You’re better after a vacation. You come back refreshed, recharged, and ready to stare at spreadsheets for eight hours a day. Unfortunately, you don’t get unlimited vacation days - so rather than hoarding your time off, when you need a break, take a trip to Taco María, the fantastic Mexican tasting-menu spot in Costa Mesa.
At first glance, it doesn’t exactly read “resort.” Taco María is - literally - in the middle of a mall, so that you pass by a boutique lighting store, a boutique bedding store, and four (presumably boutique) design studios before you even get to the small dining room with a counter running the length of the kitchen. It’s not particularly all-inclusive, either. Most nights, the only option at dinner is a $79 four-course tasting menu (they serve an a la carte menu on Tuesday nights).
And while the tasting menu manages to be as filling as a 20-course experience at other restaurants, when you’re paying that much for four plates of food, it’s not unfair to expect absolute perfection. And here’s where the good times begin, because Taco María comes pretty close to meeting those expectations. Front to back, these four courses make up one of the best - and most unique - meals you can have in all of Los Angeles.
You’ve got two options for every course here - like a trip to Hawaii, it’s best to come with at least one other person; that way you can team up and tackle the whole menu. The descriptions are simple - arroz con chícharos (rice with peas), callo gratinado (scallop gratin), gallina pinta (chicken and hominy) - but the dishes are fantastic and complex. The rice is mixed with snap peas and covered in crispy strips of fried carrots and cilantro flowers. It’s vegetal and light, but still deeply flavorful. We’ve eaten plenty of fresh peas and perfectly cooked rice, but there’s something new and unique about the way the potent cilantro flowers highlight the rice’s earthy starchiness, or how the peas and carrots amplify each other’s flavors. It’s unlike anything we’ve had before - a notion which carries through the entire meal.
That scallop gratin is perfect, too. The scallop is the size of a golf ball, and tastes like it was pulled from the ocean minutes ago. It’s topped with melted queso chihuahua and squid ink breadcrumbs that pull more briny flavor out of the scallop. It’s the same with the gallina pinta, which includes a hominy broth and a crispy-skinned chicken breast that has as much flavor as a t-bone steak. The entire menu stands out because of its balance - no matter how acidic or spicy one dish might be, there’s always a flavor ready to counter it or cool it down.
Every aspect of a meal at Taco María strikes that perfect tone. From the food to the wine and the service, the experience is refined, yet somehow still casual. No one is fussing over you, and as perfect as the food is, you won’t witness a single TV chef-level meltdown in the kitchen. Sitting at the counter, you can watch your dinner come together like an elaborate dance - not the kind you take lessons for before your wedding - the kind that people learn over the course of years, then execute flawlessly and, seemingly, effortlessly.
But in reality, those chefs are working extremely hard. And they’re doing it so you don’t have to. No matter what your boss might say, you’ve earned a little break, and when a single meal at a restaurant can help you reset as well as a week in Cabo, you owe it to yourself to take the trip. And you don’t even need to bring your passport.
Taco María’s tasting menu changes nightly. Here are some dishes we had on our recent visits. The tacos are available daily for lunch.
Fresh snap peas are fine straight out of the bag at Whole Foods - but we had no idea how crazy good they could be until we had this simple rice and peas dish. It seems odd to call this the best thing on a menu so full of fantastic, complex options, but it’s the truth.
We forgot any rules we heard about not mixing seafood and cheese when we realized how good tuna noodle casserole was - but this dish is just as big of a revelation as that moment. It’s truly fantastic.
This corn tamal is unlike anything we’ve had before. If the feeling of being the protagonist in a flowery, idealized pastoral was distilled into food, this is what it would taste like. If that doesn’t make sense, you’re obviously not an English major.
You might think this medium-rare steak taco topped with an entire strip of bacon is a prime example of overkill. It’s not. This is the best taco here.
Chorizo-izing mushroom is genius - it brings a funkiness to the spices of the chorizo. If you’re here for brunch, this is available on the chilaquiles, which you should absolutely order.
Brunch is only available on Sunday. It’s $39 for three fantastic and interesting courses that mix sweet and savory in completely surprising ways - best exemplified in the molletes. Little more than grilled bread with queso fresco and sweet, heavily-spiced black beans, it gets elevated to the next level thanks to a side of smoky salsa, and some sweet, funky huitlacoche butter you’ll just slop on top of the black beans.