Originally published in the OC Register – July 24, 2013
Over a decade, Carlos Salgado has gone from engineering video games to crafting intricate desserts at Michelin-ranked restaurants to slinging gourmet tacos from a local food truck.
To the dismay of Taco Maria fans, the Orange County chef shut the beloved food truck in April to pursue his next adventure: Taco Maria – the restaurant.
Set to open next month at the SoCo center in Costa Mesa, the full-service restaurant blends the complexity of Salgado’s fine dining skills with simple flavors inspired by his Mexican-American heritage.
“Our best food memories are invariably meals shared with families, dishes that are exclusive to our personal experiences,” he said.
Salgado’s rabbit enchiladas, for example, were developed after hearing about a “Mexican farmhand” who fed his family by hunting rabbits and swiping a few tomatillos from the farm where he worked. The upshot of the desperate act was a delicious but inexpensive meal.
“If that’s what you can do having nothing – that to me expresses a real love for food,” said the Orange County native.
Salgado – part technician, part artist in the kitchen – hopes to deliver those kinds of stories at Taco Maria.
Truck fans, be warned: Don’t expect Taco Maria, the truck, inside a restaurant. Instead of plated tacos, diners will assemble their own tacos from handmade corn tortillas and various braised meats served family style at the table. Seasonally driven dishes include grilled squash, refried heirloom beans and duck mole served with smoked dates.
“Mexican food, at its core, is a celebration of agriculture and seasonality. We’re trying to bring that to bear on a menu that is different but accessible to those who like Mexican food,” said Salgado, former pastry chef at Michelin-honored restaurants Coi in San Francisco and Commis in Oakland.
During a recent interview, Salgado, 33, talked about his modern approach to Mexican cuisine and how he went from being a tech geek to a rising star chef in Orange County.
Q. Your parents, Carlos and Maria Silvia, have operated La Siesta in Orange for 27 years. Did you cook in their restaurant?
A. I cooked a little bit when I was younger. They encouraged us not to pursue the restaurant industry. I actually was a computer nerd throughout those years. I worked in the video game industry in Irvine.
Q. What got you into cooking?
A. I probably got into cooking for the same reason I got into the tech industry. I’m engineering-minded and have a procedural approach to making things.
Q. Was there a moment where you said you wanted to be a chef?
Being an out-of-work tech industry guy, you learn to save money and cook for yourself. I started to realize I knew quite a lot naturally by growing up in a restaurant. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. At first, I started to re-create meals from my mom’s recipes.
Q. Then you went to culinary school in San Francisco?
A. It was a short program, and frankly it was a tremendous waste of money. But it did connect me to what I consider the first restaurant I worked at. Somehow I immediately became a pastry chef, and did that for six – almost seven years.
Q. How did you go from being a pastry chef at a Michelin restaurant to running a food truck?
A. When I started in pastry, I knew it would be a temporary thing. I got into cooking because I always intended to work with my parents in some way – to extend what they were doing and to ultimately retire them because they worked hard for so many years. I was always paying attention to technique and ingredients that were happening in the restaurant and contorting it to what would eventually be my style of Mexican food.
Q. And what is your style?
A. Taco Maria is very much a chef-driven restaurant. We cook ingredients and not necessarily dishes. That’s how I learn, and that’s how I approach food. We start with what’s best and we match that to a fond memory of food – something in our cultural background.
Q. You focus on sustainable and local ingredients. What will the prices be at the restaurant?
A. To be determined. Needless to say, good ingredients cost more and responsible ingredients cost more and we’re hoping people will join us in sharing the responsibility to eat better food.
Q. What do your parents, who are Taco Maria investors, think about your food?
A. Oh they hate it. (Laughs) No, I’m kidding. It took awhile for them to warm up to it.
Q. A mentor gave you words of wisdom about “mom’s” cooking. What did he say?
A. While the chefs we celebrate in the world are predominantly male, it’s really the women of our families, of our past, that fed us and created traditions. It’s through the maternal line that our food memories were created, stored and passed on.
Q. That’s why Taco Maria is named after your mom?
Maria is the real and fictional person that fed all of us when we grew up. That’s where it all comes from. Mom’s food, mom’s cooking is the primary motor – the main impulse behind any cook and the food that they make.