Chef Rick Bayless was on the Charlie Rose Show talking about his eighth cookbook, Fiesta With Rick. He told my favorite TV host about the great honor which First Lady Michelle Obama extended to him in May, cooking in the White House kitchen alongside its staff preparing for the state dinner for Mexican President Calderon. "The First Lady and President were regulars at my Mexican restaurants in Chicago, so she knew what we could accomplish," he told Rose.
I must note that I have casually known Chef Bayless for many years, having eaten at his three restaurants on Clark Street whenever I was in Chi during the last two decades. A farm boy born in 1953 in Oklahoma City who began by cooking BBQ at his father's restaurant there, his life took an monumental change of direction when, at age 14, his family took him to Mexico. "I fell in love with the vitality and the energy of the place, so I began studying Spanish and Latin American culture with a passion. I got a PBS TV show called Cooking Mexican and never looked back." He once told me that he and wife Deann started a small catering company in Ann Arbor, and moved to Los Angeles and then Mexico. The publication in 1987 of his seminal book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico, began the merry-go-round. The first restaurant in Chicago, "Frontera Grill", specialized in contemporary regional Mexican food. The next year Food & Wine named him 'Best New Chef of 1989' and saw the debut of Topolobampo, a much more refined eatery which received a James Beard Award nomination, and in 1995 he received National Chef of the Year from them.
He now has an empire of Mexican-influenced projects... from radio and TV shows to a line of products and those eight cookbooks, as well as the title of TV's Top Chef Master in 2009, Several new restaurants have followed, but none of the upscale quality of Red O (8155 Melrose Ave, corner of Kilkea, where "Moustache" "Café and Chocolate" were, (323) 655-5009, LA 90046) which just opened here. It should be noted that Rick won't be cooking here himself on a regular basis, but he has done such a thorough, extensive training job on the culinary and service staff and on the menu he created, that it won't be noticed. Our waiter last night, William had served eight years at Ron Salisbury's Southwestern stalwart "onora Café and had undergone two weeks training with Rick's staff in Chicago, so he was smartly conversant with the intimate details of each dish... a rare and satisfying thing to experience. The two dynamic owners of the new restaurant, Mike Dobson and Rick Teasta, own a high-pressure oil service company called E-Z Lube based in Santa Ana, having met 20 years ago while working as doormen at the Red Onion in Redondo Beach (hence the name Red O). Rick created the menu and supervises the kitchen, which he has placed under the command of talented Chef Michael Brown, a veteran of the Patina Group and Wolfgang Puck's catering company.
My limited knowledge of Mexican food comes from a dozen visits to various regions of the country during my long lifetime, but when it comes to appreciating fine, authentic Mexican food, I learned more from Rick's endeavors in Chicago than many fancy meals at the District Federale in Mexico City. A parenthetical note: When Steve Ross was head honcho at Warner Bros., I was invited to fly down to the studios' Acapulco villa for a weekend during negotiations which resulted in Clint Eastwood starring in and directing (and taking over) my film project, Heartbreak Ridge. And in the fifties, I was the p.r. rep for a San Antonio businessman named Morris Jaffe who owned the early discount chain, FedMart; he and wife Jeanette brought me along on several jaunts to various places in Mexico; they also owned a vast villa in Mexico City and I often guested there to enjoy the peasant dishes which Jeanette loved. But it was in Chi at Rick's "Topolobampo" that I really learned to appreciate the enormous nuances and complexities of the food from the various districts of that wonderful country. (Yes, I did spend a week at Puerto Vallarta as Ray Stark's guest while he filmed Night of the Iguana with Elizabeth and Richard, but all I remember is the gallons of margaritas consumed day and night.) In my 50+ years of eating Mexican in L.A., what comes to mind is Ron Salisbury's wonderful "El Cholo" nights on Western Avenue and the blue corn tamales he sends me every May; The Two Hot Tamales, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, have always offered interesting Latin dishes at their various ethnic restaurants like "Ciudad"; a Oaxacan place called "Guelegetza" became a down-and-dirty favorite of mine for its complex molés made with 30 indigenous ingredients (including chocolate) imported from that district of Mexico. A visit to the legendary "La Serenata de Garibaldi" in East L.A. is an adventure not oft repeated, and recently Larry Nicola ("Nic's Martini Bar") has opened a pleasant place in Santa Monica Blvd.'s boys town called "Mexico" whose food is surpassed by its potent drinks.
Dining Patio of Red O
Which brings me to today, and what may have been one of the very best Mexican food adventures of my life. When my reviewing partner, Penny McTaggart, first walked into "Red O," she said in awe: "OMG, I've died and gone to Mexican heaven." (And this from a woman who has visited 130 countries in her adventurous life -- sophisticated beyond belief.) The place has been completely redone under the guidance of G+ Gulla Jonsdottir Design into a sexy Mexican concept of sensual savory heaven. David Rapoport pointed out that the large dining patio where we sat is like the courtyard in traditional Mexican homes, but the magic begins with a 14 foot chandelier under a retractable glass canopy, flanked by gossamer curtains and sliding garage-like windows (which will eventually open to the forthcoming dining patio in front.) The bar/lounge area in the rear, darker and even sexier, features a long communal table and several swing seats. A smaller bar/lounge off the main room is entered through a tequila tunnel lined with 166 bottles of that spirit. (My late friend, Martin Crowley, co-founder of Patron, would have appreciated the execution.)
Red O Guacamole
Red O's menu is very extensive, divided into several sections such as "Bright Bites" and "Savory Snacks." We picked a few from them, but concentrated on "Mexico's Celebrated Seven," always ordering far too much food but managing to sample it all. Consuming several versions of their strong, well-made Margaritas ($12-13) fueled the excess. While examining the menu, ask your server to bring the Classic Guacamole ($9), a white bowl of freshly-made avocado mix accompanied by warm chips and salsa. Chunky, with a mild bite and a citrusy finish, it is one of the better versions of this traditional dish. William, wisely, also brought a long plate of Grilled Mazatlan Blue Shrimp Tostaditas ($13), with fresh jicama chips. Surprisingly complex, the blue shrimps were just touched with a taste of roasted garlic. The online bloggers had alerted me to order the Alaskan Halibut Ceviche ($13). At first, I thought they had mistakenly brought us another dish of guacamole, since it looked similar... but a few bites of the chunky fish made it clear that this was very special in its own right. A "chimichurri" sauce added a bite to the fish.
Lamb Cazuelas is a hot pot pan of long-cooked meat and sauce
David and I are lamb-addicted, so at this point one of the major entrees appeared... it was so spectacular we knew that this evening was truly becoming a celebrated culinary event. Sonoma Country Lamb in Chile Colorado Cazuela for Soft Tacos ($14) was a dark pan of lamb morsels, rich juices, and black beans accentuated with garlic, chiles and cumin. It was absolutely delicious, especially spooned over the soft tacos which came fresh with almost every dish. (Made all evening long, I was told, by several Mexican women working non-stop in the kitchen.)
Cochinita Pibil is long-cooked pork, so delicious!
Naturally, we ordered the Pollo en Mole Poblano ($25), Mary's grilled young chicken, homemade molé poblano, black beans, watercress salad (which was untouched). Penny noted that this was a surprisingly large order of chicken, two substantial pieces of nicely-cooked but not overdone fowl. It was the mole which astonished and delighted me, a subtle, spicy smoky sauce with a lingering touch of... chocolate, yes, but also a chile I didn't recognize. It made Guelagetza's mole inadequite in comparison.
Queso Fundido with chorizo sausage!
Another signature dish was Cochinita Pibil ($29), chunks of Gleason Ranch suckling pig, achiote-marinated and slow-cooked in banana leaves, with pickled red onions and black beans. And since I love deep, cheesy flavors, our waiter suggested one of the Queso Fundidos ($8-9), this one with chorizo sausage. Oh my, this one was melted Vello Sonoma jack cheese, topped with sliced spicy chorizos. Spoon some on the warm tortillas and you are in heaven.
Benuelos... Mexican donuts, heavenly
There are many other interesting, even exciting choices to be had... and it will take several visits for you to explore it even a little. Pork Belly Sopes ($13), pieces of Gleason Ranch pork with a smoky-sweet blast of salsa negra atop small, round mounds of masa. There is also a fabulous short rib version of this dish; both are worth ordering, though the pork is more assertive in flavor. I'm not a big fan of taquitos, those crispy rolled tubes with various fillings; David liked the Slow-Cooked Sonoma Duck Taquitos ($11) more than me, but they are worth a taste. Oh, one more dish I really enjoyed: Tinga Poblana ($27), braised pork shoulder and belly, homemade chorizo, roasted tomatoes, smoked chipotle, Yukon Gold potatoes, avocado, queso fresco. But I like fatty chunks of meat, so it satisfied my inner madness.
Desserts are never neglected in any of Rick's restaurants. There are so many exciting choices you may come in for an evening just for them. Think Creamy Goat Cheese Cheesecake ($12), with caramel corn and a Mexican root beer sauce! The sharp flavor of the goat cheese contrasted nicely with the crunch of the corn. Veracruz-style Bunuelos ($12), fried dough fritters covered with a Kahlua chocolate sauce, served with caramel ice cream. Nothing more needs to be said. Sweet Golden Empanadas ($12) with wild strawberries and mangos. With mojito sorbet! Lots of flan and such. Good Mexican coffee.
Many years ago, when Rick lived in Los Angeles, he toyed with the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant here. Events took him elsewhere, but we are so fortunate now to have him return with this gem! May I suggest that you call and put your name on the long reservation list, wait impatiently for that evening (lunches to come shortly), and then enjoy the savory flavors of our neighbor to the south, courtesy of the great chef from Chicago!
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