California. I’m driving through farmland between Napa and Sacramento, passing signs for roadside stands selling strawberries — at the outer limits of peak season — and for apricots and cherries, just now reaching their ripeness. I’m dashing through strip malls in Orange County, eating cha ca thang long (Vietnamese sizzling catfish covered in herbs) and compact burritos and plotting my way to a standard-bearer for falafel in Anaheim. I’m savoring eel and potato croquettes and fish like nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) in what is arguably the finest sushi restaurant south of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
The sky is cloudy again outside my hotel in Southern California; the region’s “May gray” and “June gloom” are upon us, but I’m eating too well to care much. This state, man. I’m here for two more weeks and I’ll barely sample its abundance.
So I’ll just jump in and tell you where I ate last night: the lauded Taco María in Costa Mesa, where at dinnertime chef-owner Carlos Salgado serves a $79 per-person tasting menu of four courses, much of them built around the masa he makes from corn varietals grown by small, independent farms in Mexico.
I had my first meal at Taco María a couple of years ago with two colleagues and apparently caught it on a rare off night: Nothing about that meal quite gelled; even the tacos leaned rubbery.
This time, the kitchen showed its glory. Each course has two choices; a friend and I shared the eight available dishes. Dinner began with a beautiful take on an enfrijolada — a blue-corn tortilla folded in a half moon, lacquered with bean puree, and filled with lavender-scented onions — and also a tableau of English and snap peas over ricotta with pickled onions, pecans, and clusters of amaranth.
Alegría (English and snap peas with ricotta and amaranth clusters)The greatness only accelerated from there: scallops bound by melted, chewy queso Chihuahua; a taco of gently smoked sturgeon, served with a salsa of smokier chile morita and peanuts; an unapologetically rich, volcano-shaped tamal blanketed in a sauce made from gruyere and tempered with a puree of nettles; and plates of skirt steak and chicken presented with tortillas and small dishes of guacamole and searing salsa to compose DIY tacos. The night finished with a small cup of coffee sparked with cinnamon and thickened with a mix of cream and masa.
I was enthralled enough to return for lunch the next day. The noontime vibes differ from evenings: no reservations, a la carte menu, a little more hustle to the service than at dinner. The food showed off the same heady mix of tradition and imagination. Scallop aguachile, puckery with citrus and crunching with salt, jolted my palate awake. A chewy layer of griddled cheese lined a bulging mushroom quesadilla, which oozed even more queso Oaxaca.
Really, though, we’re all here for the tacos, each substantial enough to comprise a meal. I managed to scarf down three of them, ruining my appetite for the three restaurants I’d planned to hit right afterward. (Sorry, editors.) I do believe the fried fish taco — made with black cod; garnished with charred scallion aioli, cabbage, and, oddly but not dissuasively, blueberries — to be the best I’ve had in America. And the kitchen glazed a rectangular block of pork belly with piloncillo (the unrefined form of cane sugar popular throughout Latin America) and finished it with bits of tangerine and avocado salsa. Spectacular.
Now off to another round of hardcore eating. If you have any suggestions for central California restaurants you’d consider essential, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be blazing through that area next week.
Your roving critic,
P.S. — for some weekend reading, may I suggest both my colleague Meghan McCarron’s fantastic must-read piece about the way the media stereotypes women chefs, and also my recent review of Maydan in Washington, D.C. (we need more restaurants homing in on North African and Middle Eastern flavors in America!).