The Los Angeles area has seen a number of remarkable restaurants open in the last several years, including spaceship fantasies with no recognizable foodstuffs, sushi bars plucked whole from the better precincts of Tokyo and dining rooms so devoted to local produce that it occasionally seems as if they have massive gardens of their own backing up to the kitchen.
Yet no restaurant in years may have had quite the impact that Taco María and its chef Carlos Salgado have had on the Southern California scene. The restaurant, which serves tasting menus of Salgado's Mexican-influenced cooking, is at the center of a culinary movement that seems to grow in importance each year. By regarding tortillas with a seriousness familiar to any fanatical French baker, by using perfect seasonal produce and by treating regional Mexican dishes with both imagination and respect, Salgado has propelled California-Mexican cooking into the jet stream of abstracted modernist cuisine.
And that he has done all this in an almost anti-luxurious dining room in a Costa Mesa hipster mall, an hour's drive from many of his fans and colleagues, is almost a miracle. Taco María has given not only Los Angeles but his native Orange County a sense of place — a place where roasted guinea hens with mole, tortillas stuffed with sturgeon and asparagus velouté with spring garlic stand beside crocks of mushroom chorizo and marinated Baja blood clams.
Should we be thankful that we can also sometimes get tacos, at least in the afternoon? Indeed. Taco María is Restaurant of the Year.