The price of Puesto
How much should a taco cost? An Irvine diner’s instant reaction to that question may go a long way to determine whether they’ll become a fan of Puesto, the cool new Mexico City-style restaurant and bar in the Los Olivos Marketplace shopping center.
At Puesto, the answer to the question is $5 a piece for tacos that come three to an order. Unless you order one of the five specialty tacos, that is. Those are more. Baja fish is a buck more per taco, filet mignon, grilled striped bass and tamarindo shrimp are all $2 more per taco, while the Maine lobster taco comes at a premium of $3.50.
The tacos that cost $5 are chicken al pastor, chicken verde, mushroom, zucchini and cactus, and the taco of the month. In February, the monthly special was a tasty chipotle pork tinga, featuring braised pork shoulder, chorizo, potato, chipotle, avocado, cilantro, queso fresco and chicharrón.
Most of our other favorites also come from the $5 list, which is convenient, including the chicken al pastor and the zucchini and cactus. We’ve found that we prefer the Puesto tacos that include a little signature touch: a circle of crunchy cheese from the grill that’s added between the tortilla and the filling.
We first saw Puesto chefs add the bit of crispy cheese goodness to a taco last summer during the opening celebration of the Los Olivos center. Despite the restaurant still being months from opening, Puesto provided free tacos to a long line of attendees. We were impressed with the tacos, and that the Puesto team attended so far in advance.
That attention to detail and customer service is one of our favorite things about Puesto, so far. They’ve trained their staff well. Other Puesto pluses we’re willing to pay extra for are salsas made from scratch using local ingredients, they use sustainable meats and seafood, and the tortillas are made fresh in-house using organic, non-GMO, blue corn masa sourced from SoCal purveyors Kernel of Truth Organics.
Things we don’t love include the lack of a kid’s menu. They’ll do a cheese quesadilla, or order a plate each of the rice and black beans at $4 each, along with an order of plantains. It’s enough to feed a couple of younger kids, and a good choice if they’re picky. We’re also getting used to what’s a surprisingly limited menu. We’ve been three or four times, and have tried most of what’s on it.
Oh sure, there’s more than tacos. The menu includes three kinds of mariscos, a $25 carnitas plate and other plates to share, and four kinds of guacamole (we like the one with parmigiana reggiano, somewhat surprisingly), to name a few. But not a whole lot more.
Which is part of the point…we get it. This isn’t a traditional Mexican restaurant with menus that run page after page. And it’s not a fast-casual taco joint, either.
It seems like a majority of our reviews in Irvine City News have been of fast casual restaurants, because that’s the trend in Irvine, and elsewhere. But Puesto is a full-service restaurant with an excellent bar. The Margaritas consistently make “best” lists in San Diego, both from critics we admire and in reader’s choice selections. The bar offers 16 beers on tap, Mezcal flights and a nice selection of wine from Baja’s Guadalupe Valley. And Puesto’s El Rey Del Patio with cucumber, tomatillo, charred chiles and lime will taste mighty fine on a summer afternoon. In fact, we predict al fresco gatherings at Puesto will be one of the hottest tickets in town this summer, or once the rain finally stops.
But let’s get back to the initial question. Are the tacos at Puesto, priced from $5 to $8.50 a piece, worth it?
One of OC’s esteemed local food writers used to instantly mock any new restaurant that offered “street tacos” that cost more than a few bucks. Tacos, like pho, bahn mi sandwiches and other cuisine, should be inexpensive by nature, he used to write. Recently, though, he wrote that “perversely enough, the more expensive the taco nowadays, the more likely it’s worth the price.”
That’s definitely true of places such as Taco Mario, where a taco dish from James Beard-nominated chef Carlos Salgado can cost $17 or more, and is worth every penny.
We were also convinced by a recent story by SoCal chef Diep Tran we read online at npr.org. Her piece criticized “cheap eats” lists and other stories extolling inexpensive, often immigrant-produced restaurant fare.
“Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap,” she says. She goes on to argue that our focus on cheap food is part of “a broader restaurant culture that devalues labor and ignores the consequences of that devaluation…. Restaurants where workers are paid fairly and the food respected? That’s the true treasure.”
So the bottom line is we’ll gladly pay $5 for our favorites on Puesto’s list of gourmet tacos, and we’ll splurge for the more expensive ones from time to time. We’ll also frequent its happy hour and taco Tuesday gatherings, where those same $5 tacos are $3.50 and $2.50, respectively. Hey, we’ve got to save a few bucks for more of those amazing Puesto Perfect Margaritas.