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

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.

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.

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