When Acapulco-born chef Danny Godinez opened Anepalco’s in Orange eight years ago, Mexican food was still seen by some as just rice, beans and red sauce. So it’s not surprising that for the first few years, Godinez struggled to convince locals of the worth of his Frenchified takes on chilaquiles (plated like a stack of tuna tartare) or his Latin-tinged croque-madame (Gruyère and queso oaxaqueno).
Eventually, though, word of Anepalco’s cross-cultural brunch spread (as did photos of his now-famous chilaquiles), and in 2012, the so-called French-Mexican chef — who learned European cooking techniques while working in some of Orange County’s most expensive kitchens — opened a second, all-day Anepalco’s nearby.
Since then, Godinez has dropped the “Le Mexique” tag and expanded his experimentalism, turning Anepalco’s dinner menu into a rotating gallery for his molecular gastronomy–informed cocina de autor (chef’s signature cuisine). In September, he opened Santa Ana’s El Mercado, a restaurant that serves 31 artfully presented traditional dishes, one for each state in Mexico, solidifying himself as one of the most interesting chefs in the O.C.
On Jan. 6, he opened Maestro in Pasadena, his fourth restaurant and the first outside of Orange County.
But don’t expect more French-Mex brunch or another modern Mexican entry in the vein of Broken Spanish.
“For Pasadena, we want to bring in something different to L.A.,” Godinez says. “It will be the best from Anepalco’s and the best from El Mercado — the best from both both places.”
So, yes, Maestro will be bringing Anepalco’s cylindrical chilaquiles to L.A., but it will also bring Godinez’s personal takes on recipes from his homeland plus some crucial examples of that wily cocina de autor.
The idea is to let those new to Godinez’s world play it safe with an order of chile manzano ceviche or traditional al pastor tacos, while also offering adventurous types a taste of Anepalco’s originality (along with a side of tequila and mezcal cocktails). The octopus comes with mole guerrerense, sesame seed foam and burnt tortilla dust. A seemingly simple avocado toast is actually a spicy, pork belly–topped pan rustico. There’s a plate of short ribs, where the rice comes as a puree swirled in a sea of mole; the beans are black-eyed peas dusted with mole powder and sprinkled around the plate.
“I tend to remember flavors from my childhood and go from there,” Godinez says of where his creativity comes from. “I’m so proud of being Mexican and I want to tell people it’s more than rice and beans or chips and salsa. It’s huitlacoche. It’s huaraches. It’s a lot of things.”
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Godinez started his culinary career as a child, helping with the laborious task of making pozole at his mother’s fonda in Acapulco. He learned the basics at culinary school in Mexico before moving to live with family in Texas as a teenager, where he started working at chain restaurants. Eventually, he moved up to the big leagues with gigs alongside celebrity chefs at the Montage Hotel, French 75 and Charlie Palmer. The last job he held before striking out on his own with Anepalco’s eight years ago was a five-year stint with Michael Mina at Stonehill Tavern.
Being a Mexican-born chef trained in the French fine-dining tradition makes Godinez (and his forthcoming Maestro) yet another noteworthy addition to L.A.’s growing modern Mexican scene. He joins Guanajuato-born José Acevedo of Yxta and Maradentro on the first-generation front, as well as the dozen or so Mexican-American chefs born here who are currently defining the burgeoning Alta California cuisine. Together, they continue to push the boundaries of how Mexican food is perceived.
“I want to create things that people have never tried before while still using Mexican flavors,” he says. “That’s why I call my restaurants ‘cocinas de barrio’ [kitchens from the ’hood]. We’re not following recipes, we’re creating them.”
110 E. Union St, Pasadena. (626) 787-1512, maestropasadena.com.