Thursday, June 20, 2024

Star-winning Taco María is closing this Saturday. ‘It’s not the end,’ chef says

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Chef Carlos Salgado is taking a break, closing his critically acclaimed Taco María restaurant in Costa Mesa with the intent of relocating elsewhere with a bigger dining room that’s a “better fit,” he told The Times Monday.

Saturday will be the last evening of service at the restaurant’s current location at OC Mix at SoCo Collection in Costa Mesa. The restaurant opened there in 2013. He has no other location identified but said he wants to stay in Orange County, where the chef and his restaurant originated.

“The suit was never much of a flattering fit, but it served us well,” Salgado said of the retail center near the 405 freeway. “It didn’t match our intentions, match our vibe. I feel like we kind of grew up and have been in need of a more suitable space for a while now.”

The restaurant is considered a leader in the regional Alta California cuisine and is a winner of multiple accolades and awards. Through his cooking, Salgado helped spearhead a culinary movement that recognizes the importance of heirloom varieties of corn to Mexican cuisines. The chef’s restaurant nixtamalizes and makes all of Taco María’s masa products from heirloom corn grown by small family farms in Mexico.

Salgado, born and raised in Orange County, started out working at his family’s Mexican restaurant in Orange. He went to culinary school and trained in Michelin-ranked restaurants in the Bay Area before returning home to start his own venture.

Taco María started as a taco truck before it opened up a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Soon after opening the doors, Salgado started collecting awards and accolades. Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who died five years ago this month, named Taco María The Times’ Restaurant of the Year in 2018. The restaurant has appeared on the Los Angeles Times 101 Best Restaurants list every year since, ranking as high as No. 3 in 2019.

The restaurant is healthy, but the move is partly a financial decision, he said.

The restaurant opened at a shopping center that tried to be a hip food and shopping destination but evolved into a plaza with beauty salons, boutiques, mostly furniture showrooms. After 10 years, Salgado said he didn’t renew his lease partly because he had outgrown the space, which could accommodate only 28 seats, with most of the seating in an outside patio. He’d like to find a location with a larger interior dining room that can accommodate 50 seats with a separate sit-down bar.

Salgado also wants more prep and storage space. A dedicated restaurant and bountiful parking would be ideal, he added. “You know, like a full grown-up restaurant,” Salgado said.

Salgado had considered moving years ago, he said, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into his plans. Mandatory restaurant closures that followed decreased the restaurant’s savings, and Taco María’s recovery has been slow, he said.

“The rate of recovery for us is too low for us to continue to try to build back from the pandemic here, and necessary investment we have to do to get us to a place where the rate of recovery is more favorable,” Salgado said.

The final decision happened fast. Salgado had hoped to find a place before his lease was up, but he never got the chance to focus on finding a new spot. He was looking for a place up until a week ago. Last week, he said, he decided not to renew his lease, close up, take a rest and give himself time to plan and look for a “perfect location.”

Diners at the kitchen-facing bar inside Taco María. The current location sits only 28 people.

Diners at the kitchen-facing bar inside Taco María. The current location sits only 28 people.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Salgado had the option to renew his lease for a year or two, but he said the space needed a lot of work and money to update it. He’d recently spent tens of thousands of dollars on a new walk-in refrigerator and a new air conditioner for the back space of the kitchen.

“At a certain point you look at all the recent costs and you project forward the near future cost,” he said. “You realize that to continue spending money on this space was going to set us back further and potentially harm our ability to open up a new restaurant.”

Salgado said reservations are already booked up through the weekend. If diners can’t secure a table, Salgado tells them not to fret.

“It’s not the end,” he said. “It’s not anyone’s last chance to eat at Taco María.”

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