There are meals that cease to be meals and become experiences you think about for days afterward. Carlos Salgado's four-course prix fixe at Taco Maria is that kind of dinner. If you aren't familiar with Salgado yet, you will be soon. He's that rare rising star who will inevitably become known not as just a great chef, but as a brand, just as LA's Michael Voltaggio and Josef Centeno are, their exploits followed by food bloggers and critics as though they were demigods.
A local boy who became the pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Commis in Oakland, Salgado returned to OC a few years ago to sling tacos and burritos out of a lonchera he named after the mujeres in his family. But the Taco Maria truck, as great as it was (it won the Best Luxe Lonchera award last year in our annual Best Of issue), turned out to be just a warm-up to this brick-and-mortar. At his new restaurant, also called Taco Maria, Salgado has traded tacos for the sophisticated Mexican cuisine people like me have come to label alta cocina.
This is the food Salgado was destined to cook. Even in interviews he gave back when he was at Commis, the ex-pastry chef admits desserts weren't his true calling—he spoke with longing of going back to “dealing with open fire and salt.” Now with a small crew (which includes Roland Rubalcava of the much-missed Rubalcava's Bakery) and working in a kitchen in full view of his customers at the OC Mix, you can see Salgado is where he's meant to be. He prepares only eight dishes, each of them thoughtful and flawless, served four per person for $44. The thing to do, of course, is to bring a friend, have them order the other four dishes, and then share each one.
A meal here will come at a leisurely two-hour pace, each course served with its own set of utensils. The evening begins with an amuse—a spoonful of granita involving hibiscus and finger limes that only builds the anticipation for what's to come. It's followed by espinacas, a salad of savoy spinach that is a revelation. You might find yourself savoring it unlike any salad you've ever had, using your fork to slowly and carefully fold the tiny dew-beaded leaves over a piece of pink grapefruit, avocado, crumbles of queso fresco and sunflower seeds to form precious spinach wraps. For the other first course, Salgado douses a sashimi slice of Pacific snapper with an electric slurry of citrus and chile—a modern interpretation of aguachile. The dish is a knock-out. First, the frigid temperature sends shivers, then you start to sweat as the heat sets in. Salgado doesn't hold back on the hotness here—his serrano peppers are untamed, with a seed or two included so the burn stays with you as though a long-reverberating gong. Reprieve comes in a dollop of watermelon jam that seems to soothe your throbbing mouth with a sweet and calming “there, there.”
Next: guacamole, with persimmon and pistachio interspersed in the mash, which is, yes, just guacamole, but in the best possible sense. You scoop it up with thick-as-ceramic-tile flax-seed chips, the skull-rattling crunch and texture interrupted by the nuttiness you taste when your bite happens upon one of those seeds. The other second-course option is huauzontles, quinoa fritters in perfectly fried spheres as craggly as falafel. Cut one in half, and the orb reveals a risotto's creaminess and bits of goosefoot plant. You eat it trying to avoid burning the roof of your mouth and wishing you could lick the last drop of salsa verde from the bowl without drawing unwanted attention.
Your third-course choices are an interpretation of rajas con crema (poblano strips in cream) or a crispy, sautéed scallop whose meat you use to squeegee the thick, addictive coconut cream sauce that surrounds it. For the former, Salgado adds shiitake in umami-rich buttons that slip in and out of a rich, cheesy sauce we norteamericanos might mistake for gravy, Alfredo or chowder.
For the final course, Salgado currently offers an arroz con pollo using farro instead of rice and discs of tart pear that offset the stewed poultry meat. Or there's an arrachera, a fire-grilled hanger steak with singed edges, garnished with fried quelites and sitting in a broth that only gets richer when you disturb the spoonful of bone marrow Salgado places in the middle of the plate for that very purpose.
And for dessert, he serves warm polvorones perfumed of cinnamon. He does this perhaps to show that his love of sweets hasn't abated—or maybe to prove that he can still do it all. With the pleasure of that meal still resonating in your thoughts, you believe Salgado can and will. And guess what? Taco Maria just started serving lunch.