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Here, the Whole Enchilada : La Salsa Debuts a Full-Service Spot

July 15, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The La Salsa chain of upscale taquerias opened modestly in 1979. Today it has more than three dozen locations in California and other parts of the Southwest. Now the company wants to go beyond the taqueria level, and it has chosen an Orange County location for the debut of its full-service restaurant concept.

La Salsa is not the first food-service giant to raise the stakes in these parts. Sizzler's Buffalo Ranch Steakhouse in Mission Viejo, for example, is the prototype for what may be more than 100 restaurants nationwide. It appears our county has a demographic profile that chain restaurants want to target on their voyages into the world of fine dining.

It may be beside the point, then, to mention that La Salsa's new operation would probably succeed almost anywhere. It's supposed to. The company specializes in honest, clean-tasting, reasonably priced Mexican fare that appeals to both the kid and the adult in us all.

Of course, a purist might find La Salsa's glossy cooking style to lack, say, the soulful aromas of Grandmother's stewpot or carnitas roasting in a half-open oven. In any case, Grandmother's stewpot is the last thing you'd expect to find in Costa Mesa's bright new Triangle Square mall, home not only to the full-service La Salsa but also to Niketown, the soon-to-open Virgin Megastore and a huge Edwards Cinema multiplex.

The new La Salsa, as shiny and festive as the mall itself, offers minimalist decor in pastels and earth tones and plenty of neon and ersatz Southwest wall hangings. If you find it too noisy, try the patio. The indoor crowd will be young, boisterous and lively--just like the slightly raucous mariachi music coming at you from hidden speakers.

Five chefs bustle about in an open kitchen, while two or three bartenders blend margaritas in the tiny attached bar. One of the best visuals (and olfactories) is a giant stainless steel rotisserie where some of Orange County's most delicious chicken turns at a slow, seductive pace. Everyone eats off heavy-duty disposable plastic plates and wipes up with thick paper napkins. The pale green oilcloth draped over your table wipes clean too--and fast. La Salsa is full service, but it is also geared for speed.

You'll be wise to make haste yourself--over to the restaurant's self-service salsa bar. There you will find jalapenos, cilantro, chopped onion, chunky pieces of tomato, a smoky brown hot sauce, a moss-green middling-hot salsa and a mild salsa looking for all the world like cherry applesauce: in short, an unusually wide range of ingredients to dress up your food. The irony is, most of what you order won't need any doctoring--it will taste pretty good on its own. (Unlike the salsas, La Salsa's great, chunky guacamole has to be ordered.)

Begin by ordering one of the aguas frescas --icy, pulpy fruit drinks made with things such as fresh pineapple and watermelon. (The margaritas, for the record, scarcely miss a beat, apart from one bizarre fresh peach model.)

You'll need a small army to finish off a dish such as nachos manchacamisa , a variation on the classic corn chip snack. Eight of us attempted to scale this two-foot mountain of chips buried under an avalanche of chicken chili beans, gooey melted cheese, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. We had to turn back halfway.

One can't-miss appetizer is the mushroom and corn quesadilla. Quesadillas can be mere snacks when they consist of nothing more than grilled tortillas and melted cheese, but when the cheeses are a deft mixture of queso anejo and Jack, mixed with fresh sauteed mushrooms, fire-roasted corn, caramelized onions and chunked avocado, the snack becomes an oeuvre.

The usual array of burritos and tacos available at all the La Salsas are here, fashioned from charcoal-grilled chicken, beef or pork. They are all superb. But this place attempts to go its taquerias one better with the introduction of a fabulously simple roast chicken and a menu section called lo mejor , which I'll translate loosely as "improvements."

The chicken is spectacular: crisp-skinned and dripping with spices, served with two side dishes such as fluffy Mexican rice, organic black beans or creamy Caesar salad. And it's only $6.95 for a half chicken, $4.95 for a quarter. Pollo en pibil , a Yucatan specialty marinated in achiote (annatto seed) and baked in banana leaves, is solid and tasty but not in the same league. Even when it isn't overly dry, it won't knock your socks off the way the rotisserie version will, and it's $2 more.

Shrimp dishes are a stretch. The tacos de camaron use flavorful rock shrimp and have great fresh tortillas. It's the inclusion of grapefruit sections that I find a little odd, though at the same time oddly appealing. Camarones en ajo are the same rock shrimp, about eight or nine of them, sauteed in garlic and ancho chili. It is fine but a little bland, considering its pedigree.

I definitely don't understand the dish the menu trumpets as the one "with which we broaden our culinary horizons," a creation called salmon envuelto. Imagine a stuffed flour tortilla, sort of a fat taquito, only baked instead of fried. Now substitute salmon and pureed Anaheim chili pepper for the normal meat filling and smother it all in an insipid cream sauce.

Whoopee. Salmon needs a tortilla like a shark needs a raincoat. Besides, when a restaurant has culinary horizons as broad La Salsa's, the only improvement needed is the one this new concept offers: a comfortable place to sit down and eat.

La Salsa is inexpensive to moderately priced. Antojitos (snacks) are $2.25 to $6.95. Salads are $4.95 to $6.95. Burritos are $2.25 to $5.95. Main dishes are $5.95 to $14.95.

* LA SALSA

* Triangle Square, 1807 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa.

* (714) 646-0397.

* Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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