The accolades are still rightfully coming to Carlos Salgado, head of Taco Maria and winner of OC Weekly‘s Best Restaurant award three years in a row. Just yesterday, Orange County Register critic Brad A. Johnson put the Costa Mesa Mexican restaurant at the top of his 75 Best Places to Eat in OC for the third time in four years—a deserved victory. And this comes on the week before Coachella, as Salgado prepares to welcome the masses descending on the desert at his new project at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs.
I was lucky enough to be there for opening night in February when Salgado and his executive chef, Carlo Guaradado, relaunched the Ace’s two eating spots, The King’s Highway diner and Amigo Room cantina. Things have only improved since then, but I still remain of the opinion that you can judge the future of any eating establishment based on opening night—and that debut proved yet again that Salgado has another unexpected winner.
Don’t get me wrong: Salgado is a homegrown talent the likes of which Orange County has never seen. Success comes to him like scandal does to Tony Rackauckas But part of Salgado’s genius is to zig when everyone expects him to zag—or, to make it more paisa, to son calentano when everyone wants him to son jarocho. He came to OC expecting to help out at his parents’ Cal-Mex classic in Orange, then decided to open a luxe lonchera. When it came time for OC’s inaugural luxe loncheros to open a brick-and-motor, Salgado went serious while nearly everyone else stuck with food porn. He essentially threw away his entire taco truck menu for Alta Cocina magnificence. He stuck to those guns even as crazy Yelp kids dinged him for not serving chips, nachos, burritos, et al.
And now that Salgado is in Palm Springs, he and Guaradado have decided to largely leave Taco Maria behind to reimagine the classic American roadside diner in their own image: Mexican, American, Southern Californian, chingón.
Here’s some photos with snap judgements.
We started at the Amigo Room for some cocktails created by Alejandro Pareja. I can’t remember what the above cocktail was, but it was delicious—and Pareja’s michelada that I had the following day was even better.
The winter pozole is still listed on the current menu, and I hope it’s still on, or at least another seasonal take. Pozole is notoriously hard to nail, mostly because you need to simmer pork forever. To offer it vegetarian-style? Heresy—but Salgado and Guaradado nailed it, forsaking pig for the heartiness of carrot, potato, and squash and big ol’ hominy grains. Perfect for those surprisingly chilly desert nights.
Steak frites was a spot-on rendition of the classic, but with a Salgado twist: huitlacoche butter—spectacular. Savoriness mixed with a truffle-esque twang. Spread the butter of the meat and fries, which are Brad A. Johnson-worthy.
The King’s Highway Diner is just beautiful—a former Denny’s, back when Denny’s built Googie classic. The Ace folks have left nearly all the original charm, throwing in just a couple of tweaks, like an elephant’s head made out of wood but far cooler than this lame description makes it out to be. The soundtrack that night was Salgado’s ever-smart playlist of ’80s and ’90s alt-rock classics mixed in with new stuff. I didn’t recognize the new stuff, because music for me died with the heyday of Gamble & Huff.
You can order some of Salgado’s famed tacos—his mushroom “chorizo,” is on the menu, as well as severely underrated fish tacos. But Salgado and Guaradado refuse to define themselves solely in Mexican terms, but maintain the right to bust out their inner cinto pitiado when need be. The best example is with Cortez the Killer, which deserves a NACCS panel of its own. The burger, of course, is an homage to the Neil Young song of the same name, but it’s also a beautiful appropriation of Mexico’s slayer to serve the whims of the latest descendants of the Conquest. And then there’s the burger itself: a three-Wagyu patty beast fused together with Idiazabal cheese (again with beating the gachupines at their own game!), fried onions, date jam, and oxtail jus. Add in a sturdy patty, and here’s a steamed ham to drive an hour and a half to.
Not everyone won on opening night—a take on cemitas poblanas exploded on my plate, and I wanted a least a slight twist on the otherwise fine buttermilk pancakes. But Salgado’s and Guaradado’s reimagined King’s Highway merits a day trip out there and a night at the Ace after the Coachella hordes leave. If you’re one of the hordes? Get a breakfast/lunch/dinner on the way to Indio or back—unless you’re one of the lucky few that managed to get a room at the Ace right now. In that case? Salgado and his compa are also in charge of room service—BOOM #respect
King’s Highway and The Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, 701 E. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, (760) 325-9900; www.kingshighwaydiner.com