Eatery - Taco Maria (CA)
3313 Hyland Ave, Costa Mesa, CA 92626 (In OC Mart Mix)
Pricing - $$$/$$$$ | Dining - Casual | Cuisine - Mexican, Small Plates
Since the first time we tasted Taco Maria's food from its food truck days, we've been fans of Chef Carlos Salgado's food. He has a way of incorporating modern culinary techniques with traditional Mexican dishes to create flavorful but also beautiful dishes. So when we saw the Kickstarter go up for opening a brick-and-mortar, we were pretty stoked but then even more so when we saw it would be at the OC Mart Mix. What a perfect spot. Our friend decided to put together a "takeover" night where a bunch of us would come in one evening (at staggered times) to eat there. We figured that we might as well give it a shot considering we'd be eating with friends abound. The prix fixe menu was $42 per person (with optional $24 wine pairing option) for a four course meal that gave you two options per. Since there were two of us, we were able to try everything!
The amuse bouche for the evening was a Snow leopard honeydew granita topped with blue mint and finger lime. Delicate and frosty, it certainly woke us up; the slight sweetness from the honeydew paired with pops of sourness from the finger lime was refreshing. As we waited for plates, we opted to order a tall glass of the Guayaba agua fresca with cilantro and peppercorn. I enjoyed the peppercorn and cilantro mix but at $4 for a few gulps, it seemed a tad overpriced. This came even more intensely to light when a neighboring diner ordered the stemless wine glass of Taco Maria's Sangria for $8, a portion possibly less than a half pour. We were hoping this start would not be indicative of the rest of the evening.
The first course of the evening was a choice of the Califlor (cauliflower, sunflower, dried blueberry, piloncill vinegar) and Papalo (cherry tomato, butterfly herb, queso fresco, radish, avocado), both of which we tried since there were two of us. The cauliflower was prepared quite well with spices that held a very subtle kick but were more there for flavor. I felt that the dried blueberries lent an accompanying sweetness that was a great complement but the texture threw me off; since it was dried in traditional dried-berry manner, it left me gnashing at sticky pieces stuck between my molars. Whoops. As for the papalo, it was certainly a unique dish because you don't often see butterly herb (called papalo in Spanish) used but it had the familiar flavor notes of fresh Mexican herbs without the bite. Again, another beautifully presented dish, this one contributed fresh crunch and crisp to the meal save for the oddly naked cherry tomatoes (their skins had been removed).
After the cooled appetizers, our waiter dropped off at our table the dangerously addictive "salsa negra," a concoction I wished Chef Carlos would bottle up to sell or just insert directly into my veins. It was not a chili sauce to be trifled with; while there was plenty of flavor that made its addition to any dish thereafter worthwhile, there was also a vengeful burn. Everyone loved it, and yes, you should put it on just about everything once. Our hot appetizers were next. The much-talked-about Guacamole (crushed avocado, figs, pistachio, flax) was first. This is much talked about because of its unique ingredients - who adds figs to guacamole anyhow? Of course, this made it sweeter than what we're accustomed to but not jarring. I loved the flax chips that came with it to dip because of the seedy texture. The guacamole was good in its own right but not quite my style. However, the other pick for this course in the prix fixe menu was stellar. Huauzontles (quinoa fritters, goosefoot, ricotta, green tomato) created some curiosity but it made so much sense once I put one in my mouth. A fried shell hiding a light but creamy grain interior, these balls were treats. I only wish there were more in an order!
It started getting dark at this point so our pictures suffered more. Service was a tad slow or maybe the dishes were taking longer to make. Either way, we were certainly sitting around waiting for our courses longer than we probably spent eating them. The third round consisted of Jardineros (shiitake, rajas, queso Oaxaca, epazote) and Pescado al Pastor (grilled amberjack, achiote, pineapple, fennel, cabbage). I must say that mushrooms really steal my heart so when I saw the abundance of shiitake mushrooms in my bowl, I was excited. Unfortunately, though they were good in themselves, swimming in a cheesy broth seemed out of place. Shiitake mushrooms have such a unique rich flavor of their own that combining with cheesy (despite how light) was too distressing on my tastebuds. I say that but I still preferred it between the two dishes that round because the amberjack was quite tough though the pineapple worked well with the other ingredients.
It was time to seek satisfaction; I was eager for the heavy proteins of the night via Arrachera (hanger steak, roasted onion, nopalitos, smoked marrow) and the Mole Enchilada (Mary's chicken, chile, chocolate, date, almond). Unfortunately it wasn't found. I disliked how chewy the steak strips were but pleasured in nopalitos and the smudge of bone marrow underneath the meat. The accompanying tortillas, though delicious, were not necessary for the dish. As for the enchilada, I'd venture to say that it was both too sweet and bland...if that makes any sense. We had to douse ours with the salsa negra to enjoy the experience a bit better. Just a little more salt would have done wonders for it!
So there we were, expecting to have the feast of a lifetime but somehow the evening fell quite flat. Was it the newness of the restaurant (it had been open just a few weeks at that point)? Was it the volume of people that evening? We weren't sure but it was enough to make us wish we hadn't gone all at the same time. However, we do trust Chef Carlos because he has proven himself again and again in the past. We'll be back once they've worked out kinks that come with every new restaurant. Also, I've heard that they're open for lunch now too so options are available!
Photography by Duc Duong.