Andre Guerrero has covered enough mileage at restaurants across Los Angeles that your immediate association of the chef is it's own a litmus test for Angelenos. Millennials will recognize The Oinkster; Gen X-ers might recall Duet or Linq; and Baby Boomers will likely associate him with Café Le Monde and Stoney Point. He now spends most of his time at Maximiliano in Highland Park, where he oversees Italian food by way of America.
"I grew up in Glassell Park. I've moved around a lot. I've lived in Woodland Hills and Santa Monica. I've been all over. When I got married and had children, we ended up moving to Glassell Park. All of our family was there and I had a lot of friends in the area," says Guerrero. "It just felt like home. It felt like this is our neighborhood. When the space became available at Highland Park for Maximiliano, we jumped on it."
At the time, the decision to establish the restaurant the way Guerrero has in the neighborhood was initially met with skepticism.
"When we opened Maximiliano's, people thought I was crazy to invest so much money into that building. It was more instinctual than having a specific plan with projections and doing some kind of market survey of the neighborhood."
These days the restaurant has a steady local following, with some regulars visiting up to five times a week. "It's amazing. We can be under-the-radar as far as publicity and we'll be packed. If people want to succeed today with opening new restaurants, they need to capture the neighborhood first and foremost. If you become a destination restaurant or even a special occasion restaurant, your odds aren't as good of having long-term success," he says.
Guerrero recalls a shift taking place in the neighborhood with the opening of The York. "That was a big deal. It became a magnet for the community. That street was really bad. About eight years ago, there was a lot of gangs around. The city started changing some of the laws to get rid of the gang activity."
"Since we've opened, there's a new restaurant by The York. Sonny's Hideaway just opened. They've got this chef who worked for Marea with Michael White in New York -- a really great pedigree. Then over on Colorado, Little Beast is about to open and that's going to be a great little place."
On the menu, the chef purposefully kept the dishes squarely in the Italian-American genre of which he had fond memories. His mother frequently served him and his brothers spaghetti with meatballs for dinner.
"If you look at our logo, it says 'kinda old school Italian.' It's a bit of joke. They don't eat spaghetti and meatballs together in Italy. That's not traditional," says Guerrero. "I don't know when or where it came from, but it has become an American dish. The idea of a Mission-style burrito doesn't exist in Mexico, for example. People played to what they thought is an American palate, but I think some interesting things came out of that. "
"I think it's great that there are people who are focusing on very specific, genuine Roman, Milanese, or Venetian cuisines. I don't have a cultural reference to a specific area, because I'm not from Italy," says Guerrero, who is Filipino American.
Over half of the menu at Maximiliano is vegetarian-friendly -- a concerted decision Guerrero made as a father and as a chef. "My sons have been vegetarians for over 20 years. I think Fred was about nine and Max was about six when they decided to stop eating meat. I was a vegetarian for two years in college. I don't eat as much meat as I used to. We do a lot of research on where we go out to eat."
"I love going to places like Baco Mercat and Gjelina. Josef [Centeno] has a lot of interesting vegetarian options. I can go to Baco with my sons, eat whatever I want, and they're very happy eating what they want. It's not like going to restaurants where all they've got is steamed broccoli."
"If you think about Italian American food, there are a lot of pastas and pizzas -- a lot of heavy carbs. I wanted to be able to offer a lot of side dishes, so people won't feel guilty. They might split a pizza, a salad, share two or three different vegetable dishes, and walk away feeling good and healthy."
In developing the menu and its execution for Maximiliano, Guerrero didn't stray far from a repertoire already familiar to anyone who has visited The Oinkster. "The landscape is littered with fast food places serving the same kind of menu. They're competing on prices only and believe that they've got to keep their prices as low as possible. It's about buying the cheapest oil and cheapest frozen French fries. They sell this in a combo meal for four dollars."
"So I broke the rules. I thought I'm going to change the formula. I'm going to make my own ketchup. I'm going to use rice bran oil and Kennebec potatoes that we peel and cut ourselves."
From its opening, Guerrero stayed firm on serving what he calls "slow fast food" at the Eagle Rock restaurant. "It took two years for people to really get what I was doing. Once they got it, the place took off."
He uses both dry and fresh pastas at Maximiliano, focused on choosing what fits best for each dish. The process of figuring out the better pasta for the cacio e pepe -- a Roman-inspired pasta with butter, Parmigiano-Romano, and black pepper -- is characteristic for the chef, more accustomed to questioning than following convention.
"We made the dish and it just wasn't any good with dry pasta. I think it's maybe how the butter and the pasta water were emulsifying in a way that doesn't stick to the dry pasta as well. So we started making it from scratch. We make a fresh egg linguine. It needs the egg in the pasta for that dish to really work," he says.
"Somebody once wrote 'Andre's one of these chefs, he'll figure out a way to complicate things.' I guess in a way I do, but I only complicate something if I feel like I'm going to get a better result from the extra effort."
Lemon Rapini Linguine
From: Andre Guerrero
1 Tbsp. salt
¼ cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 jalapeno sliced thin, crosswise
1 large bunch rapini, (½ stems removed; chop remaining stalks)
1 cup vegetable broth
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
½ lb. linguine
1 Tbsp. grated Pecorino Romano
2 Tbsps. grated Reggiano Parmesan
1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt to water.
2. Heat olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat. Add minced shallots and minced garlic. Cook until the garlic begins to turn a light golden color; be careful not to get too dark. Reduce heat, add sliced jalapenos and cook another 30 seconds.
3. Add chopped rapini, vegetable stock and lemon zest. Simmer until rapini is cooked through and the broth has reduced by three-quarters of the original volume. Remove from heat.
4. Meanwhile, cook linguine in boiling water. When linguine is cooked to al dente, drain well and add to sauce mixture.
5. Return sauté pan to heat and toss gently with grated Pecorino Romano. Add salt to taste. Divide between two bowls and sprinkle grated Reggiano Parmesan on top.
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