Orange County is an interesting convergence of cultures. There's the sun-baked beach crowd, the affluent suburbanites, and - as you move inland - a dedicated Mexican culture. You can start the day off with an avocado smoothie at sunrise, spend lunch over a plate of oysters at the marina and dig into hearty, traditional Mexican dishes after the sun has set.
Yet, for all of this geographic overlap, you won't find much in the way of a "gourmet taco" in the OC. Instead, it's everyday tacos trying to pretty themselves up, or high-class joints with a few downmarket dishes to appease the locals.
Enter Soho Taco, a gourmet catering service with the occasional taco truck sighting. Centered mostly around the Santa Ana / Newport Beach / Irvine triangle, chef Gabriel Zambrano has managed to take elements of each distinct city and incorporate them into some of the best tacos in Orange County. And I'm certainly not the only one who thinks so.
But unlike the crushing hordes that followed Kogi when similarly kind words pour in, Soho Taco is quietly still a medium-scale catering service. And on the day I caught up with their lonchero (it only operates a few days a week), it was nestled up next to a garden supply shop with no more than three people in line at a time.
This is street gourmet done Orange County style. Plenty of parking and lots of shade, surrounded by potted herbs and flowers as the sun shone down from a cloudless sky. The service is also impeccable, with a sort of front-desk operation, which then relays the order inside the quietly humming truck. Everyone is so polite and willing to wait their turn, you can hear the quietly patting hands inside the lonchero, pressing and warming tortillas to order.
The tacos themselves are upscale wonders with unmistakable charm. They arrive bursting at the sides from their thick, warm corn tortillas, dripping with toppings and looking for an excuse to fall apart. But they don't; these good-lookin' eats have a sturdiness behind them that makes eating standing up a cinch. Except, there's plenty of well-shaded seating. Of course there is.
Thankfully, the party doesn't stop once you dig in. Each plump bite of the grilled shrimp taco is perfect, lovingly grilled in garlic butter and laid atop a thin toss of jack cheese. The chipotle sour cream on top is an indulgently creamy and spicy final touch. Meanwhile, the vegetarian taco might even be doing more to wow you than the shrimp. A thick pile of perfectly sautéed peppers, onions, a few spinach leaves and Portobello mushrooms are hit with the same chipotle sour cream and enough deep, funky spice to make you forget all about the meat you might have come for.
The other tacos work well, but aren't as good as the shrimp and vegetarian options. The carne asada is juicy and tender, but could use a dose more salt to really make the meat shine. That being said, a quick trip to the salsa bar for the mild verde and a kick from the diced white onions should have you right back on track. The additional cost of mango salsa really isn't worth it; too sweet and syrupy.
It's always nice to see success stories, and Soho Taco certainly has its own. They've found a price point and a cooking style that suits them well as they dash from event to event in Orange County. Put plainly: these are some phenomenal fancypants tacos less than an hour south of Los Angeles.
Rotating locations; sohotaco.com
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