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May 27, 2010 02:55 AM

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:

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.