OC Review: Taco Maria, Costa Mesa

Taco Maria, Costa Mesa (photos by Brad A. Johnson)

Taco Maria doesn’t serve tacos.

Despite what you might have heard, Taco Maria is not exactly the brick-and-mortar equivalent of the famed taco truck that boasted the same name and owner.

My first clue that the name is ironic is revealed when I go online to make a reservation. The website informs me that Taco Maria serves only a four-course chef’s menu, with an optional wine pairing. But even as I arrive for that first visit, I’m still half-expecting a taco or two.

The menu offers no such thing. Although it abstractly impersonates a taco bar, Taco Maria is actually one of the most sophisticated restaurants to open in Orange County in years. It has turned fine dining on its head, relishing a distinctly modern Chicano flavor and a laid-back Southern California vibe…

IMG_000645Watermelon, avocado and butterfly herb (photo by Brad A. Johnson)

Although this is a chef whose every creation is a work of art, he’s not too proud to let you alter it with hot sauce. In fact, he encourages it. The server brings a ramekin of reddish black ink to the table. “Salsa negra,” she says. “What’s it for?” I ask. “Whatever makes you happy,” she answers, smiling. It’s made with arbol chilies, black garlic and cumin, and it is blisteringly hot, with a funky slow burn that radiates from your sinuses into your belly before escaping through your ears. It fills every inch of your body with heat, like sex for the first time with a new lover…

This is obviously just a synopsis. Want more? You can read my full review and see the star rating along an extensive slide show by photographer Cindy Yamanaka in this week’s OC Register. Subscriptions are required. We don’t give away our work for free at the newsstand, and we don’t give it away for free online, either. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply buy a Day Pass — cheaper than a cup of coffee — for 24-hour access to the entire OC Register archive. I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

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