Healthful and Tasty but . . .


Orange County may be one of the best places in the country to sample the breadth of Mexican cuisine, but our malls are also hotbeds of freshly made Mexican cuisine.

Made-on-the-spot Mexican places use grilled chicken and steak and freshly made salsas and guacamole in their tacos and burritos. They avoid lard, canned ingredients and microwaving. The result may be wholesome, but it tends to be narrowly standardized.

Our capital of fresh Mexican food is Irvine, where three leading chains--La Salsa, Baja Fresh and Chipotle--are slugging it out for master-planned supremacy.

La Salsa, located in The Crossroads, offers the largest menu of the three, with a healthy selection of taco baskets, burritos and combo plates with rice and beans.

The staple is the "original gourmet" burrito, a beast of a thing packed with Monterey Jack, cheddar, salsas and creamy guacamole. The steak version was the best burrito I sampled from the three restaurants. The grilled steak strips, marinated in chiles, garlic and lime juice, were moist, and the chunky tomato salsa added a nice zesty flavor.

For a fresh Mexican place, La Salsa also makes excellent burritos. The grande burrito adds rice, black beans, lettuce and sour cream to the Original Gourmet mix. The el champion is an even more massive version, erected with two large flour tortillas. The Los Cabos shrimp burrito features caramelized onions and cabbage as well as shrimp.

But the beef and chicken tacos lack zest, and you can't taste the mahi-mahi for the sauces (creamy Baja, spicy Sonoran) in two of the fish tacos. The taquitos (made with flour instead of corn tortillas) come off more like flautas with an undistinguished chicken and black bean filling.

La Salsa is inexpensive. Burritos are $4.25 to $5.75, tacos $2.35 to $2.95 and combo plates $5.35 to $6.95.

* La Salsa, The Crossroads, 3850 Barranca Parkway, Irvine. (949) 786-7692, and five other O.C. locations.

Baja Fresh opened its third local outlet last year in the new Oak Creek Village Center, and its ethos is spelled out throughout the glistening, white-tiled restaurant: "No microwaves, no can openers, no freezers, no lard, no MSG." It boasts "hand-crafted" salsas, and the sound of sizzling of steak and chicken breasts fills the restaurant.

The menu resembles La Salsa's, only with fewer of the plates with rice and beans. Its pride is the burrito Mexicano, another monster filled with steak or chicken, black or pinto beans, rice, chopped onion, cilantro and hot or mild salsa. Warning: There's too much rice in it, and the mild salsa is rather insipid.

I much prefer the grilled vegetarian burrito, filled with peppers, chiles and onions along with a tasty pico de gallo salsa. It's one of the better meatless burritos I've tried, but I would suggest asking for a bit of guacamole to add flavor and texture.

La Salsa falls short in the taco department, but it's precisely here that Baja Fresh is most successful. The tacos really aren't too different from the ones I routinely wolf down at the authentic taquerias in nearby Santa Ana. The standard beef or chicken taco includes chopped onion and cilantro in addition to the pico de gallo. The fish taco, with its filling of lightly breaded snapper, crisp cabbage and a tangy mayo-like sauce, is like what you'd get from a street vendor in Ensenada. And the crisp chicken taquitos are merely perfect.

Burritos $3.50 to $6.95, tacos $1.85 to $2.25, combo plates $5.25 to $6.95.

* Baja Fresh, Oak Creek Village Center, 5633 Alton Parkway, Irvine. (949) 551-2252, and 11 other O.C. locations.

The newcomer to the local fresh Mexican wars is Chipotle, which started in the Denver area and is now moving into Southern California with a fury. Chipotle opened five months ago in the new Northpark Plaza and now has four Orange County sites. Unlike La Salsa and Baja Fresh, which look fast-foody, Chipotle has a cool, pseudo-industrial style with a concrete floor so conversations echo throughout the room.

The menu is simple: steak, chicken, carnitas or guacamole (vegetarian) burritos and tacos. They're made to order cafeteria-style at the front service area, with various choices of beans, sour cream, cheese and three kinds of salsa: tomatillo (hot), roasted chile and corn (mild) and tomato (mild). Sauteed bell peppers are added to the fajitas burritos.

The meats are marinated in adobo sauce for up to two days before grilling. They cook up savory and tender, notably the chicken.

Yes, the burritos are huge, and the best bet is to order the one made with the only special item on the menu, barbacoa. This is beef braised with peppers, cumin, cloves and garlic, and its rich flavor dominates the thick, juicy burrito, which is also filled with the usual accompaniments.

Tacos are not served individually but in groups of three (soft flour tortillas) or four (crisp corn tortillas). The soft tacos are better. Although the crisp shells are made on-site, they taste no better than what you'd buy at a supermarket. While you're at it, ask for the excellent fresh tomato salsa rather than the chile-corn and tomatillo varieties. It adds much more flavor.

Overall, Chipotle makes high-quality, tasty tacos and burritos, but the extreme narrowness of its menu might make you think hard about taking it over La Salsa and Baja Fresh.

Burritos range from $4.55 to $5.25, and taco plates from $4.65 to $4.85.

* Chipotle, Northpark Plaza, 3955 Irvine Blvd., Irvine. (714) 508-2463, and three other O.C. locations.

This is the real bottom line: The fresh Mexican concept has its merits, but it has its limitations too. With the continued expansion (these three players have a combined 22 Orange County locations), it could soon reach its saturation point.

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