I'm man enough to admit mistakes, so let me use this article to issue Nic Villarreal an apology. Villarreal is the founder and owner of Taléo, an Irvine restaurant that exemplifies the finest in gourmet Mexican cuisine and has become one of my favorite summer dining spots.
That's not the tune I sang last spring, when I wrote "everything . . . at Taléo disappoints," that the house salsas were "only slightly spicier than yarn" and that restaurant critics who dared praise the eatery were "deluding readers" (see "To Dine the Impossible Dinner," April 28, 2005).
I repeated that same rant over the next year to various Irvinites desperate for good Mexican comida in their city. But I recently visited Taléo again at the urging of my friends at Latino Health Access. Turned out that Villarreal had recently joined the Santa Ana-based non-profit's board of directors and catered all their board meetings gratis. He also agreed to sponsor LHA's inaugural Hot Tamale Ride fund-raiser, a motorcycle caravan that begins and ends at Taléo this Saturday.
Villarreal's humanitarian impulse impressed me, but I still doubted the food. And so I returned to Taléo and found that little had changed. The beautiful interior design—wood bar, stately couches and chairs, with photos by famed Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa lining the walls—was unchanged. The tequila list remains one of Orange County's most thorough, evenly split amongst major brands (Herradura, Cazadores, Don Juan) and unappreciated gems—when you visit, try Corralejo, a cloudy tequila from the state of Guanajuato with a sweet agave aftertaste and the firepower of chile.
The menu was also as I remembered it, but the food was now . . . brilliant. Perhaps I was angry when I wrote my original critique, or perhaps the kitchen had a bad day when I visited. Perhaps I'm a purist like most Mexicans who can never accept double-digit prices for tacos. Regardless, Taléo's cuisine wasn't the stuff that made me so bitchy a year ago. This was ideal Mexican food—home-style enough for people who grew up in a Mexican's kitchen, but with enough careful preparation to justify the price.
Consider the queso fundido, an appetizer of melted cheese and chips that's reminiscent of nachos. Most Mexican restaurants use bland Cheddar in their queso fundido, but not Taléo chef José Acevedo. He mixes salty Cotija and a hearty Reggianno with poblano peppers, chorizo and mushrooms—a queso fundido simultaneously simple and complex, gooey and regal, delicious and delicioso.
You've been eating Taléo's dishes all of your Southern California life—chicken and beef enchiladas, sultry mole poblano, ceviches and sopes. But they were never so tasteful and light on the stomach as these. The carnitas, for instance, a cholesterol nightmare of greasy pulled pork everywhere else, is savory and slightly sweet. The tacos al carbon bulge not with carne asada but luscious filet mignon chunks; though an eye-popping $16, they're worth it. The spinach and mushroom enchiladas glow with sweet yellow mole, a thick sauce available only in the county's Oaxacan restaurants. The seafood is also straightforward but profoundly tasteful—the camarones al mojo de ajo isn't the buttery overload of so many Mexican restaurants but subtle with touches of white wine, Serrano peppers and roasted garlic. This is also where you find the county's best take on huachinango a la veracruzana, red snapper in a delicious sauce of capers and olives.
And the sides! Whether they're frijoles charros (pinto beans touched with bits of ham), or honest-to-goodness cactus, these are the best Mexican sides outside of your sister's quinceañera.
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Taléo isn't perfect—the salsas, though flavorful, could pack more heat. And where are the aguas frescas—the horchata, hibiscus, tamarind or papaya juices?
But I digress.
Forgive me,Nic. I was wrong; Taléo is great, and you're a good guy, too. May the world know that Taléo is one of Orange County's better Mexican restaurants—and may the restaurants I've panned in the past experience the same renaissance as usted.
TALÉO, 3309 MICHELSON DR., IRVINE, (949) 553-9002; WWW.TALEOMEXICANGRILL.COM. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $25-$50, EXCLUDING DRINKS. LATINO HEALTH ACCESS' HOT TAMALE RIDE OCCURS STARTS AT TALÉO. SAT., 8 A.M. CALL (714) 542-7792 FOR MORE INFO.