As you cruise down Melrose toward the Haute-Skateboard District, Red O looms up like a nightclub out of a post-apocalyptic gangster movie, a severe bunker guarded by a phalanx of unsmiling bouncers, an icy sea of blondes — and once you get inside, melty lamps and sculptures and fixtures that resemble relics fished from the rubble of a nuclear blast. At the bar, people scoop guacamole out of mounted bowls that look as if they have a liturgical use and sip tequila out of crystal liqueur glasses. (A pair of swinging chairs at the end of the bar may as well have been sourced from the Pleasure Chest.) Red O is the latest lounge-restaurant designed by Dodd Mitchell, who is definitively out of his iron-and-fire phase. More important, at least to the most food-obsessed among us, the menu at Red O was designed by Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef whose Topolobampo in Chicago is not just the Obamas' favorite restaurant, but may be the only non–West Coast restaurant that makes L.A. Mexican-food snobs sigh with envy.
Still, if you are expecting Topolobampo, or even Bayless' more casual Frontera Grill, Red O, which is almost certainly not named for the triglyceride indicator beloved by pathologists, is a different bowl of chips. If you've had the trashy but fabulous pescado zarandeado either in Mazatlán or in Mar Vista — at Mariscos Chente — the timid Red O version may seem a little bland; if you've had the baked-cheese dishes at, say, La Casita Mexicana, the watery queso fundido with tomatoes and bacon here probably won't do it for you. Still, the famous Bayless sweet-smoky-hot flavor profile does show up, from the crisp pork-belly sopes to the tinga, a stew that has been reinterpreted to incorporate slabs of slow-cooked pork shoulder and a not-insignificant portion of the belly; from the cazuela of stewed Sonoma lamb to the untraditional but delicious cochinita pibil made with chunks of suckling pig. The wine list includes a lot of tasty Argentinean reds for around $30, and except for a few main courses with pricey ingredients, the tabs here tend to be reasonable.
Will you travel through the Tunnel of Tequila after dinner? It's up to the guy with the clipboard.
Red O, 8155 Melrose Ave., (323) 655-5009.
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