It didn’t bother me that I was drinking out of a paper bag while dining at the new Cocina Condesa in Studio City. But rather than hiding a 40 oz. Modelo, the bag actually carried the crazy fun, barrio-inspired Boyz In The Hood cocktail, one of the most popular beverages at this new street food taqueria.
The cocktail is a refreshing twist on the classic gin and tonic created by executive mixologist and expert of agave spirits, Gilbert Marquez. His inspiration for this unique libation and whimsical presentation came from growing up in a blue collar neighborhood in Orange County and witnessing locals drinking malt liquor in a paper bag while walking down the street.
Marquez creates a fun, fruity cocktail served in a plastic bag with a straw, reminiscent of the delicious bags of sliced fruit peddled by street vendors. The bag carrying the banana Platanito cocktail includes bananas, lemon, cinnamon, simple syrup and fizz and arrives in a small pine wood crate as a holder.
As a brand ambassador for Illegal Mezcal, Marquez has traveled throughout Mexico and Latin America studying the agave plant and the art of mixology. He melds his expertise with his own personal style, creating unique garnishes and containers for his Latin cocktails.
His margarita Condesa is made with Damiana, a liqueur made from a shrub in Baja California. He told me it’s named after the Central American goddess of love. Since the bottle is shaped as the fertility goddess, it is usually gifted to a bride and groom at their wedding. To make this margarita, the bartenders mix Damiana with tequila, lime, simple syrup and salt. Then they rim the glass with sugar, cinnamon, salt and cayenne pepper. The refreshing drink and tangy rim perfectly complement Chef M. Elena Vega’s street food.
We sat at a table inside the brightly colored restaurant that features refurbished wood on the walls and intricate concrete and wood accented flooring. The outdoor patio in the front is a prime spot to sit during sunset and in the warm summer evenings.
Wooden bowls arrived at our table with crunchy tortilla chips and a smoky brick colored salsa. Chef Vega’s guacamole is made with avocado, Mexican spiced dried mangos, cotija cheese, lime and toasted crickets. Yes, crickets. They are small, crunchy and complement the smooth creaminess of the dip.
Each dish we ordered arrived in a beautiful wooden serving plate. Vega’s beloved grandfather was a carpenter and she fondly remembers the feel and smell of his wood creations. She wanted to incorporate this sensation with her cuisine, inspired by years of cooking with her grandmother in the Mexican seaside town of Tuxpan in Nayarit. Because she and her staff put so much talent and time into the food, she is proud to show off her work in such beautiful crafted pieces.
Vega’s grandparents owned a popular, family-owned restaurant in Mexico called Restaurant el Costeno, from which she draws much of her inspiration. One of her specialties is corn. She makes a unique corn risotto served with slow roasted chicken, and has won numerous awards for this dish. Vega uses the entire ear of corn, cuts the tips of the corn kernel, scrapes the pulp, and adds onion, wine and other ingredients as you would add to make a risotto, except for the rice. Then she chops the stem and seasons the delicious simmering corn with salt and pepper. It’s spectacularly tasty and different from any corn dish that I have tasted.
There are at least nine street tacos to choose from on a daily basis at Cocina Condesa. On Taco Tuesday, patrons may order any two tacos for $5. Choose from a variety of tacos that include Al Pastor (succulent pork); Carne Asada (skirt steak); vegetarian cactus or Carnitas made from braised pork shoulder. While the tacos are served in traditional street style in corn tortillas, Vega and her team will serve them Paleo-style in Boston lettuce leaves when requested.
Be sure to order her street corn brushed with lemon aioli, cotija cheese, chili and lime — an amped-up, flavorful rendition of classic street corn on a stick.
Other restaurant specialties include chocolate mole chicken enchiladas, corn masa crepes, sopas, tortas and empanadas.
The menu features a variety of salads, including a healthy, grilled, chili glazed salmon with mesclun spring greens, orange sections, red onion, cucumber, avocado, jicama, and pine nuts dressed with a lemon vinaigrette and served in a large wooden bowl.
The servers at the newly opened restaurant are very personable and eager to please. It’s a fun, casual dining spot to go to before or after the Hollywood Bowl or to meet friends for cocktails served in a brown or plastic bag with a side of roasted crickets to perk up your guacamole.
Open at 11 a.m. for lunch and Happy Hour is from 3 to 6:30 p.m. daily. Dinner service begins at 4 p.m. $$ 11616 Ventura Blvd., Studio City (818) 579-4264.
This article was published in the July 16, 2015 Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News.