I am a fan of the cuisine crafted by both Avila and Salgados. Both have done more to progress Mexican food in California than anyone else I can think of, and almost qualify as heroic figures to me. Perhaps Avila even more so because he has consistently served plates composed in a way that one would be used to seeing at places being awarded multiple michelin stars, but plated on simple tortillas from a food truck…
I went into the dinner hoping to see what Avila might do unrestrained from the taco format, given a full kitchen, and the use of a serious kitchen staff (the staff at Taco Maria being one of the tightest restaurant staffs in the state for sure, always garnering additional tips from me for their extraordinary cooking).
Alas… the dinner was essentially Avila’s standard tacos, but placed atop Taco Maria’s wonderful tortillas (which are being exported seemingly to every modern Mexican place, e.g. Petty Cash, B.S., Broken Spanish, etc…).
But where Avila’s tacos usually run $3-$8, here we had the privilege of paying $20 per taco.
Don’t get me wrong…the food was still wonderful, but it was not much different than what one us accustomed to eating at Avila’s truck, but at about 2.5x the cost.
Wine pairings only sort of worked out, while being a blatant rip off taking into consideration TM’s own pricelist. Perhaps I found this particularly jarring because the wine list at TM is generally truly wonderful, full of hidden gems that are often not found elsewhere, and often at incredibly reasonable prices (is it the only restaurant of its caliber to have a $7 glass on its menu that is actually very good? I have to imagine yes).
The one dish that sticks out in my mind was Salgados contribution, it was basically an old school shredded beef enchilada using aged prime beef, and 5 year smoked gouda with a perfect bean puree. It really was basically a huge shredded beef stuffed taco, just flipped upside down. It was a fantastic dish in the sense that it perfectly channeled the childhood enchilada flavors that everyone in SoCal grew up with, but done with the tang of aged beef, and the smoke of aged gouda. It would have been much improved with more of the cheese as there was not nearly enough to replicate that gooey cheeesey enchilada sensation, but the extremely generous helping of beef sort of made up for it. it was a soulful, philosophical, and intimate dish, by far the highlight of the meal.
Still, when one is spending $150 on dinner and wine… one would like to see every dish be so successful.
I’ve actually had better (well, at least more enjoyable) tacos at Avila’s truck for $20 than I did at the dinner. I thought for the price tag he at least could have showcased his foie gras tacos, but alas, no.
It was not bad food by any stretch of the imagination, just overpriced food for the most part, that failed to deliver on the promise of the imagination, and the potential latent within the chef’s talents. It ended up feeling more like a cash grab than a legitimate dinner for the most part to me, which sort of ruined the experience. And even abstracting from the cost, it was nothing special outside of the single Salgados dish.
It seemed like everyone else immensely enjoyed it, including my dining companion for the evening who was from Italy, and made an exception to her vegetarianism to eat everything prepared.
But I believe if you went to the dinner hoping to see Avila do more than just sling his standard tacos for a huge markup, you would have been disappointed, and therefore anyone with such expectations saved themselves about $100 by not going.
I think the dinner was probably supposed to be for the OC conservative elite who would never sully themselves by eating tacos in the street, even from Avila. But I personally think his tacos taste better with a bit of street smut as a garnish. So to each their own.