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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

DMV Gorditas

August 15, 1996|MAX JACOBSON

Taco Mesa sounds like a place in an old John Ford western. Actually, it's a terrific Mexican food stand in Orange County, maybe the best Mexican food stand in California, outside the famous Super-Rica in Santa Barbara.

It is the creation of Mexico City-born Ivan Calderon, a onetime El Torito employee who was making tortas at La Colonia Guerrero in his hometown by the time he was 11. Calderon uses no lard or MSG; there are no commercial tortillas, processed cheese or tough steak strips in his kitchen. His specialties are slowly stewed meats, the thick masa patties called gorditas, salsas made from smoked chiles, fruit "waters" so rich in fruit pulp you need a spoon for them, and prices only slightly higher than you'd find at a roadside shack in Michoacan.

Finding Taco Mesa isn't a problem; it's the only orange and blue brick structure across from the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Costa Mesa. Parking is a problem, though, unless you are gutsy enough to sneak into the lot at the McDonald's next door or, gutsier yet, into the DMV lot. And seating is another problem. Taco Mesa's rickety bridge-type tables, with folding legs that barely stand up straight without help, are occupied at all hours.

That will be Calderon at the front counter, directing a brigade of cooks who hustle around the grill putting up orders. Just to the left of the counter is a salsa bar where those with a taste for down-home Mexican cooking can load up on a shredded cabbage relish, homemade jalapen~os en escabeche (pickled with carrots and onions) and salsas in the muted brown, red and green shades you see in a Diego Rivera mural.

There is a supernal clarity to the flavors here. Quesadilla rajas is two flour tortillas, cooked crisp on the grill, filled with melted cheese and roasted pepper strips. It's better than most Southland pizzas.

The overstuffed tortas are made with crusty, mildly sweet hard rolls baked daily on the premises. Have one filled with broiled or grilled chicken or, better yet, a torta a la milanesa, filled with breaded pounded steak. The fabulous torta al pastor is piled with minced barbecued pork marinated with a touch of achiote. All these sandwiches are rounded out with sliced tomatoes, avocados and onions, lettuce and a smoldering chipotle chile mayonnaise.

The daily specials come from all over Mexico. Chicharrones en chile rojo, a northern-style dish available on weekends only, is stewed bits of pork skin (yes, just the skin) in a smoky red chile sauce. One day there may be rustic green-corn tamales with tender chunks of pork in the center. Another day there may be stewed tongue or even caldo tlalpen~o, a savory broth, named for the Mexico City suburb of Tlalpan, that is stocked with chicken, carrots and garbanzos.

Most of the well-known Mexican food stand specialties are available: sloppy nachos on great homemade tortilla chips, giant burritos that weigh more than a pound, soft tacos stuffed with nearly fat-free carnitas. Blackened calamari tacos are filled with salty bits of fiery squid and liberally sprinkled with crumbled cotija cheese. In the mornings, you can get a variety of breakfast dishes: potato and chorizo omelet, eggs a la Mexicana (scrambled with onions, tomatoes and cilantro) and, best of all, torta de huevo, a fried egg sandwich with all the fixings.

Accompanying your tacos, burritos and specials will be frijoles a la olla (beans in their own cooking juices; emphatically not refried beans) and fragrant, fluffy rice cooked in rich chicken broth and mixed with peas--easily the best Mexican rice around. The beverages include the fresh fruit milkshakes called licuados and aguas frescas ladled from enormous glass jars: tamarind, pineapple, apple, watermelon and orange.

Eat hearty. It's a three-hour drive to the legendary La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara and at least a day and a half to Mexico City.

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WHERE TO GO

Taco Mesa, 647 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Street parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, $11-$16.

WHAT TO GET

Torta de pastor, tamales de puerco, blackened calamari taco, taco carnitas, agua fresca pineapple.

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