Food

Taco Maria goes beyond tacos at dinner

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Don't go looking for a taco dinner at Taco Maria, Jonathan Gold reviews
Chef Carlos Salgado's Costa Mesa spot is so much more, writes @thegold
Carlos Salgado's Taco Maria at OC Mix has a killer black mole sauce, but what it's served over changes

The OC Mix is kind of a mini-Portland, Ore., within Costa Mesa's mammoth SoCo design complex, an enclosed warren of small shops devoted to spices, artisan cheese, baby clothes, funky jewelry, nut milks, chocolate and olive oil.

Analog, a vinyl specialist, stocks Led Zeppelin bootlegs you may not have seen since the glory days of Moby Disc in the mid-1970s. If you hit the ice cream counter on the right day, you may be able to score a scoop flavored with salty black licorice. Another store features both skinny jeans and fixie bicycles. Portola Coffee Lab is as consistent — and attitudinous — as any coffee roaster in Silver Lake and incorporates a micro-cafe, Theorem, that has been described as the El Bulli of coffee.

So it should come as no surprise that the OC Mix also incorporates a restaurant descended from a popular food truck, which happens to serve handmade hot sauces, foraged greens and natural, biodynamic wines. No retrospective of 2014 popular culture could be said to be properly curated without such a dining room, preferably with an open kitchen, a scattering of rough-hewn tables, a comfortable patio and piles of Mason jars.

But the first thing you should know about Taco María is that it doesn't serve tacos, not at dinner anyway — although you will find a killer michelada, beer spiked with spicy tomato juice, if that's your thing. Taco María is a prix-fixe restaurant from Carlos Salgado, a local guy who cooked at highbrow places like Coi and Commis in the Bay Area before he moved back home to Orange County and started up his truck.

Four courses, plated as elegantly as anything you'll see at Alma or Providence, run $52, which is not expensive for this level of cooking: roasted beets arranged with tangerine wedges, herbs and a handful of nutty toasted quinoa, perhaps, or iodine-rich blood clams and chewy "chocolate" clams from Baja lightly marinated as a kind of ceviche.

Salgado calls what he does "Chicano cuisine," which probably calls to mind a series of pozoles and reconstructed enchiladas, but what you notice when you pull a stool up to the dining counter is that the line of chefs is arranging flower petals with tweezers instead of flipping meat with tongs, that the bubbling sous-vide apparatus is holding eggs at a precise 65 degrees Celsius and that the guy tending the wood-burning grill in the corner spends a lot more time adjusting his logs than he does actually tossing meat on the fire. Salgado's cooking, largely vegetarian, may feature Mexican flavors, but the spirit is distinctly market-oriented modernist.

So Salgado's menu, which changes more or less daily, may include a delicate asparagus velouté with Meyer lemon zest, spring garlic and warm curls of chicharrones softening in the hot liquid; toasted tortillas flavored with the Japanese seaweed nori and served with a kind of shrimp-spiked guacamole; or Alaskan salmon in a cream sauce with pea tendrils and caviar. You will almost always find crocks of his chorizo, made with spiced shiitake mushrooms instead of meat, topped with a single crunchy new potato, one of those soft-poached eggs and a drizzle of tart tomatillo sauce.

There is a killer black mole sauce, sometimes served with crisp-skinned roast guinea fowl and sometimes with rabbit. The roast rack of lamb tastes a bit as if it were drizzled with birria consommé. Then it's a marshmallow flavored with spiced Mexican chocolate and the check — no coffee, no dessert, no celebratory shots of brandy.

The tacos come at lunch, freshly made tortillas stuffed with fried fish, grilled skirt steak or that mushroom chorizo, along with Caesar salads and the like. We can dream, but Taco María is too small to serve tacos at night. But if Salgado sold them, and maybe his fiery kanpachi aguachile from the window of a truck parked in Santa Ana, he would have a line of mariscos-crazed regulars stretched around the block.

Taco María

In Orange County's mini-Portland, modern cooking with a Mexican twist.

LOCATION

3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444, tacomaria.com. (In the OC Mix complex.)

PRICES

Four-course dinner tasting menu, $52; lunch tacos, $12 to $17.

DETAILS

Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Satuardays; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Aguachile; chorizo con papas, mole.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

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