The first thing I noticed upon walking into Playa Mesa was its pastel-colored warmth. Since I knew the restaurant was the latest from owners Mario Marovic and Andrew Gabriel—the partners responsible for the Country Club and Wild Goose Tavern—I wasn’t expecting it. Their style is more dark and slightly claustrophobic.
In contrast, Playa Mesa feels vibrant and vast, as though one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexican watercolors leapt off the canvas. The ambiance was so out of character for the pair that I likened it to the first time I heard REM’s “Shiny Happy People,” that oddly cheerful track no one counted on from the group that produced “Losing My Religion.”
But in interviews, Marovic’s intentions for Playa Mesa were clear from the get-go: Unlike his usual 21-and-older venues, he wanted this restaurant to be a family-friendly place, “where the kids can eat, and mom and dad can get a killer margarita.”
That Friday night, I did see a few kids, but not many. It seems that no matter how much money the partners sank into turning a former Ruby’s Dinette into this shiny, happy alternative to El Torito, the same nightclub and bar crowd that Marovic and Gabriel courted with their previous ventures had followed them here. Nearly everyone who arrived came dressed to impress. A majority were twenty- and thirtysomethings with clubby tops and designer purses. It was as though Modern Luxury was hosting a casting call.
For sure, this is the hottest restaurant to see and be seen in Costa Mesa right now. As such, I don’t know whether families would find the place all that accessible. Reservations are booked weeks out. And if you walk in without one, you’ll be waiting an hour or trolling the bar for a spot to open up. As at Marovic and Gabriel’s other concepts, most of the crowd is concentrated around the bar, but here you get a free basket of chips and a bowl of salsa as soon as you sit down.
The man responsible for the food is Roland Rubalcava. Marovic and Gabriel hired him fresh from a stint as sous chef at Carlos Salgado’s Taco María. But Rubalcava’s reputation was arguably set way before he started working under Salgado. His family owns La Reina markets, and up until he sold it to jumpstart his career as a chef, Rubalcava owned Rubalcava’s Bakery, which was renowned for its tortillas.
So it comes as no surprise that Rubalcava makes a pretty good taco for Playa Mesa. I’m not sure if the tortillas Rubalcava builds them upon came from the same family recipe as his bakery’s, but they’re thick, warm and soft as blinis—all of it hand-pressed by a woman whose job it is to do so continuously on a slowly spinning comal seen behind a window into the kitchen.
As good as Rubalcava’s carne asada tacos are—which come two per order and garnished with a slice of avocado, some cilantro and pico de gallo—I questioned whether they were the right thing to order. I knew after having the food at Taco María that Rubalcava is capable of much more than this, and looking down at my seemingly pedestrian rice-and-refried-beans combo plate made me think it was all beneath him.
As if to answer the call, the aguachile arrived. For it, Rubalcava uses sushi-grade scallops that he shelters under cucumbers, microgreens and cubed avocado. But the star, as is always the case, is the sauce. Formulated with lime juice and serrano, it zaps your tongue and causes your jaw muscles to involuntarily contract upon contact. Although I found it a touch too syrupy and only slightly hot, Rubalcava’s aguachile is the closest you can get at Playa Mesa to eating electricity.
I would recommend ordering it or the coctel de camaron—or, in fact, any of his ceviches—as a starter instead of the sope. Despite being generously topped with perfectly refried beans, soupy shredded beef and pickled onions, the sope is foiled by a masa cake that’s as hard as concrete.
For a main course, you could live large with a plato fuerte, entrées centered on a protein that culminates in the “Plato Del Patron,” with roasted jidori chicken, spare ribs, steak and an army of sides for $50; or you can do what most people do: Settle for a taco combo plate or, better yet, an enchilada. The best of these is the enfrijolada.
Sprinkled with crispy rendered chicken skin and deep-fried epazote leaves, then served next to Spanish rice and a bracingly bitter arugula salad, Rubalcava’s enfrijolada is a chicken-stuffed enchilada whose tortilla is enrobed in a black bean purée instead of a red or green sauce. And it’s a great dish—something that instantly puts Playa Mesa on a higher plane than El Torito. No, it’s still nowhere near the level set by Taco María, but then, what is?
Playa Mesa, 428 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 287-5292; www.playamesa.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Starters, $7-$19; entrées, $13-$50. 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.