Toca Madera: a dazzling Mexican culinary experience

One of the most beautiful restaurant interiors in Los Angeles is Toca Madera in Beverly Grove. Designer David Krumins of Davis Ink incorporated a mix of distressed metal, with concrete tiles, quartz stone, hanging rope, plush upholstery and leather accents throughout the dimly lit lounge. In the center of the room is a dramatic mammoth crystal quartzite center bar. The bar staff carefully pour cerveza, wine and ignite dramatic fiery cocktails.

Plantain chips and guacamole, as well as tortilla chips with salsa

Guests passing through on their way to the outdoor dining patio will notice an intimate lounge area behind the bar, with an in-house DJ spinning lively music that seductively pulsates throughout the restaurant. Moorish lights illuminate sexy Dia de los Muertos art that hangs on the walls.

The evening my husband and I dined at Toca Madera, the back patio area was full, so we sat in front at one of the sidewalk tables looking out to Third Street. Toca Madera translates to “knock on wood,” and throughout the evening, we felt lucky to dine at the upscale Mexican-style restaurant. Our server Whitney recommended we try the new chef’s signature menu prepared by executive chef Pablo Ibarra and his team. Each dish made quite an impression when it was delivered to our table. Both the food and drinks are decorated with edible micro flowers, and the smoky ones dazzled our senses.

Besides tortilla chips and salsa, guests receive a pretty bowl of creamy guacamole sprinkled with lime-enhanced pepitas and bright red pomegranate seeds.

I enjoyed the guacamole with my cocktail, La Vida, which is made with Espolon Resposado, fresh carrot and lemon juice, fresh ginger and wildflower honey.

Space heaters kept us warm throughout the night, which started with ahi tuna that arrived on three thin white medallions of jicama. On top was pickled kohlrabi, samba aioli, daikon sprouts and fried garlic. My only wish was that the base was thicker to hold all the layers, so I could pop each one into my mouth, instead of using a fork.

The second starter, taco el padroni, was spectacular. It was served on a circular wood base under a smoking tall glass lid. Once lifted, the aromatic vapors rose and evaporated, revealing an exquisite small blue tortilla that was topped with grilled Japanese A5 Wagyu. Dots of bright orange escabeche puree, made with pickled carrots and onions, elevated this taco to a new level. On top there was a slightly sweet and creamy whipped creme fraiche, sprinkling of micro greens and shimmering and edible gold leaf shavings.

For entrées, we ordered the Branzino Zarandeado served Jalisco-style. Chef Pablo butterflies the whole fish and grills it until the skin is crispy. It’s gorgeously presented on a platter with more escabeche purée, grilled tomatillos and avocado salsa, charred cherry tomatoes, sliced radish, cilantro and a sprinkling of greens and tiny purple flowers that tasted like oysters.

Another entrée on the chef’s signature menu is a 40-ounce American Wagyu named the Toca Tomahawk. It’s rubbed with a chipotle charcoal and artisanal salts, and cooked with garlic and truffle butter.

New side dishes include truffle mac and cheese, truffle fries and street corn in a bowl. The corn is cooked in boiling water with spices, herbs and salt and cut off the cob. It’s then mixed with lime juice, a little queso fresco and chile powder. It was simple, light and delicious.

Save room for the visually impressive desserts, especially the three-layer tres leches cake served with mixed berries, a mint leaf and flower. We also enjoyed a small key lime tart made with a slightly sweet graham cracker crust, and meringue that was torched gently until caramelized. Pretty yellow flowers offer a pop of color on the plate.

Sitting outside under warm heaters to enjoy thoughtfully curated food and beverages will ignite an unmatched sensory experience for guests dining at Toca Madera. $$$ Open weeknights at 4 p.m. and weekends at 11 a.m. 8450 W. Third St., (323)852-9400.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on Nov. 12, 2020

My Little Dumpling

Taking over the former Italian Gusto space on Third Street, My Little Dumpling is a newer upscale dim sum dining experience in the Beverly Grove neighborhood. The menu features classic American fare with a global Asian twist.

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Robert Mandler, the owner along with his son Anthony, is a successful Los Angeles restauranteur, since he founded Chin Chin in 1983. He introduced a modern Chinese chicken salad to L.A. and is known for his signature “dim sum and then sum.”

Anthony designed the light and serene interior of My Little Dumpling with comfortable green velvet banquettes, white marble tables, shiny brass fixtures and wood paneled ceilings.

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A Chinese chicken salad is featured on the menu, a nod to Mandler’s famous Chin Chin salad. This father and son duo recently invited guest chef Mako Tanaka for a month-long residency in the kitchen. Mako is expanding the menu with a few new salads, including charred baby romaine hearts with a ginger sesame dressing, as well as heirloom tomato salad with asparagus and avocado glazed with a plum boba vinaigrette. A healthy protein option includes seared ahi tuna with a spring mix and bite-sized Super Sweet 100 tomatoes dressed with a yuzu and caramelized onion dressing.

My Little Dumpling has a bar near the back that offers beer, wine and a variety of hot and cold teas to pair with the shareable dishes.

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The restaurant’s signature dish, a cheeseburger dumpling, is filled with ground beef, caramelized onions and pickles. It was cut into three pieces and served with an Asian-style lychee ketchup for dipping. For those seeking a vegan option, they make a Beyond Meat dumpling filled with vegan “meat” and cheese, caramelized onions and pickles. It’s quite good, especially with the lychee ketchup.

Another vegan and gluten-free option is the potato pancake, made with shredded purple sweet potatoes and a black vinegar sauce. It’s similar to an enhanced potato latke.

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There are a few soup dumplings, including one filled with crab, pork, ginger and scallions. Another is filled with French onion soup, gruyere cheese and a crouton.

They also create innovative sandwiches using bao buns. There is a braised brisket with slaw and horseradish and a vegan Indian favorite, Manchurian Gobi, filled with cauliflower, garlic and Fresno chili.

Egg roll options include a delicious curried vegetable layered with mint chutney, lentil, carrots and cauliflower. One with an Asian twist includes the Reuben egg roll with pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. They also make a wonton filled with cream cheese, lox, red onions and cherry tomatoes.

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We finished with a fried rectangular dumpling filled with banana and Nutella. It was drizzled with raspberry sauce and a sprinkling of powdered sugar, a nice sweet treat.

Come in and try the fun dim sum dishes the Mandlers are creating at their newest endeavor.

My Little Dumpling is open seven days a week for lunch starting at noon. Dinner ends at 10 p.m. on weekdays, and the restaurant closes at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$ 8432 W. 3rd St., (310)450-9393.

This review was featured in the Beverly Press on August 22, 2019.

Barcari W. 3rd in Beverly Grove

When the Greek restaurant Sofi closed, I hoped another restauranteur would take over the space at this hidden gem in Los Angeles. Recently I learned the Bacari Restaurant Group took over the space and opened Bacari W. 3rd.

I’ve been to the Bacari GDL at Caruso’s Americana at Brand in Glendale. It’s a Venetian-inspired Cicchetti- style eatery offering a menu with sharable plates, pastas, pizza and salads, similar to a traditional Bacari in Venice, Italy.

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Now along one of the most celebrated streets offering many popular restaurants in Los Angeles, is a new Bacari. Walking through the brick archway tunnel, I noticed metal mailboxes with painted wine bottles and glass of wine. Bacari is painted on one of the mail doors. There is a beautiful iron gate with a bright blue Mediterranean ceramic pot and distressed wood doors with metal knockers. It’s pushed open to welcome diners into a garden patio with a historic tree and massive Bougainvillea dropping magenta colored flowers onto tables. Most of the seating is out on this patio, though there is a rustic, low-ceiling interior dining space with exposed wood beams.

The day I dined, this area was being decorated for birthday bash, so all the seating during brunch was out on the dog-friendly patio. Looking at the menu, this location offers Mediterranean dishes curated by Israeli-born Executive chef Lior Hillel and Executive Sous Chef Kevin Corona. IMG_4502

It’s already become a popular brunch spot on weekends from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering creative shareable items. We started with a smoked salmon pita served in a metal taco holder. The fresh pita pocket is stuffed with pickled red onions, capers, ribbons of thin smoked salmon and cucumber. It’s served with a pleasing dill and garlic creme fraiche, similar to a tzatziki sauce. Only one comes per order, so order one per diner, because this is hard to share.

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The avocado toast is beautifully presented with a chunky avocado spread, and pink and white watermelon radish triangles artistically arranged on top. What makes this toast different is the pleasing, dense house-baked superfood bread. The texture of this gluten-free toast is porous and nutty, ideal to hold the creamy green goodness. There is a drizzle of Mediterranean olive oil and speckle of gray salt to round out the flavors.

Almost every table had people sipping bottomless mimosas, sangria, sparkling sangria or house prosecco. Guests have the option to switch it up with each course for $25.

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I didn’t care about the thin, panko-crust crab cake Benedict, however I did find hollandaise sauce with a zest of grapefruit appealing.

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We found the free range egg pizza different than expected. The crust was thin and topped with savory fromage blanc, caramelized onions and a softly cooked egg. Finishing on a sweeter note, we ordered the gluten-free baby Dutch pancake presented in a small black cast iron skillet. The bottom of the pancake was caramelized and slightly crunchy, while the top was warm and soft with fresh red and purple berries and a lovely Mission fig and honey compote in the center. 

Next to us, a couple were devouring Bacari fries with a special sauce and fried egg on top, along with a Croque Madame and open-face Bacari burger.

Next time you are searching for a new brunch and dinner destination in Beverly Grove, Bacari W. 3rd is a new foodie favorite. Barcai Restaurant Group also has restaurants in Glendale, Playa del Rey, and University Park. $$ Open daily from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and weekend brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. 8030 3⁄4 W. Third St. (323)452-9149.

This review was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on Dec. 13, 2018 –