Costa Mesa's foodie collective at the Camp gains another strong player with a line of gourmet tacos from the team that owns Haven Gastropub. It's an unapologetically nontraditional, non-Mexican taquería in a city filled with authentic Mexican taquerías.
But neither is it a gabacho-Mex travesty. Does it rip off Kogi's Korean-barbecue-in-a-tortilla format? It's not that, either. The Asylum inmates draw inspiration from all over the world, with ingredients such as sous-vide beef heart, Greek-style grilled baby octopus and Indian paneer cheese.
Take the wild-mushroom taco in the photo above, possibly my favorite in a lineup with no real clunkers. Sauteed wild mushrooms, piquant with shallot and garlic, sit atop a light chickpea purée. Parsley salad adds a refreshing bite, fried whole chickpeas add a toasty crunch, and a freshly handmade herb tortilla ties the whole thing together.
That one taco is typical of the others; they all layer high-impact flavors and interesting textures. What's nuts about Asylum is the time cooks must spend prepping multiple ingredients, condiments and tortillas for each of the nine tacos. Figuring conservatively at five elements per taco, that's more than 50 distinct things the kitchen needs to prep before it can start service.
All that labor and food cost segues into the bad news: At $5 or $6 each for a taco built on a 6-inch tortilla, Taco Asylum makes the most expensive tacos sold in Costa Mesa. Geographically and philosophically, the eatery is closer to the fine-dining restaurants down the street at South Coast Plaza than the taquerías on 19th Street. It draws the polemic on itself by working within the taco idiom, but Taco Asylum is a small-plates concept, not a hole-in-the-wall at which you can fill your belly on a burrito the size of your lower leg for pocket change.
What about the other flavors? I tried every one of its offerings in small tacos built on 3-inch tortillas, which it calls a "flight" of tacos. You might roll your eyes at the high-falutin' word to describe a sample tray, but get over it and order one because they're all delicious. Here's the menu:
Grilled Octopus: flour tortilla, kalamata olives, oregano, feta, tomatoes, $5
Pork Belly: flour tortilla, carrots, daikon, onions, cilantro, $5
Short Rib: flour tortilla, pickled red onions, salsa verde, cotija cheese, cilantro, $5
Curried Paneer: naan tortilla, raita, tomato chutney, $5
Wild Mushroom: herbed tortilla, mushrooms, garbanzo purée, parsley salad, fried chickpeas, $5
Lamb: flour tortilla, olive tapenade, ratatouille, mâché, $6
Duck: flour tortilla, camembert, dijon crème fraîche, $6
Corazon: flour tortilla, confit beef heart, pickled turnips and peppers, harissa, $5
Ghost Chili Pork: flour tortilla, chili threads, pork cracklin's, $5
Flight of first eight above (on 3-inch tortillas), $18
As you'd expect from the guys who run Haven Gastropub, you can also choose from an assortment of interesting beers. As Beverage Director Wil Dee explained, the philosophy is to offer a broad spectrum of craft-brew styles from all over the world, including the light lager style most popular in America. "Someone comes in and asks for a Bud Light. I'll offer to pour a Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde or a Paulaner Lager because those beers are the same style of beer, just brewed in a craft style without short-cutting the brewing process."
Beers from Avery Brewing, Oskar Blues Brewing and Maui Brewing Co. make up the bulk of the canned (no bottles!) selection, and the five taps currently feature Ommegang Belgian Pale Ale, Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, Craftsman's Heavenly Hefe, O'Hara's Celtic Stout and Paulaner Lager. Expect the selection to rotate, though. Dee revealed to me that Haven and Taco Asylum will soon be the only Southern California outlet for San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery!
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