Sunday, October 14, 2018

Upscale Mexican for Everyone

Playa Mesa 
428 East 17th St. 
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

The restaurant scene in OC has been booming lately. It seems that every time I read the newspaper, another blog, or a magazine, there's news about another restaurant opening that I need to include on my ever-expanding list of places we need to go for a meal. After reading some very positive press about Playa Mesa in Costa Mesa, we decided that this new spot would be the site of a much-needed date night for Katie and me.

Opened for only 3 plus months now, Playa Mesa is one of the hottest places to eat in OC. The month after they opened, they were booked weeks in advance. A quick search of Open Table now shows that it's easier to get a reservation, but most weekend evenings there is still a wait for walk-ins. I had anticipated a busy night on the Sunday before Labor Day, so I wisely made reservations and we were seated promptly in the very busy dining room at our reserved time.

Playa Mesa comes to us from the team that owns Stag Bar, Dory Deli, Newport Brewing Company, Country Club and Wild Goose Tavern, the last two of which are also both located on this suddenly restaurant-rich stretch of 17th Street. Playa Mesa is their family-friendly endeavor. In almost every interview I have read with owners Mario Marovic and Andrew Gabriel they talk about how they want this to be a restaurant where parents can bring their kids, which is something of a departure from their other projects.

With proven owners on board, the kitchen is helmed by Roland Rubalcava, who was recently at acclaimed Taco Maria as the sous chef. He was basically the number two guy there, right underneath James Beard nominee Carlos Salgado. His family owns the La Reina Markets, which are a pretty big deal in Anaheim and Orange for their tortillas and other Hispanic specialties. Needless to say, with an ownership group with a successful string of businesses and a chef in the kitchen with a great pedigree, I was very excited to give Playa Mesa a try.

The building that houses this restaurant used to be a Ruby's Dinette, which closed over two years ago. You would never guess that this used to be a chain burger spot. A complete overhaul of both the outside and inside was done. The center of the restaurant now is dominated by a large circular bar and the dining area surrounds it. There are large windows on two of the four walls, which allow plenty of natural light to enter the space. The tables are not right on top of each other, and the pleasing decor and colors of this restaurant really make you feel comfortable.

The one-page menu features plenty in the way of appetizers, salads, tacos, enchiladas, entrees, and desserts. Prices range between $13 to $32 for entrees, They also offer a meal, which I assume is for sharing, the El Patron, which goes for $50 and features spare ribs, chicken, and other things. I was intrigued by this plate, but I decided I'd get something a little more in my price range for dinner. So without further ado, here's how everything shook out for us on this evening at Playa Mesa.

Chips and Salsa are offered after you sit down at Playa Mesa, so I definitely want to include these in our review. The chips were very well made, crisp, and a great vessel for the salsa and the guacamole you can see below. The problem was that they were over-salted, almost to the point that the salt was all I could taste. It really overshadowed the very smooth, slightly spicy salsa that had a little smokiness to it. At first, I thought we just got a bad batch, but our second round of chips was just as salty.

True to form, as soon as we sat down, Katie zeroed in on the Guacamole ($8). This again was a very well made version of one of our favorite dips. Fresh, mashed avocado was mixed with serrano chilies, red onion, lime, pepitas, and finished off with a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Great guacamole, not trying to do too much with it, it did have a slight tinge of spice but nothing that overshadowed the main star here, the avocado. As we ate this with our chips, the salt eventually did take over, but it was not the fault of the guacamole.

When we saw Queso Fundidio ($11) on the menu, we knew we could not resist trying the version here at Playa Mesa. When it was set in front of us, it was a little different from other versions that we have had at other places. We are used to a fundido that uses whiter cheese and has a stretchy cheese pull when getting it out of the still sizzling skillet. This was a lighter version, which seemed to be a cross between a fundido and queso dip. They use Oaxaca cheese with this one and add pork chorizo and scallions to it. It ended up being nice and mellow, with bits of the chorizo shining through. Tasty, but we were hoping that this would be served with their homemade tortillas instead of the salty chips.

Entree time and Katie usually steers towards chicken when eating in Mexican restaurants, and true to form she had the Chicken Adobo Tacos ($13) on this evening. There are four taco options on the menu, and they come two to an order with rice and beans, but you can't mix and match them. The chicken was an excellent choice. I usually shy away from chicken in Mexican restaurants because it's usually overcooked and needs to be seasoned. Not the case at Playa Mesa. Some of the most tender and flavorful chicken we have had. The chicken had an undercurrent of citrus running through it and was dressed simply with some onions and poblanos. A very well done plate that had Katie singing its praises.

The standard by which I judge almost every Mexican restaurant is how good their Carnitas ($19) are made. I figure if they make my favorite Mexican food item well, the rest of their menu has to be good as well. At Playa Mesa, they use pork shoulder for their carnitas and it does not come shredded, but rather cubed. The pork was not overly oily and was nice and tender. They did not try to do too much with the pork, instead, letting the natural richness of the meat shine through. This came garnished with pico and salsa cruda, which were fine but I would have rather of had some more of their great guacamole. Entrees here come with roasted seasonal veggies, which on this evening were cauliflower and broccoli, a first for me in a Mexican restaurant. They were done well, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the rice and beans that other places serve with their carnitas. Still a good version of carnitas that has intrigued me about the rest of their food.

Tres Leches ($9) was our last hurrah at Playa Mesa. I've had some good versions and rather forgettable versions of this dessert. This was one of the better ones. The sponge cake was definitely damp, as it should be, but was not drenched into a total mess when cutting it with our forks. What made this for me was the very good frosting topping this, which gave this a subtle, sugary boost that a lot of tres leches cakes seem to leave as an afterthought.

Playa Mesa fits right in with the burgeoning restaurant scene on 17th Street and definitely holds its own. This first trip has definitely piqued my interest and warrants a return visit in the near future to explore more of their menu. I look forward to trying more of their entrees and maybe their chilaquiles off of their brunch menu. Service was excellent this evening. Our server Carlie kept great tabs on us, and the management team here was very active in the dining room running food and making sure every customer was happy with everything. The positive press is well deserved for Playa Mesa, and I look forward to seeing how they evolve further down the road.

Out of five crazy chickens, (because the top employer in the city of Costa Mesa is the fast food chain, El Pollo Loco), five being best to zero being worst, Playa Mesa gets 3 crazy chickens.

For more information about Playa Mesa, head to their website here:

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