Friday, November 28, 2014

Cashing In Last Years Christmas Gift at Taco Rosa

Taco Rosa
13792 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA 92602

I'm real bad at using gift cards. Don't get me wrong, I love getting them, but I think I like having them in case there's a rainy day, more than parting with them. For Christmas every year, we have a gift exchange with Katie's brother, sisters, and all of their significant others. We pick the names out of a hat at Thanksgiving, and all hope that we do not end up picking Katie's brother Jimmy, (that guy is hard to buy for).

Anyways, I usually just tell whoever picks my name to just get me a gift card to a restaurant. It's easy, and during the busy holiday season, the last thing you want to do is run around trying to find the perfect gift. Last Christmas I received a Taco Rosa gift card from Jimmy. I had mentioned that this restaurant was on my list of places to hit up and he remembered that, and made the trip to Irvine to buy the gift card. So now that we were watching the Ducks light their Christmas tree at the Irvine Marketplace, it seemed like the perfect time to use our gift card.

Taco Rosa has gotten a lot of praise for their food. Their margaritas have won the OC Register's best margarita contest from 2011 to 2013, they won two Golden Foodie Awards, and their queso fundido and churros have been named best in all of OC by Orange Coast Magazine. Taco Rosa was started by Ivan Calderon, the same guy that gave us the much more casual Taco Mesa. There are now two locations of Taco Rosa in OC, this one in Irvine, and another in Newport, in close proximity to Fashion Island.

We arrived at Taco Rosa just before 7pm on a Wednesday night. The shopping center was swarming with Ducks fans, but we had no problem getting a seat right away. I thought the restaurant would have been bigger, but they have 30 or so tables in this upscale Mexican restaurant that specializes in the cuisine of Mexico City. I asked the waiter how he would describe Mexico City cooking, and he claims that it's kind of a melting pot of all the cuisines from all over Mexico. Sounds good to us, so we checked out the menu, made our selections, and waited for our food to come out.

From what I've heard about Taco Rosa, they start off most meals with a free appetizer, or what fancy people call an amuse bouche. I'm not really that fancy though. This appetizer was called a Sopecito by our waiter before he hurriedly ran off to another table. It was a very small sope, smeared with beans and then topped with lettuce and queso fresco, served alongside some sliced carrots, cauliflower and onion. The sope portion of this was a little on the doughy side, and overall the flavor of this was a little boring, but it was free.

My camera did not pick it up too well, but this Queso Fundido en Cazuela ($15) came to the table, and was lit on fire by our waiter. I always like when things are set on fire table side, it's kind of like a little extra show. This queso fundido has won praise from Orange Coast Magazine, which called it the best one in the county. At Taco Rosa they use a four cheese blend which is served with mushrooms and longaniza, which is a Spanish sausage similar to chorizo. It might be the different sausage used here, but this was not as heavy as other versions we have had. There was lots of meat in here, the mushrooms added a nice dynamic, and the fried cheese at the bottom of the skillet was an added bonus. This queso fundido deserves all of the praise it receives.

After over five years of being together, maybe Katie is starting to take on some of my habits. I usually tend to get a combo plate when eating at a new place, so I can try as many things as possible. Katie selected the Cuatro Combination Plate ($13). This plate came with a cheese enchilada, a blackened chicken taco, beans, rice, and a sweet corn tamalito. Katie called this plate, "delicious", but it had some temperature issues, as it was a little on the lukewarm side. Nonetheless, Katie liked all the flavors on this plate. The rice was soft and the beans tasted good. Katie was also a fan of the sweet corn tamale, but wished that there was more of the buttery sauce poured on top of it.

I went away from my love of combo plates, when I saw this Dos Puercos Burrito ($15) on the menu. This large burrito was filled with pork shoulder and pork belly carnitas, rice, pico de gallo, cheese, and covered with a chile negro sauce and onions. I had higher hopes for this burrito. First off, just like Katie's plate, this came to the table just tepid in temperature. I also wanted more from the pork here. I could not really distinguish between the shoulder meat and the pork belly, and I love pork belly. The chili sauce was good, even without being spicy. A very rich flavor. The pork belly beans that came with this were very hearty, and a nice alternative to refried beans.

Also from Orange Coast Magazine, these Churros Coloniales ($7) were rated best in OC. I have to admit, these were really good. Not oily, and nicely dusted with cinnamon and sugar. They came served with a chocolate sauce which was not overly sweet. A very good churro, and I'd tend to agree with Orange Coast Magazine that these are the best churros I have had recently.

Taco Rosa was a good restaurant, just not great on this visit. The items that we had heard about as being great definitely were, but our entrees were just a little bit above average. Nothing that would prevent us from coming back though. The service that we experienced on this night was spotty in the beginning, but came on strong midway through our meal. Glad we finally used our gift card, now that it's time to pick names again for this Christmas.

Out of five mushrooms, (because ROSA also stands for the Romanian Space Agency, and they are conducting experiments on the International Space Station about the growth and effect of growing fungi in space), five being best to zero being worst, Taco Rosa gets 3 mushrooms.

For more information about Taco Rosa, head over to their website here:

Taco Rosa on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Meandering to Maria's for Mexican Food

Maria's Mexican Kitchen
163 W. Ontario Ave. Ste. #101
Corona, CA 92882

It's been some time since we have made our way out to Corona to see our good friend Anthony, and his wife Sabrina. Usually when we head out this way, I pick a restaurant. During this visit, they threw me for a loop when they had a place that they had wanted us to try. This took a lot of the pressure off of me, which was nice. Now the only pressure I would have was trying to make it through some of Sabrina's stories without falling asleep. Not an easy chore for sure.

Maria's is housed in a spot where we formerly did a review. Back then it was called the Twisted Gourmet, but they have since moved on to another spot in Corona. Maria's opened here in May of last year, and they do have another more established place in the Woodcrest section of Riverside. Since opening on the corner of Ontario and Main, Maria's has kind of gotten reviews all over the map on Yelp. It seems that people either love this place or hate it. I know, not surprising for Yelp, but it made me wonder which side of the fence I would land on at Maria's.

We got to Maria's at about 7pm on a recent Saturday night. The restaurant was deserted when we walked in, but soon after we arrived a large party filled the front of the place, which brought some much needed life here. Since Maria's has taken over this space, they painted the walls bright colors, added colorful furniture, had some plants strewn across the area, and added plenty of decor to the walls. The menu is pretty much what you would expect from a Mexican restaurant. Combo plates, burritos, tacos, and all of your favorite Mexican cuisine is represented here. I was pretty hungry after our long trip out the 91 Freeway, so let's see how this visit ended up for us.

We were given the customary Chips and Salsa to start things of with. These were some pretty stellar chips. They were fried nicely, while still being light. They were almost addictive. When the salsa came to the table, I was kind of let down by the appearance of it, but its flavor won me over. I typically like a chunkier version, but this salsa had enough heat to compensate for the lack of chopped up veggies. There were some nice pieces of onions floating around in there though. A very good version of chips and salsa, which got me excited for what was to come.

The appetizer section did not exactly inspire creativity at Maria's. They have eight items on their appetizer menu, and four of those are quesadillas. We went with their El Toro Quesadilla ($9.95). This large flour tortilla was filled with shredded beef and cheese, then served with sour cream. The menu says this comes with guacamole, but there was none to be found here. No matter, this was still a pretty good quesadilla. It was conveniently sliced into four pieces for the four of us, so there was no way Sabrina could have hogged it all. The quesadilla was not as greasy as I had thought it would be. The beef inside was tender, and this had just the right amount of cheese in it, so it did not overshadow the meat.

Most of the meals at Maria's come with your choice of soup or salad. Anthony is partial to their Caldo De Albondigas Soup. This meatball soup came in a broth with carrots and cabbage. Anthony liked the flavor of the meatballs. I had the Dinner Salad, which was just your basic salad, which included fresh greens, tortilla strips, your choice of dressing, and a sprinkling of cheese on top. I'm not sure what made this salad for me, but I really liked it. There was just enough dressing, plenty of crunch from the tortilla strips, and I liked the inclusion of the pepper on the side.

Anthony will start off our entree portion of this blog with his choice, the El Trio Grande ($16.95). This three item combination plate came with a pork tamale, chile relleno, a shredded beef taco, and rice. Anthony kind of was up in the air about his meal. He liked the tamale a lot. It was stuffed with plenty of pork, and then topped with cheese and red sauce. The chile relleno he felt was good, but he's had better. The taco was very average. Just looking at the almost white hunk of tomato on top of the taco would have turned me off too. Anthony is usually a big eater, but even he could not finish all of this food, so he took some home for the next day.

Sabrina is always predictable when going out for Mexican food, as she always gravitates towards a Two Cheese Enchilada Combination Plate ($9.95). As you can see, this was the case at Maria's as well. Sabrina used to be enamored with the food at Miguel's, but now she has switched allegiances to Maria's. She likes the red sauce here better, and the inside of the enchilada has a good amount of cheese. She likes the beans and rice here as well.

I guess I shouldn't give Sabrina such a hard time about getting the same thing, because Katie's a creature of habit when it comes to ordering Chicken Fajitas ($15.25). These are your typical restaurant fajitas, with sizzling iron plate and all. The chicken was cut into large strips, and served with onions, green bell peppers, and tomatoes. They come with your choice of tortilla, beans and rice. She of course got a side of Guacamole ($3.75). Katie felt the chicken here was juicy, but otherwise nothing spectacular. She liked both the beans and rice though.

I had asked the waitress about the carnitas, and she mentioned that the Chile Con Carne De Puerco ($15.25), also known as Chile Verde, was a better choice. Even though I did not have the carnitas here, I have a feeling she was correct. This was a really tasty plate. The pork hunks were very tender, and the chile verde had a little kick to it, which made my taste buds stand up and take notice. I had wished that the serving size was a little more generous with this though. The beans and rice were pretty good as well, with plenty of cheese topping the beans.

I think we all left Maria's satisfied with our meals. Now don't get me wrong, this is not life changing Mexican food here. It's good, middle of the road Mexican food, in an area that seems to have a love affair with Miguel's. This is better than Miguel's. Unlike at Miguel's, the food here taste like something. The prices are a little on the high side, but with most dinners you do get a salad or soup, so you will be leaving here with a full stomach. The service that we received on this night was pretty good. They were not crazy busy, so our waitress had plenty of time to make sure we were doing okay. Sabrina and Anthony ended up picking out a good place for dinner. I'm sure it was all Anthony's doing.

Out of five time capsules, (because the city of Corona hold the unofficial record for most time capsules lost, a staggering 17 of them within the city limits), five being best to zero being worst, Maria's Mexican Kitchen gets 3 time capsules.

Maria's Mexican Kitchen does not have a website, but you can find more information about them on their Yelp page, which you can see by clicking here:

Maria's Mexican Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Planting Ourselves at Los Agaves

Los Agaves Restaurant
600 N. Milpas St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93103

For years I have been hearing about this Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara. I've heard about the salsa bar, been informed about their killer molcajetes, and of course I've been told about their long lines. That's why when Katie and I were staying in Santa Maria, we strategically left there to make it here when we thought it would be less crowded. Mission accomplished, we arrived here right at 11am on Sunday, found a spot in their very small parking lot, and walked straight up to the register to order. It's awesome when a plan comes together so nicely.

Los Agaves now has three locations. They have two in Santa Barbara, and a new one that opened up just about a month ago in Goleta. Their location on Milpas is pretty nice. Ordering is done at the counter, and then you find a seat in one of their many seating areas. I got the feeling this was once someones home, with all of the connected rooms. The tiled floor and exposed wood beams really gave this restaurant a comfortable feel to it. They also have patio seating here, so you can enjoy the great Santa Barbara weather.

The menu at Los Agaves is pretty large, with many of your Mexican favorites present and accounted for. Most items hover around the $12 mark. Take some time to check out their daily specials, which are written on the blackboard behind the registers. From everything that I have heard about this place, there's some good stuff hiding in those specials. We made our selections, and grabbed a table in one of the more secluded rooms. Let's see if Los Agaves is worthy of all this hype.

No trip to Los Agaves would be complete without a trip to their legendary Salsa Bar, which is located right to the right of where you order. I did not take the time to write down what all six of these were, but they all were pretty stellar. I really liked the hotter ones, but I am usually always partial to spicy salsas.

True to form when we are eating in a Mexican restaurant, Katie always orders Guacamole ($4.25) to start off with. This was a very good version of my favorite fruit. This guacamole was not overly seasoned with garlic salt and citrus. Just topped with some diced red onions, cilantro, and tomatoes, which allowed the natural flavor of the avocado to push through. I really liked the texture of this guacamole as well. The tortilla chips were baked nicely, and not greasy as all. I had a hard time not scarfing this guacamole down before our meals came.

After about five to ten minutes, our food started making its way out to us in stages. First to arrive was my Crispy Shredded Beef Taco ($3.50). This taco was filled with shredded beef, salsa, sour cream, cheese and placed on top of almost a half a head of lettuce. This taco was good, but there needed to be a little more shredded beef in here. The sour cream was plentiful, and of course the salsa was spot on. The crispy taco shell was fried to perfection, without dripping in grease.

I should have tried one of their molcajetes, but this Agaves Burrito ($12.25) got a lot of love on Yelp, and it was definitely worthy of it. Halibut and shrimp fills this burrito, along with roasted red peppers, onions, cheese, lettuce, and guacamole. It's then topped with a chipotle sauce. I really liked this burrito. There was plenty of shrimp, but the halibut kind of took a backseat to the more flavorful shrimp. The chipotle sauce was almost addictive, it was that good. One of the best burritos I have had in awhile. This burrito was supposed to come with beans and rice, but I ended up getting only the rice with a side of their Agaves salad. The Agaves salad was a pleasant surprise. It came with mixed greens, mandarin oranges, mango, avocado, dried cranberries, and a very good mango dressing. I'm not much into salads with fruit in them, but this one was fresh and delicious. Their rice was even good. Nice and light, and sprinkled with cotija cheese. This plate was all it's cracked up to be.

Katie went the breakfast route at Los Agaves, with this Huevos Rancheros. ($7.95). When I asked Katie to describe this dish, she could not contain her excitement about it. She threw around adjectives like; best, delicious, and heavenly. It starts with the tortillas here. The corn tortilla was crisped above the eggs, and kind of gave this a chiaquiles effect. The chipotle sauce had just enough heat to it, but did not overpower the plate. This was served with black beans, rice, and potatoes. A good sized meal for under eight dollars. Katie also wanted me to make sure that I give a shout out to their tortillas here. She said they were some of the best she has had.

I guess you can say that we really liked the food at Los Agaves. Everything we had was fresh, the salsas and sauces were all top notch, and the portion sizes were pretty generous. We stayed full all the way home, and only managed to eat a little bit of dinner on this night. With all the variety on the Los Agaves menu, we look forward to making many more trips back to Santa Barbara in the near future. For all of you from OC, this restaurant reminded me of a much better version of Taco Mesa. Service was pretty good, even though we did not interact too much with anyone here. Los Agaves was well worth the trip off of the freeway, and it was even better that we beat the rush here. The famous Los Agaves lines were out the door when we left here right at lunch time though.

Out of five bicycles, (because the city of Santa Barbara ranks in the top 20 for most commuters that get to work by riding bicycles), five being best to zero being worst, Los Agaves gets 3.5 bicycles.

For more information about Los Agaves, head to their website here:

Los Agaves on Urbanspoon