To Dine the Impossible Dinner
Photo by Tenaya HillsI admit it—I'm spoiled. I've spent nearly every Saturday afternoon of my life hopping from wedding to quinceañera to baptism to card game in the name of free carne asada tacos. On Sunday mornings, I awake to the scent of my mother's incandescent pozole or crispy, salsa-and-cheese-doused chilaquiles. Throughout the workweek, I load up on mami'senchiladas, tostadas and potato-and-carnitas burritos. Mexican food to me is free, tasteful and did I mention free?
But you're spoiled too. We all have our favorite cheap Mexican dive, a place to load up on $1 tortas and homemade tortillas. So what would possess anyone to try a restaurant that advertises a gourmet approach to Mexican cuisine? "Gourmet Mexican" is really code for "gabacho Mexican": vastly reduced flavors, the swapping of horchata for merlot, an excuse to overprice peasant cuisine. These restaurants are an insult to Taco Bell, and the patrons at these high-end eateries are overwhelmingly non-Mexicans whose sole exposure to authentic Mexican is the guy who waters their plants.
But there are two grand, hidden exceptions in Orange County. Taco Adobe(1319N. Main St., Santa Ana, 714-543-2411) looks like an edible cliché with its pastel-yellow indoor design scheme and lunchtime crowd, most of whom are Santa Ana business executives finding relief from the city's 75 percent Latino population. And the first bowl of salsa that helpful waiters put out is watery and weak. Grimace at that salsa long enough, though, and Argentine co-owner Patricio Dillon will approach with a smile and a canister of what he calls the "real" house salsa: a thick, habañero-laced magma with citrus undertones and an enduring scorch. Even my beloved madre's salsa doesn't burn as intensely as this.
Like the house salsa, Taco Adobe's impressive platters emerge from the seemingly mundane menu. None of the entrées suffers from the greasiness and choking heft of home-style Mexican food—all the flavors are nuanced but notable. The camarones con chipotle are butterflied, grilled and slathered with a creamy, sweet chipotle sauce that complements the beautiful pungency of the shrimp. The hefty Adobe burritos could stand proudly against anything rolled in the Mission District and feature three types of cheese within their flour tortilla wrappers. And there is probably no better milanesa torta in the county: the breaded chicken is sweet and pounded to the thickness of a notepad, the French roll is soft yet crunchy, and the chipotle mayonnaise is spread lightly and judiciously across the torta. Dillon even experiments successfully with the Adobe pasta platter, linguine sautéed with garlic and that wonderful chipotle cream sauce of the camarones con chipotle.
Taco Adobe proves that gourmet Mexican is possible. But it's Taco Rosa(2632 San Miguel Dr., Newport Beach, 949-720-0980) that ultimately converted me to the possibilities of the genre. I resisted visiting Taco Rosa for months because it's located in one of those new Newport Beach shopping plazas built on top of, until recently, virgin hills. But I should've known better: owners Ivan and Marco Calderón, the brothers behind the Taco Mesa chain, never allow mediocrity to besmirch their reputations as Orange County's best Mexican-food impresarios.
It's not just the wide swath of Mexico that the Calderones nail: they stop in Oaxaca (the fiery enchiladas Oaxaca burst forth with melted quesillo), Mexico City and even the Yucatan with the cochinita pibil, pork baked in a banana leaf and topped with a citrusy, relishy salsa. Nor is it the chocolate fountain that gurgles to the side of Taco Rosa's open kitchen, a hint of its already-famed chocolate churros. Taco Rosa succeeds because its few tweaks are Mexican-based and surprising. Ask for the aguas frescas and instead of horchata, waiters will recommend a frosted, freshly squeezed cup of cantaloupe or melon. Most meals come with a mini-sweet corn tamale coated with a light strawberry cream and yellow-red tortillas that are fabuloso.The house salad is actually escabeche: pickled, peppered vegetables more common to coastal Mexico than the Sonora-style cuisine so familiar to Americans. But the most impressive thing about Taco Rosa, the factor that pushes it from the domain of the gabachos to the realm of a must-eat? The music: actual conjuntonorteñoon the speakers by icons such as Los Tigres del Norte and Los Rieleros del Norte. None of that Shakira shit.
And some words regarding the much-buzzed-about Taléo(3309 Michelson Dr., Irvine, 949-553-9002; taleomexicangrill.com). The Orange County Register, OC Metroand Orange Coasthave already spilled purple upon the place; all are deluding readers. Sure, Taléo features an extensive tequila menu and the world's finest flan: a dense, creamy, cylindrical slab of smoky custard topped with a sugary caramel layer. But everything else at Taléo disappoints. The chiles rellenos are a disaster, their coat of batter too fried and not possessing the eggy surge of the best chiles rellenos. The house salsas, even the supposedly hellish ones, are only slightly spicier than yarn. And there is nothingthat can justify a $16 price for two tacos al carbon. I don't care if the meat is filet mignon—hell, if you're that desperate for gourmet Mexican, give it to me and I'll take you on my Saturday taco-hopping. Better yet, visit Taco Adobe or Taco Rosa—their tacos are cheaper andbetter. And more gourmet.
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