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Carlos Saldago; Taco María, Costa Mesa, CA
Taco María is set in an upscale mall called The OC Mix in suburban Costa Mesa: not a description that inspires a food pilgrimage. Yet Carlos Salgado has turned his restaurant into one of the premier places to eat south of Los Angeles. By day, he serves next-level tacos, like shiitake mushroom chorizo with crispy potato, on exquisite house-made tortillas with a phenomenal salsa—a brick-colored mix of chiles and black garlic. At night, Salgado transforms the space into an innovative Mexican restaurant, with a four-course tasting menu including dishes like Dungeness crab and green chile porridge with lime. Salgado grew up with Mexican food, though not the kind he serves now: His father and mother have a place in Orange County that sells inexpensive tacos and sauce-drenched enchiladas. When Salgado worked there, he was known as the clumsy employee. “No one, least of all me, thought I would go into the business,” he says. He began his career in the Bay Area’s tech industry; when he missed the restaurant world, he went to cooking school and began making pastry at ambitious places, like Commis in Oakland, California, and San Francisco’s Coi. The taco truck he started when he returned to Southern California was so popular he decided to open a permanent spot. Now, at Taco María, he creates exceptional Mexican dishes while still honoring his family’s cooking: His Jidori chicken mole taco and the restaurant name pay homage to all the Marías in his family. “The mole is based on my grandmother’s; it’s a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, with anchos and almonds,” he says. “My cooking is more complicated than my family’s was, but it still expresses what they did.”