The following is my part of a joint review with ChristianZ. His part of the review, and his photos, can be found at his OC Mexican Restaurants blog (link below).
Last week, Christian and I went to Taleo Mexican Grill, with my partner Carter and friends Amy and Sarah. In the interests of full disclosure: this was the first time either of us has done a review of a restaurant when the restaurant staff knew ahead of time that we were reviewing it. This means I can't really comment on the service (which was great), and we were probably given options for ordering that wouldn't normally be available. However, Carter and I have eaten at Taleo many times before, and the quality of the food was excellent then as well. The main difference this time was having a good excuse to order a wide array of foods at one time.
My overall impression of Taleo is that this is a fine culinary restaurant firmly based in Mexican cuisine, rather than a standard Mexican restaurant with a fancy coat of paint. Yes, the presentation of the dishes is pretty, but thankfully, this is not one of those restaurants where the food looks better than it tastes. On the contrary, the modern decor and decorative plating are just icing on the cake: the food is the real draw, and it's excellent. If the complex, subtle flavor profiles of most dishes are any indication, head chef Nic Villarreal must have an obsession about culinary details.
The atmosphere at Taleo is more upscale than most Mexican restaurants, with a mixture of dark woods and modern decor. There's a bar area on one end of the restaurant with couches, and although the bar seems to fill up on weekend nights, I've never noticed the dining room becoming too noisy.
This night, we started with two appetizers, the queso fundido and guacamole, both served with tortilla chips. The chips are house-made, but they were no longer warm by the time we got them. Still, the toppings made up for that. The guacamole had big chunks of avocado, held together with a creamy base, and just enough red onions and chile pepper to add a little sting: very good. The queso fundido was a huge hit, especially with Amy, who repeatedly asked me to emphasize in this review how much she LOVED it. (There you go, Amy.) The texture of the cheese sauce was creamy without being too thick or heavy, with some spicy top notes from bits of chorizo and roasted poblano peppers. Carter and I argued over an elusive secret ingredient that added an extra dimension to the dish, but couldn't identify it.
Two salsas were served with the chips, referred to as "regular" and "spicy" by our server. The regular salsa was somewhat chunkier, although the pieces of tomato were still very small. The flavor was pleasingly complex and rounded, with a touch of sweetness perfectly balancing the heat, deep undertones, and just enough cilantro to brighten it. The second salsa was especially smoky, which I liked, and although it was hotter, nobody found it to be too hot for their tastes. This salsa was more one-dimensional, relying almost completely on the smokiness and bitterness of the chile. Still, it was good, and suffered only in being compared to Taleo's more nuanced treatment of other sauces.
For our entrees, they let us order a number of items à la carte, and then we each tried a few bites of every dish. All together, we ordered: chicken enchilada, carnitas, beef enchilada, tacos al carbon, tamales, and chile relleno, with sides of black beans, frijoles charros, nopalitos, and cilantro lime rice.
The overall lesson I took away is that you won't go wrong ordering any of the Mexican dishes involving meat or sauce at Taleo.
The carnitas was excellent: very tender but still toothy. When forced to choose, Christian picked this as his favorite entree, and I might have also (except that I selfishly did not force myself to choose). Nic served it with a yellow mole that was amazing: light and smooth, but rich with undertones of peppers and tomatoes. The red mole served with the chicken enchilada was no less excellent: full-flavored with a touch of sweetness but nowhere near cloying. The beef enchilada was served with a delicious "mild guajillo" sauce. I tend to be suspicious of dishes labeled "mild", as it is too often a synonym for "bland." This is not the case at Taleo: while most dishes are mild enough that they won't offend more sensitive palates, the spicing is still interesting, with the lighter touch of chile balanced with and backed up by other flavors. The fillings for the chicken and beef enchiladas stood up to the great sauces, complementing them nicely.
The sauces, and especially the moles, were Carter's favorite part of the meal, which is saying a lot, as he is notoriously particular about sauces. I always thought I disliked moles, as my past experiences have involved bitter, pasty substances. Now I am a zealous convert, and must return for more. Nic told us that they serve a green mole on special occasions, and I'm hoping to find out when those occasions are.
The tamale was filled with more of that delicious carnitas, with a light saucing of the mild guajillo sauce. I'm rather picky about my tamales and often find them to be too dense and dry, and I liked Taleo's version: it was lighter than most and had a higher ratio of filling to masa, but the corn flavor of the masa still came through. The moistness of the filling kept the dish from being too dry. My fellow diners appeared to like it too, as it disappeared before I could go back for another taste.
The tacos al carbon received more mixed reviews. I found the filet mignon to be seared to a perfect medium-rare, toothsome and juicy, and blending well with the other ingredients, and both Amy and Sarah listed this as their favorite entree. Carter did not like it as well as the other meat dishes, finding the flavor of the meat somewhat flat, and disagreeing with me that the dish held together. More sauce might have helped here, and I also believe the dish suffered more than some of the others from cooling off while we sampled other dishes.
The chile relleno served here is made the traditional way, with the filled poblano dipped in an eggy batter and deep-fried. The resulting coating was tasty, but didn't overpower the quiet flavor of the poblano, which is my favorite part. This is one of many dishes that are typically smothered in melted cheese and indiscriminate red sauce at most Mexican restaurants. A more subdued approach is seen here: the chile relleno has only a light saucing of tangy white cheese and sauce, just enough to add flavor, without drowning the dish. The chile is stuffed with different fillings on different days. I forgot to write down what was in the filling and remember only that it included mushrooms and that I liked it.
Among the side dishes, my clear favorite is the frijoles charros. I fell in love with this dish the first time I had it at Taleo, and now insist on having it at each visit. The texture is just right: a thick sauce coating well-cooked beans which give just the slightest resistance to the tooth. But the big draw is the incredibly smooth, smoky flavor that suffuses the beans. The black beans, by contrast, came across as plain, especially in contrast to the other offerings on the table.
I appreciate any restaurant that serves nopalitos (which is described as sautéed baby cactus on the menu, but is more specifically the pads of prickly pear). Taleo gets the texture just about right, although it's a touch too soft for my taste. The other vegetables and spices blend well with the main ingredient, though, and make for a fine and slightly spicy side.
We ordered one of each of the four desserts, which differed greatly in how they were received. We had heard great press about the pastel de tres leches, which is a traditional Mexican dessert, if rarely seen at traditional Mexican restaurants. Unfortunately, few in our group liked this take on it. The milk-soaked cake was judged as far too soft and, ironically, too "milky." Instead of leaning toward being creamy, the flavor was light and insubstantial, leaving the squishy texture to fend for itself. Even the whipped cream was too light, without much flavor. On the other end of the spectrum, the flan was so creamy that it was strongly reminiscent of cheesecake, both in terms of texture and taste. Although it was a surprising departure from the more traditional flan we were expecting, we liked this version just as well. The chocolate cake was my favorite: it was also very creamy and rich, almost mousse-like, and came with a delicious caramel sauce. The overachieving underdog of the desserts, however, was the mango sorbet, which Sarah and Amy raved about and liked so much that they had finished it before I had a chance to taste it!
There were a large number of dishes we have left to try, including all the soups and many of the entrees. Some, we've had on prior visits and enjoyed. The only entree I remember ordering on a prior visit that I would not recommend is the smoked apple chipotle chicken. The chicken was a bit dry, and the sauce was not sufficient to make up for it. That may have been just an off-night for the kitchen, but the dish doesn't seem to tap into the strengths of this restaurant. Besides, if I have to narrow my dinner choice to a single entree, I'm glad to have at least one item to mark off the list of options.
Overall, a good time and a great meal was had by all. Over multiple visits, Taleo has consistently produced food of excellent quality. As much as I enjoy more typical, casual Mexican restaurants, Taleo is in a different class altogether. Nic and his team have taken a cuisine with a long history and delved deep to find delicate, multi-layered flavor combinations. The food is the closest I've seen yet to fine dining based in Mexico's rich culinary heritage. At the same time, the atmosphere is welcoming and laid-back, and the prices are low enough that you don't have to save it for a special occasion. My advice is to go there now, before they realize that they could charge much more for food this good.