Tapas and Beer In Rancho Santa Margarita: First Taste

If you thought I meant Papas and Beer, that south-of-the-border mega-bar, calm down. This is Tapas and Beer, a new restaurant that seeks to fuse a small-plate concept with a neighborhood sports bar.

And the place looks like a bar–the pool table straight ahead, the bar to the right that takes up
most of the space and the wall full of big-screen TVs tuned to sports. A few small booths lined one wall. I was
confused: Is it a bar or a restaurant?

According to General Manager Jeff, they're shooting for an atmosphere
sort of like Hooters
Buffalo Wild Wings, but with a notch more ambition in its menu. Huh?  A
sports bar for foodies? A tapas menu that looks more Mexican than
Spanish? There are more contradictions here than the Scots-Korean Starburst commercials.

The grilled chicken marinated in achiote, served with a citrus-marinated red onion: flavors that allude to the braised Yucatecan pork dish cochinita pibil y cebollas encurtidas. And look–there's also a slow-roasted pork dish with those same elements, just not called pibil.

The Spanish chorizo wrapped in potato comes speared on two skewers. They're paprika-heavy sausage pieces the size of a Tootsie Roll wrapped in a thin sheet of potato, then deep-fried until the potato crisps up a deep brown. What's not to like about that? Nothing, except the two skewers seem disproportionately meager next to the entire chicken leg that came out of the kitchen with it, and the menu doesn't distinguish which items are snack-sized and which are more substantial. Jeff says they're working on that.

It's also something of a covert
operation for now. Chef/owner Miguel hasn't fully cut ties with his
current employer, so Jeff asked not to give full names of the

There's going to be an adjustment period in which the restaurant learns what the neighboring community wants, as well as for Rancho Santa Margarita residents to warm to the idea of a small-plates bar. They'll especially warm up to it as a late-night hangout because it's probably the only other option besides TGI Fridays that serves to 11 p.m. or beyond in a town that rolls up the curbs at night.

On the bar side of the operation: The wine order is being finalized, and the house cocktail selections being tweaked. The draft-beer selection is straight out of a sports-bar playbook: Bud Light, Coors Light, Stella Artois, Michelob Shocktop, Sam Adams Noble Pils, Blue Moon, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Newcastle, Modelo Especial, Widmer IPA and Guiness. Nothing at all for the craft-beer fanatics.

It's refreshing to see an independently owned restaurant try something ambitious, rather than a slick corporate concept developed in focus groups and backed by PR campaigns. There's no press-suck-up junkets, no social-media blitz, not even a website yet. I'm a huge fan of a place with a small, tightly focused menu, and Tapas
and Beer has potential to develop into a unique locals' hangout with
good food once it figures out what it wants to be when it grows up.

Tapas and Beer, 22307 El Paseo, Ste. C, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 888-1896. (In the same parking lot as 24 Hour Fitness.)

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