Sitting in a spacious wooden booth next to a window at Día de Campo, we watched two middle-aged surfers walk back to their car after a day at the beach. After putting their boards on car racks, they changed into dry clothes, flipped their hair a few times and walked inside Día de Campo for cerveza, tequila and oysters. We, however, were there for the tacos.
These aren’t your average tacos. Upgrade them to “machismo” style with double corn and flour tortillas (one of each), stuffed with additional cheese, and topped with a creamy avocado and zesty lime crema sauce.
My husband and I ordered a carnitas taco with a spirited tomatillo avocado sauce and a grilled fish taco with a pico de gallo sauce. One of the friendly servers, Fabian, brought a bottle of housemade habanero sauce to the table. He told us that it has no preservatives, so we should put the cap on after pouring some onto our plate. It was hot and spicy, but not unpleasantly fiery.
With a degree in Economics from UCLA, Dia de Campo executive chef Tin Vuong worked in the corporate world for a while and then enrolled in the California Academy of Culinary Arts. He was the executive sous chef at the acclaimed St. Regis Hotel and Resort in Monarch Beach for over five years.
In 2012, he was lured to Abigaile’s Brewery in Hermosa Beach by the Los Angeles-based Blackhouse Hospitality Group. Vuong created an exciting gastropub menu that reflected the unique history and re-design of the restaurant, that once was the rehearsal space for the most influential punk/hardcore bands in music history.
He expanded his restaurant empire with Little Sister in Manhattan Beach where he created a mostly Vietnamese menu. At the newer Steak & Whiskey steakhouse in Hermosa Beach, his upscale and elegant menu has received rave reviews, as has his elevated Mexican cuisine at Día de Campo with partner/restaurateur Jed Sanford. Since Vuong is very busy with all of these restaurants, his buddy Ken Johnson, from his St. Regis Monarch Beach days, now helms the kitchen at Día de Campo where he combines Mexican flavors with modernist techniques.
Gorgeous, hand-painted Mexican tiles accent the maple wood bar. A row of Mexican cervezas and local craft beers on draft line the back of the bar. Some interesting bottled beers are also offered.
For those looking for a unique cocktail, the tia sangria is made with white wine, brandy, passion fruit, peach and citrus fruit and comes in a pitcher or bowl. The Yucatan bowl combines tequila blanco, fresh pineapple, lime and mandarin oranges.
The bar has an extensive tequila collection with almost 30 blancos, at least 20 different reposados, almost 20 anejos, plus plenty of mezcals. We ordered a simple “skinny” margarita made with Azunia blanco tequila, Cointreau and lime, and The Sophia made with tequila blanco, Agua de Santa and Patrón Citrónge. Other cocktails have names like Passion over Function, Dirty Water and The Mule.
Ashleigh Moller, who has been here since the day it opened, manages this South Bay haunt.
At the oyster counter near the bar, diners can watch chefs shucking Kusshi and Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia, and Kumiai from the Pacific.
Known for their excellent ceviche-esque, aptly named because it is beyond normal ceviche – raw fish cured in lemon or lime juice is spiced with ají or chili peppers. The yellowfin tuna is served in a clay bowl on a layer of guacamole. The lightly marinated fish is jazzed up with a habanero aioli and crispy kale leaves creating a zesty Mexican essence. Fried plantain chops are ideal for scooping the ceviche and guacamole and providing a crunch.
We ordered the vegetarian caramelized cauliflower with onions, egg and cotija cheese and the Mexican street corn pops. Chili mayo is spread on the cobbettes on a stick, then dusted with Parmesan cheese and a squeeze of lime. Both dishes were good, though I preferred the fantastic corn pops.
Many of the dishes are a balance of textures, like the wood grilled hanger steak fajitas served on a platter with house grilled onions, shishito peppers and cotija cheese accompanied with warm housemade tortillas.
Short rib empanadas, tostadas with fried avocado and pickled vegetables, plancha pork belly with chipotle mole, avocado, pico, and an egg are interesting items. Try the shrimp and chorizo enchiladas or live it up with a 10 oz. wood grilled ribeye with hearts of palm salad and shishito peppers.
Desserts include a tres leches with hazelnuts and a sprinkling of sea salt-chili, and three snowball coconut cakes filled with spiced guava jam and covered in toasted coconut.
After dinner we took a stroll to the end of the Hermosa Beach Pier and remarked that our evening was a mini vacation from the faster pace of Los Angeles, one that we would like to repeat again.
Dia de Campo offers a Bandito Power Hour from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 3 to 7 p.m. on Fridays with three oysters for $5. On Tuesdays, the chef choice oysters are $1.$$ 1238 Hermosa Ave. Hermosa Beach, (310)379-1829.
Published in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea Newspapers on November 11, 2015.