Orange County does not have a reputation for culinary excellence, not like New York City or San Francisco; and there is some truth to those generally held opinions, as behind the “Orange Curtain” too many of the high end, four star rated restaurants are steak houses serving expensive slabs of beef on a plate with nothing else, unless you order an additional side dish that you could have made at home for a lot less. But not all high end, highly rated restaurants in the county fit into that narrow category.
Taco María certainly does not! Also, it is not a traditional Mexican restaurant. Taco Maria is an exciting addition to the local culinary scene serving creative and delicious food to its lucky patrons, and earning food awards since they opened in 2013.
Although I was aware of their reputation for excellence, it was not until recently that I was able to make a reservation that worked with my schedule, and the experience was worth the wait! On the evening when my friend and I dinned there they were serving a prefix menu of four courses, offering one choice from two choices for each course. My friend ordered the wine pairings, which he generously let me taste, and I was impressed with the selections that did exactly what they were supposed to do, enhance the creative dishes. As for the food, it was delicious!
We started with Alegría, which included English and snap peas, tendrils, ricotta, amaranth, and pecans. The snap peas had a light char grilled flavor; the English peas and tendrils were fresh and fragrant (they tasted like they had just been picked from the garden); the shaved onion was pickled; the ricotta was creamy; and the amaranth and pecans added a kiss of sweetness.
Our second course was Callo Gratinado, which was a scallop dish with queso chihuahua, and skid ink crumbs. The cheese to my surprise added a mild richness to the scallops and I have no idea how the skid ink crumbs were made, but the entire dish was rich and tasty, with a lovely bit of spice from the sauce that also imparted a hint of acid.
Our third course was called Pescado Zarandeado. It was stripped bass with a crispy skin, served over gnocchi, chile poblano, rapini, and anchovies. Like the other tasty dishes it was served on a matt stoneware plate, the perfect vehicle allowing the artistry of the food to stand out.
Our fourth course was Mole de Cacahuate, pieces of grilled Aspen Ridge skirt steak, served over a peanut mole, and garnished with fava leaves. They also brought us some hand-made blue corn tortillas and a green salsa, and recommended we make tacos. Everything was wonderful, in particular the mole sauce which was not heavy, but light, with distinct flavors that enhanced the skirt steak.
And just when we thought, wow, that was a great meal they brought us a cup of sweetness! I am not exactly sure what it was called but it was vanilla cream with decaffeinated coffee that was thickened with masa. Anyway, it was sweet, rich, and tasty, and just enough to satisfy our sweet tooth without erasing the memory of a fantastic meal.
Thank you Taco María for a great dinner and for reminding me that stereotypes cannot be depended on. Behind the Orange Curtain there are exciting restaurants, as well as intellectuals, artists, philanthropists, hard working people, and humanitarians!