… The Best Mexican Food I’ve Ever Had!
Do you love Mexican food? I mean really love it! If you’ve been here at Daily Forage with me very long, you know I LOVE Mexican food. Well, today I’ve got a restaurant to share with you. It is actually more of a casual walk-up-order-sit-on-the-outdoor-patio-along-a-busy-street joint than a restaurant but … it’s perfect!
Oh, and just a little thing I should mention before we go any farther … Taco Mesa took first place in the 18th Annual Best of Orange County 2011 Best Taco competition. I said it was perfect!
A little background now. When we (my husband, kids, and I) used to live in Southern California, Santa Ana to be exact, we frequented this great little eatery called Taco Mesa. The original Taco Mesa was first founded in 1991 in Costa Mesa. Located right at the end of Highway 55, and just a couple blocks westbound, you’ll find yourself at a place where the most authentic Mexican food is served. It’s not fancy, as you can see by the photos, but I challenge anyone to find better tasting, healthier, and more genuine Mexican food than right here (unless you’re visiting another of the now four Taco Mesa locations). It was one of our favorite eateries to frequent on a regular basis. Mr. DF managed to get there more often than did I, much to my dismay.
Last month when Mr. DF and I returned to So. Cal for a business trip – and some much needed playtime – he was very anxious to visit our local stomping grounds and visit Taco Mesa once again. Since I know how much he’s always loved this place, who am I to deny him his pleasures just because I can’t participate, right? After all, he never complains about eating gluten-free, dairy-free food at home.
So our plan was to hop off the airplane, rent our car, and head straight to Taco Mesa, which is only about 15 minutes from the airport. (I was being a really good sport. I used to love this food too, you know!) The Costa Mesa springtime temp was about 72ºF, the sun was shining, the atmosphere was casual, and the streets and sidewalks were filled with so many people. Yes, there’s quite a large population in So. Cal, and great weather to enjoy, all of which made for perfect patio dining.
Taco Mesa hadn’t changed perceptively at all. When we arrived about 2ish, the lunch crowd had sufficiently subsided and the dinner crowd hadn’t started rolling in just yet. The air wafted with the scents of warm corn tortillas, seasoned beef and pork, cooked peppers, and hearty rice and beans. My mouth started to water almost immediately (just as it is now with this recall.) I let Mr. DF take the lead at the counter since I was just getting water (no, not poor me, just reality).
I was perusing the menu board, just for laughs and curiosity sake, when I noticed an emblem next to quite a few items. The ensuing thoughts went something very much like this … “What? What’s this? This emblem looks like a sheath of wheat in a circle with a line across it. Hmm. Could it possibly be … a gluten-free symbol? No, not here. This is just a taco joint.” Still, I had to ask.
“Could you please tell me what this symbol means next to many of your menu items?” I said politely, not wanting to lead them in any direction, and inwardly skeptical and not expecting much of a promising answer.
A courteous, outgoing gentleman behind the counter said, “That symbol means that any item listed with the symbol next to it is gluten-free.” Hmm, I thought. To which I continued the conversation with my 64-questions-approach of deciphering their interpretation of “gluten-free” and “cross-contamination”. All the right answers were given, but not in a rote format of yeah-yeah-I’ll-say-whatever-you-want-to-hear. Real answers with real understanding. Yay! (You should have seen me. I was practically jumping up and down with joy!)
I almost elbowed Mr. DF out of the way to place an order. “Are you done ordering, Sweetheart?” I said, but thinking to myself, “Move over. You know I don’t get this opportunity very often. Please hurry up. I don’t know how long I can contain myself … I hope it’s as good as I remember.”
So you can see where I’m going with this. With choices, great choices, I had to make a decision. I asked a few more questions regarding being able to accommodate my dairy-free needs, as well as if there are peanuts or peanut oil used, soy ingredients included, and if there would be any cross-contamination concerns with the shellfish they prepare (yep, can’t ever forget to heed full attention to my shellfish allergy … wouldn’t matter how good the food is if I end up in an anaphylactic reaction.) I share this because this just proves the point that you should never judge a book by its cover. This place “gets it” – all of it! (Never, ever, be afraid to ask!)
Nearly everything at Taco Mesa is made fresh right there on the premises, the employees know what ingredients are used, how every dish is prepared, and how to manage (multiple) dietary needs.
And what can I say about the quality of the food? I couldn’t wait to sink my fork and my teeth into my dish. But I had to manage my expectations. After all, it had been 20 years since I’d eaten there. I wasn’t gluten-free, multiple-allergen/intolerance-free at the time. And often our memories keep the good and purge, or at least soften, the not so great. Would I be disappointed … and did I really want to find out if I was? Then my name was called over the speaker, letting me know my order was ready, and it was truth-telling time.
(Sidebar interjection: Another thing I was excited about, and knew I’d be happy with even if the food didn’t work out, was the organic, cold-pressed beet, carrot, and orange juice I’d ordered. Another delicious surprise to find on the menu. I love my juices. Never expected to find them here. More perks.)
I strolled to the table with my food, arranged everything on the table so I could take a photo – I am a food blogger after all – and dug my plastic fork into the mound of Carne Asada, rice, and beans covering my heavy-duty paper plate. Hesitantly and anxiously I took that first bite. Then the next … and the next.
Oh my gosh, yes, yes, yes, it is still as good as it ever was – perhaps even better. The best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten, gluten-free, dairy-free or otherwise. Taco Mesa’s menu choices are abundant, with plenty of gluten-free menu options to satisfy and delight. They don’t cut culinary corners. They don’t skimp or sacrifice on flavor. And they get customer service. All was still (seemingly) perfect.
But this was a big, scary, albeit delicious, step. I’m on a vacation/business trip. I’m venturing into a place I’ve not eaten at in 20 years. I’m now taking the establishment’s word for it that I’m not going to be glutened and be sick as a dog for the next unknown number of days. Big steps that can cause great trepidation. I knew I’d know the truth in a short while. I ate about half of my plateful, mostly because it was a huge portion, but honestly partly because I had my concerns. (I have these same concerns whenever I eat out.)
So engrossed in my amazing meal though, I didn’t hardly notice how Mr. DF was faring. I looked over as I was finishing my meal to find that there was a nearly empty plate in front of him, and a huge smile on his face. He was a happy man. Clearly Taco Mesa satisfies. We finished our meals, said our Thank-You to the staff for being so kind and diligent, and went about the rest of our day’s business. By evening I’d realized I’d not even given another thought to potential ill feelings from possible food issues. Success!!! Taco Mesa is still a winner.
Late that evening when we were discussing what the next day’s agenda held, and reminiscing on our first day in town, Mr. DF asked if there was anything special I wanted to do. “Let’s go back for more!” I declared. “To Taco Mesa?” he asked. “Yes!” I replied emphatically.
And we did … three more times in our four-day stay. On day four, they even made a special “special of the day” for me. Now, this is a story I’m thrilled to share!
What I would give for a plate from Taco Mesa right now?
If you’re a local in Orange County, or are planning a So Cal trip, and want to learn more about Taco Mesa and their philosophy (which is clearly not just words but practiced every day), be sure to visit their website. As I mentioned earlier, they now have four locations. And check out their menu. Know that you can always chat with the employees for more gluten-free, dairy-free suggestions when you’re there in person.
P.S. I absolutely love how authentic and delicious the food is, how genuine the people are, and how the bright, lively, and unpretentious décor just adds to the whole package – especially the “graffiti” on the building. LOVE it! This place is so cool that I’m thinking of submitting it to Food Network for the Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives series. I’m sure Guy Fieri would LOVE Taco Mesa.
Safe food is a journey … Thrive!™