photo credit: Jakob Layman
We wrote our first review of Taco Maria in 2019. At the time, this fine dining Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa served a tasting menu that came pretty close to perfection. Much like our love for Beyoncé, not much has changed since. The small but charming space is still tucked inside of a high-end shopping plaza. The open kitchen is still pumping out sensational dishes. And reservations are still in high demand. But now, everything at Taco Maria is served a la carte—which means more flexibility for dinners.
Taco Maria serves Alta California cuisine, which is a fancy way of saying they use Mexican flavors and cooking techniques to highlight local produce. The short, seasonal menu is divided into four sections—appetizers, entrees, vegetables, and desserts—and on any given night, you'll find rotating dishes like a fava bean soup, marinated burnt jalapeños, or confit mushrooms in stinging nettle mole. Among the more permanent items, the aguacate tatemado, or roasted avocado, might be our favorite. At first, you might ask, "did they just charge me $11 for half an avocado?" But this is no ordinary avocado. It’s generously coated with cumin and hazelnut oil, then cooked over the fire until it becomes rich and velvety, transforming into a mound of smoky, complex, plant-based butter.
Taco Maria has a knack for taking dishes that seem simple or familiar and pushing them toward another dimension. A perfect example is the house caesar, which will make you feel like you’re microdosing salad. Underneath a blanket of finely grated parmesan and lemon zest, the chilled romaine holds its own.
But as much as we love the smaller shared plates here, you’d be missing the point if you overlooked the entrees. Each comes with a stack of soft, handmade blue corn tortillas that smell deeply of ground corn—the chef uses freshly nixtamalized masa as part of an effort to highlight heirloom corn varieties bought from small, family-run farms in Mexico. They’re easily some of the best tortillas in Southern California, and they’ll make whatever you eat them with taste even better, whether it's the juicy duck leg with crispy skin over a pool of date mole, or a grilled pork chop with a side of bacon chorizo and pineapple.
Prime reservations at Taco Maria are near impossible to grab unless you check their website regularly, and the wait for walk-in seats can sometimes stretch over an hour. But just take it as more evidence that you should find a way to eat here. When you do finally get in, you’ll feel like you won the lottery if the prizes were crab tostadas and warm piloncillo cake.
If you want to sit al fresco at Taco Maria, there’s a quiet outdoor patio that doesn’t offer much to look at—mostly a measly fountain that spouts water two feet high and vacant shops selling Scandinavian futons. We much prefer to sit inside at the counter, where you can watch the kitchen assemble your dinner like an elaborate dance, while sipping whatever Valle de Guadalupe wine the sommelier picked out for you.
If there’s a running theme at Taco Maria, it’s that you will likely have several moments of unexpected bliss. From the food to the drinks to the service, the whole experience is precise and carefully considered without being too precious. One piece of advice: come hungry. With seats being hard to book, you’ll want to make your meal count and share something from each section of the menu. Just be sure to bring someone who doesn’t mind spending the majority of the meal talking about those incredible tortillas.
This is a salad that deserves its own TED talk. Dime-sized sourdough croutons are tossed in olive oil and crisped up to a satisfying crunch. There’s a little bit of Meyer lemon zest in the dressing which gives it a sweet, floral lift. Each leaf is evenly coated in dressing, as if the chef dipped them one by one.
Refreshingly acidic with a dollop of sweet guava jam, this aguachile is an explosion of flavor and color that you’ll be scooping out of the bowl until the last drop. It’s plated with bright edible flowers and glows a radioactive green. We love how well the buttery-smooth raw scallops pair with the crunchy, thinly-sliced cucumbers.
Mole de Pato
These juicy duck legs are fall-apart tender with crispy, golden brown skin. But the true star here is the date mole: it's deeply flavored and chocolatey with sweet and spicy notes. This entree is great to split, espeically if you use the side of blue corn tortillas and house chile oil to make some very extravagant DIY tacos.
Lubina con Patacas
This is essentially a baked filet sea bass with some roasted vegetables on top, which means it isn’t nearly as out there as some of the other dishes on the menu. But if you're someone who appreciates a perfectly cooked a piece of fish, you'll like the way this one melts in the mouth.
Chuleta de Puerco
Carried to your table on a massive platter, this thick grilled pork chop comes out sliced and ready to eat. The fatty meat is consistently juicy throughout, and tastes even better with the cabbage purée, bacon chorizo, and pineapple served on the side. You could share this with the table or make an entirely separate meal out of the leftovers.
This dish is a total standout on the “vegetable accompaniments" section of the menu. Served warm and covered in smoky cumin, it's a buttery roasted avocado that puts a deserved spotlight on California's favorite green fruit. Spread it on fresh tortillas, or eat it straight from the bowl like a scoop of gelato.
Pastel de Piloncillo
This tender shortcake is made from sweet masa baked into the shape of a biscuit. It arrives warm from the oven, drenched in sweet syrup and topped with a scoop of vanilla bean frozen custard, and it tastes as amazing as all those words sound. It’s pretty rich for one person, but even if you happen to be dining alone, it’s the dessert you shouldn’t skip.