A Fiesta of Flavor

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Culinary creativity shines with Tortilla Republic’s unique spin on Mexican dishes.

By Sharon Stello | Photos by Jody Tiongco

 

It’s not an overstatement to say Tortilla Republic, which opened its Laguna location in June, may be my new favorite restaurant. From the zesty salsa trio to the inspired Chocolate Decadence cake, every dish impresses with a creative twist on traditional Mexican dishes that incorporate unexpected flavors influenced by the owners’ travels.

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Dark wood and metal fixtures add to the warm ambience.

“We’ve taken the classics and modernized them,” says Mina Azami, co-owner with brother John Halter and brother-in-law Morten Kaag. The South Coast Highway eatery (in the former Javier’s and Asada spot) is the small chain’s third, after the Hawaiian island of Kauai and West Hollywood. The consulting chef is Mina and John’s mother, Cathy Shyne, who trained with acclaimed modern Mexican chef Roberto Santibanez, while Chris Tzorin serves as executive chef in Laguna.

The approach is a healthier spin on Mexican fare with no lard and only prime, all-natural meats, free-range chicken and organic produce whenever possible. Many dishes are gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan while sauces are always made fresh in-house: The salsa de mesa is a smoky, chipotle blend that takes seven hours to prepare; the salsa de papaya habanero is a tantalizing mix that’s perfect alongside a jalapeno or spicy pomegranate margarita, or one of 100 blue agave tequilas.

The welcoming staff is knowledgeable and passionate about the food, ready with spot-on recommendations. Tacos de jicama are a refreshing start: Thinly sliced jicama “tortillas” are wrapped around shrimp, cilantro and red onion with avocado and chipotle mayo. Meanwhile, the duck confit tacos offer a perfect fusion of savory and sweet—with a cherry salsita topping the shredded duck—before moving on to the entrees.

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Ancho-seared salmon with cilantro citrus and habanero carrot sauces, and a spicy pomegranate margarita

I’m not typically a seafood fan, but the divine ancho-seared salmon swayed me with a slightly crispy skin that gives way to tender meat served with roasted poblano peppers, onions and mango on a bed of herb-infused long grain rice. Cilantro citrus sauce on one side of the plate and habanero carrot sauce on the other create a combination that’s pure magic. Next up, the short rib “chili verde” and carnitas will melt in your mouth.

To end the meal, Chocolate Decadence—a flourless chocolate cake with ancho chili and cayenne pepper served alongside salted caramel gelato—is a dreamy dessert that lives up to its name. The churros are another sweet treat for the taste buds.
Between delectable dishes, make sure to soak in the ambience in this warm, inviting space with dark wood, metal lanterns and an ocean view from every seat. A retractable roof in back opens up to the star-filled sky at night. “We wanted it to feel like a resort,” says Mina, who chats with diners as she refills glasses. “I just want to make sure our guests are taken care of. … We want everyone to feel like they’re coming to our home.” Tortilla Republic is a home I could come back to again and again.

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