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CARRY OUT

Natural Flavors From Taco Mesa Define Mexican Food

April 15, 1993|MAX JACOBSON

Those lucky enough to be anywhere in the vicinity of Costa Mesa should run right over to Taco Mesa, a pink brick edifice hard by a commercial block of West 19th Street.

The restaurant is owned by Ivan Calderon, a former employee of the El Torito chain and a terrific chef and innovator. Its little patio tables (that can barely stand up straight) are crowded at almost any hour, though a good deal of Calderon's business is para llevar, Spanish for to go: everything from saucy burritos wrapped up on paper plates to a deliciously homey lentil soup with chunky red potatoes and smoked bacon put up in plastic foam cups.

Order from Calderon himself at the counter, then watch how his animated Spanish-speaking brigade of cooks dances around the grill putting your order together.

Just to the left of the counter is a terrific salsa bar, the best in Orange County, where those with a taste for down-home Mexican cooking can load up with fabulous cabbage relish, homemade pickled vegetables, salsas in muted brown and red and green Diego Rivera-style colors, chopped onions and fresh, leafy cilantro.

Calderon uses no lard, MSG, preservatives or coloring in his cooking; as a result his supremely natural flavors define Mexican food for Orange County. Taco Mesa's quesadilla rajas, for example, is a dish better than most local pizzas--crisp, dry grilled flour tortillas cut into wedge-shaped slices with an ooze of cheese and strips of roasted pepper in the middle.

Tortas (Mexican sandwiches) travel especially well. Try the fabulous al pastor, pork marinated in red spices, dripping with flavor on a crusty roll with avocado, onions, lettuce and tomato.

Daily especiales span the length of Mexico, from chicarones en chile rojo, stewed bits of pork skin in a smoky red chili sauce, to blackened calamari tacos, salty bits of fiery squid in corn tortillas, sprinkled liberally with crumbled cotija cheese.

Most any Mexican food stand specialty is available--sloppy nachos on great homemade tortilla chips, giant burritos that must weigh 1 1/2 pounds, soft tacos with fillings such as Calderon's nearly fat-free carnitas (shredded roasted pork) and wonderful side dishes such as beans a la olla, whole beans in their own juices (emphatically not refried) or the kitchen's fragrant, fluffy rice, easily the best Mexican rice around.

For breakfast, there is a variety of egg dishes--such as a potato and chorizo omelet, or eggs a la Mexicana, scrambled with onions, tomatoes and cilantro--for slopping up with the various salsas.

The fresh juices are squeezed to order from carrot, apple, orange, celery and pineapple. You can get these thick, pulpy juices all day, in little plastic foam cups ideal for carry out.

Calderon's combination juice, as thick as a milk shake, is for the intrepid. I had one for breakfast and spent the rest of the day thinking I was Jack LaLanne.

TACO MESA

647 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa.

Open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, till 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Cash only.

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