By Terry Markowitz
5:33 PM PDT, July 2, 2014
Tortilla Republic has opened in the former home of Javier's and Asada in Laguna Beach.
Owners have done a very nice job of remodeling the space and pride themselves on serving "a modern take on Mexican comfort cuisine, utilizing recipes featuring farm-fresh ingredients, organic products, when available, and no lard or processed additives." The restaurant also has a gluten-free menu.
The décor includes thick white ropes draped around the entryway and in the back room, stone tiles on some of the walls, Moroccan-style lanterns above the booths along one wall and lots of glass in the ceiling, giving most of the rooms a bright airiness. The space is divided into several areas, each with its own atmosphere. The ocean can be viewed from almost every room.
"Modern take" could mean Tortilla Republic doesn't serve the traditional complimentary salsa and chips, but you can get salsa in three different varieties — tomatillo fresca, salsa de papaya habenero and salsa de mesa — along with chips, for $4.50.
Tacos appear on the appetizer menu, and my dining companion and I chose the duck confit variety. Duck confit is a preparation that involves rubbing the dark leg meat with salt, garlic and herbs, then cooking it in its own fat. These, however, were very bland, lacking any saltiness or other discernible seasoning. Only the cherry sauce that topped the duck lent the dish any interest.
Much better were the sweet potato empanadas with beef. The spicy meat and potatoes were finely cubed and baked in a nicely browned pastry crust. We did have to wait quite a while for our appetizers, but the staff was very sweet and a helpful waitress comped us for both.
The chicken enchiladas contained pieces of Mary's Free Range Chicken in a very good mole de poblano sauce that had a subtle underpinning of sweetness and just the right amount of heat. The sauce surrounded the enchiladas and was dotted with circles of crema (Mexican sour cream). Queso fresco and toasted sesame seeds adorned the top.
The side dish of black beans and rice was just OK, verging on boring. I really like traditional Mexican rice, but this was under-seasoned.
The vegetarian taco includes hibiscus flower, roasted tomato chipotle sauce, jicama, carrots and onions. A high-end take on an enchilada is the lobster with creamy truffled tomatillo sauce, crab and shrimp bisque, manchego and jack cheeses and shaved black Oregon truffle.
We especially enjoyed the relleno poblano. A very large roasted green pepper was stuffed with eggplant, squash cubes, mushrooms, sweet white raisins, red pepper strips and mixed cheeses, then covered in a piquant ranchero sauce and finished with crema. This was our favorite dish of the evening because of the complex mixture of flavors and textures.
Three house-made desserts are offered: key lime pie, chocolate decadence and churros. The restaurant was out of the chocolate decadence, which our waitress said was wonderful. We tried the other two. The churros were a bit greasy and not crisp enough. The key lime pie had a good graham cracker crust.
I don't usually like this kind if crust because it is usually very sweet, but this was more understated and good. The key lime layer was nice and tart, but it was topped with a thick layer of whipped cream that had almost no sweetness at all.
Some other entrees that exemplify the modern fusion approach include a tequila coriander-rubbed hanger steak with roasted jalapeno, garlic potato puree, grilled asparagus and chimichurri sauce; a pork chop al pastor with the aforementioned potato puree, caramelized pineapple and onions; and a hamburguesa of American Wagyu beef, roasted poblanos, caramelized onions, chipotle aioli, tomatoes, watercress and sweet potato fries with cilantro and lime zest.
Of course, there is a large and buzzy bar area and a menu of more than 70 different tequillas.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 480 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Appetizers: $4.50 to $13
Entrées: $15.75 to $28
Desserts: $8 to $8.50
Bottles: $34 to $138
By the glass: $8 to $15
Corkage fee: $20
Information: (949) 393-4888 or tortillarepublic.com