Located in the historical Creamery complex, La Esquina Taqueria is bringing a new spin on Mexican cuisine to downtown San Luis Obispo.
The restaurant broke ground in December 2016, and opened in September 2017, said Leonard Cohen, who owns La Esquina and the adjacent Ciopinot restaurant with his wife, Wendy.
Just as she did with Ciopinot, Wendy Cohen has created an inviting interior space at La Esquina. For the new restaurant, she worked closely with Luna Rustica, a San Luis Obispo furniture store specializing in all manner of Mexican décor.
The high ceiling and tastefully rustic lighting fixtures give a sense of roominess to the cozy dining room.
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A few well-placed pieces of Mexican art complement the striking main focal point: a large, stylized metal fish skeleton hanging high on a wall above the dining area. Adding even more vibrancy to the stylish space is a subtle teal color echoed in everything from the wall and floor to the distinctively south-of-the-border glassware.
In addition to the main dining area, several spots at the bar offer front row seats to the open kitchen. You can watch the busy crew cooking dishes to order and the bartenders crafting margaritas with an array of fresh fruit-infused tequilas and mezcals.
Seating is also available on the covered patio, where heaters and blankets are available for chilly evenings.
The ambiance at La Esquina can get pretty lively during busy weekend dinners, but slower weeknight evenings typically offer a more relaxed experience.
Either way, you can settle in with a beverage and enjoy fresh, crispy tortilla chips with a trio of from-scratch salsas that run the gamut from mild to spicy.
“We’ve created a bright, fun vibe with really quality food,” Leonard Cohen said.
However, he’s the first to acknowledge that La Esquina doesn’t offer much of what most people might expect. “I love Mexican food, but this is my version of what I’ve really liked in Mexico,” he explained.
As such, La Esquina isn’t a place that relies on big combination plates with rice and beans as the workhorses. The overall taqueria concept is lighter, and depends on a nuanced approach to showcase the main ingredients.
Dungeness crab enchiladas are topped with a delicate from-scratch red sauce, and the Blue Point oysters Paulino are baked with a blended dollop of tequila, chipotle chili, spinach, asiago cheese and chorizo. In both dishes, the accompanying flavors accent the seafood without overpowering it.
Other favorites are shrimp tacos made with succulent large Mexican prawns and a spicy riff on steamers — clams sautéed with chorizo, onions, jalapeños, tequila, cilantro and chicken stock, then finished with garlic and butter.
While much of the La Esquina menu is seafood-centric, don’t pass up the al pastor tacos when they’re offered as a special. The vertically spit-roasted pork is frequently brushed with its own drippings, resulting in very tender, juicy and flavorful meat.
Meat lovers will also appreciate the flank steak used in the tacos and fajitas. The meat is aged in-house for three months.
It’s more expensive to use that technique, Cohen said, “but it’s night-and-day in terms of flavor.”
“We’re not trying to do a $2 taco,” he acknowledged. “Our tacos might be $7 to $10, but they’re going to be the best ingredients.”
Cohen emphasized that “it’s all about service” at La Esquina.
If that means going next door to Ciopinot for some bread so you can soak up that steamers broth, so be it. “We’re here for our customers,” he said.
La Esquina Taqueria
1049 Nipomo St., San Luis Obispo, in The Creamery complex
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. nightly.
The scene: A welcoming and often lively vibe, accented by deft touches of Mexican décor; indoor and outdoor seating available.
The cuisine: A lighter, seafood-centric spin on Mexican cuisine, all from-scratch and cooked-to-order. Beverages include draft beers, a food-friendly wine list featuring an intriguing mix of imports and margaritas hand-crafted with tequilas and mezcals infused with fresh fruit.
Expect to spend: Starters and tacos $7 to $22, entrées $13 to $20, margaritas $12.