Taco Maria: a pleasant surprise

My job occasionally takes me out of town to far-away places like Century City. On my way back from my most recent trip I consulted the Twitterverse for a food recommendation. I find Twitter a vast improvement over Yelp because I don’t have to guess about a person’s tastes. If we know each other on Twitter, chances are our food interests at least overlap. Plus, I follow some outstanding food people like Candice Woo and Chef Matt Gordon, so I feel good about the information available. I started following Bill Esparza – Street Gourmet L.A.  – when a friend in San Diego who used to own some restaurants retweeted a Baja recommendation. So, quite naturally, when it was time to find some food I called on Bill using the Twitterverse…and thus a trip to Taco Maria was born. It didn’t disappoint.

Random photo from Orange County website

Random photo from Orange County website

I’ll admit, I judged Orange County when I saw Bill’s tweet and googled Taco Maria. “How,” I thought, “could this haven for strip malls possibly produce an interesting meal, let alone a delicious one?”  Well, let this be a lesson to me. Good food apparently exists everywhere and this time it was cleverly disguised in a shopping mall tucked away behind all manner of crafty 50-something’s out looking for art and fabric. I pulled up to the mall in Costa Mesa, walked up to the mall sign, and was sure I’d been the subject of a prank.

On the one hand, the mall claimed to support local artisans and shopkeepers, and I do love me some small, independently businesses. There is something beautiful and courageous about risking a trip to the poor house for a chance to create something people want. But this “local” mall seemed a little too polished. Was I just allowing my bias to get in the way or was the shiny, somewhat too well put together mall trying too hard to be something it wasn’t?  Or maybe I was just being too judgy. Hard to tell, but anyway let’s get on to the food.

Probably self explanatory

Probably self explanatory

A few twists and turns and missteps later I found the spot. I’d read online that the owner started as a gourmet food truck before opening this restaurant of the same name. So many questions I wanted to ask, the first one was (of course) what should I eat?  The great thing about eating food prepared by people who really care about what they do is I feel comfortable letting go and taking their advice. It is a fantastic way to eat and if I hadn’t done that here I never would have stumbled onto this Aguachile (what is Aguachile?).

A special kind of semi-raw, spicy fish preparation

A special kind of semi-raw, spicy fish preparation

The ingredients–rockfish crudo, cress, pink guava, Ensenada olive oil–are easy to describe, the taste combinations wonderfully less so.  Crudo is kind of like sashimi or tartar (by which I mean it is raw). The dish, a recommendation of my server, came out in a little blue tin bowl and the rockfish sat in a bath of olive oil that had been hit with some very nice peppers for heat as well as some citrus. Then there was a hunk of what I’ll call a guava paste or jam sitting to the side. The perfect bite, of which there were several, actually was a bit like eating ramen.  Combine a little crudo and some guava and use the soup spoon to get a generous bit of the broth and voila, a nice and balanced collection of flavors with just enough background heat to open up my taste buds and really enjoy it. This dish really didn’t stand a chance and was a nice, light precursor to what came next.

'nuff said

’nuff said

These chicken mole tacos were really spectacular. They probably look as good as they tasted. Ingredients were organic chicken from Mary’s Farm, cashew ancho mole, and queso fresco, along with some pickled onions for contrast and texture served on house made corn tortillas. (Quick aside: If you click on that link you’ll find a family that owns a farm and that goes to great lengths to raise animals a certain way.)  I have become quite a fan of mole when done right. This recipe had a spicy, nutty quality that I really enjoyed. The guy next to me was having the steak tacos and I wondered if I’d miss out on something. I didn’t. Not at all. And just as I was reaching peak enjoyment, a guy behind the chefs table asks if I’m Omar. Well, now this is curious. Then my brain temporarily returns from its fixation on the food and I remember the twitter exchange with Bill. Aha. “Yes, is this your spot”, I ask. “Yep, I’m Carlos”, he replies in exactly the pleasant and appreciative tone I’ve come to find from so many Chef owners who have taken that leap.  Here he is in his own words. I tell him the mole is ridiculous, and then start in on a mix of foodie & business & social interest questions.

Me: Where do you get your produce from?

Carlos: Well I go to four farmers markets to find what I like and will work in the preparations, I go to the one here and was at Santa Monica the other day.

Me: What is Mary’s Farm?

Carlos: It’s up in the San Joaquin Valley. They raise organic chickens that are never frozen or blanched.

Me: Since you’ve had a food truck and now a fixed location, how do the costs compare?

Carlos: They’re actually not that different because of the high fuel costs and other costs.

Me: How did you choose the name?

Carlos: In a lot of Mexican families the women are named Maria and then they just go by their middle name. The name of the restaurant is kind of a tribute to the women in my family and Mexican families generally.

This guy was very cool and seemed exactly like the type of person who should be having success. I told him if he came down to San Diego he ought to come visit Carnitas Snack Shack. He’d be impressed. He said he really likes George’s and has become fond of Chef Trey Foshee’s work.  I mentioned the off the charts experience I had at Table 3 last year and could understand his affinity. I had wanted to try the guacamole, so as the meal was winding down I figured I’d ask for a taste. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying ‘the only way you guarantee the answer is no is by not asking the question.’ Indeed, Carlos politely asked one of the chefs, a lovely, cheerful young woman named Vanessa, to oblige.  She made me this

Happily sampled this interesting variation of guacamole

Happily sampled this interesting variation of guacamole

During a recent, rare night of using my own kitchen, I’d consulted the Twitterverse and received guacamole recipes from Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, John Anderson, Liz Huerta and a couple other folks down in San Diego. So when I saw that the recipe here included Concord grapes and was made with this

A novel way to prepare guacamole

A novel way to prepare guacamole

I had to give it a try. My friends debated mashing versus slicing within the avocado (Sara, I am convinced this was a cruel joke to see if I’d try it), and garlic or not, jalapeño or not. My home made version proved that I’ve been out of the kitchen too long, but I very much enjoyed this Taco Maria version. I recently had guacamole that I didn’t love from a place I expected to be good.  So I was happy to find that Carlos’ version was as chunky as I like with the right blend of spice, salt and even a little sweet from the grape. And the chips?  Well let’s just say they really elevated the guac. It’s hard to explain, but easy to underestimate, the value of a great chip. These were hefty and flavorful and not too salty. I don’t know where Taco Maria gets its chips, but if I find out it’ll be my new vendor of choice. The only downside on the menu was the beer list. I completely understand the need to have predictable beers. But I felt compelled to let him know that he could get a nice wheat beer from Coronado Brewing Co, a pilsner from Green Flash or even put a Stone IPA on the menu to widen appeal for craft beer fans. I even mentioned The Bruery as an option if he wanted to stay in Orange County with it, but of course reminded him there are 79 breweries in San Diego County and there are lots of quality options. Part of telling this story every time I can is about furthering an industry that is a personal passion.  And part of it is the jobs this industry creates can do something a lot of others can’t – create a path to a self-sufficient wage for someone who has limited or no higher education.  I had a splendid lunch at Taco Maria, and Carlos said I should come back for the four-course dinner, which he said is where they really shine.  A statement I find very easy to believe. Hard to imagine driving all the way up for dinner, but if you live close or happen to be in Costa Mesa for some reason you should follow Bill Esparza’s advice and give this place a shot.

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