Carlos Salgado’s cuisine not only challenges preconceptions of Mexican food, but it also pushing the “alta cocina” movement forward. Salgado serves fresh ingredients while preserving emotional Mexican flavors. And if that’s not chingon enough, he’s partnered up with Masienda, the leading importers and purveyors of heirloom Latin ingredients and non-GMO maize, on a mission to elevate the tortilla by educating consumers and working with small farming communities to bring forth the real flavor, aroma and taste of corn. The next time you question why his tacos are $14 to $18 per pair, know he’s offering you a better product that supports our local farmers’ markets, purveyors of humanely raised meats and sustainable fishing practices.
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Carlos Salgado Costa Mesa, Calif.
There’s a reason why Taco Maria, a snug, tasting-menu focused joint roughly an hour from most places in Los Angeles took the number five spot on Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list, just out this week—Salgado is just that good. An Orange County native, he first blipped on the radar of SoCal diners after launching a taco truck back in 2011, his (to most eyes) illogical follow-up to decade or more of toiling in various Michelin-starred (Coi, Commis) kitchens up in the Bay Area. The truck begat the sleek little fine-dining spot where you find him today, and while you can still get tacos here, it’s really all about the four-course prix-fixe menu of what Salgado likes to refer to as Chicano Cuisine.
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The price point is not cheap at any of these restaurants, and nearly all the chefs say they’ve struggled with customers who think Mexican food should be purchased for pocket change. The chefs have also pushed back against the idea of authenticity, fielding complaints from diners who say the food isn’t actually Mexican. They’re serving dishes that my own grandmother (a Mexican-American born and raised in Los Angeles) would not have recognized as Mexican food—things like blue corn sopes with morel mushroom mole at Californios in San Francisco, charred octopus pozole from Lalito in New York City, gorditas with fingerling potato, hoja santa, anchovies and caviar from Taco Maria in Costa Mesa; chochoyotes (masa dumplings, below) in a green garlic and chile pasilla-laced broth from Broken Spanish in Los Angeles, and fideo noodles with cauliflower and smoky Oaxacan chintextle paste from Mi Tocaya Antojería in Chicago.
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Here’s something I think we can all agree on: Orange County has better Mexican food than anywhere else in California. And I firmly believe we have in Taco Maria the single best Mexican restaurant in the United States, and the chef who tilts the scales heavily in our favor. But we also have some of the best old-fashioned, family-operated California-style Mexican restaurants in the state.
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Photo by Cindy Yamanaka
Carlos Salgado doesn’t see borders. Or, rather, 2016 is the year he feels more comfortable crossing them.
It’s something he does both literally and figuratively as one of the main flag-bearers of Alta California cuisine, a creation of Mexican American chefs in Southern California who, in the last few years, have been fusing the skills and techniques honed in California’s fine-dining kitchens with the flavors and pride of their Mexican roots.
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