2937 Bristol St. Suite B102
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Sometimes you just have to start all over with a clean slate. That's kind of the feeling that I got coming back to Taco Asylum. New head chef, new general manager, new menu, and a new owner, kind of. Prior to May of this year, Taco Asylum was part of the Haven Collective, which of course included Haven Gastropub and Provisions Market. Former partial owner of Taco Asylum, Ace Patel, has now taken over the full reign of this restaurant, and brought in his own people, including new Executive Chef Carlos Anthony.
Chef Carlos has quite the restaurant pedigree. He's worked at critically acclaimed Searsucker in San Diego, and also at Michelin starred Redd's in Northern California. He takes over the kitchen at Taco Asylum with a lot of energy. We had the privilege of speaking with him at this new menu preview at Taco Asylum, and his personality is definitely infectious. Both Katie and I could sense his excitement for the tacos here, and he has assured us that he has lots of taco ideas running around in his head. He got both of us real excited for what was coming out of the kitchen shortly for us.
One big thing that they have changed here at Taco Asylum is doing away with the small, street sized tacos. All tacos are served on a 6 inch tortilla. The menu features 11 specialty tacos, four vegetarian tacos, and four classic tacos. I'm glad that they included classic tacos, which include carnitas, chicken, carne asada, and a fish taco. When we were here before we saw two parties look at the old menu, and walk out. This new menu gives less adventurous eaters the option of eating here, and being more comfortable with the food. I was also pleased to see that they got away from their sides of lentils and quinoa, which they amusingly called "beans and rice". Not sad to see those items go. If you'd like to see our old review of Taco Asylum, and how far they have come, click here.
Back to present day though. For those of you that are not aware, Taco Asylum is located on Bristol in Costa Mesa, inside of the Camp shopping center. For all the changes to the menu and staff here, the inside of Taco Asylum is pretty much the same. A small space, there's a tiny bar that seats four or so, facing a large HD TV above their six rotating craft beer tap handles. Let's see if all these changes are making a positive impact at Taco Asylum.
While we were waiting for the other food media to arrive (slackers), we munched on some Chili-Lime Tortilla Chips ($3.50). these were served with salsa verde and salsa rojo. I'm always a little more partial to red salsa, and that was the case here at Taco Asylum. The chips were crisp, and they had just the right amount of seasoning on them, as to not overpower the chip. I managed to eat these sparingly, as I knew there were tacos in my future.
I know I promised you tacos, but the beverage program at Taco Asylum is definitely worth mentioning first. They of course have their six rotating taps, but they also have a great selection of canned beers, which range in price from $6 to $8, and $2 off of those during happy hour, which is Monday through Friday, 3PM to 5PM, and a late night happy hour from 9PM til closing. I was pretty impressed with the beer selection, and I liked that they were listed on the menu from light to dark, so even a beer novice like myself could act like I knew what I was doing. Sydney runs the beverage program here, and does a great job. She steered me to this Bikini Blonde Lager by the Maui Brewing Company. It was a lighter beer, but still had plenty of taste. A perfect pairing with the tacos that were coming up next.
With 20 tacos on the menu, it was hard for me to pick three to try at Taco Asylum, but I went with the Carnitas, Bacon PB and J, and the Duck Mole. Let's take a look at each of these tacos closer up.
First up was what others called Chef Carlos's "baby", the Duck Mole Taco ($7.50). He got his mole recipe from his grandmother, and he has definitely made her proud with this. This is an Oaxacan mole, with braised duck leg, queso fresco, and salsa crudo. Not as overly sweet as other moles I have had, it was a great compliment to the very tender duck. They definitely did not skimp on the amount of duck they used in this either. A very solid taco, and easy to see why the staff here has such an affinity for it.
I was happy that they had some classic tacos on their new menu, so I of course had to try one of them. Carnitas Tacos ($3.75) are my usual barometer on judging Mexican restaurants, and this taco passed with flying colors. They use bone-in braised pork in this, along with salsa rojo, pico, and it's garnished with a lime wedge. A very simple take on a pork taco. The carnitas were moist and flavorful, the pico was fresh, and the hint of citrus the lime added, gave this taco a pop of flavor. Nicely done.
When I saw Bacon PB and J Taco ($4) on the menu, I of course had to try it. Just like Slater's Peanut Butter and Jealousy Burger, you might not think this would work, but you'd be wrong. Included in the flour tortilla was roasted peanut butter, a carrot-ginger jam, greens, a sweet and spicy bacon, and pickled Fresno chili. This was a very balanced taco. The carrot and ginger jam added a nice sweetness, while the plentiful amount of bacon in here added a smokiness. It was all evened out by the smooth peanut butter. This is a taco I can see myself getting on every trip to Taco Asylum.
Katie also selected three tacos on this evening. The Paneer ($4.25) was listed under vegetarian tacos, so of course I had a biased against this one even before it hit the table. I can admit I was wrong. This Indian inspired taco contained a curried paneer, raita, and a crispy herb salad. I almost did not miss the exclusion of meat in this taco. The paneer was very well made, and the raita, which I learned is a yogurt based Indian condiment, helped smooth out the flavors in this taco. The Banh Mi Taco ($5.75) takes the whole fusion thing a few time zones over from India to Vietnam. This one is stuffed with spiced pork, mint, cucumber, cilantro, carrot, radish and ponzu sauce. This was probably my least favorite of the night, but one Katie's favorites. I expected a little more from this. The pork kind of got lost here, and I would have liked a little more ponzu sauce. The third taco on Katie's metal tray was the Shrimp Pad Thai ($6.75), but she's no fan of shrimp, so she substituted chicken on this. The chicken was pan fried, with Thai basil, crushed peanuts, onion, sprouts, crispy rice noodle, and red Thai chili. Katie felt this taco kind of lost its way, by not really getting the pad Thai experience. Maybe because she changed it up from shrimp to chicken. She still liked this taco, as the contents were fresh, but she just expected a little different experience with this one.
I guess I lied earlier when I said that I only had three tacos. Chef Carlos has a rotating taco, which he has dubbed, The Chef's Prescription. On this night it was a Pork Head Cheese Taco (Market Price). A lot of people have a squeamish reaction to head cheese, but this is not like the head cheese you have seen in the lunch meat section of your local grocery store. Here they took all the delicious parts of the pigs head, throw it in a taco, with some blackberry Cabernet salsa, Stilton cheese, and a little Dijon. The result was a delicious pork, that was a little more dense than normal carnitas, and full of flavor. The blackberries were a good add on to this, as they kind of gave this a Thanksgiving kind of feel to this taco.
On our first visit to Taco Asylum, I lamented the fact that they did not have traditional sides here, instead serving lentils and quinoa as their version of beans and rice. Yeah, I didn't get it either. Anyways, I am happy that they now have expanded their side items area of the menu, to include black beans and rice, but also other offerings like these Brave Potatoes ($3) and Corn Off the Cob ($3). Both of these were much better than the old sides. The potatoes were fork tender, with plenty of flavoring from the garlic, mint, lemon, and fantastic fire roasted aioli topping this. The corn was a favorite as well, with bits of bell pepper, onion, garlic, and a corn crema mixed in here. Big improvement.
I would be remiss if I did not mention their awesome hot sauces here at Taco Asylum. To be honest, I only tried one this time, because it was so good, the Roasted Ghost Chili. This bottle was my best friend during this visit, and did not leave my side during my meal. It had a good amount of heat, but was tempered a bit by the smokiness that was definitely evident. This allowed for a slow buildup of heat to accumulate, which grew during my use of this. I was working on a plan to sneak this out of the building, when I was given a bottle to take home. Thanks so much Sydney, you saved me from a life on the lam of being a hot sauce thief. Since I have gotten this home, I have used it almost everyday on everything.
Another new addition to the Taco Asylum menu is the inclusion of dessert, which is always a nice thing to add. The first of the two desserts were these Dessert Nachos ($7). These tortilla chips are dusted with cinnamon, orange zest, sugar, and chili, then drizzled with Mexican chocolate, and topped with red chili anglaise. This was not a sweet dessert nacho. The sugar and cinnamon provided enough sweetness, but the chocolate was not as sweet as American chocolate, and the chili added a bit of spice to this, which woke up the taste buds. Really a well done dessert.
As much as I liked the dessert nachos, the Churro Bites ($7) kind of fell flat. These are described on the menu as Mexican donuts rolled in cinnamon and sugar, then drizzled with a dulce de leche. I would have liked these better, but the insides were too dense, and they needed to be lighter, with more sweetness. Not exactly what I was expecting when I heard churro bites.
I will definitely say that all of the changes at Taco Asylum has made this an even better restaurant than it was before. They are more mainstream, for less adventurous eaters, but they still have some wild, over the top tacos for people that want to step outside their comfort zone. We loved the exuberance of Chef Carlos, and his passion really shows in the tacos he has created. We look forward to seeing some of the other hundreds of tacos that he said he has in his head. Owner Ace Patel says that they want people to eat here everyday, and with the variety on this menu, that will not be a hard thing to do.
We would like to thank everyone at Taco Asylum for sharing their new menu with us. General Manager Jenelle, Beverage Coordinator Sydney, along with Chef Carlos could not have been nicer, and answered all of our crazy questions without hesitation. Thanks also to the man behind Taco Asylum, Ace Patel, you really have something special here, and we look forward to coming back many times. Lastly, we would like to thank Bryn Mohr at Food For Thought PR for thinking of inviting us. We had a great time Bryn, and it was fantastic meeting you.
For more information about Taco Asylum, go to their newly launched website here: http://www.tacoasylum.com/