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.

MoKo (Culver City): The Inevitable Post

Why “inevitable” you ask?

Well, this is the first comped (partially) meal review piece I decided to happily write since that whole LA Weekly “Meet your Blogger” drama that happened more than a year ago.

I like to think as that experience as my personal christening celebration into mature, realistic food writing actually. It opened my eyes to the capitalistic dangers of food blogging, well actually, it just taught me to be hell’a more careful with the words I choose to use during a recorded interview.

Naturally, it took me a while to deal with this. I decided to take a comped-meal sabbatical for about a year. I was traumatized, not even opening some of the many invites I would get daily. But I knew that I had to reflect deeply and establish my own very set of concrete writing ethics if I was going to get anywhere in this relentless career, ethics that I would follow for the rest of my life.

Well, I faced them, meditated on them and finally–found them.

As a budding, full-time student food writer that solely depends on financial aid and scarily haphazard freelancing stipends (yes, that still lives with his parents too) , sure a free feast sounds downright divine sometimes. But, recently, I have been learning to finally–prioritize my life. Well trying my hardest anyways (hey! I have a whiteboard now, ok?!). The more I do this, the more I realize, that a free meal with free expensive booze and luxury ingredients just isn’t worth it for me sometimes, especially as I dig my unique food writing niche deeper with every article I publish.

Don’t get me wrong, like the late DC 80’s Hardcore Punk band, Minor Threat sang, “[This} ain’t the first, I hope [this] ain’t the last, because I know we are all heading to that adult crash!!”

I will still do them. But, as with any other thing that you do too much and eventually becomes unhealthy–with moderation. After all, isn’t that the reason why food blogger’s continue dedicating hours and hours of their time to writing? To spread the news of good food? To bring appreciation to the proud, few, fierce people who work seven days a week sometimes, for the sake of good food and drink?

Thanks to Eddie Hah of Biergarten for pushing me until I finally tackled and assessed this personal conflict, and also for inviting me out to this. Now without further adieu, I give you my unabashed review of moKo in Culver City.

moko 1
moKo as you walk in

So, when a chef that names a burger after you invites you out to dinner, YOU SAY YES, no matter what. And because you are dining with a chef, you know that the dinner will not be a question of whether to indulgence or not but more a question of much indulgence will be partaken in that particular evening. I was excited–I had eaten fruit all day too–so was ready.

moKo (short and hip for Modern Korean) is pretty new but it is certainly not unpopular in the foodblogging circle of LA, it’s been a pretty hot topic actually amongst my colleagues. When it all boils down though, there really is only one way to truly find out if a restaurant is “worth it” or not, remember? Go find out for yourself!

So we all know that the space use to belong to the similarly themed Gyenari restaurant, and also that Culver City has become a pretty sweet dining destination and all that fluff stuff. So onwards, straight to the food!

moko ambiance

The place is nice, you’ll notice this immediately. The dining room is made up of a bunch of chic booth’s, black with cream-colored cushions and red outlines, a certain New York art party sense of coolness is established with the red brick foundation on the walls around you. The music was cool, from what I could remember. By cool, I mean Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” being bumped at sometime through out the night.

Chef Gary Robins is the kitchen shotcaller, yes the same Robins that outdid himself on a recent post I wrote. After doing a brief pop up last year at Georgio’s Cucina, he was now here. Lucky for us that night.

Eddie Hah is a big fan of the guy. And I can see why as our first dish makes its way to the table.

moko 2

Banchan gets the cheffy treatment and is known as “Market Banchan” here. There is still kimchi but there are also things like Beets sautéed with jujubes and apple smoked bacon. Now, the fact that these are priced is probably the source of disarray for most people, especially with our Angeleno AYCE KBBQ habituated culture. If you are curious, it will cost you, three for $7.5, five for $12 and seven for $16. Get the first option and get the glossy dark, marinated lotus root. Crisp and sweet since its brined with honey.

Cocktails were to be had of course, even if I was the only one drinking that night.

moko cocktail
Thai Basil Cooler

I settled on the the cooler, which comprised of Thai basil, Damrak gin, St. Germain, lemon & agave ($11). It was subtle, refreshing and dangerously easy to drink, paired well with the food too.

moko first crudo
moko tuna crudo
moko last crudo

Now, if it’s one thing that I remember from Chef Robins, it is his take on crudo dishes. He seems to quite the deft hand with seafood. The Hamachi was particularly the most buttery, flavored with yuzu citrus jus with pickled, jalapenos and crisp garlic ($13). The server came out and told us that chef was breaking down a whole Tai Snapper for us too. And he prepared that sucker with some asian pear jus and pickled ginger ($12). Like I said, he is a bad ass with seafood. The last one was the most traditional of all, Ahi Tuna with yuzu and soy, but even then he souped it up a bit with some blood orange infused olive oil ($12).

moko baos

Next up were his own take on Ssam, the leaf-wrapped favorites of Korea. Although, here, Robins applied the Chinese Bao approach to them. The one with Sesame Duck Confit, slivered juicy mango, wild arugula with ginger aioli and chipotle jang ($6 each) was my favorite for sure. It doesn’t hurt that chef made the bao’s himself. Mmmm….edible clouds.

moko korean pancake-pizza

Now, this particular dish was the one that swept me off my feet. Chef Robins is doing to Korean pancakes what Nancy Silverton did to Pizza’s in Los Angeles, redefining them and giving them the gourmet treatment. Actually, he is treating them like pizza’s too. He topped the zucchini and golden squash based one like you would a fine pizza with grilled shrimp and a zesty sesame tomato chutney ($13). Golden brown and crisp in the most delightful way humanly possible.

Next up was Robins rendition of the ultra-traditional dish of Bossam.

moko charcuterie

I forget the cut of pork it was and how it was prepared but I do remember an awesome shrimp and scallop flavored mustard that came along with it. He plated it like a charcuterie platter with some rosemary thick and tasty focaccia bread toast he baked himself too.

moko bomb foie gras dumplings
Foie Gras Mandoo

Another table favorite were the pan fried duck and foie gras Mandoo dumplings with sour cherry dipping sauce ($12). These were the Korean version of a perfect xia long bao dumpling. They were juicy as hell but there was very little actual foie gras in it if that was the only reason you ordered them for.

We got a couple more dishes after but that was it for the hosted part that chef Robins cooked us himself. But like I said, Eddie Hah REALLY admires the guy so we still ordered some more food. Food that he paid for. They also have these state-of-the-art tabletop grills with vacuum’s underneath them that suck up all the annoying smoke usually encountered at a KBBQ place. So, they offer souped up, premium Korean BBQ options as well.

moko kbbq
grilled prawns
Premium Korean BBQ at moKo

Eddie opted for the Giant Blue Prawns ($9 each), Marinated Kalbi ($18), Apricot-Marinated Duck ($18) and of course, in true hedonistic chef fashion…marrow ($8) !

I forget the name of the country where the prawns were flown in from but it was somewhere exotic-sounding I remember. Where ever they were from, the prawns flown in fresh and literally smelled like the ocean (not Long Beach type of ocean, more like Cancun ocean foo). They were delicious, they tasted really sweet, literally sweet, not metaphorically sweet. The duck was my second favorite, tender and steak-like.

moko bbq marrow
moko marrow on homemade toast

The luscious bone fat shimmered and curdled up as it stood on the grill plate waiting to get scraped out and eaten atop some more of that crispy homemade rosemary focaccia toast. By this point, I was beyond stuffed, which made the marrow’s distinctive flavors and textures all the more noticeable. Mmmm…marrow.

Finally, it was time for desserts.

lychee semifredo
Frozen lychee parfait

moko diy smores
moKo Housemade DIY S’mores

green tea shortcake
Green tea shortcake

The s’mores were the knockout of the sweet league, they utilized the tabletop grills even more beautifully. Chef Robins baked the graham crackers himself with almond flour, they were more of a shortbread than anything else and were amazing. Instead of Hershey’s, there was a pre-melted chocolate ganache to smear with, and the marshmallows were flavored. Of course, they were also made in house.

To this day, that meal holds the record for the longest dinner (and perhaps my most gluttonous one too), we got there a little after six in the afternoon and didn’t walk out until almost midnight. But when the food is as tantalizing and deftly executed as moKo’s, I didn’t mind. I am glad that Chef Robins has found a home for now.

Most of the meal was free, sure. But I wouldn’t had been able to afford it otherwise so, there you go, the inevitable post!

(Disclaimer: I ate this meal like three month’s ago.)

9540 Culver Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
Neighborhood: Culver City
(310) 838-3131