From al pastor to organic carne asada, these are some of OC’s top spots for Mexican al fresco dining.

Three Mexican bites in Irvine

by LORI BASHEDA

IN THE MOOD FOR MEXICAN FOOD? Irvine is home to a bounty of Mexican restaurants, from Tijuana-style taco patios, to fast-casual modern Mexican spots, to fancier dining rooms serving upscale cuisine with creative handcrafted margaritas. Here are three of my favorites.

1. LA SIRENA GRILL – Orchard Hills

The family-owned and -operated La Sirena Grill, in Orchard Hills Shopping Center.

La Sirena Grill’s contemporary Mexican cuisine has gotten props from many a Southern California food critic, even winding up in Sunset magazine’s “Best of the West.”

And now I know why. My daughter and I arrived the other evening as the sun dipped and a guitar player strummed James Taylor songs on an outdoor patio at Orchard Hills Shopping Center.

We ordered at the counter and then grabbed a table on the patio out front where the benches and chairs are cushioned and a fountain trickles softly.

The center has a Napa vibe, with lots of olive trees and vines scrambling up stone pillars and over arches.

Clara and I sipped our house-made watermelon strawberry Aguas Frescas until our dinner arrived.

La Sirena is all about organic, so if you choose the carne asada, it’s grassfed, and if you choose the chicken, it’s free-range. We went with the Blackened Wild Salmon Fajita. Tender chunks of fish were accompanied by a grilled pasilla chile stuffed with herb cheese, roasted salsa and fresh, handmade corn tortillas. We also shared the Carnitas Enchilada Plate with spicy pico and queso fresco.

Diet starts tomorrow.


2. TACO ROSA – The Market Place

Taco Rosa serves a fusion of Spanish, French and Mexican flavors.

An order of chips costs $6 here, but it’s muy bueno, so don’t skip it. They’re actually lime chile corn chips, and they come with a jalapeño salsa and a bean dip.

If you do order the chips, you’ll want something refreshing to wash them down. And you’ll be in luck, because Taco Rosa has an interesting selection of hand-crafted cocktails like the Jose Cuervo Horchata Margarita or the Mango Margarita, which involves a mango chamoy popsicle.

Taco Rosa’s menu touts “Mexico City Cuisine,” dishes with a sophisticated flare. Taco choices include wild salmon with papaya butter, charbroiled steak with mushrooms, and calamari. A popular appetizer is the Shrimp Ceviche Tostadas.

In the mood for lighter fare, I ordered the Rosa Bowl – rice, black beans, sautéed spinach and roasted corn.

My husband wanted comfort food and chose the Pozole de Puerco, a tasty hominy and pork stew.

Taco Rosa also has a fancy dessert menu. It was a toss-up between the churros with chocolate
sauce or the Pastel de Cuatro Leches served with white ganache-covered strawberries.

So we ordered both.


3. TAQUIERO TACO PATIO – Campus Plaza

Taquiero Taco Patio in Campus Plaza serves fresh-made “Tijuana-style” tacos.

If you’re craving authentic Mexican tacos, you’ve got to try Taquiero Taco Patio.

I went for lunch and watched them make corn tortillas from scratch behind a window.

The tacos are tiny, street taco size, so I ordered two: one with rotisserie pork, avocado and pineapple, and another with Yucatán-style pulled pork and pickled onions.

They come wrapped in foil and warm, and are some of the best tortillas I’ve ever tasted.

Taquiero also sells Mulitas – Tijuana-style quesadillas. Cheese is melted onto both sides of two corn tortillas, and you pick from six fillings.

And definitely get Taquiero’s Famous Fries – voted best in OC – which come six different ways. I got an order topped with carne asada. It’s hard to beat crunchy fries topped with shredded melted cheese and drizzled with sour cream and guacamole sauce.

I got an ice-cold, housemade horchata to wash it all down, but there is a nice selection of craft beers as well.

You can take your meal to one of two patios to eat under some shady trees.