Chef Sergio Ortega’s Mushroom Tacos, A Star Among Many at Descanso

Sergio Ortega, executive chef at Descanso in Costa Mesa joined me to show how to prepare irresistible mushroom-filled tacos adorned with crispy cheese.

He combines boundless culinary passion with well-grounded skills, showcasing his mastery of classic Central Mexican cuisine in a tantalizing variety of street-inspired dishes.

Menu items at this modern taqueria range from chicharrons with salsa to grilled white corn with aioli and Cotija cheese, sweet corn pozole verde to mescal-glazed shrimp.

It’s the tacos that haunt my treat-seeking dreams. I was overjoyed when he consented to show me how to prepare his Costra de Hongos, irresistible mushroom filled tacos with crispy cheese. Don’t think there is anything ho-hum about these beauties. A wide variety of wild and domestic mushrooms make their way into the mix: oyster, yellow foot, abalone, lobster and cordyceps cozy up with more commonplace cremini or button mushrooms.

Long strands of red-orange cordyceps were new to me and I was delighted to see them in the mix.

The made in-house tortillas are two-tone, one half made with blue corn masa, the other yellow corn masa; they are a tribute to the tortilla-making tradition in Ortega’s home state of Michoacán, Mexico.

Watch the video to see the process of making the tacos – one side of the tortilla is encrusted with a mixture of three cheeses: Manchego, Cotija and Jack. The cheese is browned on one side giving it alluring richness and texture. The cheese wrapping is dubbed “costra” in Spanish. It translates as “scab” or “crust” in English, not a very alluring appellation that is in fact very inviting.

Once spooned onto the cheesy side of the tortilla, a topping of salsa frita is added. The tasty cooked sauce incorporates a combination of tomatoes and tomatillos along with chilies, onion and garlic; it’s an inspired marriage of flavors.

A native of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, he studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of California in Santa Ana and has worked at AnQi in Costa Mesa and The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. He lives in Costa Mesa with his wife Paulina and two children. He credits his wife as a source of culinary inspiration.

Secret Talent: He has a very good memory for faces, people and details about past experiences. His friends tell him that he is the only one who can remember everything.

Drink of Choice: He likes beer, but also enjoys trying good gin (Four Pillars is a favorite).

Few Know: He loves to learn about history. Whenever possible, he reads and researches different historical subjects and watches history-based documentaries.

Favorite Food Truck: Orgullo Oaxaqueno on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles is a favorite. They serve Oaxacan specialties, such as tlayuda, a Mexican pizza constructed on a big toasted corn tortilla.

Descanso – A Modern Taqueria, 1555 Adams Ave #103, Costa Mesa

Menu: descansorestaurant.com

Descanso’s Costra de Hongos (Mushroom Tacos with Crispy Cheese)
Yield: 3 tacos
Mushroom mix: 3 cups assorted wild or cultivated mushrooms, cleaned, cut coarsely or sliced (such as oyster, yellow foot, abalone, cordyceps, or lobster)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup finely diced white onion
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 or 2 arbol chilies, see cook’s notes
Mushroom mix: 3 cups assorted wild and cultivated mushrooms, cleaned and cut roughly or sliced (such as oyster, yellow foot, abalone, cordyceps, or lobster)
1 splash of white wine
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Salsa Frita:
2 Roma tomatoes
4 tomatillos, husks removed, washed
4 Morita chilies, toasted, see cook’s notes
3 garlic cloves
1/2 small white onion
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Cheese blend: 1 cup shredded Jack cheese, 1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese, 1/4 cup ground Cotija cheese
For serving: vegetable oil, 3 corn tortillas, Cotija cheese (crumbled), microgreens and/or cilantro, mint or epazote

Cook’s notes: Arbol chilies are small and potent Mexican chilies that are narrow and about 2-inches long. They start out green and turn bright red color as they mature. Morita chilies are smoked, red-ripe jalapeno peppers, much like chipotles. The main difference is that Moritas are smoked for less time, which leaves them softer and retains their slightly fruity flavor. To toast chilies, place whole on griddle or sauté pan over medium heat; turn until chilies are fragrant with brown spots. Do not over-toast.

  1. For mushrooms: Add butter to large deep skillet on medium heat. When melted, add garlic, onion and arbol chilies. Cook until chilies are toasted and fragrant and the onion is softened. Add mushrooms to the pan and continue to cook until mushrooms soften. Add thyme and wine. Cook until skillet is almost dry. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; keep warm.
  2. For salsa frita: Warm canola oil in large saucepan on medium heat until shimmering. Carefully add tomatoes and tomatillos in a single layer; brown evenly. Cover pan and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Once tomatillos and tomatoes are cooked, add onion, garlic and morita chilies. Continue to cook for 4 more minutes, until the garlic softens and onion is translucent. In a blender, whirl until smooth and season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
  3. For cheese blend: In a bowl toss cheeses together until well combined. Set aside.
  4. For assembly: Heat a lightly-oiled griddle or cast-iron skillet or nonstick skillet on medium heat (medium is important here). Add tortillas and heat on both sides until a little crisp. Remove tortillas. Add one pile of cheese blend; when cheese starts to melt top it with one tortilla. Press down lightly. Cook until bottom of cheese is nicely browned and sticks to tortilla. Turn and cook tortilla for additional 10 seconds. Place cheese-side-up on plate. Remove thyme sprig from mushrooms. Top tortilla with a couple of spoonfuls of mushrooms. Top with salsa, Cotija cheese and herbs. Repeat with remaining two tortillas.      Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s Produce!The delectable grassy edge of shishito peppers is delightful. Many think they need to be deep-fried to be delicious, but sauteing them in a little vegetable oil is all that is needed – just some oil, some coarse salt and those delicious chilies. Oh, you can drizzle on a little roasted Asian-style sesame oil if you like; it’s optional.

Watch the video to see how easy it is!

(it follows Chef Ortega)

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