So Cal Mexican Cuisine at Tallula’s

Eager for some elevated Mexican fare, my husband and I drove to Tallula’s in Santa Monica Canyon for Sunday Brunch. The owners Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan acquired a former Japanese restaurant, that later turned into the legendary Marix Tex-Mex near the beach. Pulling up to the parking lot, we realized Tallula’s is where my husband and I met over margaritas 32 years ago.

IMG_4134

The Japanese blue tiled roof is still intact, but the Japanese pagodas have been removed. Along with Colby Goff, they hired design firm ORA to upgrade the interior into a colorful eye-catching dining room and bar, reminiscent of something you would discover in the Mexican beach town of Tulum or Loreto.

IMG_4121

Similar to a Spanish hacienda, the interior has terra cotta floors and a coastal color palette inspired by nature. Walls are turquoise blue sea, peach sunset, and green palm. Artistic hand-embroidered macrame pieces, along with vintage Mexican posters and Californian artwork hang on the wall.

IMG_4113

Original features from Marix days, include the beautiful large oak and glass doors, dark wood beam and paneled ceilings, rustic columns and ornate Hawaiian Koa wood banquettes, now with turquoise blue leather seating.They also saved an array of vintage orange glass lanterns and added some hanging basketweave lighting.

IMG_4110

Loeb and Nathan named the restaurant after their daughter Tallula, and the pink neon sign displaying “Felix’s Bar,” is named after their youngest son. The bright hand-painted Mexican Talavera tiles by Silverlake’s Further Store are featured throughout the bar area and patio. The bar showcases one of the largest collections of Mexican spirits including mezcals, tequilas, rum and lesser-known spirits from small-batch producers in Mexico. There is also a nice selection of craft beers, and their margaritas are made with housemade syrups and fresh produce from the market. 

Rustic Canyon Family Wine Director Kathryn Coker crafts the eclectic wine list, featuring wines from boutique producers in Mexico, Spain, Argentina, France and California.

IMG_4118

What used to be the host stand, is now a colorful lounge area with rich leather and wood chairs. The staircase is now a vertical garden of pots with greenery acquired from Potted, of L.A.’s Atwater Village. It leads up to a private event space and bar for a 50 person standing cocktail party, or private seated dinner for 32 people. 

Looking into the open kitchen from the main dining room, James Beard six time nominee Executive chef Jeremy Fox oversees Executive Chef Saw Naing and his team. Together they prepare familiar Mexican dishes using seasonal fresh ingredients from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and other local purveyors. Naing graduated from Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu, and worked at Joachim Splichal’s Café Pinot, and Thomas Keller’s (now closed) Bouchon in Beverly Hills, before with Fox.

IMG_4110

While we were dipping chips into guacamole, we noticed Fox walk in with his family and friends. That is always a good sign, when a chef is not working in his kitchen, that he comes in to break bread or tortilla chips with loved one.  

As the assistant manager Max Mueller welcomed us to Tallula’s, he shared that the restaurant takes “family” to heart, including the staff and guests to feel at home, be inspired, nourished and leave satisfied.

IMG_4112

The imaginative, home-cooking includes fresh chile pastes and salsas, and heirloom corn masa for fresh tortillas. We ordered their signature Caesar salad that arrived in a bowl with long Little Gem leaves loaded with crunchy pumpkin seeds, shaved parmesan, anchovies, garlic and lemon juice. 

The chefs at Tallula’s also make the best blue corn pancakes and chilaquiles. The pancakes arrive in a black skillet topped with fresh berries, and a pour of unrefined Mexican cane sugar called piloncillo syrup, powdered sugar, chopped mint and whipped cream.

628CA42F-9D73-4F64-87DD-E085EC16B730

The chilaquiles are artfully arranged in a beautiful terra cotta serving dish, layered with corn tortilla chips, salsa rojo, black beans, cilantro, red onion, cheese, pico de Gallo and a fried egg on top.

Be sure to order the crispy potatoes with a drizzle of chipotle aioli. They are a little hidden on the menu, and delicious.

Other Mexican fare includes a rotating Taco del Día, wet breakfast burritos with verde sauce, pork, eggs, potatoes, crema and pepper jack cheese, and local Channel Islands rock cod tacos.

IMG_4125-2

Heartier options include grilled carne asada with grass-fed hanger steak, is served with house-made tortillas, carrots, blistered shishito peppers and chipotle tamarind sauce. 

Zoe Nathan Mexican-inspired dessert recipes, including a tres leches cake drizzled with honey, chamomile and fresh market berries, are lovingly made by the Tallula team. 

Tallula’s is part of the Rustic Canyon Family, a collection of chef-driven dining destinations that includes Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, Sweet Rose Creamery, Milo & Olive, Cassia, Esters Wine Shop & Bar, Milo SRO, Cassia Rice & Noodle Kitchen and Birdie G’s. 

Weekend brunch is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Happy Hour is all-night long on Mondays and from 4 to 6 p.m., and every Tuesday through Friday in the bar, lounge and patio. Weekday dinner service is nightly at 5 p.m. and 4 p.m. on the weekends. Tallula’s is offering a takeout and delivery-only menu starting at 5 p.m. $$ 118 Entrada Drive (310)526-0027.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News.

Mexican flavors with modernist techniques – Dia de Campo

Dia-de-campo-tacos-224x300Sitting 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.

Dia-de-Campo.corn_-224x300We 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.

Red O’s Newest Santa Monica Location

Courtesy of Rick Bayless' Facebook page
Courtesy of Rick Bayless’ Facebook page

Fans of celebrity chef Rick Bayless will be happy to hear that his outstanding Mexican restaurant, Red O, has opened a location in Santa Monica. A group of friends recently met at Red O for a delightful multi-course dinner paired with cocktails and wine.

I’ve been a fan of chef Bayless since he won the title Bravo’s Top Chef Master in 2009. He’s also been awarded the James Beard Midwest Chef of the Year, National Chef of the Year, and best American Chef of the Year. His Frontera Farmer Foundation supports small farms and, to date, has awarded 128 grants totaling over $1.3 million to small- and medium-sized Midwest farms.

Regional executive chef Keith Stich keeps the kitchens running smoothly while Bayless keeps up a busy schedule – traveling and filming his TV show, “Mexico – One Plate at a Time.”

At the new Santa Monica location, Stitch has brought in chef Seth Vider as executive chef. Vider said he loves the ambiance and location of the restaurant near the Santa Monica Farmers Market and the beach. The night Vider and Stich cooked for us, they had a staff of 12 working in the kitchen, including a woman making fresh tortillas.

Bayless oversees, consults on and approves the seasonal menu that chefs Stich and Vider create. What makes Red O different from other Mexican restaurants is its prime steak, fresh-off-the-boat seafood and quality produce, not to mention its top-notch service. Ensuring super-prompt delivery, servers carry pagers in their pockets that vibrate when the kitchen has a plate ready. Our server, Andrew, was friendly and professional and so responsive to our needs that at times he seemed almost telepathic.

The Santa Monica Red O is a high energy, unpretentious restaurant offering a fine dining experience. DJ Mark Chill, located near the bar and dining room, plays music that enhances the cheerful, beachy mood. When he is not spinning tunes, the restaurant provides nightly live entertainment, creating a festive atmosphere.

The night we visited, we started with thinly sliced hamachi yellowtail sashimi dancing in a spicy lime sauce and topped with avocado, red onion, cucumber and orange. I sipped on an organic skinny margarita made with Tres Generaciones organic blanco tequila, fresh lime, organic agave nectar served on the rocks with a salted rim. Red O has over 250 varieties of tequila to choose from.

Rather than a traditional tostada, Red O’s is made with yellowfin ahi tuna marinated in chile-cumin oil, served with creamy avocado, crisp Napa cabbage, pickled red onion and a harissa aioli with habanero for a touch of heat.

Mexican street corn is boiled, grilled, then cut off the cob before it is mixed with cotija cheese and serrano-cilantro crema.
The taquitos are filled with crispy, slow cooked Mary’s free-range duck, served with a slightly spicy tomato-arbol sauce and strands of wild baby arugula. The dish is dusted with toasted sesame seeds.

I adored the certified Angus beef short ribs, which were cooked until tender and placed into bite-size fried corn shells, then topped with a roasted tomato-green chile sauce, queso anejo and chopped white onion.

The prettiest dish was the grilled Maine lobster tail, served on cilantro-fennel rice along with a large charred Mexican knobIMG_7473 onion and slow-roasted baby fennel. The dish was drizzled with a rich Tajin butter seasoned with chile peppers, salt and dehydrated lime juice.

The fish of the day was a grilled Alaskan halibut glazed with a wasabi chimichurri sauce. It was served on white rice and red guajillo chimichurri sauce. We enjoyed this with a plate of sautéed baby kale and Brussels sprouts tossed with caramelized onions and toasted white sesame seeds.

Jeffrey Davis, the regional operations director of the Red O Restaurants, joined our group when the 12 ounce carne asada brava arrived. “This is my favorite Red O signature dish,” Davis said.

It’s a flavorful grilled New York strip steak topped with roasted tomato salsa, goat cheese tamales and grilled Mexican knob onions. The steak was very tender and was enhanced with mojo de ajo, crisp black kale and a garlic chipotle amarillo sauce. A plate of grilled asparagus sautéed in mojo de ajo, with cotija cheese and cilantro flakes, spritzed with fresh lime juice went nicely with the bone-in filet.

Davis also brought out a bottle of tempranillo from Rioja, Spain to pair with the beef. Sierra Cantabria Rioja 2011 is a ruby-red color with the essence of spice and red fruit. He boasted that the Red O wine list is known as one of the top 100 wine lists in the world.

We splurged at the end of dinner and ordered three desserts. The dark chocolate ganache is made with roasted plantain puree, pepita-toffee crunch, and piloncillo marinated pineapple and served with a scoop of mango sorbet.

The most popular dessert was the fruit butter cake. It arrived fresh from the oven and was served with grilled strawberries, passion fruit custard, coconut crumble and a scoop of coconut ice cream. Andrew told us this dish is very popular. Two out of every three tables orders it nightly.

Our last splurge was a goat cheese cheesecake with mint goat yogurt, pickled berries, cornflower crumble, blueberry puree and cornflower cracker.

Red O joins an impressive list of Santa Monica restaurants in an area known as a dining destination for locals, tourists and visitors. Be sure to visit during Red O’s daily happy hour from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m.
$$$ Red O Santa Monica,1541 Ocean Ave, Ste. 120, (310)458-1600. Locations also on Melrose and in Newport Beach.

Authentic Mexican Cuisine in LA

Executive Chef JImmy Shaw
Executive Chef JImmy Shaw

“Mexico City has the largest population of Mexican people. Los Angeles has the second largest and Guadalajara has the third,” said Executive Chef Jimmy Shaw during a two-hour lunch with him and a friend at Lotería Grill.

Shaw is an affable chef that was raised in Mexico City and cooks the Mex-Mex way, not Tex-Mex or Cali-Mex. “Mexican food from Mexico City tastes much different from the food many Mexican restaurants serve in the states,” said Shaw.

Due to a series of pleasant serendipitous events, Shaw opened his first Lotería Grill in the center of the Farmers Market in January, 2003. He wanted to create a restaurant that Mexicans living in Southern California would instantly recognize and also appeal to Los Angelenos.

Shaw’s brother advised him to use the Lotería cards as a theme for his Farmers Market restaurant. Lotería is a beloved Bingo game in Mexico that is as popular as Monopoly is to America. It’s a game of chance with various images and a name on a deck of 54 cards. When a cantor or singer picks a card, he sings out a riddle to tell the player what card has been drawn. Shaw said, “For the sun card, the caller would sing out – A poor persons blanket.”

Our sweet server Ginger couldn’t have been more friendly and professional as she brought out one delicious dish after

Tasty Tacos
Tasty Tacos

another. The first was a plate of three tacos. Shaw taught us the proper way to eat a taco. First, you pinch the taco together with one hand. Next, you slightly tilt your head and wrap both your top and bottom lips around the tortilla to take a bite. This is how you don’t get the filling in the taco to fall onto the plate or worse on your clothing.

Shaw always loved preparing and eating food. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, he became a personal chef to American cinematographer Garret Brown. Brown created the Steadicam back in the 1970s – later the SkyCam, DiveCam and MobyCam.

Two years later, Shaw needed his green card and found a job in a Spanish language ad agency in Los Angeles. His clients included Honda Motor Company.

Living with four roommates, Shaw enjoyed chopping, cooking and entertaining in his free time. “My favorite time was sobremesa,” said Shaw. “It means the comfort and warmth of good food and great friends with laughter at the end of a delicious dinner.”

Loteria Grill at the Farmers Market
Loteria Grill at the Farmers Market

Even though he was a success in the advertising world, he dreamed of owning a Mexican restaurant. On a flight home from a business meeting in Washington D.C., Shaw put his dream into words and wrote the concept for Lotería Grill.

In November of 2002, he was fortunate to receive an offer by the A. F. Gilmore Company to take over a Mexican food stand in the Farmers Market. “When the stars line up the right way in the restaurant business you jump on in and ride the wave,” said Shaw. “Every Thanksgiving I give my thanks to Hank Hilty, president of the A.F. Gilmore Company, that owns the Farmers Market. He believes in the small merchant. He believed in me.”

Shaw hired a storyboard artist to design the colorful theme of Lotería cards. When he opened his first restaurant, he didn’t hire a publicist. Instead, he invited his friends to come eat his various dishes and spread the word. “A plate of food at Lotería is the best advertising,” said Shaw. He worked over 12 hours every day of the week at his Farmers Market location.

Six years later he opened his second location in Hollywood, next Studio City, then Westlake Village and Santa Monica. Soon Shaw will have a downtown Los Angeles location and at Terminals 5 and 7 at LAX.

A plate of quesadillas arrived and looked much different than the quesadillas I’ve had at other Mexican restaurants. It wasn’t a big flour tortilla folded in half and stuffed with cheese. The Quesadillitas de Plaza is a plate of three fresh corn masa turnovers. One was filled with fresh squash blossoms, the other was Huitlacoche corn truffle and the third has strips of chile Poblano and Oaxaca cheese. It’s served with crema Mexicana, salsa verde cruda and queso fresco. Shaw told us to cut the turnovers in half and place a dollop of crema, salsa and queso on top. I did this with the squash blossom quesadillitas and received a pleasing explosion of wonderful flavors.DSC_0036

Every Sunday, Shaw goes to the Hollywood Farmers market to buy 50 to 60 pounds of fresh squash blossoms. His favorite supplier fills up five extra large clear trash bags with ten pounds of blossoms and has them ready for Shaw’s arrival.

When listening to Shaw’s wonderful personal stories, a large plate of chilaquiles arrived at our table. “This is the classic Mexican breakfast cure-all,” said Shaw.  Crisp tortilla strips are sautéed in salsas and served with black beans. Shaw took the bowls of queso fresco, crema Mexicana, and a green tomatillo sauce and pour them over the chopped onion and cilantro. It’s a nacho type of dish that is very popular for breakfast. I enjoyed them thoroughly for lunch. “In Mexico, dinner starts at 10 p.m. and can last until the early morning hours,” said Shaw. “Chilaquiles are great after a night out on the town.”

The moles made at Lotería are smooth and made with over 26 ingredients. “Moles in Mexico are the curries in India, there are a million different types,” Shaw said.

Last we shared one of Shaw’s favorite dishes, the red snapper Vera Cruz. This plate is a marriage of Spain and Mexico with IMG_4945Spanish olives, capers, onions and tomatoes. The pan-seared snapper is bathed in a luscious red sauce and adorned with fried plantains.

For dessert, we split a bowl of tequila ice cream. “That is one thing that I like to make in the Hollywood kitchen,” said Shaw. “I also make a great cinnamon hot-chocolate ice cream.”

In Spanish the word loteria, means lottery. Jimmy Shaw won the lottery in California with his wonderful authentic Mexican restaurants. $-$$

Farmers Market – 6333 W 3rd St. (323)930-2211, Hollywood – 6627 Hollywood Blvd. (323)465-2500, Studio City – 12050 Ventura Blvd. (818)508-5300, Westlake Village – 180 Promenade Way (805)379-1800 and Santa Monica – 1251 3rd St. (310)393-2700.

The majority of this article was published in the Beverly Press on Sept. 26, 2013.