OC is haunted by the ghosts of failed Spanish concepts. In the idylls of Ladera Ranch, there was once a short-lived but well-meaning restaurant called Picante whose specialty was paellas baked in pans an acre wide. A few years later, a Spain-based restaurant group actually managed to open a rather decent tapas bar in downtown Fullerton called Lizarran; after it died a slow death, an El Farolito Jr. took over the space. Then there was another tapas restaurant called Boqueria in Costa Mesa. Though it served even better food than Lizarran, no one expected it to last--it was just renting out the kitchen and space at Rooster Cafe in the evenings. These days, save for one or two exceptions, there are few worthy ambassadors of Spanish cuisine left in Orange County.
Enter Pueblo, the newest and perhaps greatest hope for Spanish cuisine in these parts, found in the cauldron of quirky wonderfulness that is the OC Mix in Costa Mesa.
Though it has only been around a month, it has already become the restaurant to go to after you've tried Carlos Salgado's Taco Maria. The night of my visit, reservations were tight: a party of 20 took up a long table and nearly half the seats in an already-rowdy room full of sangria toasts and plates of food passed from person to person.
Chef Michael Campbell--who was executive sous chef at San Francisco's RN74, for whatever that's worth--cooks Spanish tapas as small plates have always meant to be served: fresh, vibrant and streaming out of the kitchen as rapidly as possible. At one point, with our table groaning from the weight of dishes we barely even started nibbling before the next one came, our server asked if we wanted to slow it down.
"No!" I responded. "Keep it coming!"
The immediacy of the tapas, the wine, the pulse of the not-necessarily flamenco music and the constant hum of conversation--this was the Spanish restaurant OC had so far been missing. I didn't want it to stop. There were the papas bravas, huge potato wedges fried until they're all but gnarled, their golden-brown crunch drenched with a piquant red chile sauce and a cold glop of aioli. Purists might scoff, but I found them a heck of a lot easier to pick up with my fingers than the usual tapas-bar potato cubes. Remember: You always want a free hand for swigging wine.
Almost everything Pueblo makes is finger food. If the restaurant ever gets so crowded that it's standing room only (as is often the case in tapas bars in Spain), every dish would still be easy to eat. The queso fundido was essentially a hot party dip of creamy goat cheese served in a shallow ramekin, the top of it torched as though a crème brûlée. And when I breached the thin layer of burned-black cheese skin with a skinny piece of crusty toast, its wonderful Gruyere-ish stench escaped to tickle my nose. The dip called "Habas Habas" turned out to be two dishes made of beans. The first was a sort of fava bean hummus with the bean flavor up front and proud; the second was chopped and grilled romano beans in a sort of loose salad. When I asked our server if I should eat the two together, she said, "Whatever you like! It's good either way!"
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There would be more things eaten with toast, such as the Montadito de Costilla, which combines the long-stewed unctuousness of falling-apart short rib with the bloody center of a rare steak set atop a single bite of grilled bread. And then there are the boquerones: salty, silver-skinned anchovy fillets riding a mound of olive tapenade on baguette rafts that were gobbled up by my friends far too quickly.
For some dishes, you do need a spoon. The Mar y Montaña, Campbell's version of surf and turf, consisted of three seared, bite-sized cubes of pork belly and clam meat embedded in a smoky-rich potato cream. A fried chicken dish wasn't really fried chicken, but two pan-roasted hunks of skin-on dark meat served with stewed kale and a sweet-and-sour onion agridulce. There were also ceviches, but even better was the Escabeche de Pulpo, bits of grilled octopus in a chilled salad of chickpeas and crispy pickled celery that I could've eaten without sharing a speck.
The only disappointing dish that night? The $34 special of baked-to-order paella was enough for three, but unfortunately a touch underdone. If they rushed it, it's probably because of the frenetic pace that Campbell and his crew have set for themselves. Let's hope they don't burn out because OC needs this place to last a while, if not forever.
Pueblo, 3321 Hyland Ave., Ste. D, Costa Mesa, (714) 340-5775; www.pueblotapas.com. Open Sun.-Mon., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$50, food only. Beer and wine.