Southern California is home to a host of cultures and cuisines, and nothing reflects this more than the new Centro Collective, a collaboration between CUCINA enoteca alums Chefs Chad Urata and Brent Omeste. What is unique about Centro is that the restaurant is separated into two, on the left, you have hearty, tasty tacos, and on the right, there is gourmet pizza, as well as soups, salads, and other carby delights.
We begin on the pizza side, and there are so many delectable choices to select from. There are six to eight pizza toppings on any given day, as well as Soup ($3.50/$6.50) which, on the day of our visit, were potato and leek, and a tomato bisque.
My son is seriously into the Cheesy Garlic Rotolini ($2.50/3pcs) deliciously soft rolls filled with gooey cheese and lots of garlic.
Of course, we want to eat everything, and we do! There are several meatless options including Margherita ($2/$3.50/$18), a classic cheese, tomato and basil pizza.
The Wild Mushroom ($2.50/$4/$20) pizza is one of my favorites, and is another vegetarian item for those not wanting meat.
I’m not a fan of pineapple on my pizza, however, Coppa & Pineapple ($3/$5/$24) is absolutely agreeable on my palate. The pineapple is charred whole, then thinly sliced, giving the slice a hint of smoky sweetness. Paired with the spicy coppa, and garnished with jalapeno discs, it creates a spicy sweet finish which lingers magnificently after each bite.
For full-on meat lovers, there’s the Amatriciana ($2.50/$5/$24) a delicious offering topped with tomatoes, red onions, pancetta, black pepper and pecorino cheese.
On the flip side is Centro Collective Taqueria serving up gourmet tacos which many OC chefs have given the thumbs up to. There are currently six tacos to choose from, but before you even start digging into the tacos, order the Chips & Guacamole ($4) served with some of the best tortilla chips ever!
There is something for everyone here, from meat to seafood, and a vegetarian thrown in for good measure. Every taco is tasty, however, Chicken Carnitas ($3.50) stands out emphatically because I have never experienced carnitas using chicken before. I am slightly skeptical purely because I am not able to wrap my head around it, however, the chicken is fantastic, with enough crispiness to create a delightful contrast in my mouth. There is chayote escabeche, radish, smoked cashew salsa, and epazote, that magical herb which embodies the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine.
Meat lovers may indulge in the Braised Short Rib ($4.50) taco with sofrito peppers, salsa verde, lime crema, crispy onion, and cilantro.
Or alternatively, Pork Belly “Al Pastor” ($4) an unctuous and well rendered protein, coupled with a medley of grilled pineapple, pickled onion, avocado crema, jalapeno, and cilantro is packed with flavor which Hawaiians might refer to as “broke da mouf” good.
Looking for seafood? Tamarind Glazed Shrimp ($4) is a modern take on the classic shrimp taco. There is cabbage and avocado, but my favorite ingredient is the chicharron de camaron, a house-made shrimp chip which is to-die-for. It reminds me of krupuk (Indonesian shrimp chip) but it’s 100 times better! I’d order this taco JUST for the chip!
My go-to is always fish tacos, and the Beer Battered Fish ($4.50) taco here is solid. The fish is battered ever so lightly and fried to perfection. The white fish is moist and flaky and the chipotle Caesar salad accompaniment adds a splendid level of flavors. My only complaint is that the lettuce is bulky – maybe shredding it will be better? – making it difficult to eat without bits of salad falling out. I would prefer a more cohesive mouthful every time I bite into it. Just me nitpicking, that’s all!
Perhaps one of the most creative tacos on the menu is Mushroom & Zucchini ($3.50) which sees a vegetarian taco topped with chicharron de queso, a crispy cheese tuille enveloping squash blossoms and a stalk of green onion. The flavor and texture profiles are clever indeed, and will appeal to carnivores as well as non-meat eaters alike.
Kudos to Chef Brent and Chef Chad. Centro Collective is thoughtful and percipient. For instance, I had no clue I’d like chicken carnitas, or that I could fall in love with a shrimp chip like the chicharron de camaron. Out-of-the-box thinking is what propels these two young chefs to higher ground. I’m excited to follow their journey for years to come.
24531 Trabuco Rd
Lake Forest, CA 92630