Laguna Beach has always had its share of Mexican Restaurants and it probably has more now than ever before. Some are good. Some are not so great. But we’ve always felt that there is not enough difference between them (other than price) to make any one stand out from the others—until now. I’ll be honest….when Carmelita’s opened last September in the old Crab Zone location, I said “Just what we need, another Mexican Restaurant.” And, therefore, we did not rush to check it out until we started seeing the customer reviews, which have been about 90% five-star.
We don’t believe in reviewing restaurants on their busiest night. For that matter, we just don’t go to restaurants on their busiest night whether we’re there for a review or not. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that we almost always visit a new restaurant on a weeknight, and therefore your experience on a busy weekend will very likely be somewhat different from what we experienced. We visited Carmelita’s early on a Monday evening in January and we were the first table patrons of the evening. A few barflies had already attached themselves to the bar and most were still there when we left. Let me tell you right off the bat, the service at Carmelita’s is alarmingly attentive. There is certainly no shortage of staff and you could very well end up with your own personal waiter. Our waiter Mario spent his first five minutes with us giving a brief history of the “chain” and describing their most popular dishes in great detail. Some customer reviews have dissed this service model as annoying. We found it refreshing and efficient, making our selection process quicker and much easier.
Mario took our order for two house margaritas, and chips with salsa and a wonderful bean dip came almost immediately thereafter. We also ordered Carmelita’s popular guacamole. We’re not big fans of guacamole as a rule, but Carmelita’s version, with bits of plantain and mango, was exceptional. Despite attempts to limit ourselves, we ended up eating way too much of these appetizers.
As usual, my husband chose a seafood dish for dinner, Wild Mexican Prawns, and I chose what I thought would be more classic Mexican fare, pork Carnitas. Both of these Carmelita’s dishes have received high marks on the customer reviews sites, and we soon found out why. My husband said the prawns were fresh and tender, with a wonderful garlic butter sauce. He was given the choice of a more spicy style sauce, but he is not a fan of heat and even found the mild garlic sauce a bit too spicy (which greatly confused Mario). The pork Carnitas were unlike anything I’ve ever had, super tender with a crisply carmelized outer coating. I ended up eating it more like pork roast, dipping forkloads of shredded meat into the spectacular Salsa Quemada it was served with. (Definitely too spicy for my husband, but right up my alley.) About half of the huge portion came home with me. Although we were both stuffed, Mario tempted us with Carmelita’s Tres Leches dessert, which we planned to just taste and take the balance home. We ended up finishing it off with a second margarita (which went surprisingly well with the sweet cake).
Bottom line: We felt the service was flawless and the food was exceptional. We can’t guarantee that everyone will have the same experience, but unless we just got lucky that Monday night, we think Carmelitas Laguna Beach is the best Mexican restaurant in the area. Does it have the atmosphere or people-watching qualities of Javier’s or Las Brisas? Of course not. But for quality of food and service, it beats those popular high-end establishments hands down. The menu is so varied and extensive I won’t attempt to discuss it in detail here. Check out the website menu to get a general idea.
Carmelitas Laguna Beach is located at 217 Broadway St. just east of the intersection with Pacific Coast Highway. Parking is where you can find it. We always have luck in the lots or street parking on Ocean Avenue. Carmelitas is a family owned chain, with additional restaurants in Rancho Santa Margarita and in the Sacramento area. They have a number of websites, which can be confusing. The site for the Laguna Beach location is Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico.