On the Line: Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria, Part One

Firsts happen all the time. Our interview with Carlos Salgado was the first time a chef brought someone to our meeting (who was lovely, by the way!). It was also the first time we heard of a subject experiencing car trouble on the way to their photo shoot. Actually, it was luxe lonchera trouble while en route to their Saturday morning farmers market stint adjacent to OC Mart Mix, but semantics. . . .

Your earliest food memory:
Frijoles de la hoya. I remember that, when I was a young kid, my family was poorer. Often dinner was little more than beans in a pot. We'd spoon salsa on and tear cilantro by hand into our bowls, feeling lucky to have queso fresco to crumble over the top before scooping up the salty beans and making taco de aire, “air tacos”, which were simply corn tortillas rolled and dipped into the bean broth.

I hated it. Now, as an adult. I find few meals as delicious, humbling and transcendent as a simply cooked bowl of beans with tortillas, salsa and garnishes.

Favorite meal growing up:
Mom's sopes: thick masa shells fried in lard, refried beans, tinga de pollo, lettuce, queso fresco and her garlic salsa. She still makes it for me on my birthday.


Your best recent food find:
My friend Dave brought me some chinicuil (dried worm salt) from Baja. It has a strong umami flavor. I've been using it to rim glasses for micheladas.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Fat. We go through a lot of it in our kitchen, rendering trim for lard, schmaltz and tallow. We use it to sweat the aromatics for mole, sear meats for braising, or slow-cook the carnitas. We take extra care to save all the fat from various processes and use it to compound flavor in the appropriate meat dish. The worst thing you could do in my kitchen (or my grandmother's) is throw out excess fat.

Greatest challenge about owning a luxe lonchera:
The hardest part is the commuting: having to stop and start cooking at the whims of traffic.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
. . . selection of national fast-food chains and flair-franchises within any given square mile? Is this a trick question (smiley face)?

What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Bourbon. Kentucky.

What can we look forward to in the new year?
We're hoping that Taco Maria will settle into a permanent home this year. Too early to say exactly when or where, but it's happening. You guys will be the first to know.

One food you can't live without:
Dairy. Any milk, any age, any mold or bacteria. To my ear, the phrase “lactose intolerance” sounds like a terminal condition.

Where was your most recent meal?
Christmas leftover tamales de rajas. Roasted chile strips with cheese and xocoque. Banados in a little extra reduced cream. Rye for dessert.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Stop watching food television and start reading more books on food. Buy fewer cookbooks. Great cooking sensibilities are developed through experiences, not from watching TV chefs. Recipes come from knowing ingredients, from personal stories– not from magazines.

I tend to feel there's a lot of wasted paper and ink that goes into cookbooks. Especially domestic cooks, who put a lot of faith in well-named cooks. Any cook will find that the more experienced you are, or the deeper you get into it, the less recipes matter–with exceptions.

Exact ratios are really useful and necessary for a lot of different things. But I think our domestic food culture is one that is kind of based around celebrity chefs. I feel like it's a backwards and uphill way of learning. As cooks, we tend to learn a lot more from experiences. From stories. Extracting the values and ethics that every chef or writer has, as opposed to learning how to make any given dish that particular way with that number of carrots.

I think you'll learn more about how to cook an eggplant (something that a lot of people might find challenging) by learning about the eggplant in the context of a very experienced Italian/Taiwanese/Japanese chef. Stories about food, whether you read about them in a book or shared by someone with a lot of great experiences, will teach you more about the ingredient. And in extension, how to cook it.

A piece of advice you'd give a new lonchera owner.
Keep it simple. Have a clearly defined concept and market. Do a few things consistently well. Build good relationships. Expect to spend 50% of your time securing the best locations to serve each day.

What would you recommend to someone new to your lonchera?
The chicken mole or the vegetarian tacos. By all means, order the bone marrow quesadilla or the hanger steak tacos. The mole is closest to my heart, and the jardinero is often my favorite and changes every season.

Favorite chef.
My mentor, Daniel Patterson. The rigor, discipline and technique at Coi are unlike anything I've experienced before or since. And he's probably the most modern and intellectual chef working today. Yet his food manages to be warm, emotional, shocking and still familiar, like a forgotten memory recalled.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
I don't know. Dried toasted beetles? Ant eggs? Caterpillar larvae? Are those weird?

Favorite restaurants/loncheras you eat at (besides your own):
I don't eat at a lot of casual restaurants since moving back to OC. In the rare case that I'm not cooking for myself or enjoying a meal prepared by family or friends, you'll find me at a local Thai or Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall.

When I have friends from out-of-town, I'll take them to Anepalco's for breakfast or Playground for dinner. In LA, I can't get enough of Baco Mercat and Spice Table. Josef and Bryant are each doing some of the most exciting food in SoCal.

As far as food trucks, I love anything that Stephanie from Seabirds comes up with. And I'll bribe Joe from Tasting Spoon for a porchetta sandwich whenever I see him.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Toast. Preferably made from my levain. Homemade jam. Salted butter. Or sheep yogurt with simple granola. Portola or Blue Bottle coffee through Chemex.

Are there any misconceptions newcomers have about your Chicano cuisine?
Every day, someone walks up to our window and orders without looking at the menu. When we explain to them what they're asking for when they say “chicken taco”, they look at us sideways and ask why we don't have “normal” tacos.

The most challenging misconception confronting us is the perception that all Mexican food is the same. That every “taqueria” will invariably have the same basic menu, and that it will all cost about the same– which is to say, virtually nothing.

Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
We get requests for “no-cheese” quesadillas fairly often. Is this a thing? Because the guests will ask calmly, non-plussed, as though it were incredibly common. We just smile and nod and try to griddle a flour tortilla without laughing.

What does Gustavo like to order?
Crispy arracherra (hanger steak) tacos. Spicy. He eats a pair of these every time he visits. I'm sure his new fiancee feeds him vegetables, but I always feel the need to send an extra salad or veggie dish just to make sure he gets his chlorophyll.

To learn more about Taco Maria, find them online at www.tacomaria.com or visit their Twitter feed here.

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