The smell of grilled onions, pinto beans and corn tortillas rushed through the kitchen of Caliente Southwest Grille as Heather Flanagan carried entrees to wooden tables in the narrow dining space on 17th Street in Costa Mesa.
"You have to try the 'Blue Moon' salad," Flanagan said. "It's our most famous."
Caliente Southwest Grille, in Costa Mesa since 1999, has long been a local favorite. Customers pack in to grab a seat at the six tables along the restaurant's wall.
The fresh-Mex dishes with a Southwestern influence draw customers with a menu that features inventive yet traditional options with a healthy twist.
The idea for the restaurant came to Ric Flanagan, Heather's father, who was into fitness and food that contained protein, nuts and fruit.
Ric Flanagan had owned a cafe in Long Beach and Heather, then 15, sold tacos to patrons dining on the patio.
He then opened Caliente in Costa Mesa and created an extensive menu from scratch, with options like the "Blue Moon" salad of romaine lettuce, blue cheese, sliced apples, mushrooms, pepitas, mango chunks, queso fresco and a citrus dressing. The salad, a top-seller, can also include chicken, carnitas, salmon or other protein.
Three years ago, Ric Flanagan retired, moved from the family's Newport Beach home to Yosemite and continues to surf and eat healthy foods, Heather Flanagan said.
Today, Heather Flanagan, a Huntington Beach resident and mother of two, owns and operates Caliente with a staff including some who have been with the restaurant since its inception.
"He was so happy that my heart was in it, and seeing that I had a fresh breath and new vision for it," Heather Flanagan said. "I never had to advertise our restaurant. It's all word of mouth."
Her father supported her decision to update the restaurant's interior and make other changes she felt would benefit Caliente and the environment.
To reduce the restaurant's carbon footprint, Heather Flanagan changed the to-go packaging from Styrofoam to paper and instead of serving dine-in orders on plastic, she purchased recycled-bamboo plating and a dishwasher.
She also installed a natural soda station and rebranded Caliente with a new look that sports turquoise lettering and reclaimed wood tables.
The restaurant, she said, continues to make every salsa, salad dressing and marinade in-house and all produce is sourced locally. Hot sauces stored on a wall spotlight brands created in Costa Mesa or Laguna Beach, and much of the menu is gluten-free.
Since the eatery quickly fills up during the lunch rush, Flanagan said many orders are takeout and much of her business is in catering, where she and the restaurant prepare dishes for local businesses, the YMCA, church events, and the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church Corner Cafe.
With the growing business, Flanagan said she recognized the need to cut back on running the operation day-to-day. She also had an unexpected event that caused her to slow down. Three years ago, she was delivering an order when a woman driving with a baby crashed into her car.
Though she wasn't severely injured, she felt numb and went to Hoag Hospital where doctors found a tumor on her spine. If the tumor had not been found soon, medical professionals said, she would have become a paraplegic.
After the tumor's removal and six months of physical therapy, Flanagan returned to Caliente and hired an assistant so she could continue running more product and catering events.
And the woman who hit her? She placed an order at Caliente and Flanagan got to hold her baby. When the woman offered money, she declined payment.
"I told her, 'We have a weird bond and I can't explain it,' " Flanagan said. "I woke up a different person."