The aguachile served at Taco Maria in Costa Mesa looks like a jewelry commercial come to life, all glimmers and precision. Chef Carlos Salgado tweaks this classic Mexican dish every season, but the base is always the same: morsels of sustainably caught seafood accompanied by cucumber slivers, the two sitting in a pool of chilled citrus-and-jalapeno-spiked broth and decorated with refreshing herbs. The aguachile last summer was hamachi, coconut and lemon verbena. In the fall, it was Hokkaido scallops, cilantro oil and micro cilantro, with triangles of avocado for creaminess.
Salgado’s aguachile is so pretty that newbies dismiss it as frou-frou nonsense, unworthy of being called “Mexican food.” But then you take a spoonful. Aguachile (“pepper water”) is from the Mexican coastal state of Sinaloa, and its unadulterated version is a Sinaloense manifesto: fiery, cool, complex, spectacular. That’s what makes Salgado’s version a miracle: Never has Mexican food been prepared so elegantly without losing its rustic essence.
The restaurant industry loves genius, so I’ve seen chefs copy Salgado’s star meal everywhere, from food trucks in Los Angeles to Louisville craft cocktail bars, from San Francisco pop-up dinners to recipe books. And they do it not because aguachile is delicious Mexican food — although that’s a plus — but because they’re trying to keep up with the Golden State’s next game-changer chef. And they know it’s Salgado. Taco Maria is California’s most important restaurant right now because it offers our past, present and future in each thoughtful course and decadent bite.
Salgado’s story is a fully Californian — that is to say, Mexican — story, one of migration, reinvention and sudden success that came from years of hard work. He’s the son of immigrants who ran a restaurant in Orange that served Cal-Mex cuisine: hard-shell tacos and chile verde and dozens of combo plates designated by numbers. Food that guaranteed the Salgados a career but that they never bothered to make at home because it wasn’t their kind of Mexican food. They had to make what sold, not what they loved.
Like any smart, liberal Orange County kid, Salgado got the hell out as soon as he could and decamped to friendlier environs: San Francisco. After a stint in the tech industry, he became a pastry chef and worked for a decade at Michelin-starred restaurants like Coi and Commis.
The then-31-year-old returned to OC in 2011 to help the family business at a momentous time in California’s food history. Taco trucks, long the domain of working-class Mexicans and construction workers, were now hip, so Salgado decided to open his own, naming it Taco Maria in honor of all the Marys in his family tree.
As a dumb, radical Orange County kid who decided to stay, I initially snickered at Salgado’s description of his food as “Chicano cuisine.” I asked him on Twitter what that meant. “We have issues,” was his sotto voce reply — and he gained an eternal fan in me with such a profound yet hilarious response. Then I actually tried his food: mole burritos, lightly fried tacos and other standard food truck fare, refined yet familiar.
His fans expected more of the same when Salgado opened the brick-and-mortar Taco Maria in Costa Mesa in 2013, a small spot with a soundtrack that goes from traditional Mexican rancheras music to “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young like it was the most natural segue possible. But Salgado took yet another turn. “I know that everyone sort of expected us to be a Mexican restaurant,” he said on an episode of the Emmy-winning PBS series “The Migrant Kitchen.” “And I think with that expectation, certain things are taken for granted.”
He ditched food-truck casualness in favor of a prix fixe menu. Tortillas for tacos were now made from heirloom blue corn grown by small farms and shipped in from Mexico. It imparts an earthier taste that gringos had never tasted before but that’ll haunt your palate. People would ask for chips and salsas, only to leave in a huff when waiters told them this wasn’t that type of Mexican restaurant. This was Alta California cuisine, a new movement in which Chicanos like Salgado combined their ancestral food with modern techniques and a commitment to upending expectations of what Mexicans could do with their food.
One-star Yelp reviews greeted Taco Maria for daring to deviate. More telling were the accolades: Two James Beard semi-finalist nominations. Best New Chef for Food & Wine Magazine in 2015. Best restaurant in Orange County for the past four years by the Orange County Register and my former publication, OC Weekly. And, most importantly, three straight years in the top five of Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants; the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times critic described Taco Maria as “the most unlikely great restaurant in Southern California.”
Unlikely? I’d say it’s the most obvious. California’s Latinos are ready to take the baton from previous generations and show everyone the way forward. With Salgado in the kitchen, rest assured our state will be fine. Besides, how can Texas match Salgado’s aguachile? With queso?
Three Other Alta California Restaurants Worth Checking Out
• Anepalco: Chef Danny Godinez’s chilaquiles takes the classic Mexican breakfast and turns it into a marvelous mestizo cassoulet. 415 S. Main St., Orange; (714) 771-2333; anepalco.com.
• Broken Spanish: Chef Ray Garcia was Esquire’s 2015 Chef of the Year for a reason: brash flavors with spectacular cocktails based on Latin American spirits like mezcal and pisco. 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles; (213) 749-1460; brokenspanish.com.
• Guerrilla Tacos: Chef Wes Avila still serves from a truck, but don’t let that fool you. His tacos span everything from Middle Eastern to African-American influences. Stops at various locations in Los Angeles area; (323) 388-5340; guerrillatacos.com.
• 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa
• (714) 538-8444