New restaurant hopes to spice up Laguna

Clemente Heredia is looking to spice things up with a second Carmelita's in Orange County.

The restaurant, which combines traditional-style cooking with today's best ingredients, has come to Laguna Beach in the former Crab Zone spot at 217 Broadway.

Heredia, 27, is no newbie to the business. His parents have owned the two Carmelita's in the Sacramento area for some 50 years. He's also traveled extensively to various parts of Mexico, mostly the Polanco district in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Rosarito, picking up cooking nuances there.

"I grew up cooking with my family," he said Tuesday, a day after the restaurant officially opened.

About four and a half years ago, Heredia opened his first Carmelita's in Rancho Santa Margarita. The restaurant is named after Heredia's grandmother.

Heredia has taken a different approach to Mexican food than his parents. When people think of Mexican food, they usually think of "cheese-filled plates," he said.

"They've been doing it like that for 50 years," he said about his parents. "I like to take the highest-quality ingredients and use techniques I learned from Grandma or from my trips."

Carmelita's in Laguna is smaller than the other restaurants, with about only 60 seats. The decor is modern rustic, with dark woods featured throughout and candles lighting up the place.

The two Orange County restaurants offer one unique specialty: their own tequila.

"Tequila is my biggest passion," Heredia said. "I've always loved food, but I've never been a fan of bars."

He launched his own tequila right before opening the Rancho Santa Margarita location.

"Tequila is so misunderstood or overlooked," Heredia said.

The tequila is made in Mexico, he said. It's used in all their margaritas, which also use freshly squeezed lime juice and housemade cocktail agave nectar. He developed the liquor because most restaurants use blanco, generic tequila. Heredia's is yellow.

"That bothered me," the Foothill Ranch resident said. "I want it to be great."

Laguna was an ideal location.

"We really wanted to open in Laguna first, but there wasn't [an available] space at the time," Heredia said. "I love the beach ... It makes me smile. There's no better thing than a margarita at the beach."

When the possibility of Chipotle fell through, he jumped at the location. He's hoping for the same success Rancho Santa Margarita has had: 20% growth every year.

"I like to be the restaurant locals come to," he said.

Carmelita's favorites include the seafood enchiladas with crab, the fresh fish of the day and tacos al pastor. Appetizers run about $5 to $10; entrees are $10 to $20.

Hours are from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

For more information, call (949) 715-7829.

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