This week, my beloved goddaughter, Lacey, was in town. She’s something of a pescatarian as her diet is almost entirely vegan, but she eats organic and sustainable fish. This makes for interesting restaurant and menu hunts for me whenever she’s in Laguna Beach. Fortunately, I remembered that Carmelita’s Kitchen in downtown Laguna on Broadway is an excellent source for organic and sustainable offerings.
It’s not often that Mexican restaurants cater to the organic mode, yet both La Sirena Grill and Carmelita’s provide an all-organic supply here in Laguna Beach. While I love La Sirena, in my opinion the Carmelita’s chefs offer up a more creative and lavish menu. Even their food presentation is stellar, and I’m often reluctant to dig into the beautiful artwork that arrives on each plate.
I like Carmelita’s ambience, too. With its rich woods and full wrap-around bar, Carmelita’s is a far cry from anything that’s occupied this “food court” space before. The place is impeccably clean and there is no shortage of great, friendly staff. The little restaurant can become loud during its prime service hours, but it’s a fun, boisterous kind of loud, and people seem to have a great experience here. I know I always do.
Spoilage Right From the Start
On Wednesday, Floor Manager Marcos greeted us with a wave and a smile. While we took our position at the windows behind the seated bar patrons to wait for a table, a busser hustled over with the Carmelita’s standard welcome mat – fresh, hot tortilla chips, with their “family recipe” black bean queso dip and a fresh salsa. He perched it on the windowsill for us, while a fellow busser came in right behind him with water glasses.
In short order, we were able to move to the bar itself, and ordered up my favorite margarita, the Basil & Cucumber Margarita, along with an appetizer order of the Shrimp Ceviche. For the record, all of the margaritas at Carmelita’s are basically “skinny” as Carmelita’s only uses agave and fresh juices. I’m a fan of their Partida and Grilled Pineapple Margaritas, too, but nothing tops the one I ordered – absolutely sublime!
The Shrimp Ceviche is a large serving for two, filed with plump shrimp and fresh fish and just a smattering of salsa, spices and limejuice with sliced avocado capping it all. It’s beautifully fresh and crunchy.
So far, the pescatarian is a happy girl.
Then, we moved to my favorite “table” the bar top right in front of the chefs’ cooking station. I flagged Marcos down again, and asked him about vegetarian offerings and specials.
He buzzed over to the expediting bar and came back with the evening’s “special” – a fantastic tortilla wrap stuffed with freshly grilled salmon avocado, lettuce and Monterey Jack cheese, and then topped with their “secret” aioli chipotle sauce. It came accompanied with a grilled Mexican Caesar Wedge Salad and white rice. Frankly, I don’t know how Marcos managed to hold the plate in one hand, as it was a sizable amount of weighty food. I took admiring photos but passed on ordering as the pescatarian and I had other plans.
Plenty for Vegetarians and Pescatarians
Carmelita’s Marcos spent a nice amount of time with us, walking through the menu options for vegetarians, and discussing the preparation for the various fish dishes they offer.
Carmelita’s offers a number of hefty salads and vegetarian dishes. Additionally, substitutions of grilled vegetables and sautéed spinach (in your choice of oil) and creative side dishes and sauces can easily stand in for many of the menu’s offerings.
Finally, we settled on their popular Spinach Enchiladas with a replacement side of grilled vegetables, and my favorite dish in the house, the Sea Bass.
No Worries – the Sea Bass is Still Being Offered (whew)
Initially when looking at the menu, I felt real panic set in as I didn’t see the sea bass menu item – titled Villa Rica – anywhere on the menu. Marcos assured me that the very same dish is always available as one of the “Fresh Fish” options each night, but that the chefs decided to add it to this generic category to allow for expanded fish dishes they’re testing and adding to the menu. All well and good as long as you know the Villa Rica is hidden there … because THIS is a dish you don’t want to miss!
Honestly, I know this town produces a number of great sea bass dishes in various restaurants, but I’m not sure that anyone can surpass the Carmelita’s sea bass. This is a pan-seared sea bass topped with “Salsa Verucizanna” (yet another secret family recipe). It is served with sides of vera cruz rice and sautéed spinach.
The menu explanation may not sound like anything above par, but this lightly charred chunk of sea bass arrives so flaky and tender that it’s a melt-in-your-mouth experience. The accompanying white rice mixed with seared corn has a lovely hint of mint, and the spinach tastes almost wood-smoked. The dish, as a whole, is amazing.
The Spinach Enchiladas proved a surprise as well, with a mother lode of perfectly sautéed spinach coddled in the Salsa Verucizanna, then wrapped in a steamed tortilla and topped with all sorts of salsa and substituted goodness (no cheese for us tonight). The dish was so flavorful and rich that it didn’t even seem like mounds of spinach … seems I need to go back to my own drawing board on how to sauté spinach properly.
For Meat Eaters in the House
For those of you with no interest in becoming a vegetarian or vegan, let me assure you that Carmelita’s serves up the very finest in every other kind of meat, too.
Be reminded that every dish at Carmelita’s is a gargantuan amount of food. Case in point: I brought in three girlfriends a few months ago, and we ordered the seemingly simple appetizer, Queso Fundido. We ended up with an enormous plank of cheese dips, sauces, fresh vegetables, freshly crisped tortilla triangles, fruits and more. We waddled out of there an hour later having only ordered that “starter” dish.
That being said, let’s discuss some other favorite dishes. Of course, Carmelita’s excels in fish dishes, and its Tacos Con Halibut is one of the best sellers on the menu. I’ve also tried the Lobster Chili Rellenos and the Enchilada De Mariscos (seafood) and, while I very much like all three dishes, it’s terribly difficult to give up that sea bass dish.
Truly one of Carmelita’s greatest achievements is its Tampiquerra. This magnificent creation is not for the timid. It’s a sheer tower of marinated, seared planks of prime steak stacked atop a cheese enchilada in red sauce with handmade guacamole on the side. It’s quite a tower to behold, and I’m glad I brought a friend along to share the plate.
The Carmelita’s Carnitas is a massive pile of the most succulent carnitas I believe I’ve yet tasted, and the Carmelita’s burritos, enchilada and chimichanga offerings must weight two pounds apiece. Even the restaurant’s awesome Steak and Mango Salad would struggle to fit in Paul Bunyan’s hand.
The “Food Court” That Turned the Corner
I’ve likely visited Carmelita’s 12 or so times, and not once have I been even mildly disappointed. Summer crowds flock to this cheerful place, so try the restaurant on a weekday or weeknight to minimize your wait time. (Even people with advance reservations will wait.)
Thanks to Camelita’s for finally bringing lasting, foodie flavor to that little corner of our Laguna Beach world. It’s been a long time coming.
Carmelita’s Kitchen is at 217 Broadway, Laguna Beach, 92651
A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.