Taco Rosa - Irvine
While The Irvine Spectrum takes its architectural cues from Spain, The Marketplace seems to take theirs from Tetris. The sprawling complex is built on variations of one single shape: the cube -- painted monochromatically in single shades of either purple, terra cotta, or adobe. The result is an Orwellian uniformity such that the only thing distinguishing a Home Depot from the Buca Di Beppo is the sign that reads "Home Depot" and "Buca di Beppo."
So when Taco Rosa opened its second location here, I was surprised that Big Brother allowed it to do what it did to the sullen box that was previously occupied by the failed chicken stand, Koo Koo Roo.
They put up black awnings that serve no other purpose than to break the rectangular monotony of the structure, and installed looping wrought iron lattice work and brass lamps to further reclaim a sense of originality otherwise cast adrift in a sea of sameness.
Inside, the space is equally un-Irvine, with a Manhattan polish and sleekness not seen here since French 75 Brasserie classed up the neighborhood a few years ago. Above the entrance, willow sticks are stacked in rows as roofing. Deep inside the restaurant, tables occupy a hidden alcove with drawn drapes for a touch of class and romance.
In a noisy bar straddling a comfy patio and the waiting area, margarita glasses dangle underneath a thatched roof canopy. Meanwhile, in the stark white showroom of the kitchen, uniformed cooks fall over each other in a space crowded with grills, tortilla presses, and a melted chocolate fountain.
Noticeably absent are the inane props and chotzkes usually found at a typical corporate Tex-Mex chain. There isn't a single sombrero or Texas license plate tacked up on the wall.
The food follows suit, with dishes more refined than those sold at the On The Border just down the road. Take my favorite dish called Salmon Acapulco ($17.00), which I first tasted at the original Taco Rosa in Newport Beach -- a restaurant which was already well-established by the time Joy and Christian of OC Mexican Restaurants introduced me to it. In it I found not a trace of refried beans or melted cheese, which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.
Another reason was how it's cooked. A slab of salmon steak was broiled over flames, blackened until it attained a smoky and charred crust, but with a center still butter-soft and silken. It's the sort of flavor only a roaring beach bonfire can produce.
Before serving, the fish was slathered in a papaya butter sauce and some salsa. Then it's draped over a mushy bed of pureed acorn squash as sweet as candied yams, as smooth as apple sauce, and as thoroughly addicting as the two combined.
The best part of the dish, however, were the mini-zucchinis and their blossoms. Roasted to a tender-crisp, each verdant spear had a refreshing bitterness that simultaneously awakened the palate and complimented the succulence of the salmon.
The wilted blossoms, in particular, instilled in its ruffled petals the very spirit of the partnership between flower and fruit. After tasting it in this dish, to continue to eat zucchini without it is to watch Astaire without Rogers, listen to Simon without Garfunkle, and laugh at Charlie Brown without Snoopy -- each is full of substance on their own, but lacking a certain panache and vitality without its companion.
Another knock-out dish was Taco Rosa's take on Lobster Bisque ($5.00). Murky with the deep crimson color of the creature's carapace, this was a concoction so seductive, so boldly creamy and powerfully spicy, it coated my spoon like Indian masala gravy and attacked my mouth like Montezuma on the warpath. Although this was a soup that isn't exactly Mexican, it was just as convincing and impressively sultry as Catherina Zeta Jones when she plays one.
By this time, the food was playing my tonsils like maracas. A tall, sweaty glass of Watermelon Agua Fresca ($2.00) provided a refreshing respite. I took a long drag on the straw and a surge of the chilly nectar cooled my throat. All the while, the crispness of the watermelon juice and its cold cubed chunks conjured images of summers on the back porch, Slip 'n Slides, and swinging hammocks.
Surprisingly though, a few bites of their namesake dish left me unimpressed. Lobster; Lump Crab; Carne Asada; none of their tacos ($3.50 each) possessed much in the way of flavor or heft.
It only goes to confirm that at Taco Rosa, it's better to order outside of the border and out of the box.
13792 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA, 92782