Friday, November 29, 2013

Getting a Second Chance to Make a First Impression at Carmelita's

Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico
217 Broadway St. 
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

There has been a lot of pressure on me to give certain restaurants another shot if they have gotten an average to below average rating. I am aware that restaurants can have an off night, but with a growing list of restaurants that we want to visit, and a limited food budget, it is hard for us to get back to try restaurants we have already visited.

One restaurant that has received a lot of press as of late is Carmelita's. I read a glowing review about them in Orange Coast Magazine, they have a near 90 percent approval rating on Urbanspoon, and when my friend at work, Chad the expert meat guy, mentioned how delicious his recent dinner was at Carmelita's, I decided to make a return visit to their new location in Laguna Beach.

We had been to their location on the lake in Rancho Santa Margarita three years ago, when our blog was just in its infancy. That location is very picturesque, and always crowded. The service during that visit was great, but their food was another story. The chicken flautas were bone dry, my dinner looked like it was just plopped on the plate, and nothing really wowed us flavor wise when it came to our entrees. You can check out that review for yourself if you would like

Back to the present though. I was meeting my good friend Matt down in Laguna, and he suggested that we give Carmelita's a try. Now that it has turned to autumn, getting in and out of Laguna is a breeze since all the tourists have left. We got to Carmelita's pretty close to 6PM on a recent Thursday. Even with only the locals remaining in town, we still had to wait about five minutes for a table. No worries though, we never have a shortage of things to talk about.

This location of Carmelita's is smaller than their RSM outpost. The tables are pretty close together, as we had to squeeze by to get to our table. The decor is dominated by dark woods, with windows facing the busy street. The menu is what I would call upscale Mexican. Entrees range from between $15 to $25 each, and the menu has enough diversity so that almost everyone will be able to find something to eat here. Let's see if this visit to Carmelita's was better than our last one.

One of the few highlights that I remember from our last trip to Carmelita's was their Chips, Salsa, and Bean Dip. This time the salsa was a little less spicy than last time, but the bean dip was as good as always. I like that they change it up by offering bean dip as well as salsa. The chips tasted pretty fresh as well. A very good start.

You may think it is odd to order a Caesar Salad ($6) at a Mexican restaurant, but a little known fact is that this salad was invented in Tijuana, at a restaurant owned by Caesar Cardini. The story goes that Caesar had a busy weekend, ran out of a lot of things, then he slapped together this salad using what he had left in his kitchen. I'm sure there are others that claim that they invented the Caesar, but this is the most well known version of the history of the Caesar. This version at Carmelita's was just okay. I liked the size of this salad, and the inclusion of the pumpkin seeds, but this salad definitely needed more dressing. I was also not a big fan of the cotija cheese used in this. The cotija was a little too bland for this salad, and I definitely prefer the standard Parmesan that goes on a Caesar. My last complaint about this salad was the supposed large crouton placed on top of this salad. I'd rather have smaller croutons, which are easier to incorporate into this salad.

When I asked the waiter what he would recommend off of the menu, his immediate response was that the Tampiquena ($23) was the way to go. I took him at his word, and ordered it. I could not find a good translation as to what tampiquena means, but this plate came with two cheese enchiladas, topped with skirt steak, onions and guacamole. I really liked the presentation of this plate, which can best be described as vibrant. The skirt steak was cooked to wonderful medium rare, just as I had requested. Very tender meat, with the natural flavor of the steak coming through. The cheese enchiladas were just okay. The cheese enchilada portion of the plate was fine, but I am not a big fan of their enchilada sauce they use here. It is a little too sweet for my taste. A much better plate than what I had the last time I was at Carmelita's/.

Nice hand modeling Matt. For his dinner, Matt went with the Fajitas ($19). I could tell that these fajitas were different from others, as soon as they hit the table. There was no cast iron skillet, no steam coming off of them, and not an over abundance of onions and peppers. I kind of liked this change of pace for fajitas. Carmelita's lets the steak be the star of the show, instead of relying of the sizzle and vegetables. Matt was pleased with his choice on this night. This was a pretty good serving size, the steak was cooked as he requested, and  the tortillas came out nice and warm. Matt made very quick work of his dinner.

I had forgotten that the Beans and Rice at Carmelita's are served family style, instead of individual servings on the plates. I like this, but they kind of get relegated to second class status. I liked the refried beans here. They are smoother than other restaurants versions. The rice was pretty good as well.

Okay, so I liked this trip to Carmelita's a lot better than my first experience. I still did have some issues with some of the items we had, namely the Caesar and the enchiladas, but for the most part this was an enjoyable experience. When I got back to work and told my buddy Chad that I went, he told me I have to try the short rib enchiladas on my next visit. I still feel that Carmelita's is a notch below the other upscale Mexican restaurants we have been to on this blog. Sol Cocina, Gabbi's, and Cha Cha's have all been great, and this visit to Carmelita's can not match what we have experienced at those places, but we will not be so opposed to going back in the future. Service was definitely not an issue during this visit. Our waiter made sure we had everything that we needed during our stay here. Glad we could finally make it back to Carmelita's to find out what all the buzz was about.

Out of five werewolves, (because Warren Zevon sang a song called Carmelita in 1976, but his most famous song is of course Werewolves of London), five being best to zero being worst, Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico gets 3 werewolves.

For more information about Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico, go their web site here:

Carmelita's "Kitchen de Mexico" on Urbanspoon


  1. Been here a few times. I liked it overall. Carnitas was good. Love the location. Great bean dip

  2. Anonymous - This was a much better visit than our first time in Rancho Santa Margarita. I'd go back, but I was not blown away by anything I had here. Just a little bit above average, but I'd be willing to give it another shot in the future.

    Thanks for reading and commenting on the blog.