Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Checking In to the Taco Asylum

Taco Asylum
2937 S. Bristol
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

I will be the first to admit that my taste have kind of changed since I started this blog. I used to be a real traditional kind of guy. I liked my steaks without steak sauce. I liked my hot dogs with just mustard and relish, and maybe a little chili if I was feeling daring. I look at some of the places we have been when we first started the blog, and I sometimes felt restaurants were trying a little too hard to make themselves different. At the time I did not understand that they were probably just trying to breakout of the mold of what everyone else was doing. Coming up with new twists on items to help make them their own.

Back before the blog, I definitely had my preconceived notions of what I thought Mexican food was. Pretty much almost anything on a Don Jose's menu. When I heard the word taco, I always just assumed it would contain beef, chicken or pork, and usually come with a side of beans and rice. Now of course I know better. In this age when food trucks have done a great job of bringing fusion foods to the masses, I have learned to open up my mind to many more things. That's the way I approached our recent visit to Taco Asylum.

It seems like we are the last food bloggers to have made it to this restaurant situated at The Camp in Costa Mesa. Taco Asylum comes to us from the same guys that gave us Haven Gastropub. At Taco Asylum, Executive Chef, Greg Daniels is focusing on non-traditional tacos, with an emphasis on global cuisines. His partner, Beverage Director, Wil Dee has come up with an eclectic group of beers and bottled sodas. No fountain drinks here.

We got to Taco Asylum at about six on a Saturday night. Usually parking in this shopping center can be a little hairy, but the parking gods were with us on this night, because we got a spot in the front row. Taco Asylum is located smack dab in the middle of The Camp. It is not a big place, maybe ten tables with some seating outside on their small patio. They had a very nice large TV hanging over their bar, which was muted so the music could play through the speakers. The music they played here was a wide array of stuff that had Katie Shazaming almost every song. Even with the large crowd at The Camp, Taco Asylum was not overly packed. They maybe had five tables full during our visit here. Ordering is done at the counter, then the food is brought out to you. We waited about ten minutes for the food, and this is what hit our table.

Okay, you have to wait a little longer because I wanted to mention the hot sauces that they brought out to the table. These ranged from mild to hot, going right to left. The three on the right, (the Cayenne, Keeper Sauce, and Red Salva), I did not try. Katie tried them all, and did not report that any of them were too hot for her, and she is kind of a wimp when it comes to spicy things. The spicier of the two are the Habanero and the Ghost Chili. The Habanero was good, but did not pack the punch I was expecting. I used it more to actually add moisture to the tacos. I was a little nervous trying the Ghost Chili sauce, but it really did not overwhelm  the flavors inside the taco, but definitely added some heat. It did not get me sweating, but did make the tongue tingle. Really a good hot sauce. I also liked the labels they used for these. Fittingly, since this is an asylum that the hot sauces would come with a prescription label. Nice touch.

As you can see from the picture, this is not your average run of the mill taco spot. Let's start with Katie's plate first. They used to have Taco Flights on the menu, which were street taco size versions of all of their tacos. I guess they have done away with that now, and gone the taco plate route. With the Taco Plate ($14.50 for this one), you get the choice of three tacos, and their own version of bean and rice. Katie pretty much was in love with the side items here. These are definitely not even close to being rice and beans you are used to. The beans were a cold lentil salad, with red wine vinaigrette and chevre. The rice was made up of quinoa, bell peppers, cilantro and onion. I felt both of these were just okay, but Katie was over the moon with the quinoa. She even finished mine, in trade for some extra bites of her tacos. A trade I will gladly make at any time. Let's break this down taco by taco.

The first choice for Katie was the Wild Mushroom Taco. This one of course came with mushrooms, but also came with a chickpea puree, parsley salad, and fried chickpeas. Predictably this taco had a very earthy flavor. Katie really liked the texture that was provided by the fried chickpeas. She also remarked that the flavor of this would lead her to get this taco again.

Next up was the Sichuan Fried Chicken Taco. This taco came filled with buttermilk fried chicken, five spice yogurt, black bean and black garlic puree, and scallions. There was a lot going on with this one. The chicken was not as greasy as we had expected, but still had a good flavor to it. The bean and garlic puree was good, but we did not get a lot of the garlic coming through. I thought the yogurt sauce was an odd choice, but it did not get in the way, and really just added moisture to the taco. This was probably my favorite out of this plate.

The last of Katie's tacos was the Steak and Potato Taco, which came with a root vegetable potato salad, blue cheese, and fried leeks. I would have thought this one was going to be my favorite, but it had some tough pieces of steak, and the blue cheese was not as prominent as I would have liked. I did like the crunch that the fried leek contributed.

Of course I was going for a Taco Plate ($15.50) as well. I was not as enthused by the side items as Katie was. I think I actually liked the lentil side item better. The chevre was a nice little touch, and the vinaigrette really gave it a little punch. These two will not replace my love for traditional beans and rice, but for one night they were okay. The main benefit is that these were not heavy side items at all. Now, on to the tacos.

I love pork belly, and always tell people that if you see it on the menu, order it. You will not be sorry. So it is probably no surprise that I was most excited to try this Pork Belly Taco. At Taco Asylum they braise their pork belly in coconut milk, then add it to some pickled mushrooms, fresno chilies, a kaffir lime emulsion and cilantro. With the coconut milk and the pickled mushrooms, this really veered towards an Asian style taco. I really did like this taco, but predictably I would have liked it more if it had more pork belly included. The pork belly that I did have was very well cooked, and tasted even better. Probably my best taco of the night.

It's not everyday that you see a Rabbit Taco on the menu, so of course I had to give it a try. This rabbit was poached in olive oil, then joined in the tortilla by celery root puree, roasted celery, a few celery leaves, pickled mustard seed, burnt scallion puree, and a carrot-cumin hot sauce. There was a lot of celery and other things going on with this taco. First, I really liked the rabbit. It was cooked very well and could easily have stood on its own. Even with all of this stuff in this taco, the whole vibe of the taco was mellow. It could have been due to all the celery used here. The carrot and cumin hot sauce really got lost in this taco.

The Short Rib Taco is probably the most traditional looking taco on the menu at Taco Asylum. The short rib is paired with pickled red onions, salsa verde, cotija cheese, and cilantro. It would not be far fetched to see this taco on other restaurant menus as well. After all the other tacos, this one kind of seemed a little boring. The meat was a little on the dry side, but some of the ghost chili hot sauce helped to cure that. I guess I should mention the tortillas used here. They are pretty pedestrian, and their only job really is to be a vessel for the fillings inside, which I have no problem with. These tacos are not overly stuffed, so this is an easy task for these tortillas to preform.

Not part of the taco plate options, but when I saw it on the menu I had to try it, the Surf and Turf Taco ($6).  This one was made surf and turf by the inclusion of lobster and pancetta, then is topped by arugula and Siracha mayo. I was pretty disappointed with this taco. The pancetta was totally lost here. I did not get a whiff of it at all. They also piled on too much arugula, which is easy to take off, but in doing so you also lost a good deal of the Siracha mayo, which was very thin. The saving grace for this taco was the big hunk of lobster that I got. It really added a big wallop of flavor to this otherwise bland taco.

While we were at Taco Asylum we saw a young family come in and sit down. After looking at the menu they got up and left. I can imagine that this happens quite a lot. Not because the food is bad, but because the tacos that they are serving at Taco Asylum are not what people imagine when they hear the word taco. I do not believe this restaurant is for everyone. If you have a preconceived  notion of what a taco should be, and are not willing to change, you should do what that family did and just walk out. For the rest of you that like to be challenged and are not tired of the normal, but just want to try something a little out of the box, this probably is the place for you. I will be honest and say that I was not blown away by any of the tacos here, but they were good for a change. Not a place I would eat all the time, but they do rotate some special tacos in and out of the place, so it could pique your interest enough to come back to visit. The service when we were here was great. Courtney took some time to talk to us about the restaurant, gave us suggestions, and even gave us a few of her favorite places to go in Fullerton. I'm not going to lie, the prices here are on the high side for the amount that you get. I did not leave Taco Asylum stuffed to the brim, but it did give me room to stop by Blackmarket Bakery and have a cookie or two on the way out of the Camp.

Out of five straight jackets, (for the obvious reasons), five being best to zero being worst, Taco Asylum gets 3 straight jackets.

For more information about Taco Asylum, click here:

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