At most restaurants, the chef cooks and creates. At many restaurants, especially those with multiple locations, the chef cooks, and the culinary director creates.
That is the case at Puesto, one of whose more striking locations is at Los Olivos Marketplace. Puesto has earned national acclaim for its Mexico City-style tacos, which use house-made blue-corn tortillas, crispy melted cheese and scratch salsas.
Culinary director Erik Aronow can’t get enough of those tacos; he’s also fascinated with Mexico’s regional cuisines. But what really gets his creative juices going, he finds closer to home.
“It all starts in SoCal’s markets, especially farmers markets.” Aronow says. “I’m always inspired by new ingredients, fresh ingredients. What looks amazing? That’s when the cogs start turning.”
Marrying market ingredients and regional concepts translates to menu magic.
“I’m always inspired by new ingredients, fresh ingredients. What looks amazing? That’s when the cogs start turning.” – Erik Aronow
“Right now, we have a squash blossom quesadilla,” he says. “As we approach summer, squash blossoms here become more savory – squash blossom quesadillas were my favorite dish in Oaxaca.”
Aronow initially honed his skills as a pastry chef at revered and innovative L.A. fine-dining institutions, including Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro and Jordan Kahn’s Destroyer.
“I’m proudest of our sourcing,” Aronow says. “We use the same quality of ingredients at Puesto that I used working for Keller and Kahn.
“You might look at the menu and say, ‘That’s a bit expensive for a taco.’ But our Jidori chicken, there’s not a chicken fresher. If you went to a steakhouse and got yourself a filet mignon – that’s the same filet we put in our tacos.”
Speaking of steak…
“Every time I eat a taco at Puesto, it’s our new rib-eye,” Aronow says. “Thinly sliced, marinated in orange juice and Puesto Negra….” Puesto Negra is one of four beers Puesto makes at its own cervecería.
Aronow’s favorite starter? The potato taquitos.
“They’re cheesy, they’re gooey, they’re crunchy,” he says. “There’s salsas, there’s guacamole, I love dipping them in all the different sauces. It’s an interactive dish!”
more Mexican favorites
Irvine Spectrum Center
Gorgeous, lushly landscaped Javier’s Cantina approaches two decades as a fine-dining anchor at Irvine Spectrum Center. Metalwork, stone, water elements and tropical greenery set the scene for a trio of shrimp, crab and lobster enchiladas, shown above. Or try a La Tablita board for two featuring prime Angus grilled steak and carnitas, with a festive finish of fried ice cream in a buñuelo basket. Start with a choice of nearly 70 tequilas.
Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen
The Market Place
Date Night Monday, Taco Tuesday, Enchilada Wednesday … Every day is a fiesta at lively Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen, known for its cool design, indoor-outdoor aesthetic and contemporary menu. Can’t-miss dishes include enchiladas with Mexican cheeses, epazote, rajas and corn, shown above, and the fresh-seafood caldo with toasted angel hair in saffron-tomato broth. The Fresh Pineapple cocktail pairs reposado tequila and elderflower liqueur.
The Market Place
Taco Rosa has a Mexico City vibe, but its ancestral recipes derive from regions throughout Mexico, all conscientiously sourced. The restaurant is known for its tacos: chile relleno tacos, blackened tacos and – star of the show, served on Cinco de Mayo and every Tuesday – barbacoa tacos that take two days to make. Shrimp ceviche tostadas are a spectacular alternative. Even the stemware for the margaritas is memorable.