RESTAURANT REVIEW:Taco Mesa’s healthful choices can become addictive

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It’s probably not right to have visions of cuisine when exercising, but it is excusable, I believe, when that food is served at Taco Mesa.

One, it is right down the street from the gym I go to, and two, it is a miracle I don’t think about this food all the time.

This is one of the most unique Mexican restaurants I have ever visited and always my first choice when I am in Costa Mesa.


Unfortunately, my workout partner, Tania, has the same mindset, so we are useless to each other from a willpower standpoint. We can rationalize the post-workout choice since the founders of Taco Mesa, Ivan and Marco Calderon, believe in cooking by using nontraditional methods. The two founded Taco Mesa in 1992 in an abandoned Taco Bell on 19th Street and opening their nonconventional Mexican restaurant. The dining area at the restaurant is also unique. The floor tilts toward the street so it feels like you are eating at an angle, but it is worth the minor sense of vertigo.

The Calderon mantra is: the fresher the better, and creativity is a must. No lard or deep frying here; the meats are grilled, and the cooks are easily visible.

The restaurant’s innovation when it comes to Mexican food is truly remarkable. There are whole-wheat tortillas, black beans instead of the heavier, refried beans and fresh vegetables.

The burritos are popular, and rightly so. The carne asada is outstanding and is cooked with such flavor that I was tempted to pull it out and eat it by itself.

The blackened chickened burrito is the specialty. It comes with a half-pound of blackened chicken wrapped up with chipotle sauce, cabbage relish and a blend of Mexican cheeses.

My favorite dish is a variation of the popular burrito. Instead of blackened chicken, which I fully recommend, I substitute blackened calamari. The calamari is some of the freshest I have ever had, and mixed with the sauce and cheeses is a taste I always crave. I have a hard time ordering anything else whenever I go there, but that would be a mistake.

There are several dishes I have found to be equally rewarding. One of them is the relatively new mesa torta. This is a Mexican roll filled with refried beans (I substitute black beans), marinated onions, serrano pepper, guacamole, tomatoes and romaine lettuce. You can add panela cheese, grilled marinated steak or grilled blackened chicken to it. I went with the chicken and cheese and was not disappointed.

The specials are where the restaurant really shines, and the creativity is readily apparent.

One of the featured dishes is the quesadilla morenita. They take a whole-wheat tortilla and blackened chicken and mix it with cheese, onions, tomatoes and avocado. Another special that is worth trying is the chile relleno — pasilla pepper stuffed with cheese and then battered and fried.

The choices are plentiful, the prices reasonable and the food memorable.


Address: 647 W. 19th Street, Costa Mesa

Phone: (949) 642-0629

Cuisine: Mexican

Specialty dish: Blackened chicken burrito

Alcohol served: Beer and wine

Dress: Casual

Family friendly: Yes, three items for children

Credit cards accepted: MasterCard, Visa, and American Express

Reger Rating: 4.5 stars

  • JOHN REGER is the Pilot’s restaurant critic. His reviews run Thursdays.
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