Last February, Palm Springs’ King’s Highway diner at the Ace Hotel changed direction when award-winning Taco Maria chef Carlos Salgado redesigned the menu. Inspired by his Alta California cooking style and childhood memories of visiting the Coachella Valley, the burgers and tacos have seen a major reboot. Standouts include the Cortez the Killer burger, with three Wagyu patties and oxtail jus; the mushroom “chorizo” tacos from Taco Maria; and a club sandwich, which Salgado admits is his favorite. We talked to Salgado about his new project with King’s Highway, and what “real” Mexican food actually means.
What is “Alta California” cuisine?
There has been a sort of a movement among younger Latino chefs — Mexican chefs throughout Mexico, and Mexican-Americans here in California — who are sort of exploring the limits and the creatively established notions of Mexican food. If I can speak for some of the younger and progressive chefs of Mexico, they are exploring and redefining what modern Mexican cuisine is in a global context. We’ve maintained a dialogue among us about certain ingredients or heirloom tortillas or about the challenges of putting forward a different style of Mexican food in this country.
The “designer taco” trend has kind of divided people on what authentic Mexican food is. What are your thoughts on that? Are designer tacos real Mexican food?
The very question “Is this real Mexican food?” is logically flawed to begin with. How do you define that? Mexican chefs have been putting unusual things in tortillas for a very long time and Mexican-Americans here in the United States have been doing the same.
When you grow up in a Mexican immigrant household, you might order Chinese food and then you’ll think nothing of your dad warming up some tortillas so that he can have his kung pao chicken in a tortilla and pour some habanero salsa on top. And he’s Mexican, we’re in a Mexican household and we eat everything with tortillas, so what is real?
The other thing is, in Mexican culture and our cuisine, we eat everything with tortillas. In Mexico you'll find tacos at stalls and stands but what you won't find generally is, your mom and dad aren’t going to serve tacos for a family dinner. We’re going to serve meat, braised meat like guisado, the same name of one of L.A.'s beloved restaurants. You eat it with a tortilla, you may make it into a taco. It’s a utensil.
The question itself is irrelevant because using a tortilla as a vessel for anything you’re eating is fundamental in Mexican cuisine.
The King's Highway menu has influences from the Coachella Valley. Can you talk more about these influences? What does the Coachella Valley bring to the table, literally and figuratively?
We're trying to make creative and respectful use of local agricultural products: dates, desert citrus, cactus and other succulents. There's the local date and onion jam on our new burger, Cortez the Killer. You'll see the full spectrum of citrus on the menu, from blood oranges with marinated beets, Meyer lemons in our Caesar dressing, and Coachella Valley grapefruit in our cocktails. We use aloe liqueur in another, and we have a cactus salsa garnishing our carnitas tacos.
Cortez the Killer: Can you tell me how the burger came to be and about its name?
One of my favorite Neil Young songs is “Cortez the Killer,” which talks about European conquests in the United States and the decimation of native cultures. So I wanted to insert a little tongue-in-cheek criticism, I guess, into a big, shameless, no-limits, indulgent burger. Maybe in the spirit of like, you know, the Trois Mec one. And we just wanted something that was really savory, over the top, nothing green on the burger and ultimately very delicious. I wanted to do it with a really well-made brioche bun, really delicious Wagyu beef, but not sort of try to reinvent the burger. The idiazabal cheese is sort of a Spanish flag of conquest in between each of the patties.
What are the main differences between King's Highway and Taco Maria?
One of the really exciting things about working on King's Highway's menu is the context is very different than what we’re doing at Taco Maria. Taco Maria is a very personal restaurant, my voice telling the story about my heritage coming from a Mexican-American family. At Ace, what's very exciting is I’m a Mexican-American chef and my identity is important to me. At the same time I’m well versed in a range of cuisine, and I love every type of cuisine. And it's an exciting opportunity to do food that’s outside of a particular cultural identity. What chef doesn’t get excited about the prospect of making his or her version of the best fried chicken or a delicious burger? Don’t let any intellectual progressive chef tell you that those things aren’t among their favorite foods as well.
You completely changed the breakfast burrito on the menu. What makes a good breakfast burrito? I'm sure it's popular with hungover guests at the Ace.
I actually drank a lot the night before I wrote that recipe … just kidding. Sort of a Method recipe development. What makes a great breakfast burrito is good eggs, good butter, well-done breakfast potatoes, a good amount of nice and gooey cheese and a flavorful salsa. The one thing people don’t know is we have a secret menu item, our salsa negra. The same one we serve tableside on request at Taco Maria. It's a very spicy, oil-based fried chili salsa with black garlic. And that’s, like, the perfect thing to spoon over your breakfast burrito and get those endorphins going in the morning after a night of partying.
And what about the avocado toast? What's your take on avocado toast as an entree?
Why not? I have avocado toast sometimes for breakfast, sometimes for a late-night dinner. Many times a week. Many things we like to deride as being hipster. I don’t see the problem with it. My line is that, if drinking a carefully crafted, responsibly sourced coffee in a well-styled little shop put together by young entrepreneurs, and built with reclaimed wood by a local young craftsman — if that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right. If eating a slice of artisan bread toasted in nice, organic butter and served with avocado, if that’s wrong, then we’re going backward.
Any plans for King’s Highway to be at Coachella this year?
At the moment, I couldn’t tell you. We’re focused on finishing our transition and making sure that the new menu is well rehearsed and consistently as good as we promised. But we will have special events at the Ace during Coachella and the other festivals. One of the great things about King’s Highway and the Ace in general is we can have a lot of fun with the menu, so we look forward to having a taco cart or a ceviche cart out by the pool, so people can have a michelada or seafood cocktail and have street-style tacos and have a big pool party.
You’ve been going to the desert for a long time. Are there any local Mexican places that you especially like in the area?
I’m going to be real with you. As long as I’ve been traveling to the desert, I’m not sure I’ve had Mexican food out here. We always cooked at home. But since coming here I’ve gotten a lot of recommendations and I can’t wait to try them out.
I know there is a large immigrant community in Palm Springs. You see Mexican immigrants are really central in the hospitality industry here. I have to believe there are little mom-and-pop shops doing good work and regional cuisines in the immigrant community, so I look forward to discovering those.
What do you see for the culinary future of the Coachella Valley?
I hope it's driven by the young cooks who have deep ties to this place. I'd love to see more restaurants here, and everywhere, that draw on the spirit of the community, its history and its geography.
701 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. (760) 969-5789, kingshighwaydiner.com.