For the past three months, Carlos Salgado has repaid the public for his three spectacular years at the brick-and-motor version of Taco Maria with pop-up dinners featuring of the best chefs Mexico has to offer. October brought Baja-Med king Javier Plascencia; November highlighted Diego Hernandez, maestro of the Valle de Guadalupe. Those dinners were spectacular, but all served as prelude for the finale: Salgado and Enrique Olvera, the jefe de jefes of Mexican cuisine.
Tickets for this past Friday's feast were the hottest prize in OC food, and everyone from Alberto and Lauren Bañuelos (Burritos La Palma) to Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA) to Aron Habiger (who was helping out in the kitchen) even UCI professors were seen devouring a menu that not only lived up to all expectations, but did what all great tasting menus do: progressively get better until reaching a surprising, spectacular crescendo.
The seven-course cena started with an amuse bouche of sorts in a chicharrón topped with nori-spiked guacamole and Santa Barbara uni. It was a bold umami bomb to start things off, as the fattiness of the pork rind seamlessly melted into the tart guac and savory uni. Man, I should've brought one of those gargantuan fat slabs from Carnitas Uruápan and demanded they slather the uni and guacamole on that.
The meal started in earnest with scallops prepared veracruzano style: heavy on the tomato and olives. The surprise was in the chile güero, a favorite of Baja California. Pacific and Gulf coast, together at last in a light, savory beaut.
Third was a crab terrine with a delicious green called bloomsdale spinach. The tiny slices of grapefruit and creamy crab reminded me of a crab Louie salad, and the avocado mousse brought everything back to the raza.
Taco Maria is rightfully known for its fish tacos, whether featuring shrimp, sturgeon or other sustainable treasures of the sea. But the taco de bacalo (cod) was impeccable, with everything—from the perfectly grilled fish to the cilantro leaves to a tamarind miso someone should make a soup out of posthaste—came together in unison for as fine a fish taco as you'll eat. Then came the topper: a grilled lemon that imparted a spectacular smoky juice redolent of grilling on the beach.
I don't know too much about high-end Mexican food in la patria, but methinks the top-tier chefs are getting into an Asian groove, if the items at the Salgado-Olvera pop-up are any indication. In addition to the aforementioned terrine, the two trotted out their response to hipster Asian bao craze with a "bun de birria." The birria wasn't goat but beef (Burritos La Palma, represent) and spot on, while the bun itself was golden and slightly crispy, like the best gorditas.
More Asian influence with the five-spice duck, Asianized with awesome pickled turnips, then brought back to Aztlán with a piloncillo teriyaki sauce that los dos need to bottle and sell to Mos2 so all us wabs can drown our beef bowls in ASAP.
A cold dessert of a beet and jamaica raspado seemed odd, given the howling, chilly winds outside (the poor souls who had patio seating stayed warm with blankets borrowed from my chica, mostly). But the flavors were meant as a palate cleanser for the conclusion...
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A small pan dulce and champurrado, a reminder that while Salgado and Olvera are cooking in the upper echelons, they'll never sell out their cultura. I ate the pan dulce so fast that I neglected to take a photo, but I remember traces of banana and a champurrado out of an holla.
Throughout the evening, Salgado and Olvera split their time between working the line and seeing their delighted, respective staffs cooking alongside each other—it was as if the Avengers hung out with the X-Men. And the two chefs were contrasting studies in mastery: while Carlos was all about furrowed intensity, Enrique would effortlessly swoop onto a dish, add a couple of touches, then move on. He looked as serene as a classics professor talking Cicero for the umpteenth time, and as precise as a heart surgeon.
Congrats again to Taco Maria for upping the culinary game in Orange County like no chef since Tim Goodell early last decade. And a reminder to everyone that Salgado likes pop-ups, so follow them on Twitter, wontcha?