By Sheryll Alexander

What is the modern-Mexican food movement? It’s a delicious resurgence in fashionable Mexican dishes, restaurants, chefs and even food trucks, with a fresh gourmet flair. But what is it, really?

And where can you find some of the best of this innovative cuisine in Orange County?

Christian Ziebarth, author of the popular “OC Mex Food” blog for the past six years, is an aficionado of the Mexican dining scene in O.C. He says this contemporary cuisine “combines a passion for quality preparation with intriguing presentation.”

After my own journey feasting at numerous local restaurants and food trucks, I heartily agree.

“This movement respects decades and centuries of Mexican family cooking traditions while adding a pizzazz that is likely to come only from a professionally trained background,” says Ziebarth. “It may draw inspiration from other ethnic cuisines, but always retains its character as Mexican food.”

This results in healthier, lighter dishes that are surprisingly flavorful and quite possibly addictive.

“The cuisine is tried and true with a sense of adventure,” says Ziebarth. It is both safe and daring at the same time. Basically, it is street food elevated to elegant cuisine.”

Something both Ziebarth and I noticed in our travels is an increasing shift among chefs everywhere toward sustainable and organic ingredients. We hope this trend – as well as what Ziebarth calls “unrelenting innovation” – continues to transform traditional Mexican dishes and preparations into fantastic tasting fare.

So which local restaurants does Ziebarth frequent for the best contemporary Mexican food he can find? The top of his list includes Taco Rosa (Irvine and Newport Coast), Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen (Old Towne Orange) and SOL Cocina (Newport Beach). Some of his other favorites are Matador Cantina (Fullerton) and Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen (Downtown Brea). As for food trucks, he loves Taco Maria, Tamarindo Truck and Soho Taco.

But remember, this cuisine isn’t really “new.” In fact, some say the Mex craze started 25 years ago with restaurant chain El Torito. While El Torito did (and still does) serve more traditional and hearty dishes such as enchiladas with rice and refried beans, the company also ventured into new territory with mesquite grilling and tableside guacamole.

And while El Torito restaurants still exist, the company sprouted the more modern El Torito Grill chain, which has three locations in O.C. (Newport Beach, Irvine and Brea). Today, guests still enjoy made-to-order guacamole prepared tableside, as well as free-range chicken, shrimp and Angus rib eye sizzled until tender over mesquite wood.

SOL Mexican Cocina (Newport Beach)

Although only a few years old, SOL Mexican Cocina on Newport’s waterfront – along with Deb Schneider, its charming executive chef-partner – started yet another renaissance in O.C.’s contemporary-Mexican scene. Taking deep inspiration from traditional Baja cuisine and ingredients, Schneider takes chances by creating super healthy fare and even gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options.

Schneider says she is not only inspired by Baja cuisine; she loves the innovation she tastes when she visits Mexico City, with its profusion of cooking styles and ingredients. For example, instead of trying a traditional guacamole, get adventurous and order the strawberry-and-serrano-chile guacamole. Yes, this creamy guac features strawberries instead of onions and tastes just as delightful.

Or start with the incredibly delicious warm goat cheese, which is encrusted with salty peanuts and comes swimming in a smoky, sweet and spicy chipotle syrup. Another super healthy addition to SOL’s menu is the sublime white-corn-and-poblano soup (only $6!). Chef Schneider purées together sweet corn, roasted poblano peppers and Mexican crema, and then tops it with toasted pepitas for a heart-warming bowl of Mother Earth’s goodness. Recently, SOL became a member of the Positive Plate Club, a select group of restaurants that must pass a stringent certification program. To keep abreast of happenings at SOL, follow Chef Deb’s SOL Mexican Cocina blog at solmexicancocina.wordpress.com.

South of Nick’s (San Clemente)

South of Nick’s is a real contender for one of the best fashionable Mexican restaurants in Orange County. Housed inside the oldest building in San Clemente (city founder Ole Hanson’s office), this new-Mexican restaurant has been remodeled into a downtown gem. Chef-proprietor Nick Nickoloff and his seasoned team at the NickCo Hospitality Group created a sophisticated yet rustic oasis with chocolate-colored wood beams (from 1926), creamy stucco walls, sage-green banquettes with pewter studs, flax linen hanging lampshades and shots of red accents here and there. This airy space glows at night with gorgeous hurricane lamps.

The food is just as casual chic. Start with a refreshing housemade cocktail such as the burro (reposado tequila, agave nectar, lime juice, ginger beer) and then order the extraordinary shrimp taquitos: jumbo Mexican shrimp blackened Cajun style, wrapped in a fresh tortilla, deep fried and served with avocado salsa and chipotle-ranch sauce. Other delectable dishes include a tender chicken mole, perfectly grilled salmon and a done-to-perfection snapper, steamed Vera Cruz-style.

Another great option is the La Tablita platter. Prepared for up to four guests, La Tablita comes on a giant square plate filled with slices of succulent steak, grilled shrimp and chicken, along with Peruvian refried beans, Spanish rice, grilled vegetables, chunky salsa, a mound of creamy guacamole and handmade tortillas. Think of La Tablita as the modern day equivalent of El Torito’s sizzling fajitas. Don’t miss coming to South of Nick’s on Sunday, when the sangrias are mixed with fruits bought that morning from the local farmers market, located just around the corner on Del Mar Avenue.

Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen (Brea)

Yes, this Downtown Brea restaurant recently changed its name from Cha Cha’s Tacos & Tequila to Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen. Perhaps the name has something to do with Chef Peter Seranatoni’s most excellent contemporary Mexican cuisine. At Cha Cha’s, bypass the heavier, more traditional appetizers and go for the surprisingly satisfying Caesar salad. Two hearts of romaine are grilled over a smoky wood flame and topped with a tangy cilantro-and-pepita dressing and cojita cheese. But perhaps the best dish on the menu is the seafood caldo. Served in a terra-cotta bowl, this hearty soup includes mahi-mahi, shrimp and squid in an exquisite saffron-tomato broth.

Taco Rosa (Newport Coast, Irvine)

Ivan Calderon, Taco Rosa’s founder and executive chef, was one of the first in O.C. to bring modern Mexican food to the plate with healthier dishes and organic ingredients. From a family of chefs in Mexico City, Calderon came to Newport Beach and helped drive the success of the El Torito chain. Calderon not only went independent with the more fine dining Taco Rosa restaurants in Newport Coast and Irvine; he runs Taco Mesa (Costa Mesa, Orange, Mission Viejo), which is more of a healthy and authentic fast food Mexican spot. At Taco Rosa, try the ultra creamy guacamole, sea bass ceviche, blackened calamari tacos and monthly specials such as chile relleno pie.

Thinking about trying out a Mexican spot with modern selections? Next time, pass on the heavy meat, rice and bean combo, and venture to one of these fine restaurants for a palate-pleasing change of pace.

Sheryll Alexander is a freelance lifestyles writer based in Costa Mesa. She is also the dining, travel and new gear editor for Greer’s OC.

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