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Why Costa Mesa's Taco Maria Doesn't Plan to Serve Carne Asada Burritos

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One year in, Costa Mesa's Taco Maria is thriving, thanks to a renewed interest in modern Mexican cuisine.

Anne Watson

Welcome to One Year In, a profile that features restaurants that are just now celebrating their first year's anniversary. Here are their struggles, accomplishments, and future plans.

You may not know it just by looking at chef Carlos Salgado's modern Mexican four-course menu at his Costa Mesa restaurant Taco Maria, but the fine dining chef's biggest inspiration may well be a hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Orange. That restaurant -- his parents -- sparked a lifelong love of Mexican cuisine, cooking and Orange County itself.

After stints in the Bay Area as pastry chef at fine-dining spots like Commis in Oakland, Salgado returned to Orange County to start Taco Maria as a market-driven food truck, before eventually expanding into Costa Mesa's hip OC Mix Mart. Now one year in at his wood-lined open kitchen restaurant, Salgado is blessed to have the eye of L.A. diners, and to be serving the kind of food (in exactly the kind of town) that he's always wanted.

How did you end up at the OC Mix Mart? We had sort of positioned ourselves as being a farmer's market food truck, and there was a budding market here at the time. And so we made a lot of early friends, especially because we were one of the only food trucks at the time to be cooking... real food, I guess. You know, fresh produce, that sort of thing.

So we had in mind for the longest time that if something opened up here, we'd love to get in. And because we were able to make a lot of allies with the local businesses, we got our foot in the door and jumped on the spot. It was very serendipitous, and came at a time when we knew the market for food trucks was changing, so we were able to get out ahead of that.

What was the original impetus for the food truck? I'm a fine dining guy, I spent a lot of time at great restaurants up north, but I grew up in my parents' taqueria down here. It's sort of a hole-in-the-wall taco joint that's open for lunch and dinner in Orange, and my parents have been doing it for thirty years. It was definitely time for my sister and I, who is a co-owner here, to get them on the road to retirement. As a family, we had this restaurant space that was usable but not effective in the evenings. So we looked for ways to use our resources.

At the time, the market in Orange County for food trucks was really growing. I like to believe that in Orange County you have more interested diners who are willing to try something unique than you have restaurants really ready to serve them. You don't have the wealth of diverse restaurants like in L.A. So we realized that there was a little bit of a market gap there, and that [the truck] gave us the ability to work on the restaurant, and to work more closely with my parents' business. It was a really good transitional thing for us.

You aren't serving what many people might think of when they hear the name Taco Maria. Has there been a learning curve for the community about what you're doing? It's funny because we decided to keep the name Taco Maria, but at the same time we knew we wouldn't be keeping the concept, and that we'd be putting ourselves out on a limb by doing that. I sort of secretly enjoy the cognitive dissonance of running a place called Taco Maria. We do get a lot of people with certain expectations. We'll still get people walking through the door in the evenings, yelling at the first person they see about getting a carne asada burrito to go. It's like, look around you buddy. Someone is enjoying a nice dinner and glass of wine right next to you.

We'll still get people walking through the door in the evenings, yelling at the first person they see about getting a carne asada burrito to go.

How many covers do you do on a Saturday night? We'll max out at about 80 or 90, and that's manageable for us. This is actually the largest seating for any restaurant I've worked in for the past ten years. It allows us to touch everything. We get to give everything the same attention, and that's the way I like to work. I think, without exaggeration, this place -- the space itself and the people -- are really important to me. I've been trained to think of restaurants as an extension of the home, and we wouldn't want to make this place any bigger and risk losing that touch.

How was your first night of service? The first week, we opened for dinner only, and it was a la carte. We did dishes similar to what we're doing now, at least in terms of approach. The menu design was similar, except that we were trying to do larger plates. And we found that it was a challenge, because people would be expecting a complete Mexican meal on a plate, and we wanted to offer some different items that maybe didn't fit into that category. After about three weeks, we realized that we were really acting out of character; that wasn't who we are restaurant people. We were trying to meet some sort of expectation, of what we thought people would want from a contemporary Mexican restaurant. So we just came in the next day and started doing the four-course format.

Of course, we'll always accommodate. We're not one of those Orange County restaurants that's going to tell you everything that's wrong with your dining decisions. Do the food that compels us, put service first and try to show them a good time. Those people that can be moved by it will be, and those that don't, there's little that we can do.

What moments stand out for you in your first year? We're really grateful to have gotten onto the radar as far as Los Angeles restaurants are concerned. To see Jonathan Gold walk in the door was very much a defining moment. In Orange County, we're not often referenced in the same breath as L.A. restaurants. But this is my hometown, and I really care about it. I suppose I could have come back to Southern California and decided I wanted to work in L.A., but I firmly believe in roots and in hometowns.

The L.A. Times 101 Best Restaurants list was tremendous for us, because we literally never thought that could happen

The L.A. Times 101 Best Restaurants list was tremendous for us, because we literally never thought that could happen, that Jonathan would expand that list to Orange County. And Orange County got three restaurants on that list, and that's great. There's some civic pride to take in that. L.A. is a great food town, and to have someone from L.A. compel another diner to come to Orange County to eat, that's maybe the ultimate compliment.

What is your motivation moving forward? I'm really inspired and moved by the way that the U.S. and food cities in particular have a renewed interest in Mexican food. There's a bit of a land grab right now in that food space. So it's kind of a double-edged thing, because it inspires a lot of pride to see my family's cuisine become so important for chefs across the country. At the same time, it's also a challenge -- and one that we invite -- that while Mexico is having its own culinary revolution and changing the definition of Mexican food there, we here in U.S. restaurants are sort of on the tangent as far as modernizing Mexican food. What we're largely working with here is American Mexican food as a reference, and that's not the case in Mexico.

So for us, we want to continue to look for our personality. Every kid in Southern California has grown up on tacos, and so we wanted to look not to the local landscape for inspiration, but back to Mexico directly for inspiration. And rather than replicating it verbatim, incorporating it with the best parts of living in California. Our agriculture, the influences that we've had, just looking for new traditions.

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