander
                        2011 Bodegas Shaya Verdejo ‘Arindo’ Rueda Spain
                        or
                        AGUACHILE
                        pacific snapper, cress, watermelon jam, Ensenada olive oil
                        2007 Peregrine Riesling Central Otago New Zealand

                        GUACAMOLE
                        avocado,fig,pistachio, flax
                        2011 Paco & Lola Albariño Rías Baixas Spain
                        or
                        HUAUZONTLES
                        quinoa fritters, goosefoot herb, ricotta, green tomato
                        NV Casa Vinicola Zonin Prosecco Veneto Italy

                        JARDINEROS
                        shiitake, rajas, queso, alliums
                        2011
                        Marcheti Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi Marche Italy
                        or
                        CALLO de HACHA
                        scallop, cauliflower, coconut, finger lime
                        2008 A. Kesseler Riesling - Silvaner Halbtrocken Rheingau Germany

                        ARROZ con POLLO
                        mary’s chicken, toasted farro, hosui pear,anise
                        2007 Damien Laureau Chenin Blanc 'Les Genet' Savennieres France
                        or
                        ARRACHERA
                        hanger steak, onion, quelites, bone marrow
                        2007 Henry’s Drive Shiraz Padthaway Australia

                        1. hmm sounds very interesting, will have to try next time im home

                          1. Every bit as good as you said it was. Kinda like the Red Medicine of Mexican food. Chef trained in SF at Coi and Commis. The quality of the food reflects that. A small intimate space. Clean, classic, and confortable. Get a seat at the country so you can watch the chefs work.

                            Every dish was delicious. As a solid carnivore, the shiitake mushrooms with queso and poblano chiles was outstanding and may have been the best dish of the night along with the shellfish pozole.bthe kale leaves were dried/fried so they were crispy and savory like nori. Very clever actually.

                            As far as I know, LA has nothing like this and should.

                            http://www.tacomaria.com/menu_preview...

                             
                             
                             
                             
                             
                            4 Replies
                              1. re: JAB

                                Bring one buy one. Corkage waived for every bottle purchased.

                              2. re: Porthos

                                Glad you liked it, Porthos. Thanks for the report. Agree, the shitake dish is transcendent.

                                Encourage all to give the wine pairing a try. At $24 it's a buy. Tomas does a great job with the pairings and I gotta give snaps to any restaurant that does pairings that elevate the food.

                                Someone who makes one of the great Sonoma pinots agrees the pairing is the best way to go...and the staff is well-trained and understands the wines. As said before, we have brought our own red for the red meat dish at the end as Aussie shiraz is not our fave, but if you're good with oak, you'll like it.

                                The menu has changed even from early October. Can't wait to get back.

                                1. re: revets2

                                  That's exactly what I did. The white selection has everything covered. The red selection didn't have anything I liked so I brought a red.

                              3. Complicating this post is that the menu which I painstakingly took notes on somehow ended up disappearing. Luckily the menu online seems to be accurate. This is still more of a general experience post, and not as detailed as I would like when disagreeing with what seems to be a really knowledgeable group of hounds.

                                General recap: kitchen seemed to be having an off night and be in the weeds, everything was cooked perfectly but actual seasoning/flavors were very disappointing. We disliked wine pairings but that was our own fault, we should have looked more carefully and realized the pairings were not our taste. We also left hungry. At $175 all said and done we just weren't happy.

                                Amuse: a beet granita concoction of some sort paired with what tasted like half prosecco(?) and straight lemon juice.

                                1. Rockfish crudo (we both passed on salad) - we both are a sucker for crudo, or raw fish of any kind. This says "citrus" and they aren't kidding. The citrus again was just over the top and overwhelmed the delicious watermelon jam and great rockfish. We actively tried to shake off any of the citrus juice on the fish before we ate it. Way heavy handed., with just a few squeezes or dabs of the citrus juice it could’ve been a really great dish.

                                2. Guacomole - pretty tasty and nice twist with grapes but it was still...guacamole. I didn’t love the flax chips but that’s more of a personal preference.
                                Kabocha squash tamale - again, tasty enough, moist, perfectly executed but still a tamale to me, none of the flavors shone and it didn't seemed elevated enough.

                                3. Cheesy mushrooms :) - obviously these were good. But at this point in the evening with the slow pacing we were starting to get a little down on the meal, tipsy off all the wine the server kept serving to keep us busy, and just really hungry.
                                Pozole – again with the heavy handed citrus! This was actually good and the citrus worked better here but just not quite filling enough for this point in the meal.

                                4. Chicken: I’d say it’s the best cooked chicken I’ve had since the French Laundry. But, also again, no flavors popped here, it was very bland.
                                Hangar steak: I don’t remember tasting any bone marrow here. From what I remember it was a well cooked steak. Period.

                                The almond cookies served after were good…

                                The complex, layered flavors I was looking for were not anywhere to be found. The food was very well executed as far as how well it was cooked but simply, nothing was memorable. I do like more “in your face” sort of flavors, which I expected to find here being Mexican food, but most items were either not flavorful or had one note (citrus) to them.

                                A couple points here:
                                -I have been to many prix fixe, tasting menu restaurants. I actually worked at one for two years. I despise when people complain about portion sizes because by the end of the meal you always find yourself very full. And despise the “I guess we should go get a burger” jokes. But really, we both left here very hungry.
                                - The kitchen seemed slammed. Our courses, and the surrounding tables, were definitely having pacing issues where courses had an extremely long wait between them. Whether the server wasn’t firing them at the right pace, or kitchen was busy, who knows. From the servers reaction it did seem to be unusual so perhaps I hit on the inevitable off night.

                                *Ready to have rotten eggs thrown at me for disagreeing with the consensus"

                                12 Replies
                                1. re: PHXeater

                                  AGUACHILE
                                  Rockfish crudo, serrano, citrus, watermelon jam
                                  2007 Peregrine Riesling Central Otago New Zealand
                                  ----
                                  GUACAMOLE
                                  avocado, concord grape, pistachio, flax
                                  2011 Paco & Lola Albariño Rías Baixas Spain

                                  or

                                  TAMAL de CALABAZA
                                  kabocha squash, panela, pipian verde
                                  NV Casa Vinicola Zonin Prosecco Veneto Italy
                                  -----
                                  JARDINEROS
                                  shiitake,chile poblano, queso, caramelized alliums
                                  2011Marcheti Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi Marche Italy

                                  or

                                  POZOLE de MOLUSCOS
                                  shellfish, hominy, brassica, young meyer lemon
                                  2011 Eola Hills Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Oregon
                                  -----
                                  ARROZ con POLLO
                                  Mary’s chicken, toasted farro, hosui pear, fennel
                                  2007 Damien Laureau Chenin Blanc 'Les Genet' Savennieres France

                                  or

                                  ARRACHERA
                                  hanger steak,onion, quelites, bone marrow
                                  2007Henry’s Drive Shiraz Padthaway Australia
                                  ----
                                  four course prix fixe 44
                                  beverage pairings 24

                                  1. re: PHXeater

                                    Well, Aquaschile is supposed to be very acidic and certainly not a few drops of citrus. It's typically swimming in a pool of lime juice and green chile. Perhaps the expectation set by the crudo description would have explained that aquaschile is more ceviche style than crudo. Usually the complaint is that the serrano can be a wine killer.

                                    I would be worried if you tasted any bone marrow on the hangar. It's finished with marrow instead of butter.

                                    No rotten eggs. Everyone's experience is their own!

                                    $175 for how many people?

                                  2. re: PHXeater

                                    No rotten eggs here. Perhaps, a combination of expectations combined with a slammed kitchen?

                                    Now, if you hadn't of liked the "Cheesy mushrooms"...

                                    1. re: PHXeater

                                      what did you go for afterwards? tacos?

                                      1. re: TonyC

                                        @TonyC - Haha! We just had more wine at home, bad idea!

                                        @JAB - Agreed. The disappointment really was a combination of sky high expectations, kitchen having an off night, us ordering the pairings when we should've just ordered by the glass, and them plying us with extra wine which then made us extra hungry! Perfect storm perhaps?

                                        And I just think "cheesy mushrooms" is a great description for a tasty dish, although I know it was far more complex than that! Now if only the bowl had been shaped to lick off the last drops.

                                        @Revets - The aguachile background helps explain things since it really was swimming in citrus. But I love ceviche and strong flavors and I just don't know if this was how it was supposed to be. Interested to hear if anyone else has the dish and their thoughts on it. The service wasn't bad throughout but the explanations were rushed which could be why I was wondering where my bone marrow was :)

                                        $175 for two. Which isn't a huge amount, but I expect to leave satisfied at that price.

                                        No eggs thrown, WHEW!

                                        1. re: PHXeater

                                          Try aquaschiles at a place like Coni Seafood and you'll get the idea of how that dish should be.

                                          I don't think Chef Carlos is going for big, bold flavors for every dish which I think many tapas-type restaurants need to strive for (eg. Animal, SOG, Playground, T&R). I think the point of his tasting menu is to take your taste buds on a progressive journey. Not on the same level, but not so different than your experience at FL.

                                          For two tasting menus and pairings for two, your total must have included tax and tip, right?

                                          1. re: revets2

                                            I don't think Chef Carlos is going for big, bold flavors for every dish which I think many tapas-type restaurants need to strive for
                                            =======================
                                            The cooking is quite refined and refreshing. The shitake queso dish shows the skill in spades. Sure he can top it with bacon, fried pig ears, or a fried egg like everyone else but the restraint and focus is much appreciated.

                                            1. re: Porthos

                                              Thanks, Porthos. "Restraint" was the word I was looking for.

                                          2. re: PHXeater

                                            Is it all just tasting menus here ?

                                            Or can you order individual dishes ?

                                            For some reason, this joint was not on my radar, but then again it's in the OC.

                                            1. re: kevin

                                              Tasting menu only with a choice of two at dinner.
                                              http://www.tacomaria.com/menu_preview...

                                              Lunch menu is salad, aquaschiles, tamal and tacos a la carte.
                                              http://www.tacomaria.com/menu_preview...

                                              The January dinner menu is terrific. Only thought the aquaschiles was a little spicier than it usually is and that can be a tough way to start dinner and a wine killer, for sure. All other dishes were stellat (and the aquaschiles with the guava jam usually is).

                                              You should hit that, Kev.

                                              1. re: revets2

                                                Interesting. And it's tasting menu only.

                                                And it's only well not only but you get my point about $45 for dinner but if you go for lunch it's already $35.

                                                Btw for the dinner tasting, is it possible to mention shit that I don't want to eat ? Or is it completely there way or the hwy ?????

                                                Also, would it work nicely for a meal dining solo ?

                                                I might have a meeting uo there in scopula weeks so it may just work.

                                                1. re: kevin

                                                  There's a counter with a view to the kitchen that would be great for solo dining.

                                      2. Had an amazing meal here on Saturday. One of the most memorable meals of the past 6 months (the other was Carbone in NYC). For $73 the four course tasting menu with wine pairing is an absolute steal for the quality. The chefs behind the counter work seamlessly together. A very quiet kitchen but meticulous in cleaning plates, warming them in the salamander and using tongs to place cilantro leaves individually on each plate.

                                        The aguachile was scallops with guava jam, serrano and lime. The balance of flavors, heat, sweet, citrus was amazing. One of the best preparations of a raw seafood dish ever. I could have drank up the liquid at the bottom. There was a nice lingering heat and numbness similar to Szechuan peppercorns.

                                        The corn tamale was the best tamale we've ever eaten. Moist, tender, sweet and delicious. Great balance with the spicy green salsa. I am not a huge tamale fan because most versions are very dense and dry. This tamale had the consistency almost of a sponge cake. So good.

                                        The crab rice porridge was good. There were 2 big pieces of meat. The rice itself had a very citrusy and seafood broth around the edges. We enjoyed the dish but the tamale stole the 2nd act.

                                        The 3rd act was a split between the papas bravas with mushroom chorizo and the veracruz snapper with cauliflower sauce. Both dishes were fantastic. It was almost like eating new foods we've never had before. The mushroom choriza was savory and had a great garnish of deep fried brussell sprout leaves. This would have been great as a taco. The fish was perfectly cooked with a great crispy skin. The cauliflower sauce was creamy and must have included a nice amount of cheese. You could have spread that sauce on a shoe.

                                        The last dish unfortunately was our biggest letdown. The pork shoulder pozole was actually a good dish but didn't wow us like the previous 3 courses. The pork was fork tender in a nice green tomatillo like sauce. The hominy had an interesting texture. There was a crispy radish which was delicious, never had radish in this way. If we ordered this dish at another restaurant we would have been very pleased. The other option was duck with rice which we regretted not sharing but my wife isn't a huge duck person.

                                        The only disappointment is no dessert. No dessert almost anywhere in the whole place. N'ice Cream closes at like 8. ARC does not have dessert. The only option was Iron Press so we decided to drive over to Fairview and get some confetti. All in all a fantastic meal.

                                        1. What a great place! Had dinner there with my vegetarian partner a few days ago, and everything was terrific. This is really a unique place in many ways. First, the food is not at all like what you will find at most Mexican restaurants, it is far more complex and sophisticated in almost every way. Second, pretty much everything is prepared to order, and most dishes are very labor intensive…there are six persons working in the small open kitchen of this pretty small restaurant. Third, Chef Carlos, although of Mexican heritage, is classically trained, and has worked extensively in high end American/French restaurants. Fourth, at dinner the menu is unique and quite limited in that it is strictly a four course tasting menu with 2 choices for each course (8 offerings in all), but Fifth, unlike many contemporary chefs/restaurants Chef Carlos is most gracious and happy to adjust his offerings to accommodate guests dietary requirements whether they be vegetarian, vegan, or even gluten-free! Indeed, more than just accommodating…he personally cooked up two vegetarian dishes á la minute especially for my partner…and they were both delicious.

                                          There are so many flavors and things going on with the various offerings, and since the menu apparently changes with great frequency, I'll not go into specifics regarding the food other than to say that we had nothing that wasn't at least very good…indeed pretty much everything was delicious and terrific.

                                          The wine list is carefully thought out, and our service was excellent…warm, friendly and very knowledgeable about the food. The one "missing thing" is that they serve no desserts and/or coffee. We were told that "desserts are coming". Don't know about coffee, but the Portola Coffee Lab is adjacent to TM.

                                          Run, don't walk to this wonderful restaurant (but do reserve, and let them know if you have any special dietary needs)!

                                          6 Replies
                                          1. re: josephnl

                                            Glad you liked it. This place is truly special. On par with LA's best.

                                            1. re: josephnl

                                              I looked at web site and didn't see any way to reserve.

                                              I also didn't see any way to contact them re cilantro allergy.

                                              About how long would it take us from Fairfax district?

                                              Muchas gracias

                                                1. re: Fine

                                                  If you go to www.tacomaria.com, below the days and hours open, it says "Reserve Online" in blue. It's easy to miss.

                                                  You can also call (714) 538-8444 to reserve and explain your allergy.

                                                  From Fairfax, it would really depend what day you go and when you leave. We're in LA too and typically go when there's a meeting down south. We also leave early and work at Portola coffee. SOCO/OCMartMix is a great place to hang out. There's unique shopping, Surfas, good coffee and tea. It's a very unique space and though Helms is similar, we don't really have anything like it in LA.

                                                  1. re: revets2

                                                    Good point. You can take care of some work earlier with good coffee at Portila along with the siphon shit and then it's off to Maria.

                                                    1. re: kevin

                                                      A nice paddle board around Newport Harbor to burn some pre-dinner calories is fun or champagne and oysters at Shuck works too ;).

                                                      Anything to distract from going to Sidecar, the destination of a million irresistible calories...for us anyways.

                                              1. Any recent reports re: lunch? Planning to try in a couple of weeks, but aguachile + 2 tacos = ~$30 better be damn good.

                                                6 Replies
                                                1. re: chrishei

                                                  I haven't been for lunch but judging from lunch pictures, I'm guessing it's not going to provide you with the experience dinner does. Would hate for you to spend $30 and ask what the big deal is when $44 at dinner is what makes it special.

                                                  Go for dinner or head over to El Cabrito for birria plate and consommé.

                                                  1. re: Porthos

                                                    Thanks guys.

                                                    Yeah I know dinner is where it's at, but I have dinner plans that night in SD. Wanted to cross something off my to-dine list on the way down, and Taco Maria is at the very top. Any other suggestions? Doesn't have to be Mexican.

                                                    1. re: chrishei

                                                      Birria at El Cabrito

                                                      Ramen Zetton for #4 special chicken shoyu.

                                                      1. re: Porthos

                                                        Thanks Porthos. Will take a look at both.

                                                  2. re: chrishei

                                                    We tried their lunch menu twice and liked the steak tacos but their menu is very limited and I wish they offerd more than tacos and a couple of appetizers.

                                                    1. re: chrishei

                                                      Lunch is very different from the dinner experience but is still quite tasty, although the price point is more than I typically like to spend on lunch. That being said, the agiachile and tacos (I tried the carne/bacon and co-pibil ones) are all really great.

                                                    2. Had the Feb menu last night. It was amazing. Uploaded the courses. Dinner is a steal for the quality and the price. They will begin to have a Sunday Brunch soon!!!

                                                       
                                                       
                                                       
                                                       
                                                       
                                                      1. My gosh, went here tonight for the March menu. They are getting better and better.

                                                        Had the aguachile with kanpachi crudo. In my opinion, the kanpachi worked better than the scallops they had last month. Although I am not particularly well versed in aguachile, I will say this dish is superb. Compared to Coni's version, I would say the one at Taco Maria is more citrusy rather than spicy and a bit creamier. Probably my favorite dish of the night.

                                                        Then the tostada de cangrejo which was basically a crab-coated tostada with avocado and kumquat. Lighter than I expected it to be--very very good. Not sure what the "chip" was made of but I'm still craving it now.

                                                        Next up was the esturion which was a a wild sturgeon (caught on the Columbia river if memory serves me.) Also had a bit of caviar and small chunks of potatoes and some flowers--served in a crema. There was also some meyer lemon that gave the dish a bit of a zest.

                                                        Finally, I chose a pork cheek stew/soup instead of guinea fowl served in a mole poblano. The soup had cattle beans (as they call them) along with cabbage, orange, and chamomile. This was definitely a heartier dish--especially compared to everything else they served. But like everything else, it was really quite good.

                                                        This comparison might be a bit off, but the place reminds me of my one visit to Alma. Very seasonal, fresh-tasting food. Inventive without completely crossing the boundaries. Small, friendly place in a random area. The waitress remembered my girlfriend and I from about a month ago-- that definitely impressed me.

                                                        For a tasting menu place, Taco Maria does a really good job of balancing the amount of food. Not one of those places that makes you want to hit up a taco truck after, but also not one of those places (like Trois Mec IMO) where you can hardly finish the last courses.

                                                        In short, I cannot praise this place enough. And for 49 dollars or whatever it is (I think the price has gone up a bit since it opened) it is a remarkable deal. Get here now.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: set0312

                                                          "This comparison might be a bit off, but the place reminds me of my one visit to Alma. "

                                                          I felt the same way on my visit.

                                                          It's really a great place. I wonder if they will ever expand beyond their smaller tasting format. You can feel the potential in everything they do there.

                                                        2. It just keeps getting better and better. The food is as refined and complex as anything in LA right now. For my tastes, runs circles around Rivera. Like Alma but better.

                                                          -Beets, satsuma, quinoa. A superior beet dish.

                                                          -Aguachile with hamachi and cherimoya. Better than the first time. I love the fact the heat and acid is not dumbed down. Boldly spicy and acidic. If you can't take the heat, take a larger swath of the cherimoya puree.

                                                          -Sopa de Chicharrone with asparagus veloute. Amazing. So fine.

                                                          -Tostata de camarones with kumquat, avocado, poppy seed. As delicious as it looks.

                                                          -"Chorizo con patacas" made with brussel sprouts, sunchokes, mushroom chorizo (mushroom with chorizo spices). Completely vegetarian and satisfying for this carnivore.

                                                          -Black cod with potatoes, peas, pea leaves, caviar. Perfect with the 2010 Pierre Yves Colin Morey Chassagne Montrachet 1er Les Caillerets we brought.

                                                          -Lamb birria and lamb chop. Lamb chop served on top a bed of spring peas. The epitome of spring.

                                                          -Guinea hen with mole and braised dates. Also better than the first time. Skin perfectly crispy, breast as perfectly cooked as the poulet fermier at Joel Robuchon or chicken stuffed with black truffles at Daniel.

                                                          -Mexican marshmallows.

                                                          Perfect with a party of 2 because you can try one of everything.

                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                           
                                                          18 Replies
                                                          1. re: Porthos

                                                            Gotta get down there for this menu. Thanks for the beautiful pics.

                                                            1. re: Porthos

                                                              Gosh this place is good.

                                                              Is this the April menu? Looks very similar to the March menu I had but it looks like a few different things are going on here. I specifically don't remember the lamb option.

                                                              Those tostatas are superb. I feel if Animal served them they would be hailed as one of the best dishes of the year.

                                                              1. re: set0312

                                                                I feel if Animal served them they would be hailed as one of the best dishes of the year.
                                                                =============
                                                                Exactly how I feel! Except I don't think anything at Animal is this light and refined.

                                                                The beet dish would be raved about at Gjelina. The chorizo mushroom with brussel sprouts dish deemed genius if done by Josef Centeno. The cod with potatoes (slightly smokey) accented with pea leaves is something you could see at Hatfield's, Alma, or even Providence.

                                                                The leaves on the lamb are fava leaves. There is a nice texture to them a bit similar to nasturtium and a hint of lemony flavor that really makes it interesting. First time I've had fava leaves at any restaurant.

                                                                This level of cooking and focus on seasons reminds me of more of a top end restaurant in SF than anything here in LA. Makes sense given the chef's background.

                                                                1. re: Porthos

                                                                  How much was the meal per person ??????

                                                                  Thanks.

                                                                  1. re: kevin

                                                                    Dinner is pre-fixe @ $49 pp + alcohol, tax and tip. There are 4 courses with 2 choices in each category. Menu might seem very limited, but Chef Carlos is extremely flexible in handling dietary requirements. This restaurant is a jewel!

                                                                  2. re: Porthos

                                                                    Hey I saw all this activity and to touch on what you said Porthos, I am in SF now, and yesterday had the Beef tendon puffs at Alta, they were good but the Chicarons at Taco Maria have them beat right now. You are correct this place is amazing esp for the pricing

                                                                2. re: Porthos

                                                                  "Lamb, the epitome of spring". We could have used your vote for this month's DOM.

                                                                  1. re: JAB

                                                                    Wanted DirtyWEO to get her shellfish ;)

                                                                  2. re: Porthos

                                                                    I love Taco Maria. Something that OC can really be proud of! Also, Colin Morey makes some incredible Burgs, on par with some of the the Grand Crus I've had. I really enjoyed their 2009 En Remily and Meursault les perrieres

                                                                    1. re: kdoc

                                                                      Who is Colin Morey, and where do you get these "Burgs"?

                                                                        1. re: JAB

                                                                          Sorry…I still don't get it. What is the connection with Taco Maria? Do they feature his wines? Do you think that Burgs go well with the food served at TM?

                                                                          1. re: josephnl

                                                                            The only connection is that Porthos BYOB'd that wine to Taco Maria and stated that it paired perfectly with the Black Cod.

                                                                            1. re: JAB

                                                                              I see now too.

                                                                              Damn, I better it this shit up before it becomes $75 for the prixe-fixe instead of the still spendy $50 per.

                                                                              1. re: kevin

                                                                                Well, unless they start doing more courses, that seems unlikely. They're already pretty spendy. They are charging $12.25 per course. Compare that to Maude charging $8.30 per course, or even Orsa & Winston, at $12. It would be kind of ridiculous for them to go up any more.

                                                                    2. re: Porthos

                                                                      "Perfect with a party of 2 because you can try one of everything." This really is the way to go.

                                                                    3. There's only four courses for $49 ??????

                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                      1. re: kevin

                                                                        You're joking I assume. Considering the quality of the food, the complexity of the preparations, and the á la minute work of the multiple cooks/chefs, it's a bargain at $48 for 4 courses.

                                                                        1. re: josephnl

                                                                          Agreed, sit at the counter, and it's dinner and a show.

                                                                      2. Wow. 2 weeks later and the menu has already changed again. So impressive.

                                                                        Amuse Bouche of unripe mulberries, pickles, salt, and some sort of delicious vinaigrette.

                                                                        Blood and Chocolate clam aquachile. The clams are so crisp and sweet. The blood clam silky and meaty at the same time.

                                                                        Dining companion had a shellfish allergy so they whipped up a hamachi aquachile on the spot.

                                                                        The rabbit with mole was excellent. Perfectly cooked roulade of white meat. Mini rabbit ribs. Served with carrots. Genius!

                                                                        On to the photos.

                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                         
                                                                        9 Replies
                                                                        1. re: Porthos

                                                                          Nice report, but what I really want to know is what you had to drink with it! :)

                                                                          1. re: kdoc

                                                                            Exactly, how can we live vicariously thru you without the gratuitous wine bottle line up shot?

                                                                            1. re: kdoc

                                                                              I went again last week, and had the wine pairing. It's worth it. They paired sake with the clam dish and i can't remember the rest

                                                                            2. re: Porthos

                                                                              i'll hit it up shortly.

                                                                              is there any way to make some requests/allergies like no feta and no pork, or that won't work ????????

                                                                              1. re: kevin

                                                                                Chef Carlos is very amenable to handling food allergies or other aversions. If only TM served martinis, it would be absolutely perfect!

                                                                                1. re: josephnl

                                                                                  Exaclty.

                                                                                  I'll hit it up irregardless though.

                                                                                  1. re: josephnl

                                                                                    And it seems like his menus are usually very heavily seafood and veggie leaning, usually ??????

                                                                                    1. re: kevin

                                                                                      Four courses: Seems like the last one is generally pretty meat based. The other three courses do seem veggie and fish leaning. But both times I've went, the last course has been meat-based.

                                                                                2. re: Porthos

                                                                                  bw, Porthos, how do we increase the size of the photo of the menu to be able to read it properly ???????????

                                                                                  thanks man.

                                                                                3. All of the superlatives about Taco Maria are well deserved. The quality of cooking at this price point has few parallels. I couldn't help but to make mental comparisons to Alma during my meal. At only half the cost of the tasting menu, TM stands up well, and in some aspects surpasses Alma. I'm fine with the lack of dessert at TM, as Bruxie is only a few miles away.

                                                                                  J. Gold was there that same night so look for a review from the Times soon. Make your reservations now, the secret will be out soon.

                                                                                  11 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: zack

                                                                                    "J. Gold was there that same night so look for a review from the Times soon. Make your reservations now, the secret will be out soon."

                                                                                    shit, thanks for the heads up.

                                                                                      1. re: zack

                                                                                        Thanks zack! Largely vegetarian?

                                                                                        #freekevin

                                                                                        1. re: JAB

                                                                                          Not at all. Many dishes have a meat component but restaurant can accommodate vegetarian meal with advance notice.

                                                                                          Current Spring menu:

                                                                                          http://www.tacomaria.com/menu_preview...

                                                                                          1. re: zack

                                                                                            That's what I'm saying. That's a very misleading statement.

                                                                                            #freekevin

                                                                                        2. re: zack

                                                                                          "Four courses, plated as elegantly as anything you'll see at Alma or Providence..."
                                                                                          ======================
                                                                                          This is NOT an exaggeration.

                                                                                          Oh wait, I already said that. ;-)
                                                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9161...

                                                                                      2. re: zack

                                                                                        Reservation for next Friday just made. Thanks. I haven't been in a long while for dinner so looking forward to the current menu.

                                                                                        1. re: zack

                                                                                          Time to reinstate The Orange Curtain.

                                                                                          1. re: zack

                                                                                            The Iron Press (also waffles) is just steps away. Don't often miss dessert when at TM, but sometimes we buy a Dick Taylor's chocolate bar from the Cheese Store and break it open over the last of the wine.

                                                                                            1. re: revets2

                                                                                              If only the gelateria was open later.

                                                                                              1. re: JAB

                                                                                                It's ridiculous that they're not. I'd be more upset if it was really good.

                                                                                          2. I wonder how this will impact reservations.
                                                                                            http://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-gol...

                                                                                            Pre J Gold review you could generally get reservations for weekend prime dinner spots the week of. It's been pretty easy the 2 or 3 times I've reserved the same week.

                                                                                            1. What do you all think of the lunch? I went for the first time and was severely underwhelmed. Had the aguachile and the fish tacos.

                                                                                              For whatever reason, I didn't think the aguachile was as good as the dinner version--and the tacos were average. Good--but paled in comparison to what I've had at dinner. It also took literally an hour to get fish tacos which was silly.

                                                                                              Any reason I should go back for lunch?

                                                                                              P.S. I really do love this place for dinner--maybe my favorite spot in soCal at the moment.

                                                                                              7 Replies
                                                                                              1. re: set0312

                                                                                                Does Chef Carlos work lunches? I wonder…since your experience was so different from what I and others have experienced at dinner.

                                                                                                1. re: set0312

                                                                                                  Had the mole tacos at lunch, and recall it being one of the best meals I've ever had.

                                                                                                  Maybe the fish tacos just suck for some reason?

                                                                                                  1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                    Definitely didn't suck--but I've been to dinner twice and have been blown away more or less by every dish.

                                                                                                    Tasted like a simple fish taco--haven't been to Ricky's but I can say they didn't compare to Tacos Baja Ensenada.

                                                                                                    1. re: set0312

                                                                                                      That sucks. I haven't had the fish tacos. I mean, in a sense the mole chicken tacos were just mole chicken tacos... but basically the most flavorful, complex version I've ever had.

                                                                                                      1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                        I shall probably give them a try soon. But I do struggle with the fact that after splitting the aguachile, I'm paying like 30 a person for lunch.

                                                                                                        1. re: set0312

                                                                                                          It's actually a bit funny in that the dinner seems like a complete bargain, while the lunch seems almost like a bit of a rip off.

                                                                                                          Still, my tacos (and huazontoles) were good enough that I didn't mind paying $30 for lunch. Usually food that is truly great makes me forget about the cost =P

                                                                                                  2. re: set0312

                                                                                                    I agree with you regarding lunch. After spending around $60 for lunch for the two of us we left hungry. I wish they offered their dinner menu à la carte at lunch time. Their best taco deal is their steak one.

                                                                                                  3. I went last night.

                                                                                                    I went last night. It is incredible. It truly is.

                                                                                                    Started with a little palate cleanser of pickled mulberries. Hint of salt and spice, really good burst of flavor. Not sure I've had mulberries before so this was new to me.

                                                                                                    Blood and chocolate clam aguachile. We sat at the bar and were urged to swallow in one bite. What a rush of spice. The spicy, smooth citrus of the aguachile was the driving taste--meshed incredibly well with the silkiness of the clams.

                                                                                                    Next up was a calamari dish with potatoes, sitting over crushed cucumbers and squid ink blasted with lime. Superb. In my opinion, the lime really complimented the squid ink well.

                                                                                                    Third course was the mushroom chorizo. As always, the spices are right on, but the textures, my word the textures. Chewy and meaty--each mushroom a bit different on the tongue. Almost light a really great pasta. And as crazy as this may sound, the perfect potatoes may have been my favorite of the dish.

                                                                                                    Roasted lamb in a birria consommé from what I could tell. Some lava beans as well. This may have been my favorite of the fourth courses I've had so far at Taco Maria.

                                                                                                    Anyways, go here now. Go here often. It's my favorite spot in LA or Orange County right now. And shockingly, it isn't completely full on a Friday night at 8:00. This place should not fail--but this cooking is very bold for this area. I hope Gold's continued endorsements will drive up demand.

                                                                                                    4 Replies
                                                                                                    1. re: set0312

                                                                                                      Interesting. Didn't you say you were going with someone else? Out of curiosity, why didn't you try the entire menu? Isn't that the ideal thing to do there for dinner?

                                                                                                      1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                        Friend had a shellfish allergy so splitting wasn't really an option unless he wanted to have much less food than me.

                                                                                                        Plus I've been often enough to have an idea of which dishes I'll like most.

                                                                                                        1. re: set0312

                                                                                                          So the menu doesn't change that often then?

                                                                                                          1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                            It does and it doesn't. Each time I've been there, there has been a different version of aguachile (scallops, kampachi, clams, etc.) I think the aguachile is superb so I order that each time.

                                                                                                            And they tend to have a sopa de crema fish as one of the choices for the third course. I think I've seen grouper, sea bass, and salmon for that.

                                                                                                    2. I need to get back there, I must have been on the one off night they've ever had. I'm basically drooling over all the photos.

                                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                                      1. Taco Maria continues to be the biggest bargain for fine dining in southern CA. For the quality of food, $52pp for their tasting menu is a steal. Everything is delicious, prepared with amazing care. The service is outstanding. Chef Carlos is as accommodating a chef as you'll find anywhere. Oh…and their amuse bouche tonight was probably the best guacamole i've ever had. Please don't spread the word too wide…but this is a place that no CH should miss!~

                                                                                                        22 Replies
                                                                                                        1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                          It's my favorite restaurant right now. I like it more so than anything in LA! What else did you get?

                                                                                                          1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                            Huh? There was a guacamole amuse bouche? We did not get it. So some serious inconsistency there.

                                                                                                            I finally went for dinner on a whim for my birthday tonight as well.

                                                                                                            At least the sommelier was a pretty cool guy, when he was pouring, large pours, and good selections overall. I enjoyed the wine quite a bit, especially the grenache at the end of the meal. Taco Maria has quite possibly the most reasonable, and awesome wine list I have seen anywhere in that mid-range level. Really a shame they don't do something more casual. It's the kind of rowdy wine I'd like to have a different kind of meal set against in a sense... but oh well, still really nice.

                                                                                                            We got almost the whole menu, except for the squid (as they were out of it sadly).

                                                                                                            The food ranges. I have no idea what everyone is talking about with the augachile dish, sorry. I guess this is why I avoid Providence, and sushi joints... dishes like this make no sense to me. It's just clams with a bunch of very citrus-y, and peppery juice... not exactly thrilling.

                                                                                                            The dish of fresh tomatoes was pleasant. Reminded me strongly of the flavors in Chi Spacca's BLT salad that I had a couple of days ago. Pleasant, but not mind-blowing, very sweet.

                                                                                                            The chilled garlic soup was very pleasant. A soothing texture, and just a slight hint of he garlic. The toasted almonds, and explosive grapes took it over the edge. The Spanish wine paired with it also accentuated it, too. Very comforting and pleasant.

                                                                                                            The shitake chorizo and potato dish was exceptional. Astonishing flavors in every element. Better than a lot of meat chorizos I've had. I believe I will return for lunch to have this in taco form. I have a feeling it must be amazing. I wish I could beg Salgado to put this stuff in a high end breakfast burrito haha

                                                                                                            The salmon cream soup was also pleasant, not exactly flavors I haven't had before, but it hit all the right notes. Fresh peas, nicely cooked salmon, a burst of salt from the caviar, and lush creaminess from the sauce. It was comforting and pleasant. (That is pretty much how most of the food can be described at Taco Maria: comforting and pleasant).

                                                                                                            The guinea fowl was perfectly cooked. Better than the guinea fowl I paid $100 for at a fine French bistro in Paris. Better than the guinea fowl I paid $30+ for at the Tasting Kitchen. Really good. Awesomely spicy mole, with a deal heat. With the carrots, it reminded me of a dish at the Playground called rude and unreasonable carrots. Sadly, it wasn't quite as interesting as the playground dish though...it was more French refinement than social punk dining. But that's ok, it was still a very solid, enjoyable entree. However, I preferred the smoother, more complex mole on the chicken tacos I had at lunch in some ways.

                                                                                                            I was very sad I missed the lamb birria, instead there was pork belly tocino with grips and grapes. This was a very thick cut of pork belly done perfectly. But I have no idea where the tocino came in... very odd. It was very flavorful, fatty, meaty, etc... and hearty, but felt more like something I've eaten at Hart and the Hunter, or something just more French in preparation. Good, though not sure if great. It was pleasant and comforting.

                                                                                                            Overall, I was hoping for a lot more in terms of Mexican flavors. The whole meal felt largely much more French to me than it did Mexican aside from the Augachile, and Chorizo, and mole on the Guinea fowl. I guess that's not necessarily a bad thing, but there you go. The food is prepared expertly, that much is clear. But as a dinner it feels somehow incomplete. Maybe if we'd had the amuse of guacamole it would've cinched it together more. There was a slight dessert of poppyseed brittle that was really tasty though. That was nice. But how about bread service? Dinner took an hour and half. There was room for a few hot tortillas with a simple salsa, or something in there.

                                                                                                            It's worth going to, yes, but at the same time there's nothing that I am really remembering, or craving 2 hours after the meal. Maybe that shitake chorizo...

                                                                                                            I feel almost bad that I didn't enjoy it more. But I am not sure this was even my favorite meal of the week. I think I had more cravable, memorable flavor combinations from my dinner at Superba Food + Bread.

                                                                                                            Even worse...I am not sure how to compare TM to the Playground in the OC. The Playground is punk rock where TM is like Chopin's Nocturnes. In terms of formal technique, nothing comes close to TM in OC. Not much even comes close in LA. But on the other hand, I didn't see too many risks taken in my meal tonight. I didn't taste that much that I hadn't tasted before. And really, that is what I guess I was hoping for.

                                                                                                            Everyone at the place seemed very happy to be there though, so I would feel safe recommending it to pretty much anyone. I was surprised at how many children were there... you never see people taking their 2-5 year old kids to Playground. Maybe that in itself says everything you need to know, hah.

                                                                                                            1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                              Happy birthday Baco!

                                                                                                              Great review as always. I'm glad to see you kinda enjoyed it, although I'm sorry the aguachile didn't rock your world. (P.S. if the aguachile at TM didn't blow your mind don't rush over to Coni's because their aguachile is very similar, if less refined.)

                                                                                                              I must say, I think the location could definitely be holding Taco Maria back as far as boldness goes. If it were in LA, in some warehouse downtown, I think things could get really wild. In Costa Mesa, I'm guessing Salgado feels obliged to have the safer dishes on the menu (i.e. the salmon cream soup and the garlic soup.)

                                                                                                              But at the same time, I guess I don't really mind that they aren't. Because last time I went, there were four dishes at TM I really enjoyed. Aguachile, squid concoction, chorizo, and lamb birria. Last time I went to Animal (a place I think can universally be viewed as bold) I thought half the dishes were underwhelming.

                                                                                                              What would you say is so daring at Playground out of curiosity?

                                                                                                              The last time I went, I had the bison, the chicken, the "fish tacos" and the pork buns and was severely underwhelmed from a creativity aspect.

                                                                                                              The fish tacos were perhaps the biggest letdown. So arrogant in their prep that they don't even serve any hot sauce, leaving you with a mediocre jalapeño slaw and fish.

                                                                                                              And the pork buns were odd. What I would describe as bad (by southern california's standards) guacamole with pork belly. A fine dish, but nothing to get excited about.

                                                                                                              I guess I was with less daring diners, so I didn't order the wildest stuff, but still.

                                                                                                              1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                "What would you say is so daring at Playground out of curiosity?"

                                                                                                                Hah...everything. Their general approach is kind of, uh, crazy. The week before last I had two dinners almost back-to-back there, and the dinners didn't resemble each other at all really. You really have to be down for near-total chaos to eat there. There are no guarantees at all.

                                                                                                                The pork steam buns are the most consistent and least adventurous things they do, but you must admit, it's a pretty interesting fusion in that simple dish, isn't it? Seared pork belly is...hmm, French? The steam bun is...Chinese? The cilantro avocado salsa is straight Mexican? That's a pretty intense fusion in that little bite. I think it deserve maybe more credit than it gets. The fusion is perhaps lost on us as SoCal natives, but I doubt there's anything quite like that being served anywhere else.

                                                                                                                The menu literally changes daily, so idk which bison, chicken, or fish tacos you had. If you mean the fried chicken that is constant, then, well, if the wollop of vinegar didn't feel adventurous to you, then yes, perhaps you have a different sense of adventure than I do. I wouldn't say it's objectively adventurous, but for fried chicken...they are plating something not everyone will like for sure, and I have not tasting fried chicken like it anywhere else.

                                                                                                                But yeah, things go really haywire there. I had a parsnip dish that was metaphorically had its balls just hanging out... it was literally a whole massive parsnip oven roasted, but with like 5 different kinds of powders, gels, and candied/transformed fruit that could've come out of Alinea artfully plated around it. I had no idea what to make of that dish. One the one hand it seemed as elegant as anything I have had at, say, Ink...and on the other hand the preparation of the parsnip was so rustic, and inelegant that it challenged my notions of what kind of food ought to be served in restaurants.

                                                                                                                The rude and unreasonable carrots dish I brought up earlier was one of the best things I have had in a long time. Carrots done with the same skill level as Taco Maria, or Tar and Roses does them, but doused in a horrible amount of almost chunky jerk sauce that just blasts the palette, but then with a coconut condensed milk, and mango gelee that seep into it as a cooling undercurrent. Again, the dish challenges your whole idea of what food in a restaurant is supposed to be doing in some sense.

                                                                                                                Another time, I had some massive, offal-intensive blood sausage split wide open, looking like something a zombie might enjoy on the sides of a delicately sauced nettle salad with tangelos and candied walnuts that was one of the most soul-satisfying plates of food I have had in a long time, being tremendously delicate, and subtle in flavor compared to the rather rustic plating.

                                                                                                                In that same meal, I had some ribs that were done just about perfectly. They tend to do them particularly well there, so tender that you can just pull the bones out of the ribs. They've perfected a range of sauces for the ribs that really plays with the notion of bitterness in rib sauce as well that is quite challenging, but successful. Especially with the Ryan's Special (created by the manager there). The mass of crispy onions on them made me think of your longing for a mess of crispy onions on the chicken at Isaan Station...it's a plate of ribs and crispy onions, but with a delicacy and piquancy of flavor that you rarely see outside of really great French cuisine.

                                                                                                                I've had mushrooms with a 63-degree egg that blew my mind in terms of the intensity of flavor in them there, as well as agnolotti stuffed with carrot that was nearly as cook as the pastas at Bestia.

                                                                                                                All of this being said, I have had some of the worst dishes of my life there. Theoretically you should be able to say you didn't love a dish and have it taken off your bill, but I always feel too awkward saying it. Still, there have been times when dishes were basically inedible because of being the equivalent of eating salt on a plate (salted bacon toped with smoked salt, and some kind of puree that was basically hyper salty as well). I would never order fish there. The nigiri I had was basically flavorless...the puffed rice was good underneath, but the fish was totally pointless. I had wild boar that was tough, like rubber, and almost flavorless... but I had the same wild boar turned into a kind of pastrami served on rye bread pudding with Russian dressing and pickled cabbage that was stunning.

                                                                                                                The Playground and Taco Maria could not be more dissimilar really. I don't think there is another restaurant like the Playground in SoCal, and probably not the world. There is a certain arrogance there, but at the same time, the chaos occasionally produces magic, and often for quite a cheap price.

                                                                                                                All I can say is, try to say "I didn't like this" and get something else whenever you find a boring, or poorly formed dish if you can muster the courage. There are a lot of hidden gems in the caverns of the Playground.

                                                                                                                Funnily enough, the only other place I feel I've had a dish so totally fail me was at Animal. On my first visit to animal I thought it sucked horribly. If I hadn't returned based on that meal it would've been a big mistake. Even last time I was there one of the desserts was straight up bad. If all of the other dishes hadn't been perfection, I would have been quite upset.

                                                                                                                What did you have last time you went to Animal?

                                                                                                                I think I posted something related to Animal at you in another thread somewhere recently...

                                                                                                                Anyway, it's not necessarily that Taco Maria needs to be more bold, but even in its earlier days it seemed like it had more of a Mexican core with French influence, whereas now it feels more of a French core with Mexican influence. The cooking is very refined though, and generally very good.

                                                                                                                Animal is serving lamb birria now though. Do you want to go try it with me so you can compare it to Taco Maria's?? (Since I sadly missed it =()

                                                                                                                1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                  Perhaps we should go check out Animal's lamb birria. I bet its damn good.

                                                                                                                  First time I went to Animal, I loved the hamachi tostada, the grilled quail, and something else. Hated some berries with prosciutto dish. Did not get the fried pig tails. I wrote a report on it somewhere on one of the Animal threads. Thought the cheesecake granita dessert thing was fucking perfect.

                                                                                                                  Last time I went, it was more of a snack so I just got the quail and hamachi tostada.

                                                                                                                  Gosh, I almost want to say I don't like something at playground just for their reaction. I imagine I'll go sometime this week--if I think something sucks I might say something.

                                                                                                                  You've got me excited over those fried onions though at Playground. Sounds superb.

                                                                                                                  Have you been invited to Playground 2.0? Seems a worthy thing to aspire for.

                                                                                                                  1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                    "Thought the cheesecake granita dessert thing was fucking perfect."

                                                                                                                    Indeed. I had that last time I was there and thought the same thing. Which is why I was shocked at the other dessert being a complete failure.

                                                                                                                    I always mean to get the damn quail at Animal and never do. How was it?

                                                                                                                    Do you like the Hamachi Tostada? I thought it was a successful dish, very tasty, thought perhaps slightly overhyped. I tried to keep my expectations low for it though, and was pleasantly surprised.

                                                                                                                    Basically all of the dishes I had last time seemed perfect to me though at Animal, at least in terms of flavor. The poutine, the BBQ pork belly sliders, the ricotta gnocchi (no longer on the menu sadly)...mmmm that turkey leg is also astoundingly good.

                                                                                                                    But I really want to try their take on birria, and the fried rabbits legs. Also, the jack rabbit larb. Do you think Animal can make a good larb??

                                                                                                                    On the Playground's menu in small font there is a little paragraph that says, something like, "we know we are doing food our way, and that it's chaotic, and that can result in exploration in the wrong direction. If that happens, just let us know by telling us "I didn't love it", and we'll take the dish off your bill and get you something you do love." I am pretty much considered a regular there though, and I haven't the heart to say it...hah

                                                                                                                    The ribs with fried onions have been appearing a lot lately (seemingly since I left a comment on the manager's FB to bring them back over and over =P) so hopefully they'll make an appearance. They update the menu on their website everyday so you can see what the exact menu is online before going. I am not sure why they are so much better about that than almost any other restaurant I have seen.

                                                                                                                    I have been invited to the 2.0 dinners. I could get you on the list if you want, but it's a kind of hectic thing. I haven't been able to commit to going to one yet. But hopefully sometime soon.

                                                                                                                    1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                      I'm a huge quail fan, so I like the quail at Animal lots. Is it a mind-blowing dish by their standards, maybe, maybe not.

                                                                                                                      As far as the hamachi tostada goes, I really liked it--flavor profile wise I thought it very similar to a really good papaya salad. Definite Thai influences in that dish--so for that reason, I think they might be able to do a decent larb. Somebody in there has to have an idea of Thai flavors.

                                                                                                                      Good work on the ribs with fried onions thing. That sounds like what I need to get next time I'm there.

                                                                                                                      I definitely would be interested in 2.0. I'm OC-based and as far as I'm concerned, it's the pinnacle in Orange County food. Email is in my profile. (I think.)

                                                                                                                      1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                        I am also a quail fan, but it's rather difficult to do it well it seems. I had that doritos fried quail at LQ a few weeks ago, and it was just ok. I, for some reason, thought it wasn't going to literally be doritos coating though... ah well.

                                                                                                                        If you're right about the larb, I'm really interested in it. Though perhaps I'm just really fascinated by the idea of eating jack rabbit.

                                                                                                                        I will see if I can send off an email.

                                                                                                                  2. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                    One enormous and important IMHO difference between TM and PG is the attitude coming from the kitchen. Chef Carlos Delgado is not only extraordinarily talented, he is humble, kind, reasonably flexible and anxious to please guests who may have specific dietary requirements. From everything I read, this is not the case at Playground where apparently all modifications (even leaving off an offending garnish, are "respectfully declined". Chef Carlos is a true gentleman, and his attitude carries through amongst all his staff.

                                                                                                                    1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                                      Read the open letter to customers at the Playground.

                                                                                                                      You are free to not go. But if you do choose to go, of your own free will, yes, you're committed to the experience.

                                                                                                                      It's no different than the attitude that has been around in LA for a while now, beginning with Sang Yoon's infamous outlawing of ketchup at Father's Office.

                                                                                                                      I guess it's still revolutionary for Orange County, but it's not really anything new under the sun.

                                                                                                                      I think it's ridiculous to complain about a restaurant being how they specifically choose to be. You are free not to go there, but that doesn't necessarily mean the food isn't good, or that it isn't a well run place.

                                                                                                                      Also, I would hope that chowhounds would have higher standards than Yelpers who leave 1-star reviews without ever going to a place.

                                                                                                                      1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                        Could you please provide a link to PG's open letter to customers? Thanks!

                                                                                                                        Oh...I didn't complain about PG, I applauded Chef Delgado and the gracious hospitality that is extended to all guests at Taco Maria.

                                                                                                                2. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                  Carlos changes the amuse frequently. Last night it was a nice sized bowl of fabulous guacamole with house made nori tortilla chips. Everyone got it...it was delish!

                                                                                                                  1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                                    My party did not, hence not everyone. Hence I probably will not return.

                                                                                                                    1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                      Baco I get that you didn't love the food but I'm thinking if you showed up late enough to not be able to get the squid, you may have showed up after the amuse.

                                                                                                                      I went at 9 once and did not get an amuse.

                                                                                                                      1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                        Is there a stipulation somewhere that after 9 they stop serving amuses?...

                                                                                                                        Seems kind of weird to me.

                                                                                                                        Maybe just a pitfall of trying to fuse fine dining into a casual setting I guess.

                                                                                                                        idk, something about it rubs me the wrong way for some reason.

                                                                                                                        It's not even a small bite, but apparently a large bowl of guacamole...quite upsetting

                                                                                                                        1. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                          ITT: BacoMan got whited at Taco Maria

                                                                                                                            1. re: ns1

                                                                                                                              I guess the term is officially not due to race then.

                                                                                                                              I don't know if anyone eating there wasn't white to be honest... hah

                                                                                                                        2. re: BacoMan

                                                                                                                          Did you not receive an amuse? If not, it was I'm sure just an oversight. We were seated at the counter. Everyone at the counter received the guacamole...or perhaps it was the amuse that was served only to vegetarians (my partner is a vegetarian, and the gentleman seated next to me was also a vegetarian).

                                                                                                                          BacoMan, it sounds like you are more of a Playground person. Perhaps Taco Maria is just not your thing.

                                                                                                                          1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                                            I would be much more accepting if the guacamole was served as a vegetarian supplement to the meal.

                                                                                                                            I am a good food kind of person.

                                                                                                                            Although I do like more casual environments I think. I found Taco Maria to be pretty casual though, weirdly enough. At least once you've chosen to go eat there...

                                                                                                                  2. Taco Maria update. Killer stuff. The aquachile with abalone, giant clam, and spot prawns was every bit as pretty and delicious as the ugly bunch at Providence last week.

                                                                                                                    Roast guinea hen with mole was again superb. Notice the layer under the breast which was the dark meat made into country chicken sausage. A perfect poultry Napoleon of crispy skin, perfectly moist breast, dark meat country sausage. The mole is sweet, spicy, touch bitter. So complex. Much better than the mole at Monte Alban or RedO

                                                                                                                    Pork belly was no less spectacular. Best carnitas ever with cranberry beans.

                                                                                                                    Calamari tacos with squid ink. Genius.

                                                                                                                    Corn tamale contained huitlacoche (grey swirl)

                                                                                                                    Beef heart tartare was amazingly tender (ground twice) and not the least bit irony. The egg is cooked to 68 degrees, blended with salt, and piped out of a pastry bag.

                                                                                                                    This place gets better and better and more refined with each season. Just click through the pictures from the first report and compare. The evolution and continued upward trajectory is obvious.

                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                    9 Replies
                                                                                                                    1. re: Porthos

                                                                                                                      Great follow up report! Did you get a pairing or, BYO?

                                                                                                                      1. re: JAB

                                                                                                                        The wine list is also much more extensive now with a nice range of pricing. I brought a red and bought 2 whites off the list. Both very good. I would be comfortable coming here and ordering right off the list next time.

                                                                                                                      2. re: Porthos

                                                                                                                        Great report! We love the place...and it's also terrific for vegetarians! Chef Carlos is not only talented, he's extremely gracious and accommodating. Last time there he sent over what was likely the best bowl of guacamole and chips I've ever had!

                                                                                                                        1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                                          terrific for veggies ???????? wasn't four of the five dishes meat based ?????

                                                                                                                          maybe i'm missing something here.

                                                                                                                          1. re: kevin

                                                                                                                            Chef Carlos was himself once a vegetarian and loves cooking amazing vegetarian dishes "on-the-fly". Whenever we go to TM, he graciously and happily accommodates my vegetarian partner with stunningly delicious food!

                                                                                                                            1. re: josephnl

                                                                                                                              good to know.

                                                                                                                              do you have to let him know far in advance ?????

                                                                                                                              thanks man.

                                                                                                                              1. re: kevin

                                                                                                                                No. As a matter of courtesy, I mention it when I make the reservation, and they always say "no problem". I then remind them when we arrive, but I suspect that as long as Chef C is in the house (which seems to be always), I doubt that advance notice is even necessary.

                                                                                                                        2. re: Porthos

                                                                                                                          portos, when is the menu going until ??????

                                                                                                                          thanks man.'

                                                                                                                          the abalone and clams and praws sounds dope.

                                                                                                                          1. re: Porthos

                                                                                                                            Thanks for the report! That aguachile dish sounds superb.

                                                                                                                            Have you by chance made it to their brunch yet? The menu looks amazing.

                                                                                                                            1. re: JAB

                                                                                                                              Very interesting question. I would love to hear everyone's opinion on TM's lack of recognition.

                                                                                                                              1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                                Perhaps we should be thankful. It's still pretty easy to get in.

                                                                                                                            2. Let me start by stating my affiliations:
                                                                                                                              1) I loved Chef Carlos Salgado's creations when he was the pastry chef at Commis
                                                                                                                              2) I'm already a huge fan of Taco Maria for both lunch and dinner
                                                                                                                              3) Brunch is my favorite meal

                                                                                                                              So, brunch at Taco Maria is a no-brainer. We went with extremely high hopes and - once again - Chef Carlos & crew did not disappoint.

                                                                                                                              Brunch is served in 3 courses with two choices for each course. It's a set price at $32 & there were optional sides of pork belly & roasted potatoes at five bucks each. Yes. We ordered both.

                                                                                                                              We both started with the molletes - refried beans & queso fresco on baguettes with salsa and huitalocoche butter. Very simple. Very tasty. The other option, melon with granola, looked yummy but we normally lean toward savory.

                                                                                                                              There was no savory option for the second course so Mr. Mustard opted for the pancakes with mulberry jam, whipped ricotta and thyme-maple syrup. As with most of Chef Salgado's dishes, it was extremely well balanced. The pancakes, cooked in a small ring, were thicker than the standard and had a nice crisp on the outside but were light & fluffy in the middle. I picked the Anson Mills grits with roasted strawberries & vanilla butter. I was initially skeptical (re:sweet vs. savory) but it was not overly sweet. The strawberry's strawberry-ness was intensified with the roasting and the perfectly cooked grits added the bit of savory I was looking for.

                                                                                                                              For the final course, Mr. Mustard ordered the (highly recommended) riff on eggs benedict. It was a luxurious version with a dungeoness crab hollandaise, smoked salmon, roasted cherry tomatoes and a 63-degree egg. I was green with envy until I tried my chilaquiles. The tortilla chips were sauteed in a housemade cascabel sauce, mixed with mushroom chorizo (steak & chicken confit were options as well), and topped with a sunny side-up egg. Wonderful comfort food.

                                                                                                                              The sides gilded the proverbial lily. The pork belly was glazed with piconcillo and everything you want from pork belly. The potatoes included crema mexicana, caramelized onions, and a couple of roasted green chiles. The portion sizes for the brunch were generous so you definitely don't need to add these but you probably want to.

                                                                                                                              We will definitely return for brunch. I thought that dinner was a great value at 52 and brunch may be an even better value at 32. At dinner, each dish is perfectly prepared and meticuously assembled. The same amount of care & thoughtfulness goes into each and every dish at brunch.

                                                                                                                              When you go (and you will), enjoy one of the best restaurants in LA right now. Also, ask Chef when he'll start doing dessert. Trust me.

                                                                                                                              7 Replies
                                                                                                                              1. re: mrsmustard

                                                                                                                                I also had the brunch this weekend. I was sad that I missed their rendition of Huevos Rancheros, but oh well.

                                                                                                                                The molletes were absolutely stunning when taken with the huitlacoche butter and a bit of salsa. I thought the flavors and textures were as complex as the huitlacoche butter ravioli I had at SPQR just last week. Extraordinary.

                                                                                                                                However, I think you missed out on the yogurt dish. It was elegantly plated, like one of those bowl dishes at Red Medicine, and had a wonderful complexity of flavors. I am not a huge fan of melon, but the melon jam was absolutely exquisite, while the house made granola felt light, and crisp against the fresh yogurt. It was another extraordinary dish.

                                                                                                                                The third dish that was just ridiculous was the side of double-baked bacon. Basically the biggest "slice" of bacon ever. It really tasted like a perfect piece of bacon, but with all the qualities of pork belly. We used some of our thyme-maple syrup with it as well, and it was transcendent.

                                                                                                                                I agree wholeheartedly with you about the darling little pancakes. I also loved the strawberries in the grits, however, the grits were not really creamy in the way I am used to. I thought they tasted marvelously of corn, but they seemed to have lots of small "chunks" in them. Is that how grits are actually supposed to be compared to the smooth "cream of wheat"-esque texture you often find?

                                                                                                                                The mains were more disappointing to me. The benedict wasn't necessarily bad, it was alright, although it was completely overwhelmed by the sauce. It was ok, but so standard. I don't eat at Taco Maria to eat the same dishes that every other restaurant serves, so this was kind of a letdown for me.

                                                                                                                                The chilaquiles, flavor wise, were complex and satisfying. My only complaints were that the chips seemed to lack crunch, and the chicken confit seemed a bit dry. But the flavor of the chicken was excellent. The whole dish was very good.

                                                                                                                                Still, I would like to see more adventurous things done for mains. I really like the Mexican side of things at Taco Maria, which you never see in such fine-dining places, and I would like to see that surface in less conventional ways at brunch like it usually does at dinner.

                                                                                                                                The potatoes were also alright, but underwhelming somehow. Maybe they were just a bit too subtle in flavor for me.

                                                                                                                                Overall, it's still an incredible bargain at about $40/person out the door for a fine-dining brunch.

                                                                                                                                The restaurant remains the best kept secret in the country, though there are still some kinks they should work out.

                                                                                                                                1. re: Eudoxus

                                                                                                                                  I'm certain the kinks will be worked out soon enough. The dinner keeps betting better and better. And so too will the brunch.

                                                                                                                                  But ya I'm with you on hoping for more adventurous mains.

                                                                                                                                  1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                                    Main courses in general tend to me less exciting than the appetizers in my experience. Even at say Providence or French Laundry or even Eleven Madison Park I usually find appetizers more interesting and creative than the main meat course.

                                                                                                                                    Rabbit saddle and riblettes were pretty delicious at TM. The chicken they tried to take off the menu and supposedly received lots of complaints. Understandably so. The dark meat made into country sausage which is then used to flavor and keep the breast moist is a very tasty dish. And that mole is the first time I've actually liked mole having tried several different versions "known for mole". Flavorful, touch spicy, yet not too heavy.

                                                                                                                                    The current pork belly dish is very balanced and tasty, using cranberry beans instead of something like pinto beans. A nice twist since I like the flavor and texture better.

                                                                                                                                    1. re: Porthos

                                                                                                                                      When was the rabbit on the menu? Sounds fantastic.

                                                                                                                                      1. re: set0312

                                                                                                                                        See my 4/17/14 update with photos or just scroll through the pictures.

                                                                                                                                        I also thought the lamb chop and lamb birria was a nice touch and juxtaposition of fancy vs rustic. The fava leaves was also a very memorable texture and taste. My first time with fava leaves.

                                                                                                                                        1. re: Porthos

                                                                                                                                          Ahh I hope they bring that rabbit back sometime. Looks like I missed out. Your pictures also made me start craving the blood clam aguachile, which unfortunately is an ache I cannot satiate at 11 on a Monday :/

                                                                                                                                          I also really enjoyed the lamb dish. Perhaps my favorite main of the four or five I've had so far.

                                                                                                                                    2. re: set0312

                                                                                                                                      I hope so.

                                                                                                                                      It threw me off just a bit because this was the first time I noticed a distinctly less inventive, or even a distinctly non-Mexican dish as part of the meal. (It did not help that the dish was described as "Huevos Pescador". Why not just own up to putting a standard benedict on the menu? It was the only time I ever felt the restaurant was a bit pretentious, and a bit boring at the same time.

                                                                                                                                      My last meal there had whole fried smelt with ash aoili! And pork belly and peach tacos made with no less skill than the pork belly main (which was also wonderful btw).

                                                                                                                                      Heck, I even ordered the caesar salad from them once, and even that was twisted just enough that I found it an interesting addition to the menu.

                                                                                                                                      I was truly surprised that the benedict was just a good version of the standard English classic.

                                                                                                                                      Not bad; but not why I go to Taco Maria, if that makes sense.