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Red O: Back to Bayless 

Bringing Mexican to L.A., With Mixed Results

Thursday, Sep 23 2010
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Red O: Bringing Mexican to L.A., With Mixed Results."

The first thing you will see if you happen by Red O is the bouncer, or "door host," a tall, elegantly dressed man with the build of an NFL cornerback, a man whose job it is to mediate between you and the glories awaiting inside. If your name is not on the clipboard, you are not exceedingly pretty or he has never seen you before, you are probably not getting into the restaurant, no matter how many people read your blog. If you have reserved, he will treat you like his best friend on Earth. For the people whose nocturnal pleasures include places like Voyeur or Hyde, this is standard procedure; if there aren't 300 people waiting outside on a Saturday night, a club isn't worth going to. For the people who are more interested in who might be cooking at a restaurant than in who might be sipping mezcal at the bar, the doorman is practically a war criminal. Pity the man who stands between a chowhound and his dinner.

The food-obsessed, of course, tend to avoid anything that might be termed a Hollywood lounge, whose clientele, they assume correctly, tend to have priorities that differ from their own. But Red O, which looms up from Melrose like a nightclub out of a Michael Mann flick, features the cuisine of Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef whose restaurants make Los Angeles Mexican-food snobs sigh with envy. When the Obamas invited the president of Mexico to the White House, it was Bayless who cooked the dinner. The lines outside his casual restaurant Xoco rival the lines outside Pink's. He won the only season of Top Chef Masters that anybody seems to have watched, and he appears to spend half his life sending enchilada recipes to his demanding followers on Twitter.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Behind the scenes in Red O's kitchen

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Red O, it is clear, is basically a consulting gig for Bayless, and the owners seem to be gambling on a hunch that Bayless' sleek, modern Mexican cooking, as executed by his executive chef Michael Brown, may help the place stand out from the post-post Nobuisms that have become the franks 'n' beans of every other club on this side of town.

Still, where jazzy neosushi has become a global commodity, a signifier of the good life everywhere from St. Petersburg to Santiago to Beijing, Los Angeles is home to more Mexicans than greater Guadalajara, and we embrace the astronomical variety of Mexican cooking as our own. The exclusivity a lot of cognoscenti enjoy here is not the exclusivity of class but of information — which Southside bakery serves great cochinito pibil on weekend afternoons; which street vendor makes the best D.F.-style huaraches; which Oaxacan cenaduria serves the best green mole, which serves the best red mole, which serves the best white mole, and why. If you imply that a certain diner may serve the best Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa in town, 50 correspondents may jump out at you, each of them with a logical argument as to why the barbacoa they prefer is the best.

Thus it is not surprising that a lot of people in the local food community decided that Red O was not for them. The most articulate of the detractors, a comida fanatic named Bill Esparza whose blog, StreetGourmetLA.com, occasionally skews toward Maoist ideological purity, took the restaurant down dish by dish, pointing out how Bayless' dishes differed not just from the originals in their states of origin, but from what he deemed to be superior versions available in Los Angeles. I didn't agree with all of Esparza's assessments — he was especially harsh to a perfectly respectable crock of chicken with poblano chiles and cream — but I respected him for making them.

I got caught in the crossfire about a month after Red O opened, when I delivered a kind of informal cocktail-hour address at a mixer for CCNMA (California Chicano News Media Association) in a South Coast Plaza restaurant patio. The talk (which followed an incredibly moving commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Los Angeles Times journalist Rubén Salazar's death at the hands of the LAPD) was loose and sentimental, woven more or less around the tricky idea of authenticity. Along the way, I lingered for a few seconds on Bayless, pointing out that he was a student of Mexican cuisine, had good restaurants in Chicago, takes his staff on yearly research trips to Mexico and wrote well-researched cookbooks, but also touching on assertions in some publications that "real" Mexican food had finally arrived in Los Angeles. The ultimate point of the talk was the belief that our Chicano cuisine was as authentic as the food from any other Mexican region. Afterward, almost everybody who came up to me wanted to share stories about the food that their abuelitas had loved. The subject of Bayless didn't even come up.

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