Father and son sell slow-cooked, fast-served tacos at Tustin’s Taco Mesita
As a child, Nico Calderon always wanted the same thing for his birthday.
“If you asked Nico where he wanted to go for his birthday, he would say, ‘I want to go to the best restaurant out there,’” said his father, chef Ivan Calderon. “Most other kids would say, ‘I want to go to Disneyland or Chuck E. Cheese,’ no, he wanted to go to a restaurant, a high-end restaurant. He was always passionate about food.”
Food was important to Nico because it was important to his father. Ivan is the founder of Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa, and Nico often spent time in his father’s restaurants.
“I loved to come in and help out my dad on the weekends,” said Nico. “I always wanted to share what we were creating with others.”
The father and son have partnered, along with Nico’s childhood friend and established designer Max Moriyama, to create Taco Mesita, a concept looking to redefine fast food.
“We wanted to put a brand out there that stepped up what was available in the drive-through industry,” said Ivan. “There are no high-end drive-throughs, so to speak, with slow-cooked, served-fast food.”
Nico said he and his father wanted to fill that void.
“I have always been confused about why we couldn’t have really good quality food in a fast-food setting with a drive-through,” said Nico. “It wasn’t out there so I was asking my dad, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ ”
Taco Mesita opened in Old Town Tustin at 765 El Camino Real in February in a space formerly occupied by Alberta’s Mexican Food. Taco Mesita isn’t a smaller version of Taco Mesa as its name suggests but is an entirely new concept from the beloved Orange County brand.
A small but focused menu offers high-quality burritos, tacos, snacks and drinks at a competitive price point.
“Instead of dealing with 100 items, you are dealing with less than half so you can elevate the technique,” said Ivan.
The steak taco ($6), for example, takes skirt steak over the kitchen’s woodfire grill before nestling it in a homemade corn tortilla and topping it with cilantro pickled onions.
A blue corn tamalito ($6) is made using an heirloom mole recipe, passed down for generations in the Calderon family, and filled with huitlacoche, a delicate mushroom-like growth on corn husks, sometimes referred to as a “Mexican truffle.”
“White gold” horchata ($5) is made the indigenous way using the super food tiger nut, and Modelo ($6) and Lost Coast’s Great White ($7) beers are available on draft.
The bean and cheese burrito ($3.75) made on a homemade flour tortilla, is filled with just two ingredients: flavorful pinto beans and stretchy oaxaca cheese. Then it is lovingly grilled on the flattop, making it a crispy handheld pocket of beany, cheesy goodness. The manageable size is intentional.
“They are not your standard burrito, they are a bite-sized burrito, but the tortilla is just magnificent, it is fresh and finished on the griddle,” said Ivan. “When you bite it, you want to have two — or you want to have a burrito and a taco.”
Ordering at Taco Mesita is meant to be similar to the way you might order multiple items at a fast-food restaurant, and the low price point helps make that possible.
“We want to give that variety,” Nico continues. “We don’t want you come in and get filled up on one burrito and not be able to eat anything else.”
The intention in the food carries through the restaurant space, thanks to Moriyama.
“Originally they brought me in for the architecture,” said Moriyama, who spent time working at Taco Rosa before pursuing a design career that led him to work with firms like Bjarke Ingels Group. “As things sort of evolved and morphed, I took on a bit more of the branding and the vision and the look and feel of everything.”
The building felt very disjointed, with things added to the structure as needs arose, but Moriyama effectively created a space that feels more connected.
“Right away the design ambition was to clean everything up and bring a cohesion to everything,” said Moriyama. “This is where the breezeblock wall came from.”
The breezeblock wall, in stark white, surrounds the patio creating a oasis in a strip mall, but it also leads the cars going around the space through the drive-through.
Rather than emulating the high-sensory design and bright colors of most fast-food restaurants, Taco Mesita uses lush landscaping, simple mirror-finished mesh seating and two colors: orange and white.
The woodfire grill and rotisserie are all visible through wide windows that look into the kitchen, another purposeful design move.
“We wanted to show off the operations of the business because we are cooking everything from scratch,” said Nico. “We don’t have anything to hide.”
Taco Mesita is a family business and on a recent weekday afternoon, Ivan himself ran half-sheet pans of food out to tables while Nico greeted customers.
“I love being here with him,” said Nico, looking at his dad, “and I love serving people and helping them have a great experience.”
Ivan said he is happy to continue working with his son as well, just as he did in the old days when Nico helped out as a kid.
“The most rewarding thing is I work here with my son,” said Ivan, “and not just with him but Max, who I have known since he was a kid, and now seeing them grown up and involved in the business … that is really the best.”
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