If there's anyone to whom we Orange County food bloggers owe our gratitude, it's Christian Z, author Orange County Mexican Restaurants and founding member of Orange County Food Blogs. Christian was the driving force behind our initial food blogger dining adventures, and he continues to organize many of our events. Without him, it's doubtful that I would have met all of the great Orange County food bloggers and food lovers that I have. Therefore, I dedicate this article to Christian with my heartfelt thanks.
(Hope brightens the darkness.)
Founded by Ivan Calderon and Rene Fuentes of Taco Mesa fame, Taco Rosa serves an eclectic mix of Mexican fusion dishes with strong roots in pre-Columbian and Southwestern cuisines. It's the solitary beacon of good eats in an otherwise desolate mini-mall near the Irvine/Newport Beach border, surrounded on all sides by the mediocre and the mundane. Taco Rosa is also one of Christian Z's favorite restaurants, which was why he chose it for my first food blogger meet up.
At the time, I'd been food blogging for a little over a month. With only a few posts under my belt, I was as green as it got. Imagine my shock when I found an email invitation from Christian to meet him and a few others for dinner at Taco Rosa.
(Inside the restaurant, where the light makes my camera happy.)
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous as I pulled up to the restaurant parking lot. Here I was, about to meet food blogger royalty. In addition to Christian, whose Orange County Mexican Restaurants I'd been reading for months and absolutely loved, I'd been told that I'd also be meeting Elmomonster, the king of the Orange County food bloggers and author of Monster Munching, and Omar Chatriwala of Squeeze OC's now defunct OC in OC. It didn't help that I'd gotten lost on the way to the restaurant and arrived a good twenty minutes late.
However, Christian was waiting at the door to greet me, and both Omar and Elmo were very understanding. I also got to meet J and C, a pair of professors from UCI who were friends of Christian's and big foodies in their own rights. Dinner was a blast, and J, C, Elmo, Christian, and I have continued our dining adventures since then.
(Watermelon Agua Fresca. Light, sweet, refreshing, and comes with free refills. Taco Rosa has several different kinds of Agua Fresca available nightly.)
So, why have I waited so long to write about Taco Rosa if it was such a great experience? Well, although the company that night was superlative, the lighting on the patio was far from conducive for photos. In fact, the pictures we were able to take turned out so poorly that none of us, with the exception of Omar, ended up writing a review. I decided to wait until I'd gotten some better pictures in order to do the restaurant justice, although I went ahead and used two of the shots from my original visit in this review. It should be fairly easy to spot them.
(Complimentary Amuse Bouche of miniature taquito and tostada.)
Despite its designer interior, affluent clientele, and excellent service, there's something quite homey about Taco Rosa. It's upscale in a comforting and unassuming manner. The host, often Ivan Calderon himself, greets you like an old friend. The server immediately brings you a small appetizer to whet your palate while you decide what to order. You never feel rushed, nor do you feel self-conscious about showing up in jeans and a comfy sweatshirt. No matter how you look, they treat you right.
The food treats you right as well. Take this decadent sea of Lobster Bisque, with crouton floaties bobbing on spicy, orange waves. One sip and your mouth will explode in an orgy of creamy, nacho lobster goodness. The only things keeping you from freebasing butterfat are lobster stock and spices. The best part is, this huge portion is only $5. $5 for an incredible bowl of soup that's a meal all by itself! That's cheap at twice the price.
(First picture from the patio.)
The Enchiladas de Pollo en Mole (Chicken Enchiladas in Sauce) was the first item I tried at Taco Rosa. As with all of their dishes, the portions were generous. Two chicken enchiladas swimming in mole dominated the center of the plate, flanked by servings of Spanish rice and black beans, and anchored by a small lobster tamale drizzled with papaya butter. The rice was a little dry and the beans were unremarkable, but the tamale was moist and delicately flavored. The mole, however, was the true star of the show.
A complex sauce made with dozen of ingredients, including smoked chili peppers and dark chocolate, mole is considered one of the great masterpieces of Oaxacan cuisine. Taco Rosa's mole was the first I'd ever tasted that made me truly understand how powerful a condiment it could be. Unfortunately, I also discovered that I just might not like mole. Call me a philistine, but something about the darkly bitter sauce, and the way it overpowered the chicken it was seasoning, just didn't appeal to me. However, there was no denying the quality of the dish.
(My camera loves the light inside the restaurant.)
The Baked Carnitas Pibil was far more to my liking. Juicy chunks of seasoned pork were wrapped in banana leaves and slowly baked, then finished off with a robust pibil sauce made from bitter oranges, annatto, and other spices. The usual Spanish rice and beans were provided, as well as guacamole and a heaping helping of lightly pickled vegetables. The mini-tamale in this dish was a beef tamale dabbed with mole. The mole was more palatable on the tamale, although the tamale itself was on the dry side. The rice this time was undercooked and still crunchy in the center. However, everything else was great.
(Big basket, small portion.)
Along with the Baked Carnitas Pibil, you also get a choice of handmade flour or corn tortillas. I was a little under whelmed by the tortillas. They were ok, but I've tasted much better tortillas from shady little taco stands in LA or seedy taquerias in Santa Ana. I also would have liked more tortillas, since I pretty much left the rice and beans alone.
(Small packages, big calories.)
If you really like the mini-tamales, an appetizer of Tamalitos can make a filling meal. Each order comes with two lobster tamalitos with papaya butter, two beef tamalitos with mole, and a small pile of piquant pickles. I personally found the tamalitos to be a bit dense and dry, but two of them filled me right up for the rest of the day. Not a bad value. I'd recommend eating the lobster tamalitos first, since their delicate flavor is easily overwhelmed by the beef tamalitos and mole.
(Tastes better than it looks.)
Cat likes to keep things light with the Carne Asada Tostada, particularly if she's also ordering the Lobster Bisque. Marinated strips of flank or skirt steak are served on top of a hearty salad. Tortilla chips, beans, cheese, lettuce, radish slices, and sour cream all join the party. Nothing really remarkable here, although the carne asada is quite tender and tasty.
(Second picture from the patio.)
Think about dessert before you order. With the portion sizes at Taco Rosa, you'll need to pace yourself if you want to retain any room for their sinful sweets. I love their Traditional Sopapillas, served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. They melt away in your mouth like delicate, flaky puffs of cinnamon sugared air.
(Gotta be at least twenty-five Hail Marys right there.)
When Cat and I feel up to the challenge, we like to tackle the Dessert Platter, which comes with a crème brulee-like flan swimming in sweet cream, along with fresh raspberries, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and freshly made churros with chocolate dipping sauce. Everything is made on-site and simply amazing. The churros are my personal favorite; crispy on the outside, but with a custard-like inside reminiscent of bread pudding.
Taco Rosa - A comfortable, upscale destination for delicious Mexican fusion. Some misses and a whole lotta hits. Try the Dessert Platter. It'll blow your mind.
Bill (multiple visits)
Agua Fresca - 2.00
Lobster Bisque - 5.00
Enchiladas de Pollo en Mole - 11.00
Baked Carnitas Pibil - 13.00
Tamalitos - 9.00
Carne Asada Tostada - 13.00
Traditional Sopapillas - 6.00
Dessert Platter - 15.00
2632 San Miguel Road
Newport Beach, CA 92660
13792 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA, 92782
Click here to read all of Christian Z's Taco Rosa reviews on Orange County Mexican Restaurants.
Click here to read Elmomonster's review in Monster Munching of Taco Rosa's new Marketplace branch.