All you need to know about Descanso can be described in these three words: Benihana with tacos. Not only does that succinctly encapsulate the entire concept, but it’s probably also the elevator pitch the owner must’ve given the loan officer at the bank. Doing tacos in a teppanyaki-style restaurant is such a great idea it’s a wonder no one has thought of it before.
Descanso, however, does hedge its bets. It doesn’t offer this so-called “à la plancha” experience exclusively; it also has a regular dining area and a more casual taco bar for those who want to eat sans theatrics.
On one Saturday, I arrived with a noontime reservation I secured a week before, which turned out to be unnecessary. The plancha dining room—set up with four teppanyaki tables that seated 10 people each—was completely empty.
Before I started to feel lonely, the server showed up. She explained that eating at the plancha tables meant I’d be automatically opting for the prix fixe. The main entrée choices ranged from tacos to quesadillas to alambres. The cost of whatever I’d end up choosing would cover the entire meal. After she returned with chips, chicharrones and salsa, she took my main dish order as well as what I wanted as a first course.
I opted for the Mexican fried rice to start. But just as I was wondering whether the chef would do the old beating-heart trick when he made it, the fried rice came out on a small plate, precooked and zigzagged with a spicy aioli. It was decent fried rice—studded with tiny diced peppers, bits of Mexican squash and kernels of roasted corn—but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed it wasn’t done in front of me, tableside.
The better first course, I discovered, is the fideo. This cup of savory tomato soup—with short segments of noodle, chunks of avocado and queso fresco—was something I would gladly order again on its own with or without the show.
Then the chef arrived, pushing a cart of ingredients. He introduced himself briefly and immediately got to work by swirling some butter onto the cooktop. He then plopped down on the griddle a single container that held the diced onions, bell peppers, bacon and par-cooked bits of sirloin steak. This was the alambre I ordered.
He prodded it a few times, shook on some salt and pepper, and shoveled the mound around so that all of it made contact with the hot metal. He then took a fistful of shredded cheese and folded it into the now-steaming mass.
Another mound of cheese went directly onto the griddle itself. Before long, it melted into a puddle and began to bubble. When it got crispy, he scraped underneath it to release it from the cooktop, then flipped the whole thing over to cover the rest of the dish, which he’d already transferred to a waiting plate. He finished by adding four dollops of avocado salsa, some thinly sliced onion and a stack of flour tortillas he’d heated up on the side.
I took a spoonful of the alambre and tucked it into a tortilla. It left behind trails of cheese as though it were a deep-dish pizza, but it reminded me most of a Philly cheese-steak. Since it was so rich and dripping of grease (and I was already full from the chips), I could only make a tiny dent, but I’m already looking forward to the leftovers. I bet it will taste incredible between a baguette.
If you opt for the tacos, it will be served on some of Descanso’s two-toned tortillas—unique specimens that resemble the yin-yang symbol. One side is made with blue corn masa and the other, white. The pollo asado taco is a particularly wonderful way to enjoy these tortillas. The chicken morsels are garnished with not only segments of orange, watercress and a jicama relish, but also crispy chicken skin.
As the chef was finishing up, I asked him what he did differently during dinner. He said that at dinner, the fried rice is made-to-order on the griddle along with sautéed vegetables. Also, the fideo soup and a dessert are included in the price, which is, by the way, about $10 more expensive than lunch.
The server later clarified the kitchen only does the precooked fried rice at lunch because of time constraints some customers have. This seemed disingenuous to me. If you were told there’s a restaurant that’s like a Benihana with tacos, would you go there, then ask them to rush through the experience?
Descanso, 1555 Adams Ave., Ste. 103, Costa Mesa, (714) 486-3798; www.descansorestaurant.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Plancha lunch, $14-$25 per person; plancha dinner, $24-$36 per person. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.