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First Time Report: Red O on Melrose (Rick Bayless inspired Mexican menu)

kaysyrahsyrah Jun 9, 2010 07:04 PM

Overall, 8.5 of 10. And that makes Red O the best authentic Mexican restaurant experience in the country, IMO.

Went there on one of the opening weekend nights, and was pleasantly surprised at how well oiled the machine at Red O is already. Very psyched to finally see an Alta Cocina Mexican restaurant in LA, done the LA way. The interiors are gorgeous -- what you would expect for a new joint on Melrose, as is the people you will encounter (stars + foodies + usual suspects).

With no disrespect to Rick Bayless, I totally understand why the owners or Red O hired him JUST for his name, menu and teaching the staff how to cook it. You certainly wouldn't hire the rest of the Bayless entourage that puts up fuddy duddy interiors like they do in Chicago.

Ok, to the food: I am a Mexican chef and a stickler for Alta Cocina dishes done right. So we put Red O to the test and tried some classics: Pollo en Mole Poblano and the Chilpachole (seafood in rich broth). And the sopes. These are dishes that you may see on a Mexican menu often, but they are the ones that are always screwed up in large restaurant kitchens because they require many steps and intricate care from kitchen to table.

But at Red O, these classic dishes were PERFECT (fyi, Bayless was there hawking over the staff all night...he cares that much). The mole had the layered depth and integrated chile heat that only comes from a 4+hour process and a couple of days in the fridge. The Chilpachole had 5 seafood elements in it requiring different cook times, but they all came out perfectly. The sopes came out sizzling hot from the oil (rarely done in a Mexican restaurant), and had russet potato in the batter which added greater flavor and texture.

My one complaint is the wine/tequilla list and service. Too many misfit wines for the food on the menu. I don't think a wine director is on the job yet. I asked to see the sommilier, and they said they don't have one. So I bet one of their booze suppliers did the list for them. That's the only way to explain why there are at least 8 wines on there like Beringer Knight's Valley Cabernet -- something you can find in any Safeway. No sane wine director would allow this, even though distributors beg to put such names on the list.

Regarding tequilla, all the right small-batch names are on there, but serving it is clearly not the strength of the bar staff. They don't really know what they are talking about yet, but pretend to. That said, I think these guys should hire one more person with strength in wine and tequilla, who could walk around and make all the various audiences feel comfortable about ordering the right thing for their food. And that same person could put a few other whites and reds that complement spicy Mexican food.

Cocina Restaurant
4901 Durfee Ave, Pico Rivera, CA 90660

Red O
8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

  1. J.L. Jun 9, 2010 07:50 PM

    Wow. Quite a divergence from the review from Ciao Bob...


    Kevin H. agrees more with your assessment on his Opening Night foray (May 27th):


    Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't tequila spelled with one "L'?

    10 Replies
    1. re: J.L.
      Ciao Bob Jun 10, 2010 04:22 PM

      Yes, indeed J.L. -- Quite a divergence!

      And, I must point out, it is from a poster with no previous LA posts but lots of posts in Wine, General Chowhounding Topics, Food Media and News, Cookware, Home Cooking, a little NorCal, Pacific Northwest and a touch of Boston, some Not About Food and one Manhattan.

      Sorry about the "3rd Degree" kaysyrahsyrah [love the name, BTW], but LA Chowhounders are a suspicious group when it comes to a claim like "the best authentic Mexican restaurant experience." Especially if said restaurant:
      a) is not in a strip-mall/hole-in-the-wall/East LA joint with substandard contracting and a Dept. of Health B (or lower) rating;
      b) has some vague connection to a Chicagoan Celebrity Chef without "our" type of street-cred.

      This is not to say that I am sure that Red O is entirely awful...it just was close to that when I went.
      OMG, seems I have been spending too much time with streetgourmetla and starting to sound too much like him.

      Red O
      8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

      1. re: Ciao Bob
        AAQjr Jun 10, 2010 10:06 PM

        Wow! Well that pretty much sums up the L.A. attitude towards Mexican food right there. It belongs only on the street or in the home. Instantly suspicious of anything that smacks of trying to reach beyond their station.

        1. re: AAQjr
          Ciao Bob Jun 11, 2010 09:25 AM

          A. I didn't -- and wouldn't -- call Bayless (or anyone, for that matter) one of "them."

          B. I wasn't instantly suspicious at all. Hardly. I was super excited and had heard good things from friends who loved his Chicago places. It was only after I ate there and felt that what's served on the International Space Station is the only station Red O might “reach beyond."

          C. I am trying it again tonight AND with a very open mind.

          Red O
          8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

        2. re: Ciao Bob
          kaysyrahsyrah Jun 12, 2010 05:08 PM

          CB - I suppose my review would be suspect to some LA Chowhounders.

          I like fine dining and sexy interiors, which are so rare in authentic Mexican. 'Best Mexican restaurant experience in the country' is simply my opinion. Which I stated. And I have been to every high end Mexican restaurant in the country at least once.

          I was fortunate to have a blowout first experience. But I am concerned that Red O may not be able to deliver the level of quality over time sans a stickler like Bayless in the kitchen. Personally, I have put in thousands of hours in the pro kitchen creating these very dishes. Average is too easy. Perfect execution is nearly impossible, as anyone who has tried knows.

          So we shall see about Red O. But for LA's sake, I hope Red O delivers, because it will encourage a healthy competition of other brilliant local restaurateurs trying their hand at authentic Mexican.

          It sounds like you had a horrible experience. As Danny Meyer once said - "wise consumers should never go to a restaurant until it's been open for at least 6 months. Consistency is hard to come by for even the best restaurant operations."

          Red O
          8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

          1. re: kaysyrahsyrah
            J.L. Jun 12, 2010 05:29 PM

            In a fickle town like L.A., 6 months may be an entire lifespan of an eatery.

            Not to compare high end dining to a chain in other repects, but McDonald's is widely studied in business schools for its incredible consistency across countless locations and variables.

            1. re: kaysyrahsyrah
              Ciao Bob Jun 14, 2010 09:39 AM

              Thanks K.

              I went back this weekend and I had a very, very fine meal with 6 friends!
              Almost everything was quite good...the experience could not have been more different from my first.

              1. re: Ciao Bob
                kaysyrahsyrah Jun 14, 2010 10:15 AM

                Glad to hear round 2 was better. I will be back in LA in two weeks, and plan to go again, even though I know I am rolling dice! The Chowhound reviews are not so positive. Lots of 'new restaurant issues' that need to be worked out.

                That said, I MUST support any fine Mexican dining restaurant. There are way too few, and that needs to change!

            2. re: Ciao Bob
              ChrisG.PersonalChef Jul 29, 2010 03:49 AM

              Name 1 Chef who does mex cuisine besides (mary sue and susan) that came out of la
              who anyone has heard of ..?
              I've always thought that was sad.

              1. re: ChrisG.PersonalChef
                Ernie Aug 9, 2010 12:56 PM

                John Sedlar

                1. re: Ernie
                  ChrisG.PersonalChef Aug 15, 2010 03:22 AM

                  Umm.. Southwestern.
                  But yea pretty close.

          2. a
            AAQjr Jun 10, 2010 03:56 PM

            I, for one, would be happy to see more new mexican cooking here in L.A. There is a lot of going on in Mexico city and other places that just does't make it out here. L.A. Mexican seems stuck in the past. It's still very early on for Red O and it's obvious that the scene and price point turn some people off, but hopefully they are successful and maybe we'll see more good places open up. There is so much good mexican food here at very inexpensive prices I think it can be a challenge to get L.A. consumers to see mexican food as fine dining.

            Have to say It's nice to see some balance and more opinions! You don't need a big wine list, to be good it's sad they haven't put in the effort. I love Animal's wine list, small but well curated There is no reason they couldn't do something similar. Do they serve sangrita with there tequila?

            9 Replies
            1. re: AAQjr
              J.L. Jun 11, 2010 01:11 AM

              Any cuisine can be "haute". Except hot dogs, maybe...

              1. re: J.L.
                carter Jun 11, 2010 12:07 PM

                To some, Wurstkuche in the Arts District is one haute dog!
                And Loteria Grill does a decent job of being above most of the Gringo-ized LA area Mexican restaurants, yet will serve you a tequila margarita in either Hollywood or Studio Ctiy.
                But will be trying Red O when the action-level subsides.

                Loteria Grill
                6333 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90036

                800 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90013

                Red O
                8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

                1. re: carter
                  J.L. Jun 11, 2010 03:33 PM

                  I consider the haute cuisine at Wurstkuche to be haute sausages, and not dogs. (As soon as I wrote that last msg, I KNEW someone would call me out on that...)

                  800 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90013

                2. re: J.L.
                  SeaCook Jun 11, 2010 12:44 PM

                  They can be when their spelled haute dogs ;-)

                  1. re: SeaCook
                    WildSwede Jun 11, 2010 03:19 PM


                3. re: AAQjr
                  ChrisG.PersonalChef Jul 29, 2010 03:53 AM

                  Wine list is not native to mexican cuisine.
                  look at the history it's just not, whether Bayless does it or not.

                  Beers, refrescos, aguas frecas from scratch, that's mexico.
                  Wine always feels forced to me.
                  It's not a question of refinement as much as of authenticity.

                  1. re: ChrisG.PersonalChef
                    AAQjr Jul 29, 2010 02:56 PM

                    ? high end Mexican restaurants always have wine. Maybe not the local taqueria, but they have been growing wine in Mexico from the 1600's

                    Bodegas Santo Tomas has been producing wine since prior to the 19th century. Not that the other stuff is not great too. I love a good agua fresca de sandia this time of year, but Merlot goes well with carne asada as well.

                    1. re: AAQjr
                      ChrisG.PersonalChef Aug 15, 2010 03:26 AM

                      Yea I've heard that, maybe youre right.
                      Then again just because SOMEONE has been doing it doesn't mean it's common.
                      I don't know how common it's been in Mexican haute cuisine historically.
                      I could be wrong. I think they put it in there because it pushes up the check average.

                      Carne Asada may be good with merlot but is that authentic mex?
                      Sounds like more of a fusion invention to me.

                      1. re: ChrisG.PersonalChef
                        Tripeler Aug 15, 2010 06:30 AM

                        Wine certainly predates beer in Mexico. To what extent wine has been accepted is open to question, but it is certainly part of Mexican food culture.

                4. Will Owen Jun 17, 2010 10:37 PM

                  Regarding SIV's mini-review of the restaurant in today's Food section. it appears she hasn't gotten the memo about Bayless's tenuous connection to this. She refers to him basically as a participant, as for instance in "grinding his own masa", rather than as a consultant. This may well have been a piece written some time ago, when everyone tended to think that this was a partnership deal, but it does not speak well of the Times's currency that they don't acknowledge what most of us have known for some time.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: Will Owen
                    J.L. Jun 19, 2010 09:06 PM

                    I stopped trusting SIV a long, long time ago...

                    1. re: J.L.
                      Will Owen Jun 19, 2010 09:44 PM

                      I give her some slack because her reviews are written a long, long time before they're published. The wine articles are even worse; the guys at the wine store on Mission in SoPas, who were cited in that week's LAT Food report as having a certain South-of-France cheap tipple, told us they'd been out for over a month. Getting back to SIV, there are certain advantages to getting the early-warm-up preview, and WAY too many disadvantages, like not getting in on what happens after everyone's been slapped across the chops by reality.

                      1. re: Will Owen
                        J.L. Jun 19, 2010 09:50 PM

                        Agree with your point.

                        Whilst you & I may be privy to these facts, the public at large reading her reviews lack the advantage of this caveat emptor. That makes it inaccurate journalism.

                        1. re: J.L.
                          Dommy Jun 21, 2010 10:16 AM

                          Yeah, besides, Rick for MONTHS has been adamant about this being a consulting gig ONLY. It all came to light after his TCM win where he swore up and down that he'd never leave Chicago and then a week later he began twittering all around los angeles... :/


                          1. re: Dommy
                            AAQjr Jun 21, 2010 01:13 PM

                            Personally I'm okay if she said participant. Just when people say Rick Bayless's restaurant Red O... I think it can be a little misleading. I don't want to demean his contribution either, in no way does it look like he just wrote a couple recipes and left. He has put a lot of effort into making it a success. Long term though it will be the team executive chef Michael Brown has that will make it a success or not. As a side note, maybe he has licenced his name to be used since it is on the website 'by Rick Bayless'

                            Red O
                            8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

                            1. re: AAQjr
                              Dommy Jun 21, 2010 02:22 PM

                              He has... and will continue to come in and refresh the menu as needed.


                              1. re: Dommy
                                The Chowhound Team Jun 23, 2010 09:55 PM

                                Hi folks-

                                We have split off a digression critiquing Virbilia and the LATimes to its own thread here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/716173

                  2. b
                    blweis Jul 26, 2010 10:48 AM

                    Went last night. A Sunday evening so it wasn't terribly busy. In fact, my wife and I arrived for a 7:15 reservation about 30 minutes early, and they seated us right away.

                    The room is interesting, but I think could use some work. The patio up front lets in a lot of light, so the entire place- which is not all that big - can be a bit dark in the interior at twilight; the contrast with the patio is a bit disconcerting. The decor is interesting, but not seamless. A bit like a beach club- faux rattan, lots of banquets, an odd looming plant here and there. Nothing distracting, but not perfectly comfortable.

                    Ok, enough of that, on to the food - well, drinks. My wife had red sangria, I had the scorpion margarita, which has serrano peppers and other hot stuff. Quite good- and really strong. I'm no great aficionado of tequilas, so I can't say how great it was or wasn't. The wine list is not at all extensive, but it had some good stuff on it. No effort to pair wines with food, but we were content with the drinks we had.

                    NOW the food. Here's what we had: Pork Belly Sopes, Goat Cheese tamales, followed by the house salad. Main dishes were catfish tacos and Cochinita Pibil. Each of these was quite good, well-balanced, flavor-forward dishes.

                    The sopes were tasty and simple, four sopes on a long ceramic plate that had been smeared with the mole sauce the pork was cooked in. The sauce was complex and interesting. It had a lot of smoke, some strong heat - chipotle, or pasilla, my guess - as well as a dose of brown sugary sweetness. It reminded me of Chicago barbecue sauce on rib tips, and I say that as a high compliment! I AM an aficionado of pork belly (I actually work with heritage breed pork producers) and the flavor on the pork belly was rich, but I think the preparation was a bit over done. Pork belly needs some unctuousness- in short, it should be fatty - but this was more like well smoked pulled pork. Without the sauce it would have been dried out. Still, a quite nice dish, and four sopes as part of a few "bite size" offerings was not a small portion.

                    The tamales were a truly fine dish. Extremely light masa, a real signature of all Bayless's restaurants (been to Frontera and Topolobampo - not in years, though). The goat cheese had both some sweetness and a touch of sour -a crema like consistency. It was served with a small lemony dressed "salad" of baby arugula that was simple but delicious. Not a huge portion, but, again, as part of a range of "bites" not a small plate, either.

                    Next, a simple salad, that was refreshing. Baby romaine, very brisk pickled red onions, and the thinnest strips of tortilla strips crisped as a crouton/garnish. It was a salad - a good one, a bracing palate cleanser between courses. Nice.

                    Next, the main dishes. The catfish is marinated in achiote and rilled with a spring onion and some poblano peppers- rajas, really. This is served with a soupy bowl of pinto frijoles (not refritos) and a napkin laden with steamed tortillas- a hefty pile of them, in fact. The tortillas were spectacular. Really thin, but a nice bite, and a hugely bright masa flavor. The fish was not exceptional, but it was flavorful, moist, and balanced very well with the onions and chiles. The beans were very well seasoned, not hot, but rich and brothy. A bowl of beans and a stack of tortillas would make a great lunch.

                    The cochinita. This is one of the great dishes of the world and Red O's is a fine example. Made with suckling pig (you may object - it's almost impossible to raise suckling pigs sustainably in the U.S. but there you go). The preparation is quite rustic, served in a shallow bowl lined with a banana leaf, swimming in a puddle of brothy black beans and braising juices, topped with more pickled onions, the pork itself is truly good. Meaty texture, but easily shreds. It could have used a bit of a starchy garnish to complement the broth - platanos, or even white rice would have been nice. I made little tacos with the tortillas- brilliant.

                    We saved room for dessert - the offerings were varied, and exemplary. Well, we were really hoping for the platano crepes with cajeta that are the best thing on the menu at Topolobampo - but nope. There were a dish of 3 flans, a tres leches cake, a chocolate and lemon mousse tart, and bunuelos with ice cream. We got the bunuelos - wow. REALLY good. Small hand rolled flour tortillas, flash fried to pillow puffs, coated with cinnamon and sugar - then a chocolate sauce poured over. Oh, and the best caramel sea salt ice cream in creation. Unbelievably good- a big bowl of that would be the most satisfying dessert imaginable.

                    So, we didn't get the duck taquitos, or any ceviche, or a cazuela - but what we did get made for a really enjoyable meal. Very flavorful, nicely balanced, satisfying dishes. Innovative without at all being fussy.

                    The service was a bit spotty. When we first got there it was not all that crowded, and we got loads of attention, none of it obsequious. As it got busier, we had to wait to place a dessert order, and the salad came out in the middle of our sopes/tamales - that could have waited. Not a big deal- not the least bit rude, or pretentious (they don't need a door man at the front to confirm that you have a reservation, only to have that reconfirmed at the desk inside, but I wasn't offended).

                    A brief word of comparison. I grew up in LA, and have travelled some in Mexico. I've eaten widely and voraciously (I'm an anthropologist, and am not reluctant to indulge in oddities). I love the simple pleasures of a great baja taco as much as the skill of a refined manchamantel sauce. I've also eaten at some of the better haute Mexican places - Frontera and Topolobampo, as I said, as well as a recent lunch at Oyamel in DC, and last year we ate at Rivera, probably the place that will be most readily compared to Red O. My feeling is they're really not comparable. Red O is probably most like Topolobampo (no surprise), though Topo is a tad more elegant in presentation, and richness of the dishes. Oyamel is quite flavorful, but it's all little bites, and a bit of molecular gastronomy (a very little bit). The flavors are quite bright at Oyamel - it's just a different kind of place than Red O. For me, Rivera is a more interesting place. Neither Red O nor Rivera is "traditional" anything, but Red O sticks a bit closer to the formal elements of Mexican cuisine, and Rivera is rather more innovative - pulling out singular flavors in dishes and really focusing on these. The cochinita at each place is quite good, but Red O's was all about the integrated elements of the dish - the broth, the beans, the banana leaf, the meat - while at Rivera, the clarity of the pork just bursts through. There's a place for each of them (in my mouth, anyway).

                    It's worth a trip (if you've got $150+ to burn); I'd go back to try the stuff I couldn't sample - it'd be a great place to take a larger party to sample small plates.

                    thanks for reading...

                    Red O
                    8155 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: blweis
                      blweis Jul 26, 2010 10:58 AM

                      Ah! One more thing to add: the prices have been jacked up since the opening! The cochinita had been $26, now $29; the tacos, $15.50 now $18, desserts all $8, now all $12. That's disturbing . . .

                      1. re: blweis
                        hnsbmg Jul 29, 2010 05:05 AM

                        Maybe the doorman demanded a raise.

                        That's a very useful and well-written review, blweis. Have you had other versions of cochinita pibil around town recently enough to compare with Red O's? Babita? Yuca's? Etc.

                        1. re: hnsbmg
                          blweis Jul 29, 2010 09:07 AM

                          Thnx - no I've not tried other cochinita's, but I'm always interested in it!

                        2. re: blweis
                          carter Jul 29, 2010 10:01 AM

                          I really enjoy cochinita pibil, yet $29 seems more than expensive for this dish, unless of course the entire pig is on the plate!
                          As to $12 desserts, well, it is pricing itself to be a Mexican version of Spago.

                          176 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

                          1. re: carter
                            maudies5 Aug 4, 2010 09:26 PM

                            Virbila just gave it *** in August 5, LAT review.


                            1. re: maudies5
                              hnsbmg Aug 4, 2010 09:49 PM

                              "[S]o these could be, in fact, tortilla-fed suckling pigs"?? SIV must have been under a heavy deadline -- "suckling" pigs are still on mother's milk. The ones who eat tortillas are called "pet pigs."

                              I hate the fact that Red O is such a scene, because my scenester clothes are all at the cleaners, so I guess I'll wait. I don't recall Topolobampo or Frontera ever being this bad, but I do remember outstanding food and hope Red O delivers (double entendre intended).

                              1. re: maudies5
                                Ciao Bob Aug 5, 2010 10:23 AM

                                She did nail one thing quite well - those obnoxious valets.

                                1. re: Ciao Bob
                                  Servorg Aug 5, 2010 10:27 AM

                                  Perhaps she meant to say that they were "tortilla-fed?" ;-D>

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