It’s Not Just What’s On the Inside that Counts
Flour or corn tortillas? This is the choice facing most taco lovers as they place their orders at the counter or with their waiter. For me it’s pretty simple, I like carnitas and al pastor on a corn tortilla, but prefer flour tortillas for chicken or asada. Anything else, and it’s a simple coin flip to decide. Well, put the change back in your pocket, because a coin toss isn’t going to cut it at Cecilia’s Tortilla Grill. At Cecilia’s they make all their tortillas, flour and corn, fresh on the premises. But they go a step further. In addition to traditional tortillas, you also have three different flavors to choose from: Lime Cilantro, Jalapeno, and Chipotle, all blended into the tortilla dough and heated to perfection right before your eyes when you place an order. The choices for ordering tacos has never been so varied… nor so complicated.
The Lay of the Land
Cecilia’s Tortilla Grill is an independent fast casual Mexican restaurant and tortilleria serving a variety of Mexican classics such as tacos, burritos and enchiladas for lunch and dinner. They also offer a variety of breakfast items ranging from chilaquiles and huevos rancheros to pancakes and scrambles. You can also purchse packages of their hand made tortillas to take home to wrap your own tacos and burritos, as well as selling their fillings in bulk packages.
Located west of I-5 on the corner of La Paz and MacIntyre in Laguna Hills, Cecilia’s is owner run and operated and the odds are you will run into Cecilia when you eat there. She’s friendly, and makes periodic checks on the dining room to ensure her customers are happy.
Orders are placed at the counter, and there are plenty of options and toppings choices, so it’s helpful to see what you are selecting. But before you do that, take a look at the big picture windows on the left wall when facing the counter or in the dining room and see if you can catch a peek of the tortilla making process in action. We love seeing how things are made, and if they are whipping up a batch, you may want to stake out a seat near the action so you can watch while you eat.
The maximum occupancy sign states the occupancy limit at 69, a quick count of the chairs showed there weren’t even that many chairs, and the few times we have visited we’ve seen the restaurant operating at a comfortably full capacity. In other words, all of the tables were utilized at one time or another, but turnover was fast enough that no one ever found themselves waiting for a seat to open up. There is also patio seating available outside.
One of the things we like about Cecilia’s, is that you can customize your taco in almost any conceivable configuration imaginable with a plethora of fixings and there is no upcharge for any of them except the guacamole. At the Taco Tuesday price of $1.99 each for pulled pork or grilled veggie tacos, that’s a Hell of a bargain. But even at the everyday 2/$5 price, it’s still a deal. Where else can add grilled veggies to your taco, essentially turning your plain taco into a fajitas taco… with sour cream… on a freshly made flavored tortilla… at a better price? We haven’t found it yet. And if you prefer traditional street style tacos, feel free to stick to cilantro, onions and a wedge of lime, they have that covered as well. Of course the flip side of so many choices, is that if you don’t like your creation, you really have no one to blame but yourself.
If pulled pork or veggie tacos aren’t your thing, you can upgrade to other fillings for an additional fee: add .50 for grilled chicken, .75 for charbroiled steak, and $1 for grilled mahi mahi. Those prices have also been discounted for Taco Tuesday, they are double that any other day of the week.
So, all of these choices at Cecilia’s can create confusion at the counter… especially if you fail to read and follow basic instructions like we did. You’ll be tempted to walk up to the counter and ask for a taco in the traditional way:
“I’ll have a puled pork taco on a lime cilantro tortilla.”
Read the instructions! All they care about at the first station when you walk up to place your order is what kind of tortilla you want: burrito or taco size, corn or flour, and flavor. Keep in mind that on Taco Tuesday, flour is not an option for your tacos. This is where we failed, and the face of the gentleman helping us grew increasingly frustrated as we move down the line. If you get this part down, you’ll only have the confusion of what to put on your taco to deal with making a much happier and less confusing experience for you, the staff, and the people in line behind you.
Since these tacos offer so many choices, it’s really not fair to compare them to traditional tacos, at least not the way we ordered them. So, we will talk about the basic components of each individually and the next time we visit, we’ll order something more basic.
Charbroiled Steak Taco
I ordered the charbroiled steak taco on a chipotle flavored tortilla, with grilled veggies, Monterey jack cheese, mild salsa and sour cream. It was quite the pleasant mess as the tortilla struggled to maintain integrity until the last bite. But it did. Barely. The other thing that chipotle flavored tortilla did was add a little unexpected kick to the taco. And this was a welcome event because…
Notice it’s called charbroiled steak, not carne asada. It is flank steak, but that is where the similarities end. The beef does have a nice charbroiled flavor, but that’s it. No secret seasoning that qualifies it as asada lurking under a gringo name. And that’s fine if you like charbroiled steak on your tacos. But it’s not our first choice for a steak filled taco. We like experiencing the different blends of seasonings that chefs have created or have been passed down generation after generation until someone finally decided to share their family’s home cooked secret recipe so the whole world could enjoy. But maybe that unique seasoning experience would be lost amongst the competing flavors of all the toppings being offered and the flavored tortillas. It is called Cecilia’s Tortilla Grill and maybe that’s where the focus is intended to be.
Pulled Pork Taco
There’s nothing worse than ordering carnitas, and discovering what’s inside your taco is nothing more than pulled pork. So we’re glad Cecilia’s doesn’t try to put lipstick on a pig and calls it like it is: pulled pork. The pork is kept simmering in its own juices, so it doesn’t get dried out like a lot of other taco places. However, this does make it more challenging for the tortilla to maintain its integrity, especially after adding the same fixings that were ordered on the charbroiled steak taco. As with the charbroiled steak taco, there was no outstanding seasonings to wow the taste buds and once again, the fillings and toppings were tasked with winning over our palates.
This time a cilantro lime tortilla was chosen to contain the filling and all the fixin’s. I’d have to say adding the grilled veggies, mild salsa, Monterey jack and sour cream definitely overpowered the tortilla flavor this time as there was no distinguishable benefit of having the flavored tortilla in this combination. But that didn’t stop me from shoveling every last bit into my mouth, even the parts that fell out as the tortilla began to disintegrate into smaller and yet smaller pieces at the very end.
Beyond the Tacos
Pepsi products are available at the soda fountain as are an assortment of aguas frescas in a separate fountain on the adjoining counter. There is an assortment of local bottled beers in addition to Negra Modelo, Corona and Bud Light. Margaritas and wines are available as well.
There are three kinds of salsa, mild green, medium red and a roast hot pepper sauce. They as well as the pico de gallo, limes, cilantro and onions are kept in the taco prep station to be applied by the preppers instead of in a salsa bar so you can better control how much you put into your taco.
Should You Go to Cecilia’s Tortilla Grill for Taco Tuesday?
We’ve been doing Taco Tuesdays for nearly two years now, and we have yet to find anybody offering anything remotely close to what Cecilia’s has on its menu. The fresh made flavored tortillas and the robust selection of toppings truly makes Cecilia’s Tortilla Grill a unique dining experience, and with such reasonable pricing we have to recommend it. No, the fillings aren’t traditionally seasoned, but you could come back to Cecilia’s again and again mixing up the toppings, fillings and tortilla choices and not have the same taco again for months. And with those kind of choices, the odds are you’re going to find something that will make your mouth happy and your belly full despite the lack of spices in the filings. After eating here two or three times, you’ll have the instructions down on how to order as well and then you’ll be ordering like a pro, avoiding the congestion, frustration and awkwardness at the counter… at least until you get to the toppings choices. But don’t worry. The people behind you won’t be moving through this part of the assembly line any quicker either.
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