After sleeping under the proverbial cactus for far too long, Mexican-Americans in Orange County are finally entering the luxe lonchera game their wabby tíos pioneered. The famed Soho Taco catering cart debuted its wheels last week, and the Tamarindo Truck is already making waves with organic products and a truck with a color scheme out of Coyoacán.
But the most audacious Mexican-food truck out there is Taco María, the creation of Orange native Carlos Salgado. Like many of our creative types, he escaped our hellhole years ago, finding work and Michelin stars at some of the Bay Area's more-esteemed eateries, most prominent of which was Commis in Oakland. But unlike many of our exiled creative types, Salgado decided to return this year, ostensibly to work at his family's fine La Siesta Restaurant. But he surprised us all by debuting a luxe lonchera—then stunned us into slavish obsession with his food.
Salgado offers a limited menu from his shiny lonchera—just tacos, burritos, specials and dessert. He's still learning the trade, but already, Taco María brings alta cocina techniques that marry the best of the lonchera and luxe lonchera scenes. The quesadilla de tuétano has quickly become a cult item among local foodies: bone marrow played against queso oaxaca, creaminess on creaminess for umami overflow. Salgado's take on esquites—the ancient meal of roasted corn, lime, chile and cheese—can please as easily at the Ritz-Carlton as it can from the cart of a Santa Ana peddler. The jardineros taco is just stunning: roasted pumpkin as fleshy and sweet as pork, paired with black beans and a salsa concocted from semillas (pumpkin seeds) that takes you to the rancho. And a chicken mole burrito? ¡Sí, señor! Wash down whatever you order with a seasonal aguas fresca; currently on tap is hibiscus cut with Concord grapes, a Mexican-American Arnold Palmer of sweet-tart freshness.
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Since Salgado is a Mexi, I'll be extra-tough in my critique. The pinquinto beans, the pride of Santa Maria-style barbecue, make little sense in a burrito, possessing none of the earthiness or Proustian abilities of the humble pinto. Service can be slow, even though Taco María has a crew of three and Salgado's big sis taking orders. Requests for salsas produce a watery slop that I wouldn't wish on Javier's. And any proper lonchera needs multiple salsas and trays of pickled onions and jalapeños to top your tacos. Such quejas aside, Salgado is a damn great chef, and one can only salivate at his future in la naranja. Welcome home, cabrón.
This column appeared in print as "El Return of El Native."