Sunday, July 30, 2017

Our Position on Puesto

8577 Irvine Center Dr. 
Irvine, CA 92618

It might not be fair, but most of the time I'm in a restaurant it's hard not to compare it to one of their competitors. This is especially true when I've eaten at the competitor recently. This was the case when we ate at Puesto in Irvine. I immediately thought back to early June when we dined at Urbana in Anaheim. The menus are kind of reminiscent of each other, and I'd describe both as fancy Mexcian cuisine. I loved Urbana and had some pretty high hopes for Puesto.

Puesto is new to Orange County, but they have been open in La Jolla since 2012 and opened another spot in San Diego after that. This Puesto is situated in the suddenly restaurant rich Los Olivos Shopping Center, which is located right across the freeway from the hoards of people trying to to find a parking space at the Irvine Spectrum. I know one of these days those people are going to find out about Angelina's, Burnt Crumbs, and Burger Lounge, and it might become hard to find a parking space in this center.

Back to Puesto though. It was started by a couple of brothers, Eric and Alan Adler, along with their cousin and partner, Isidoro Lombrozo. Executive Chef and Partner Luisteen Gonzalez and Executive Creative Chef  Katy Smith hold down the kitchen duties for this rapidly expanding mini chain. They are opening in Santa Clara and also have another Irvine spot opening soon at Park Place Irvine. The menu here is of course taco driven, but there's also a decent selection of snacks and share plates, a few seafood offerings, and two enchilada choices.

I had made reservations on a recent Saturday night at 7 pm, and this stylish restaurant was hopping with activity. Puesto uses artists to create their dining space. For this Irvine spot, they utilized San Diego artist, Paul Basile who used contemporary Mexico City and the Mexican jungle as his inspiration for this restaurant. Highlights for me were the three dining tables located inside the open kitchen and the bar area, which straddles the inside of the restaurant and the outdoor patio with its agave shaped firepit. So now that we settled into our seats and made our selections, it was time to see what we thought of the food at Puesto.

Unlike our visit to Urbana earlier in the month, Puesto gives you some Chips and Salsa to start off your meal. The chips were very fresh and crisp. The salsa here was more like a hot sauce, as there wasn't any chunkiness to it all. It did have a bit of heat to it, which I enjoyed. A good start to our meal.

I've heard some good things about the Crab Guacamole ($14), which is one of four types offered on the Puesto menu. They all start with their classic guacamole as a base, which comes with plenty of fresh avocados, and then they add cilantro, onion, a fresh squeeze of lime and orange, and some chile habanero to finish it off. This crab version is then topped with flaky, white crab. This is some solid guacamole, but save yourself the extra four dollars and forgo the crab. It really didn't add much, and I never thought I'd write this, but the guacamole is the headliner here, instead of the crab. It had a great texture to it, which was both chunky and smooth at the same time. They could have added a little more habanero for a kick, but still a very good effort.

When I see a fundido on a menu, I almost always get it. It's one of my favorite things to get as a starter in a Mexcian restaurant, and the one here intrigued me because it was a Queso Fundidio Verde ($8). This was my first time having green chorizo, which I think is just green chiles being mixed in with the ground pork. This was a more subtle version of this cheesy appetizer. It was not as heavy as some we have had. I had thought the chili would have been more prominent with this, but the cheese did take over. It went well with the provided blue corn tortillas that Puesto is famous for. Not a bad fundido, but I was hoping for a bigger burst of flavor.

Both Katie and I got the Three Taco ($15) option for dinner, so we got the opportunity to try half of their tacos that they have on the menu. She opted for the Grilled Market Fish (+$2), Chicken Verde, and the Chicken al Pastor tacos. On this particular evening, the market fish taco featured salmon, and this was her gold medal winner out of these three. The salmon was done nicely and the provided adobo verde, salsa fresca, tinga verde, and habanero massaged kale gave this plenty of flavor. All these weeks later, and Katie still raves about this taco. She was also fond of her two chicken choices, but not as much as the salmon. The Chicken Verde taco had a lot going on with it. It featured cilantro- cumin tomatillo sauce, their signature crispy melted cheese, caramelized onion, serrano tinga verde, and was topped with cilantro and a slice of avocado. This was a good taco, but the chicken was kind of overshadowed by the other items in it. The Chicken al Pastor was probably the most basic taco she had on this evening, but even that one had a cavalcade of items in it. Hibiscus and chipotle tinga, avocado, pina habanero pico, and the crispy cheese made up this taco, which was the one that showcased the chicken the most, which was moist and tender. A good trio of tacos for Katie.

I went a little more diverse with my Three Taco Plate ($15) than Katie. I had the Carnitas, Baja Fish (+$1), and the off the menu Heroe (+$3.50) taco. The best of the bunch was the Heroe, which is the surf and turf version that our server suggested. It had some lobster and filet mignon, crispy cheese, avocado, and onion strings. I really liked this taco. The lobster was a big hunk and definitely worth the upcharge. I thought the crispy cheese was going to be more prominent, but it blended in nicely, just like the rest of this taco. The Carnitas Taco failed to impress. The pork was not flavored very well, and some of the strands of meat were dry, but the guacamole and tomatillo fresca helped to hide it a bit. The Baja Fish Taco sounded good on the menu with its shredded cabbage, avocado, chile crema, and salsa, but I never got that big flavored bite I was looking for. The cod also needed to be seasoned a little more.

Dessert was up next, and I really wanted to try their Pina Colada Carrot Cake, but I let Katie select this Tres Leches de Cafe ($10). This really had more of a tiramisu vibe to it with its soaked sponge cake, mascarpone whip, and mocha sauce. I'm not into coffee flavored anything, but Katie enjoyed this after I had my obligatory three bites. What we do for the ones we love.

I was kind of disappointed with Puesto. It wasn't that it was awful or anything, but I had hoped it would be as good as our trip to Urbana was. It would have been nice to not have to drive all the way up to Anaheim for great fancy tacos when we could have just driven to Irvine. I'd still go back to Puesto though. These tacos were good, but they are going to be better on Tuesdays when they are priced at $2.50 after 3 pm. Puesto also has a happy hour Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 pm when the tacos are $3.50 each. A much better deal, and one that we will take advantage of soon. Our server Jose was great and provided everything we needed during our stay. Management was very hands on here running food and visiting tables which was nice. Unfortunately, it was not enough to get me to forget about Urbana, but it's way better than anything you can get right across the freeway at Javier's.

Out of five cell phones, (because this restaurant was very near to the old Verizon Amphitheater, and lots of music lovers hope there's a new version of this concert venue at the Great Park), five being best to zero being worst, Puesto gets 3 cell phones.

For more information about Puesto, head to their website here:

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