Puesto might be the only restaurant in Irvine that will change the way you think about Mexican street food. But in order for it to work its magic, you’ll have to leave your expectations at the door.
Otherwise, you’ll spend most of your first visit to the too-cool, 3-month-old restaurant as I did, sipping on a fresh hoppy beer from Cerveceria Agua Mala in Ensenada while nibbling on chips and freshly pureed salsa, and going dizzy trying to make sense of how a deliciously blasphemous guacamole made with peas (appropriately called Peagate) can coexist on a menu with a perfectly prepped taco of slow-roasted cochinita pibil.
After many more nights spent sitting at the bar, chilling around the metal agave fire pit on the hip outdoor patio and spreading out at the large “chef’s” tables built inside the bustling kitchen, I’ve stopped trying to understand how the tony Los Olivos Marketplace — which at night always appears to be on an exclusive island plated in gold — became home to the third location of this experimental San Diego concept.
Instead, I just kept drinking that beer from Ensenada — possibly while snacking on one of Puesto’s tangy coctel campachenas (topped with spicy Tajín roasted peanuts), or maybe a cheesy Maine lobster taco — and let myself float back to the dreamy weekend market on the sand in the Baja fishing village of Popotla.
A whiff of plancha-grilled meat or warmed blue corn wafting from the comal in the taqueria-style kitchen was always enough to draw me back to reality in Orange County, which just lets me order another beer, probably one from Insurgente in Tijuana (after all, this is one of the few places in Orange County that consistently has fresh kegs of Baja beer), along with a starter like braised lamb barbacoa, which comes on tiny masa boats like a platillo of Mexican sliders.
Puesto is a place built for exploring and grazing — and oh man is it fun.
This is mainly because the menu is not singularly inspired by any of the trends found in modern Mexican food right now. Its offerings are neither dominated by the mixtures of Mexican and Mediterranean cuisine happening across Baja California nor the upscale molecular gastronomy spots trying to push traditional Mexican food through the cheffy lens of French culinary training.
What Puesto does best is turn pieces of both authentic and exploratory casual Mexican food into a progressive, sit-down San Diego take of its own creation, bringing together the best parts of the late-night Mexico City taqueria, the Sinaloan mariscos stand, the SoCal casual cafe and the mezcal-obsessed farm-to-table gastropubs burrowing into the heart of Tijuana’s experimental food scene right now.
After experiencing most of the above at some point or another in my travels, I’ve started to see Puesto as the restaurant version of the California burrito, an only-in-SoCal oddball mixture of ideas and ingredients that works as long as its customers are open to its message of adulteration. Helping guide its (mostly white, mostly upper class) customers along is clever branding with a penchant for doodles and neon that knows it can’t take these efforts too seriously.
On the business side, Puesto is the creation of La Jolla-bred brothers Eric and Alan Adler along with their cousin Isidoro Lombrozo. For the food, they entrusted executive chef and partner Luisteen Gonzalez, a Mexico City-born former hairdresser who ran a popular taco catering business in San Diego.
Gonzalez was famous at parties for his takes on the costra, an obscure taco style invented for the late-night Mexico City crowd made by piling all the fillings on a mound of burned cheese and then rolling it up on a tortilla (costra means scab and, sure, it kind of looks like one, but don’t let that deter you). Gonzalez says he got the idea to roll the cheese around the ingredients from his experience putting curlers in people’s hair during his years as a salon owner.
Puesto’s 10 flagship tacos (available only in orders of three for $15 — yes it’s that kind of place) have won Tacolandia acclaim and seem to be the menu’s main draw, but you’d be remiss to start and end there. Why settle for just tacos when you can nosh on cured cactus, inhale a piquant bass tiradito or dig fresh chips into a mini cast iron skillet bubbling with cheese and green chorizo?
Better yet, just ask to sit at one of the coveted chef’s tables and let Irvine’s chef Katy Smith send out what’s in season. It just might change the way you think about Mexican street food.
Puesto is at 8577 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Call (949) 608-9990 or visit eatpuesto.com.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.