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Red O Opening Night Report

"Mexican Cuisine by Rick Bayless"

Exciting words, these. However, it must be noted that Rick Bayless won't be cooking at Red O on a regular basis, nor does he have an ownership interest in the business. The actual owners are the dynamic duo of Mike Dobson and Rick Teasta, the founders of Santa Ana-based oil changery EZ Lube. The two have been partners for over two decades, but were best buddies before that, first meeting while working as doormen at the Red Onion in Redondo Beach. Red O, thus, pays homage to that original restaurant.

Nevertheless, Bayless is responsible for developing the menu, and also took charge of teaching the staff, many of whom were brought to Chicago to train. Running the kitchens on a day-to-day basis, thus, is the realm of Executive Chef Michael Brown (of Patina Group and Wolfgang Puck Catering).

The menu at Red O is rather vast, and features a variety of more traditional Mexican fare, as well as a number of "Cal-Mex" dishes. We tried to sample dishes from all over the menu:

Classic Guacamole [$9.00] | freshly made, chunky, with warm chips & salsa
The guac was a must-order item, and indeed, it did not disappoint. I loved the dip's onion-y tang and tartish citrus finish, all intermixed with the lush creaminess of avocado. Overall, a very good guacamole.

Grilled Mazatlan Blue Shrimp Tostaditas [$10.00] | roasted garlic mojo, avocado with fresh jícama "chips"
This was a surprisingly complex, balanced dish with rich flavors of blue shrimp, perked up by a bit of bite courtesy of the garlic. The crisp, refreshing counterpoint imparted by the jicama was much appreciated.

Alaskan Halibut Ceviche [$12.50] | cilantro-serrano "chimichurri", cucumber, avocado
Here was a substantial ceviche, with the luxuriousness of the avocado beautifully moderating the considerable heft of the halibut, while the "chimichurri" added pricks of heat to the palate. Unfortunately, the flavors here were a bit overshadowed by the other, more aggressive courses served at the same time.

Woodland Mushrooms Ceviche [$10.00] | grilled knob onion, sun-dried tomato, serrano chile
You don't see many mushrooms ceviches around, but this dish turned out to be one of my favorites of the night. I loved the interplay of the earthy mushrooms with the sweet and vegetal notes of its various accoutrements, and how the heat of the serrano built up so eloquently on the long, lingering finish.

Shredded Creekstone Beef Short Rib Sopes [$9.00] | roasted tomato-green chile sauce
As expected, the beef itself was wonderfully tender, with rich, dark, hearty flavors, flavors which were augmented even further by the application of cheese. I really enjoyed the subtle smokiness imparted by the roasted tomato-chili dressing, but my favorite part was how the stout cylinders of corn masa so deftly tempered the meat's substantial gravity.

Gleason Ranch Pork Belly Sopes [$8.00] | black beans, salsa negra, sesame
It was interesting to compare these sopes with the preceding short rib versions. The flavors were actually noticeably more in-your-face, a smoky-sweet blast of salsa negra that really helped in cutting the fattiness of the pork belly. And again, I absolutely adored the little bites of masa.

Slow-Cooked Sonoma Duck Taquitos [$9.00] | tomato-árbol chile sauce, arugula
I found the duck here immensely flavorful actually, and quite liked how it played with the subtly spicy sauce. The arugula, meanwhile, contributed a slightly astringent contrast, but wasn't absolutely necessary for me. Nevertheless, a very enjoyable dish.

Chicken Tamale [$8.00] | herby Oaxacan yellow mole, banana leaf
Here, what struck me first was the great exchange of flavors between the delightfully piquant mole, tasty chicken, and tangy onion. Arguably the best part of the course, though, was the corn masa, which had a wonderfully profound taste that complemented the chicken perfectly. Easily one of the best tamales I've ever had.

Homemade Chorizo Sausage Queso Fundido [$8.50] | roasted poblano chiles
Cheese and chorizo, how can you go wrong? We're talking about enchantingly mild, melted Vella Sonoma Jack, paired with the subtly smoky, vegetal zest of peppers, all with the overarching saltiness and spice imparted by the chorizo. Superb with the included tortillas.

Sonoma County Lamb in Chile Colorado Cazuela for Soft Tacos [$13.50] | ancho & guajillo chiles, roasted garlic, cumin, black beans
A lovely lamb dish, with heavy, rich, "lamb-y" flavors aptly accompanied by a sweet-smoky-spicy ancho-guajillo sauce and an earthy entourage of black beans. This was delicious but a bit overpowering when eaten alone--tortillas are a must.

Achiote-Marinated Catfish Tacos al Carbon [$15.50] | roasted poblano rajas, bacon-flavored charro beans, grilled knob onions, salsas
I first tried some of the catfish alone, and found it smoky, yet subtle and delicate, with a great texture. I then grabbed a tortilla, applied the various trappings, and chowed down. The resultant amalgamation was tasty enough, but I did feel that the sapor of the catfish was a bit lost in the fray--go easy on the accessories.

Pollo en Mole Poblano [$22.00] | grilled Mary's young chicken, homemade mole poblano, black beans, watercress salad
Here, we were served two surprisingly large portions of chicken, which I found quite tender--albeit a touch dry--with a very pure, yet very mild flavor. It was a canvas on which the mole could really sing. The sauce itself, interestingly enough, was by far the most nuanced version I've tasted. It had the trademark flavors of sweet, smoky, and spicy, but the savor was far more integrated with the chicken than I'd imagined it would be--so complex, layered, confident.

Cochinita Pibil [$26.00] | tortilla-fed Gleason Ranch suckling pig, achiote-marinated & slow-cooked in banana leaves, black beans, pickled red onions, roasted habanero salsa
I'm a huge fan of Rivera's "Maya puerco pibil" dish, so I just had to get Red O's version. I still like Rivera's version better, which I find more succulent, though this, nonetheless, was a valiant effort. The meat was suitably tender, yet not without a bit of bite, which I appreciated. I quite enjoyed the pig's rich, deep flavors, perked up by a bit of achiote and countered by the application of arugula.

Tinga Poblana [$22.00] | braised Gleason Ranch pork shoulder & belly, homemade chorizo, roasted tomatoes, smoked chipotle, Yukon gold potatoes, avocado, queso fresco
I actually preferred the tinga preparation of pork, which really represented a great mix of lean and fat meat, with a lovely char and great lingering spice. I was especially fond of the potatoes, which grounded and tempered the dish. One of the highlights of the meal for me.

We were all surprisingly full by this point, but how could we pass up the sweet stuff?

Creamy Goat Cheese Cheesecake [$8.00] | caramel corn, Mexican "root beer" sauce
I'm generally a fan of cheesecake, and this was no exception. What was fascinating here was the sharp flavor of the goat cheese, which almost added a savory tinge to the dish, an element that played very well with the caramel corn.

Veracruz-Style Buñuelos [$8.00] | with salted caramel ice cream, warm Kahlúa chocolate sauce
This was my favorite of the dessert trio. The buñuelos--sort of like flattened fritters of fried dough--had a great, addictive, cinnamon-y flavor to them. They easily stood by themselves, but the included caramel ice cream was a very apt, though somewhat expected, accoutrement.

Golden and Crispy Empenadas [$8.00] | with wild strawberries & mango, mojito sorbet
Empanadas are usually savory, but in Mexico, sweet versions are common as well. The light, refreshing fruit went well enough with the flaky pastry, but the star of the show here was clearly that mojito sorbet, which really did a tremendous job in conveying the essence of the cocktail.

Mexican food in the United States has come a long way since Bayless began his culinary career--it's no longer simply about burritos, cheese on everything, nachos, iceberg lettuce, and Taco Bell. Old habits die hard, however, and I applaud Bayless and his contemporaries for elevating the status of the cuisine, giving it the respect that it rightfully deserves. In any case, for me, Red O is a welcomed addition to the Southland's restaurant landscape, and, I suspect, will do just fine.

Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2010/05/red-...

Patina Group
291 W Cerritos Ave, Anaheim, CA 92805

Red Onion
736 Silver Spur Rd, Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274

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  1. Very Great Report, Kevin. Thank you. It seems that while Rick Bayless isn't really wearing shoes in this, he has some very large shoes to fill since the expectations of him and his perceived role are very huge. In any case, it further cements the relationships in place as far as LA's role in the popularization of Mexican food into America at large. Thanks again Kevin for the fascinating report.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Tripeler

      Well stated. For not having an ownership interest in the restaurant, he certainly does have his name plastered everywhere! He's got no money at risk, only his reputation.

      1. re: kevin h

        He mentioned consulting, so it's a similar deal as him licensing his name out for Frontera Bottled Salsas, he probably got a nice licensing fee... So $$$ with no real risk... not a bad deal...


    2. Rick Bayless IS in the Red O kitchen tonight!

      2 Replies
      1. re: NumeroUnoEat

        Woo hoo!! I just scored a reservation for tonight! They had a cancellation.

        1. re: soniabegonia

          Ok, a little late, but here's my brief review:
          Guacamole - really good, nice bite from onion, garlic. Generous amount of acid (which I liked). Probably the best guacamole I've had in a restaurant.

          Pork belly sopes - wow, this was.... almost life-changing. Yes, the pork was good, the sopes were tasty and just right, but that salsa negra was mind-blowingly delicious. It was the perfect balance of salty, sweet, hot, sour. Amazingly complex and deep and earthy and perplexing, the kind of sauce you wanted to taste over and over again to figure out what the devil was in it. Our pork was not fatty at all; in fact, it was quite firm (but not tough) from the fat having been completely rendered out.

          Mushroom ceviche - Again, a very complex amalgamation of flavors with sour being the predominent note. And suprisingly, quite hot. In the final analysis, I found the heat and acid too overpowering to showcase the mushroom.

          Steak & heirloom tomato salad - a relatively light but still very satisfying dish. The steak had a wonderful flavor that I couldn't quite place. The sum was greater than its parts - the smoky meat, the sweet watermelon, the mildly acidic tomato all worked beautifully together.

          Shrimp tacos al carbon - nice, large adobo-marinated shrimp w/ fixin's (rustic homemade tortillas, stewed beans, guac, cebollitas. this was ok but I probably wouldn't order it again as along as they had those pork sopes on the menu. It was also a bit cumbersome to share.

          Soft-serve cajeta ice cream w/ pecan & bacon streusel - couldn't pass up soft-serve ice cream even though we were both quite full by this time. I'm glad we ordered this... it was incredibly silky (thanks to soft serve) and buttery and caramel-y with just enough crunch from the streusel for textural contrast. I wish more restaurants had soft-serve ice cream... other than McD's and now Red O, I can't think of a single restaurant that serves soft-serve. The closest I can think of is the pecan shake at Lucky Devil's, which is called a shake but is really more like a soft-serve (wicked good, BTW, but I digress).

          Anyway, besides the food -

          A minor gripe - the plates were way too small for sharing - and I think the menu is designed with sharing in mind.

          The space was inviting and loung-y but I found it all a bit too clubby for my taste (complete with dapperly dressed doormen and bathroom attendant, at least in the women's) and felt a bit of a "hipper-than-thou" vibe from a few people. But our server was down-to-earth and highly competent, and the food was fantastic, so I can't wait to go back.

          Red O
          8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

      2. Thank you Kevin, we can always count on you. I had a feeling this morninig, your review will be up and I was so excited to read it. Everything looks great and I can't wait to try some of the wonderful dishes. I love rick and his restaurants in Chicago.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mrsjoujou

          Lol. I had an early morning meeting Thursday, so I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get the post out in time. Glad you appreciated the effort!

        2. Nice report with excellent pics!

          1. Hard to believe this restaurant has no dishes even apps for under $8. Or did I miss something?

            6 Replies
            1. re: mc michael

              Maybe they're paying the staff a living wage?

              Seriously, while this is more than we usually pay - $9 for chips & guac?? - I think the prices are not at all unrealistic, given the apparent quality of the food and the location. And if we're willing to address the complaint we've heard from Tony Bourdain on two of his visits here, that the rotten secret of LA's food scene is how badly paid the workers are, maybe we need to give up our addiction to $10-per-person banquets.

              1. re: Will Owen

                Maybe, but I doubt it. As for the location, prices were certainly not in that range when Moustache Cafe was in the same spot. As for Bourdain, he's entertaining, provocative, but always shilling for himself. And as for quality, let's not forget that not so long ago, Mr. Bayless was doing promotions for Burger King.

                1. re: mc michael

                  This is not the place for this particular food fight, but Tony didn't need to shill for himself - he was signing books and had the room in his pocket before he even came in. And what he said is sadly true. He's paying dishwashers what line cooks make here.

                  1. re: Will Owen

                    I was not aware that he still worked in a kitchen.

                    1. re: mc michael

                      Probably not, but I think he still owns one.

                      Anyway, the first time I heard him fuss about this was on his "Les Halles" tour, when he was still working at least part of the time.

              2. re: mc michael

                Not unlike Feniger's "Street" where there's nothing much under $7. Street food? Really? Must be just an "homage" to street food.

              3. Awesome report. We have reservations on Monday and I can't wait!


                1. Thanks for the report and the pictures! Can't wait to try it!

                  1. Great report, Kevin. Your blog was even better. The place looks really hip and fun, but the food looks even better. They weren't very generous with the guacamole for $9 from the pics. I could eat that in 3 bites. LOL. You ordered a lot of dishes. Must have set you back some!

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: granadafan

                      Thanks! Actually, it wasn't that bad in terms of cost. Remember, everything was split amongst four people. ;)

                      1. re: granadafan

                        Agree. Being cheap with the guacamole is a pet peeve of mine.

                      2. Kevin:

                        Great work, as always. We're headed to Red O tomorrow night and was hoping you might suggest a few, non-pork dishes not to be missed (the mushroom ceviche looks like a must have.) Thanks in advance.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: anothernotch

                          I apologize; I didn't get to see your question in time. What did you end up ordering, and how did you like it?

                          1. re: kevin h

                            actually we dine at Red O tonight . . . there's still time for some insight. Thanks in advance.


                            1. re: anothernotch

                              The grilled steak, heirloom tomato and watermelon salad is delicious.

                              1. re: anothernotch

                                Gah--forgot to check this thread again. What did you end up having?

                                1. re: kevin h

                                  We acutally decided to let the kitchen put our meal together. We had Chef Bayless select six items off of the first page and six off of the second page of the menu. Suprisingly enough, I thought that the star of the evening was the corn and goat cheese tamale (an item that I would probably not have ordered on my own). Perfectly balanced, slight heat from the pablano and incredibly creamy. Perhaps the best tamale I've ever had. We also really enjoyed; 1) the blue shrimp ceviche - very refreshing citrus flavors; 2) the steak and heirloom tomato salad; 3) the Sonoma lamb - I agree with your tortilla comment and also thought that the fried onion added significantly to the dish; 4) the carne asada - simply put and perfectly prepared ribeye; and 5) the goat cheese cheesecake.

                                  I should also add that a few members of our party raved about the plantain sopes. Indeed we ordered a second round. I thought that it was a nice dish but not outstanding.

                                  It was a very nice meal and we look forward to going back. While not in the same league as Topolobampo, Red O is a nice addition to the LA dining scene. It is not a stretch to compare it's food with that served at Babita.

                                  1. re: anothernotch

                                    Thanks for the report back. I love how you had Bayless choose for you--perhaps they should consider a tasting menu option? I must get the goat cheese tamale next time (been hearing good things about it) as well as the carne asada (which I wanted to try).

                                    1. re: kevin h

                                      You will not go wrong with either dish. . . I think it's only a matter of time unitl they put together a tasting menu option.

                                    2. re: anothernotch

                                      Topolo is also not on the same side of the country as Red-O, making comparisons somewhat difficult although I'd be more than willing to try. We're going to Red-O in a couple of weeks. So far, it looks like EXACTLY the place I hoped it would be.

                                      Thanks all for the input.

                                      1. re: anothernotch

                                        I was there Friday night the 28th...

                                        Overall it was great. The service was lovely and we sat in the front room before sunset and the light in there was spectacular. It felt like a vacation.

                                        Three of us ordered:

                                        Topolo Margheritas to start. Very nice and light.

                                        Shrimp Ceviche
                                        Skirt Steak Tostaditas
                                        Short Rib Tamales
                                        Mushroom Fundido
                                        Lamb Soft Tacos

                                        Adored adored adored the Shrimp Ceviche. Fresh, citrusy, a hint of sweet from the mangos. Such a perfect early summer dish.

                                        We also loved the Mushroom Fundido. Could have made a dinner of it alone. And maybe will someday.

                                        The table was split on the Skirt Steak. Two liked it a lot, the other (me) thought it was fine, but nothing to write home about. My problem with it was that surprisingly (at least to me) it was cold. Not room temp, but refrigerator cold. That muddied the flavor for me.

                                        For us the only three thumbs down dish was the tamale. It was all too dry. The filling and the masa. Tasty but dry.

                                        We also had the Pecan "Pie" dessert. The table was split on that. Two thumbs up, two down. The thumbs up liked that it was only slightly sweet, not a real gooey sugary pecan pie. And the thumb down thought it was unremarkable.

                                        All in all very successful and I have another rez on the 8th. It will be interesting to see how things go once Rick leaves the kitchen to it's own devices.

                              2. We went on Monday. Because I had to work the following day I got an early (6 PM) reservation. My only minor complaint was that they did not open until 6 PM, which no on mentioned, and we ended up spending 15 minutes on the corner of Melrose. It would have been nice if the bar opened at 5:30 PM...

                                I will not try to out do Kevin's great review, but I will chime in with a few thoughts. My favorite dishes of the night were the corn and goat cheese tamales and the pork belly Sopas. Both were very complex dishes. The tamales were subtle and luscious, while the Sopas started quietly but finished very spicy while maintaining a nice complexity. Overall everything we ordered was great. We also loved the meatball tacos. I loved the lamb tacos, but my wife and my friends wife found the taste off putting. The only disapointment was the fundido; we all felt the cheese just overwhelmed the chorizo, which had a nice subtle taste. Of the deserts we tasted the cheesecake was my favorite.

                                Oh and the cocktails were amazing!

                                My only regret was no sign of Rick Bayless ;)

                                1. My friends and I just had dinner there last night. We loved the interior design of the place, but I will have to say the front entrance door was a total design fail since we completely didn't see it or the doorman at first. While waiting for our table, we found some lovely seats at the bar which allowed us to further admire the interiors (good job Dodd Mitchell). I had a cucumber and melon margarita, and my husband got the sangria. Next time I will stick to the sangria, which is on the sweet since since it's sangria but is very light since it is made with a rose wine, since my margarita didn't really wow me. They were totally hopping in the restaurant, and we didn't actually get seated until closer to 20 minutes after our reservation time. They made us settle our bar tab before seating us instead of letting us add it to our bill to settle at the end. We all thought that was a bit strange and annoying.

                                  We ordered the following:

                                  Smoked Chicken Taquitos
                                  Halibut Ceviche
                                  Pacific Sole Ceviche
                                  Corn and Goat Cheese Tamales
                                  Plantain Sopes
                                  Bacon Queso Fundido
                                  Cajeta Soft Serve

                                  The food was really sold. The dishes that totally stood out for us at our table were the Guacamole, Smoked Chicken Taquitos, and the Corn and Goat Cheese Tamales. My best friend doesn't even like goat cheese, and she LOVED the tamales. The Guacamole was totally tasty. The smoked chicken in the Taquitos was a surprisingly nice touch. The goat cheese was not overpowering and was surprising mild and a really nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the tamales. The Pacific Sole Ceviche was also a win. We actually liked that more than the Halibut Ceviche, which we most likely won't be ordering again. For desert, I got the Cajeta Soft Serve made out of a mild goat cheese. It was AWESOME!! The Bacon Queso Fundido was nice as was the Plantain Sopes, but they didn't really WOW us. I was disappointed with the Buñuelos since it was not what I was expecting. I was expecting something less like a patty and more crunchy, I suppose. The sea salt caramel ice cream it came with was rather amazing, though. Next time we're gonna try the goat cheese cheesecake.

                                  Red O
                                  8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: jhoana

                                    << My best friend doesn't even like goat cheese, and she LOVED the tamales>>

                                    That was true for me as well -- except the she part! That is a lovely dish. I didn't like much else (foodwise) at Red O.

                                    Red O
                                    8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

                                  2. Our party of five went for dinner last night.

                                    In brief, I give the food a B, the service a B- and the valet service a D. (They lost the keys to our vehicle almost immediately and were adamant we'd done something wrong . . . until they discovered they'd placed them in a drawer rather than the rack. Argh, grrr!) Armed with comments from y'all, we ordered the following:

                                    Cocktails: Red "O" Sangria, Topolo Margarita, Market Margarita and a Mexicano Mojito.

                                    Starters: Mushroom Ceviche, Guacamole, Duck Taquitos, Corn and Goat Cheese Tamale, Mushroom Queso Fundido

                                    Entrees: Skirt Steak Tacos, Carne Asada Brava, Camarones All Mojo de Ajo and Tinga Poblana.

                                    Desserts: 3 Sorbets & Cookies, Pecan Pie Bar, Bunuelos.

                                    My take on it all: Cocktails. I didn't think there was anything special going on. The Market Margarita was initially a pleasant surprise but ultimately overwhelmed by the cucumber. The Mexicano Mojito was also pleasantly different but it too became overwhelmed by the chiles and mint. Maybe there was just too much ice. A note about the “agua”; we were offered 6 different kinds of water and opted for “still”. We were surprised to discover that meant 2 bottles of Evian (as opposed to iced tap water, our bad) at $7 each. Ri-donkulous!

                                    The starters: I could eat the duck taquitos every day until I died. They were fantastic. Additionally, once the arugula wilted, it was a terrific counterpoint to the richly flavorful duck. This was my favorite dish of the night. The guacamole was . . . guacamole. The corn and goat cheese tamale was tasty but a bit unctuous. The mushroom ceviche was simply a mouthful of crunchy tartness and the mushroom fundido was bland, although to be fair, that was what our gringo-mouthed companion was going for.

                                    Entrees: I ordered the Tinga (pork belly, SO hard to go wrong) and it was fine but the table favorite was the Carne Asada Brava and the Borracho Beans that came with the Skirt Steak Taco. Both perfectly seasoned, with a little heat. (Since I like a little more heat, the accompanying salsas were perfect.)

                                    We all agreed the Bunuelos were the dessert winner. The other sweets were okay but didn’t have that “pop” the bunuelos delivered.

                                    The service was . . . odd. While the dining room was never more than ¾ full, from the moment we arrived until the moment we left, we felt pressured to “keep it moving.” There was always someone there to push the next serving but not necessarily there to tend to our needs (Another drink? Food okay?) although the $7 water was pushed repeatedly. It was odd. Our waiter was pleasant and knowledgeable but didn’t seem invested.

                                    So, there we were. Drinks, starters, entrees, desserts and tip came to about $425. Not outrageous but somewhat steep. I’d think twice about returning although I probably would go, if for nothing else, the duck taquitos.