New mex in the mix!
But fans of modern Mexican cuisine have missed out, as the dining trend has mainly passed Irvine by—until now, that is. Javier’s at the Spectrum was the pioneer. Then Puesto opened at Los Olivos Marketplace offering innovative tacos and tasty cocktails in an open and high-ceilinged setting. A second Puesto location was soon announced, coming soon to the AC Hotel in Park Place.
Last April we learned that Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen would add a second location at the Market Place. For seven years Cha Cha’s has been a hit in downtown Brea, a block or so from TAPS Fish House and Brewery. Or so we heard. Brea is one of those OC cities we find it hard to get to, so we don’t really try.
Luckily, the best of Brea has come to Irvine. First, TAPS made the move, opening at Market Place in 2015, replacing Buca de Beppo in a nicely re-imagined space. And now Cha Cha’s has migrated south as well, replacing the IHOP at the center.
One thing all these new restaurants have in common is major improvement in the interior design. While each is different, what they have in common is major renovations of their existing spaces, well beyond what Irvine diners have come to expect. We probably have North Italia and TAPS to thank.
We heard that TAPS owner Joe Manzella drove a hard bargain with his landlord, insisting on an expanded footprint and extensive improvements to the old Buca space before he’d accept a long-standing invitation to move to an Irvine Company center.
And North Italia raised the bar as far as contemporary, open design goes in the city, setting the stage for the look and feel of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen.
We love the way the patio, bar and dining room all connect at the new restaurant. During the summer heat wave it was almost too much indoor/outdoor ambience, as the air conditioning fought hard to keep up with the heat flowing through the large, retractable windows. But we decided to grin and bear it, imagining we were in a sweltering Cabo San Lucas resort. Ordering a sampling of the Cha Cha’s famously delicious Margaritas helped in that endeavor.
Our only quibble with the design is outside. The parking can be a challenge, thanks in part to the popularity of BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. So we park on the patio side of Cha Cha’s. But there’s a badly landscaped median right where there should be a pathway to the restaurant, forcing folks to walk through the parking lot instead of directly to the entrance. Someone should fix that.
So how’s the food? As a friend always says, you can’t eat the ambience. So far, we’ve been satisfied with the dishes we’ve tried, but not yet blown away.
The guacamole is good, bordering on great. The wood-fired queso fundido served over roasted potatoes should be illegal, as addictive as it is. The tacos are tasty (we preferred the short rib, the carnitas and the mushroom varieties).
We ordered the chicken flautas off of the appetizer list, mainly for the photogenic mango-habanero salsa that tops it—what, you never order a dish just for its Instagram appeal? The dish itself was disappointing, with a mushy texture hiding beneath the crispy exterior.
We’d include the short rib enchiladas, served open-faced with the meat braised in Guajillo chile, on our list of best entrees at the restaurant, as would the carne asada and the carnitas.
On Tuesdays, Cha Cha’s offers 50 percent off on tacos and premium tequilas, starting at 4 p.m. until close. And there are daily Happy Hour deals (4-6 p.m. on weekdays; plus 10 P.M. to close on Friday and Saturday), including $2 off appetizers and $1 off beer and wine by the glass. Alas, the beer list is a bit short on craft offerings, especially from Mexico. And the wine list doesn’t venture into the Guadalupe Valley at all.
Puesto’s beer and wine list is better than Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen as far as artisan options, though we’ll have to study and compare the Margaritas at each more closely to choose an overall winner in Irvine’s emerging modern Mexican cuisine category.