San Diego High-End Mexican Import Puesto Impresses in Irvine
I admit it. My eyes involuntarily rolled upon seeing the Brussels & Bacon guacamole on the menu at Puesto. Here, I thought, was what's wrong with the state of restaurant dishes these days. Take a food trend that's already played-out (Brussels sprouts), combine it with something that has never needed embellishment (guacamole), then add bacon, the Kim Kardashian of all overhyped ingredients.
But my cynicism disappeared as soon as I tasted it. By the third scoop, I was thoroughly enjoying this guacamole. It had a surprising amount of heat coming from a not-insignificant dose of serrano chiles and tasted as if someone made it fresh just moments before in a molcajete. And yes, the bitter sweetness of the seared Brussels sprouts—even the crunchy pieces of bacon—was actually working extraordinarily well with it. Who would've thought?
As more and more dishes arrived, other reservations I had about the menu were chipped away. There was the tiradito, a Peruvian dish I initially thought had no business being in a Mexican restaurant. But as I ate the cool sashimi slices of fish half-submerged in a broth made from guava, chiles and citrus, I realized I hadn't had a seafood dish this electrifying and unapologetically spicy since Taco Maria's legendary aguachile.
And then there was esquites. Though I've never met a roasted-corn dish I didn't like, this off-the-cob version of elote (yet another tired restaurant trope) was still exemplary—the kernels charred, buttery, sprinkled with blasts of chile, cheese and crema. Also, there was plenty of it for our entire table. And it worked as a side dish for the tacos.
The tacos at Puesto, by the way, are sold in batches of three for $15, which, I don't have to tell you, is a lot for tacos. I should add this doesn't include the upgrade fee of $2 if you opt for the filet mignon or $3.50 for the Maine lobster. Still, I expected these prices.
It might have something to do with the ultra-hip dining room that feels like an industrial terrarium. Or maybe it was the thump-thumpy rave music and that this San Diego-based chain employs a Rick Bayless protégé as one of its executive chefs. None of this justifies the $2 upcharge to substitute the house-made blue-corn tortillas for lettuce, however. But let's be honest: Anyone who would insist on having a taco wrapped with lettuce deserves to be ripped off.
Because you definitely want the tortillas here. They're warm, pliant and comfortingly chewy even if you end up knife-and-forking your taco as I saw some customers doing that night. The two twentysomethings at the next table were essentially dismantling their mushroom taco, first removing the griddle-crisped cheese jacket that serves as the filling, then eating the rest as though a salad.
Half the tacos on the menu come enveloped in that cheese jacket. The chicken al pastor and the filet mignon filling for my tacos came wrapped in it. I am, however, still ambivalent on its purpose. The extra effort it took to make the cheese was evident, but it didn't seem to add anything to the experience. I also noticed that the longer I waited to eat it, the closer it got to the texture and chewiness of a Fruit Roll-Up.
Even without the cheese, the taco fillings were already dolled up with fancy toppings and sauce, as if to justify the prices. The filet mignon—already perfectly tender and flavorful—was adorned by a spicy pistachio serrano sauce and avocado. A pico de gallo made from pineapple crowned the chicken al pastor. Only the conchinita pibil taco stood alone, naked save for a simple topping of pickled red onions.
If you're going to have a pork taco, though, it's best to spring $25 for the carnitas entrée, which turned out to be a build-your-own taco kit. The fried pork came out in boulders, each one deep-fried to a crisp, golden burnish with a moist and flaky inner core. Around it: nopalitos, two salsas, limes, tortillas and more garnishes than I knew what to do with.
Since I was with friends who've not experienced the slimy thrill of eating cactus, ordering the carnitas platter freed me up from having to order the nopalitos separately from the "Snacks" menu. Instead, I asked for the camote and huitlacoche, a warm mash of sweet potato flavored with the savory jet-black streaks of the puréed corn smut. My eyes rolled again with just the first spoonful—but now? BRUH . . .
Puesto, 8577 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 608-9990; eatpuesto.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. Full bar.
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