At Dia de Campo, the new Mexican-ish restaurant in Hermosa Beach, the term "chef's table" has been stretched to its logical limits.
In the back corner of the room, the glassed-in kitchen has a stainless steel counter with a space open to the dining room. On the kitchen side, a line cook shucks oysters and flattens masa into tortillas on a round press; on the dining room side, they've made room for as many as four customers to eat, even though the counter is barely wide enough to fit a plate and glass of water.
The area likely was envisioned as a pass where food could be slid out to waiting servers — it would better be called a "cook's counter." Given the 2-month-old eatery's extreme popularity, though, the thing they're calling the "chef's table" may well be where you end up sitting, perched on stools between the end of the bar and the kitchen, watching line cooks sweat and twirl, feeling very much as though you're encroaching on their space. It's a worthy experience, not to revel in the glamour now associated with chefs (and implicit in the very term "chef's table") but to be reminded what a hard job it is to crank out this much food to this many picky eaters. To observe it for an hour, fruity cocktail in hand, is enlightening, even if your perch is awkward at best.
Named after the Portuguese phrase for "field day," Dia de Campo is the third in what is becoming a small restaurant empire for chef Tin Vuong and restaurateur Jed Sanford, the team behind gastropub Abigail, also in Hermosa Beach, Culver City's WildCraft Pizza and Manhattan Beach's Little Sister.
As with his other endeavors, Vuong has taken a cuisine — here, Mexican — and applied a formula of sorts: a relentlessly trendy room, a gaggle of young, good-looking servers, and flavors that have been ramped up and intensified through Vuong's colorful prism of taste.
At Little Sister, that means Southeast Asian small plates cooked with playful dexterity and a whole lot of spice.
At Dia de Campo, Vuong, along with executive chef Ken Johnson, tackles Mexican cooking, with an emphasis on seafood. Where Little Sister is slightly dark and brooding, in stark contrast to its beachy setting, Dia de Campo has an open, airy feel that's more in line with what you might expect from a place with this proximity to sand and surf. The windows along the front of the room open out onto the street, and there's a lounge area up front with tables made from what appears to be driftwood. A long bar on the left is flanked by a communal table running down the middle of the room, and wooden booths and colorful banquettes make up the bulk of the dining room seating.
From the large, almost unwieldy menu, you choose from all manner of familiar Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes, as well as a wide-ranging "ceviche-esque" section, which allows Vuong and Johnson to play whatever games they please with raw and almost-raw fish. It's this section of the menu that is most gratifying, and where the mix of chef-y, New American touches mixed with Mexican sensibility works best.
Hamachi and one small but brilliant piece of uni sit on the plate surrounded by a wild tropical salad — green papaya, mango, peanuts, with half a passion fruit to scoop it up. It's a crazily acidic and bright mash of flavor, but when you get a bite with all the plate's components, it's also pretty brilliant. Slightly tamer, though no less successful, is a dish of albacore with hearts of palm, radish, watermelon and airy chicharones on top, while "straight ceviche" is, as the name suggests, more straightforward, a tangy mix of ahi tuna, shrimp, salmon, hamachi and scallop; its apple celery salad accompaniment gives it a fresh burst of personality.
There are plenty of diners who will likely never deviate from margaritas and guacamole and tacos, and they wouldn't be disappointed here. The tacos can be a wee bit overwrought, with slaws and drizzles that sometimes overpower the fillings. Still, it's a tasty flurry of flavors. It's more fun, though, to make room in your meal for some of the more creative takes on the genre, like braised lamb nachos, or shrimp and chorizo enchiladas.
The house-made tortillas really do make a difference, making any of these dishes just as much about the nutty flavor of corn masa as their fillings or toppings. But problems arise when you go too far in this direction and realize that many of the dishes rely on fried tortilla on top of fried tortilla, and there's also always the potential to fall too far into the arena of cheesy glop.
There are persistent salting issues — often too much, occasionally too little, as with a salad of roasted beets and quinoa that was oddly flat despite copious vinegar.
At Little Sister, I came across an odd amount of attitude, with a waitstaff that seems on the defensive from the minute you walk in the door.
This is not the case at Dia de Campo, where the servers, led by front-of-house manager Todd Oyadomari, are exceedingly pleasant and helpful. Service is probably an easier task here: People know what they're getting themselves into when they walk into an upscale Mexican beach restaurant, and if all else fails, they can just order tequila and tacos and be done with it.
But that's also the reason Little Sister is an infinitely more compelling restaurant — its unique qualities, the very ones that make it a difficult restaurant for the unadventurous, make it shine.
Dia de Campo is far more familiar. We've seen restaurants like this before, and we'll see them again. Which doesn't make it any less fun, just less notable.
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Hermosa Beach deserves a quality, upscale taco and ceviche joint, and Dia de Campo is pretty perfect for its surroundings.
On these warm spring nights, after a stroll on the beach, the welcoming staff and bright seafood dishes hit exactly the right spot. And those line cooks twirling in the back know how to shuck an oyster, cook a whole snapper, or grill up a lobster if you're feeling a bit more decadent.
It's a smart restaurant and completely right for its time and place. No wonder it's packing them in.
DIA DE CAMPO | Two stars | 1238 Hermosa Ave.,0x000A Hermosa Beach | (310) 379-1829 | diadecampohb.com | Mon.-Wed., 5-10 p.m.; Thurs., 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; Fri., 3 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., noon-1 a.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m. | Plates, $8-$38 | Full bar | Street and valet parking