Pasadena Magazine’s Restaurant Callout: Little Beast

*This article was originally published in Pasadena Magazine.

Eagle Rock partisans have long yearned for a place like Little Beast. Its ambiance, established by a reconverted 1911 bungalow with a homey patio on Colorado Boulevard, is unfussy and sets an ideal scene for catching up with a friend over a glass of a slightly obscure, yet affordable, white wine complemented by bites of wild salmon tartare. Or a romantic candlelight dinner ending with a mason jar full of chilled salty chocolate pudding. On a recent Tuesday night, every table at the small independent eatery was full, and the sound of convivial murmurs and clinking glasses was at full volume. Owner, chef and South Pasadena resident Sean Lowenthal, and his wife and partner, Deborah Schwartz-Lowenthal, knew the community was ready for their progressive American comfort food when the pop-up dinners they hosted down the street at Le Petit Beaujolais sold out, despite not doing any publicity. Lowenthal’s cooking chops, and his penchant for American modern cuisine, were honed during his two-year tenure working as Chateau Marmont’s sous chef. He’s split the menu into two sections: “Small Plates,” with fiercely seasonal things such as juicy, perfectly ripe peach slices served with a generous dollop of creamy burrata cheese, and “Mains,” entrees including plump seared scallops atop a bed of buttery roasted cauliflower puree. For beerheads and soda aficionados, there is an adequate assortment of craft beers on draft as well a couple of bottles of cool artisan pop. But it’s very much expected that most diners will take advantage of Little Beast’s uncommon wine list, a selection that may range from a $6 glass of tart, low-alcohol Vinho Verde to an intensely fruity glass of 2009 Sangiovese.

Scouting Report: Tijuana-Style Carne Asada Tacos at Carnitas “El Veneno” in East L.A.

Mesquite Grilled Carne Asada Just Waiting To Be Taco'd up and Devoured in East LA
Mesquite Grilled Carne Asada Just Waiting To Be Taco’d up and Devoured in East LA

*Originally published on LA Times Food’s Daily Digest Foodblog on September, 25 2013

Name of restaurant: Carnitas El Veneno. A weekend-only, nighttime food truck.

Concept: An old school taco truck from the neighborhood’s carnitas restaurant. It is only open on weekend nights in East Los Angeles, and specializes in Tijuana-style juicy carne asada tacos grilled with mesquite wood.

What dish represents the restaurant, and why? The Tijuana-style tacos de carne asada. A few things make these unique in the hazy world of East L.A. street tacos. First, their signature Tijuana trademarked cone design, wrapped tightly in wax paper not unlike an overstuffed Greek gyro or spicy tuna hand roll. This specific method of wrapping each taco is the only way these crisped-up pair of chewy tortillas can hold the excess of chopped, subtly smoky, juicy beef and Tijuana’s signature scoop of mashed up avocado — not the usual runny taqueria guacamole sauce. This is a delicate taco.

Runners-up:  Tacos de lengua doused in the restaurant’s Veneno spicy salsa. Their beef tongue is boiled for hours and then a heaping portion is briefly seared on the plancha right before taco-ing it up. It’s drizzled with a toasty salsa that accentuates lengua’s slightly offal, yet meaty texture and flavor.

Who’s at the next table? A very dedicated and loving wife who drove out on a Saturday night just to order 10 takeout tacos de asada con todo for her lucky husband, who stayed at home to watch the fight.

Appropriate for: The well-read taco enthusiast who abides by L.A.’s taco lifestyle and knows all about Baja California’s bountiful fresh food culture, but for one reason or another hasn’t made the trek down south yet.

Uh-oh: Both the salsas can be fiery. If you are sensitive, opt for poquita salsa nada mas (just a little bit) or just opt out. Also, the creamy guacamole paste is purposely unseasoned and benefits from a strong squeeze of lime.

Service: It’s a small operation that’s only been open for about six months. If there are a few people in front of you, be patient.

What are you drinking? Many aguas frescas are available inside the restaurant.

Info: 514 S. Indiana St., Los Angeles. (323) 264-4762. Open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. to midnight

Silver Lake is About to Get Duro! The Full Scoop on Ricardo Diaz’s New Taco Dorado Shop

Duros: A New Kind of Taco Dorado in Silver Lake
Duros: A New Kind of Taco Dorado in Silver Lake

 

*Originally appeared on LA Times Food’s Daily Digest Foodblog on September, 25 2013.

Ricardo Diaz continues to uphold his family’s legacy of Mexican food hospitality (Diaz’s family is responsible for L.A.’s quintessential Mexican seafood family restaurant franchise: El 7 Mares). Slated to open in four to six weeks near Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction is Diaz’s Duro, a joint project with his  brother-in-law Patrick Aguirre, former head baker at Bouchon Bakery in Napa; and his sister Stephanie Aguirre, responsible for the Michelin-rated La Taquiza Fish Tacos in Napa.

Duro will be a strictly taco dorado housewith a menu of about a dozen or so contemporary and classic takes on the folded-over crispy taco variety and the rolled-up flakyflautas. Each will be served with a different salsa and topping meant to highlight the filling, including smoked chipotle orange crema and even arugula on some tacos. The menu combines the experiences of Diaz’s refined homestyle classics and Aguirre’s fine dining skills. Expect fillings such as pickled pigs feet, a creamy brandade using a house-cured Mexican fish instead of the traditional salted cod, a duck guisado,Diaz’s homemade chorizos and veggie options such as Mexican spice-intensive sautéed garbanzos. And yes, there will be a chimichanga, though served with a spicy broth for dipping.

Keeping true to the chef’s passion for fresh craft beer, about four to eight rotating local craft beers will be on deck. Diaz is making a strong effort to bring in some of Mexico’s emerging craft breweries to L.A. Mexicali’s Cucapá is confirmed, and maybe a few beers from Ensenada Brewing Co. will be available.

This soon-to-be crispy taco haven is replacing the family’s restaurant at the 7 Mares complex, but its outdoor “La Playita” ceviche stand next to it will remain untouched because of its popularity among  old school and new school clientele.

The new eatery will seat about 50 and will have a “reclaimed” feeling to it. Meaning that its minimalist tables, chairs, rusted channel letters and simple counter will be reclaimed from the old 7 Mares restaurant. It will also be the first restaurant where Diaz displays some of his own “impressionistic human figure art,” in addition to some barrio-rooted murals. The name Duro translates to “hard” in Spanish and is not only a nod to the restaurant’s namesake crunchy antojito but to the hard-knockbarrio lifestyle of Diaz, who grew up in Highland Park, Boyle Heights and East L.A., and to Patrick Aguirre’s rough upbringing in Montebello.

Meanwhile, Diaz said that Chorizo Amor is a dream distant-future concept of a bigger house-made Mexican sausage and beer company, but for now he’s focusing on Duro, his newly opened Colonia Taco Lounge and Bizarra Capital in deep Eastern Los Angeles.

‘Hood Clichés Meets Hipster Food Culture at Kitchensurfing’s Preview Dinner in Venice, a Guest Post and Review by My Older Brother Rojelio Cabral

The following story was written by my older brother Rojelio Cabral. It documents his experiences while eating at a dinner hosted by Kitchensurfing–a chef dispatching catering/pop-up hybrid service of sorts–in Venice. I’ll save you guys the embarrassment of browsing through my old cheesy, grammar nightmare (yes, even more than now) “early years” archive of food writing in 2006 and let you guys know that he basically is responsible for The Glutster. He started taking me out to restaurants and showing what’s up with good food, both fine dining in the Westside and hole-in-the-wall regional Asian in the SGV, in 2005.

If interested in finding out more about him, his art, his work and his influential LA graffiti history impact, check out his fancy new website: Rocreate.com . Or his gallery, on 50mm Los Angeles.

 

Arrival.
A private home in the Venice triangle, Venice’s most desired real estate, tucked between Abbot Kinney and Grand Blvd. Chic start.
Entering, I spied the chefs preparing purple-y suction goodness –partial to octopus I am. Initial impression = promising.

Stars of the night (in order):
Lamb Chops with a pistachio, mint, basil pesto. Excellently grilled.
Polenta patty, or cake, whichever –the base looked like an orange, cut in rings– grilled, piled with baby broccoli, pine nuts, currants and splashed with balsamic vinegar.
Pavlova –a meringue, a dollop of lemon curd, cream and a sliver of fig topped with a blueberry, and other seasonal fruits.

Dark. Dining.
Credit awarded to the organizers, who decided to take advantage of the pleasant Venice night, and deck, and moved the dining outdoors.
De-credited for the poor lighting –er, no lighting.
“Ugh, I can’t see what I’m eating!” became the common refrain of the night. Although a candle was brought onto the food table toward the end, better than never, the darkness was frustrating enough to distract. I come from visual-dominant ilk and flavors enter through the eyes first. A wow moment missed indeed.

Back to the food.
Despite the murk, the eats delicious and the textures sumptuous.
[Except for the chicken, with house made BBQ sauce, which tasted bland (?!). Inexplicably. Though it was succulent.]
There was an Orzo concoction, um Summer Salad, impressive in it’s range of flavors and a Crispy Chorizo with pomegranate bursts (and chicory) that was bright and remarkable. The (Firecracker) Shrimp on a skewer was above par in its sushi-like mouth feel, though cooked. Yummy, but neither sweet nor spicy as billed. Go figure.

The folk.
Didn’t like that they had canned Modelo beers, for hipster purposes. It is possible that the organizers were thinking cost-effectiveness, in contrast to the model home. However, I heard more than one attendee –too comfortably, almost flippant– claim some for slumming hipness factor. Modelo beer may be cool, but the way these guys and gals were handling it as über cool was decidedly not cool.

Stranger still, two otherwise nice guests too casually share “Where are the gangsters? Pfft, I came to Venice because [the dangerous lowlife element] keep the riff-raff out. A murder (they might’ve said ‘killing’) or two keeps it real.” Riff-raff, she explained, referred to the affluent.
The comment may be true. A hood-bred person could get away saying as much. If you’re a seemingly well-bred, uppity bougie, in PR, meeting new people, it comes off as callous and in bad taste.

Keeping it classy, I kept my offense –and I don’t get offended– to myself. People can say what they want. I’m a fan of agreeing to disagree. It’s only civil.

Kitchensurfing.com soft launched a service. They’ll dispatch chefs, for one or many, to home or office, or wherever needed to prepare a meal. Since their service is not about handling the décor, the food being rather worthy, they can be forgiven for the lighting.

LA Times Scouting Form: Casa Oaxaca

A Vegetarian Oaxacan Tlayuda "Pizza" crisped up with toasted crushed pepita and olive oil.
A Vegetarian Oaxacan Tlayuda “Pizza” crisped up with toasted crushed pepita and olive oil.

*Originally appeared on LA Times Food’s Daily Digest Foodblog on September, 18 2013.

Name of restaurant: Casa Oaxaca.

Concept: A popular mom-and-pop Orange County export specializing in refined, lighter and very affordable interpretations of traditional regional Oaxacan cuisine, in Culver City. Plenty of veggie and seafood options. Patio dining is available too.

Chef: Rojelio Martinez. A native of Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca — a pueblito in the valley of Oaxaca located not too far from the capital. It means “the humid place” in the Zapotec dialect. He’s worked many positions at restaurants all of his life but just recently tapped into the world of cooking, four years ago to be exact. He’s not a trained chef but is a natural at technique (a perfect example are his tortillas, worth the visit alone) and balancing various flavors and textures.

What dish represents the restaurant, and why? Tlayuda vegetariana with dry roasted meaty mushrooms and briny unpasteurized Oaxacan string cheese. Where most Oaxacan restaurants use traditional and ultra tasty asiento (freshly rendered Oaxacan toasted lard), chef Martinez saw the current healthier food trend and responded with a faux-asiento made with olive oil and toasted ground pepita pumpkin seeds. The result? A Oaxacan pizza of sorts that is crispy on the edges and slightly chewy in the middle.

Runner-ups: Ceviche de camarón on toasted – not fried – handmade thick mini-tostadas. The plump chopped fresh shrimp is enjoyably acidic and nicely seasoned. Pescado en hoja de platano for its buttery and tart flake perfumed with the aroma of the roasted banana leaf. Ask for their tempura-style flor de calabaza stuffed with quesillo. It’s served in a pool of earthy huitlacoche mole and topped with a strand or two of chepiche, a peppery and pungent Oaxacan herb. Dessert-wise, there are custardy-ripe torched plantains in a smoky mezcal sauce with toasted pecans.

Who’s at the next table? A few couples having an early Monday dinner and a handful of solo diners going to town on a plate of mole negro.

Appropriate for: Whenever that Oaxacan craving hits you hard on the Westside, or if you’re looking for something a little different when dining out in Culver City. Casa Oaxaca is walking distance from the area’s hub of restaurants and a spot on the patio is usually available.

Uh-oh: No alcohol yet, bro.

Service: Let’s just say you can really tell that the staff is passionate about sharing their Oaxacan food love with you.

What are you drinking? Agua frescas! A sweet and sour passionfruit orange combination that is topped with a scoop of passionfruit Mexican sorbet, a Oaxacan style horchata topped with toasted pecans and cactus fruit sorbet and last but not least, a lightly sweetened cucumber-lime water with chia seeds. All lined with that addictive dried chile-salt tajin rim used for margaritas and micheladas.

Info: 9609 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, (310) 838-3000.

Sonny’s Hideaway in Highland Park: York Boulevard Just Came Up!

Crispy grilled octopus at Sonny's Hideaway
Crispy grilled octopus at Sonny’s Hideaway

*Originally published on Pasadena Magazine

York Boulevard in Highland Park is quickly becoming a haven for serious dining in Northeast Los Angeles. Walk into the newest addition, Sonny’s Hideaway, and see for yourself. From the outside, it’s just another virtually signless establishment along the strip, but the inside is an elegant surprise. Dimly lit vintage chandeliers reflect golden light off the small dining room’s crimson leather booths and dark wood-paneled walls, setting a mood that’s appropriate for the place’s offerings. The menu takes a slightly Mediterranean approach to dishes that are deeper than they seem.

The chef is Jimmy Everett, an unassuming 28-year-old veteran of the New York fine dining scene. He’s worked in some of America’s most respected restaurants, including wd-50, Eleven Madison Park and Marea. What this means is that your platter of Manila clams will be sustainable and steamed with smoked grape broth instead of white wine, and a seemingly simple dish of ricotta dumpling pasta just might make you a regular. And thanks to the Highland Park rent, no dish will be over $20.

There’s more: Your cocktail will be just as carefully tended to as the food, with libations such as bar manager J. Kelly O’Hare’s overproof punch, made with East India Sherry, cognac and freshly grated nutmeg. For dessert, there will be spiced pear cobbler with buttermilk ice cream and bourbon caramel, or orange custard with dark chocolate sorbet and cocoa soil. The restaurant is a joint project by Derek Lyons and his partner Ryan Ballinger, the owner of the successful York bar, just down the street, so expect to be dining side-by-side with cool locals. This neighborhood wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hook it up! A ticket giveaway to Viva Mezcal documentary screening and tasting at Guelaguetza tomorrow

Mezcal, Mezcal, Mezcal
Mezcal, Mezcal, Mezcal

Thanks to L.A.’s own Oaxacan princess who has recently doubled as the culinary curator for this year’s HOLA MEXICO Film Festival, Bricia Lopez. The Glutster is giving away a pair of tickets to tomorrow’s screening of Viva Mezcal at Guelaguetza. Yes, this is the same event that I wrote about for LA Weekly with free-flowing Mezcal and food cooked by Oaxacan chef Rodolfo Castellano.


Viva Mezcal ® (Fragmento) / Viva Mezcal ® (Fragment) from pedro jimenez gurria on Vimeo.

To enter, all you gotta do is leave a comment telling me the name of a type of agave that is used to make any type of mezcal in Mexico. To keep with the theme, Blue Agave doesn’t count!

One winner will be randomly chosen tomorrow at 11 a.m.

Cheers, suerte!