Taco Maria doesn’t serve tacos.
Tucked into a corner of The OC Mix at SoCo, Taco Maria looks at first glance like a taqueria. Stools line the counter overlooking a miniature kitchen heady with the scent of arrachera. The dining room holds a few small tables. The remaining seats are crowded onto an unprotected patio. And of course, there’s the name.
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.
We’re given the choice between two items for each of four savory courses. And just moments after we’ve placed our order, the waiter and a sommelier tag-team our table with a prosecco-based cocktail and an amuse bouche. Before we realize what’s hit us, we’re swept head-first into the exciting culinary vortex of chef Carlos Salgado.
One of the first dishes to arrive is something dubbed papalo. Papalo is a leafy herb that looks like a cross between watercress and cilantro but tastes and smells more like geraniums sprayed with wild animal musk.
The leaves are showered upon a salad of tomatoes with queso fresco and avocado. Another time, it’s watermelon instead of tomatoes. It is a dish so simple – three or four ingredients – yet so profoundly complex. If just one component were out of balance, the entire dish would implode. And the cooks here know it.
I’m sitting at the chef’s counter one night, watching closely as a cook meticulously assembles this dish again and again. Each time, she adds one extra watermelon ball. And then she steps back and eats that extra piece of melon to test whether everything is perfect. Sometimes she’ll then add a grain or two more of salt, or another drop of lemon. Nothing departs her station without her tasting it, and correcting it, no matter how many times she’s made it already. It’s a level of perfectionism and determination that borders on maniacal. But the proof is on the plate.
Salgado has not aimed for the same benchmark of quality that most chefs in Orange County aim for when they open a new restaurant. He has aimed higher – much higher. And he’s nailing it every night.
One of the early courses is a guacamole made with pistachios and figs. I balk when I see this for the first time. Figs? Pistachio? But then I watch as the cook applies that same meticulous craft to making the guacamole. She slices the avocado only after someone has ordered it. Then she gently pushes it through a chicken-wire-like screen, which leaves the pulp in large chunks. She gingerly tosses the chunks with two squirts of lime juice and a sprinkle of salt. That’s it. There is no mashing. No whipping. Just a gentle but almost scientifically precise caress. And then a taste. The pistachios and figs are placed on top, and it’s sent out with flaxseed chips.
There is always a soup. One night it’s called “elote y maize,” two words for corn in Spanish. The soup is velvety and yellow, made with late-season corn and huitlacoche. The soups here are served in the manner of much fancier places like the Montage or Ritz-Carlton, where fine china bowls are placed on the table with a pretty garnish in them, then waiters pour the hot soup into the bowl so the ingredients meld together directly under your nose.
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.
By my final visit, the restaurant has begun offering the menu a la carte. It’s the exact same menu as the four-course tasting. They just no longer force you to order the whole experience. If you go the lesser route, one of the more shareable dishes is the huauzontles, which is the name given to a bowl of quinoa fritters (think risotto balls but better, lighter). They nest in a firm green salsa made from tomatillos and goosefoot weed.
Hanger steak arrachera is charred over a wood fire. The cook encourages the flames to completely engulf the meat. I fully expect that when he turns around, he won’t have any eyebrows or lashes, but miraculously he still does. The steak is fantastic.
The fish course is always a playful twist on a Mexican classic, like al pastor or pepian mole. The former, of course, is the classic achiote and chili marinade most commonly used with pork to make tacos, only here it’s done with luxurious ling cod. The pepian is a play on green pumpkinseed mole, into which Salgado introduces a splash of coconut milk, along with serrano chili and green apple, creating the perfect nage for macadamia-crusted cod that melts on the tongue.
Taco Maria doesn’t serve tacos. At least not in the traditional sense.
The chef does make fresh tortillas. So, in theory, if you wanted to make a taco with, say, the hanger steak or the cod – if at this point, you still want a taco – you could.
Here’s another important detail: The restaurant doesn’t serve dessert. They do give everyone a single Mexican wedding cookie, and they are extraordinary shortbreads. But a cookie the size of a gum ball isn’t dessert. They also don’t make coffee. However, the staff will gladly hustle across the indoor mall and bring you something from Portola Coffee Lab. And that’s the real irony in this place called Taco Maria that doesn’t serve tacos.
Salgado is the former pastry chef of Coi and Commis, two of the most exquisite restaurants in the Bay Area, or the entire West Coast. And he’s thrown in the towel on dessert? What?
“Some day,” says my waitress, sounding hopeful, “we might start serving dessert. But the chef still hasn’t decided.
UPDATE: Since this review was originally published, Taco Maria now serves tacos at lunchtime and on Tuesday nights.