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.
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.
But the next morning, Gustavo Arellano, managing editor of O.C. Weekly and author of the revered "Ask a Mexican!" column, wrote a post about the comments in the paper's food blog, and Bayless immediately went on the attack: "I never said I was going to introduce Southern California to 'authentic' Mexican cuisine," he wrote in the blog's comments section. "I guess getting a Pulitzer doesn't mean your [sic] beholden to truth."
Arellano immediately put up a video clip where Bayless did say that he wondered how true Mexican food would play in Los Angeles. Bayless struck out at the comment a second time on Twitter.
I tried to smooth the waters with a private note to him, and we agreed on a truce later in the day, but the damage had been done: The comments on Arellano's post eventually numbered well into the 200s, items on the "feud" hit dozens of restaurant blogs, and the lines had been drawn for a proxy war between the cult of True L.A. Mexican Cooking and the supposed Intruder From Chicago. It was all that people I ran into wanted to talk about, and at El Mercado in East L.A. later that week, a stranger in a Lakers shirt came up to me and slapped me five.
So it was with considerable trepidation that I started going to Red O again, reluctantly wanting to keep up my side of the battle, but on the other hand knowing that the inadvertent remark, even if reported out of context, had probably done real damage to the restaurant's credibility — I had given people an excuse not to go. I wasn't sure whether the door host, who had seen several of my fake names by this point, would even let me pass.
The first time back, I managed to slink in — he must have been off-duty. The next time he recognized me, even slapped me on the back, and complimented a Squid Ink post that had been written by Caroline on Crack. It felt like a different place — friendlier, more solicitous, not quite the restaurant that had started power-cleaning the floors halfway through the meal on my first visit to the place. The wine list still included a lot of tasty, inexpensive South American reds. And the cooking: Let's say that it resembles high-end Mexico City restaurant food more than Esparza will ever let on, but with a lot less excitement than you'll find in the best local kitchens.
The tamales may be topped with fresh corn and goat cheese, but the steamed masa, the matter of the tamale itself, barely coheres. The quality of the smoked wild-caught salmon may be high, but it seems almost irrelevant buried under avocado salsa and goat cheese on a slice of dry toast. I love the tiny, fried sopes, their toasty corn flavor and their golden crunch; and the crisp pork belly that fills them is expertly prepared, but the result is somehow more a fancy catering dish than it is a soulful antojito, a criticism that could apply to the oddly bland short-rib sopes, the beautifully textured but underseasoned guacamole and the candy-sweet shrimp ceviche.
I loved the mushroom ceviche, minced with herbs and served on a curling sliver of plantain; and the tinga, a Puebla-style stew that has been reinterpreted to incorporate slabs of slow-cooked pork shoulder and a not-insignificant portion of the belly, is succulent, made with tortilla-fed meat from the famous Gleason Farms. The cazuela of lamb, stewed in the clay pot with chiles and cumin until it almost collapses, is wonderful.
Bayless does source great ingredients — he is the impetus behind a lot of the famous organic Mexican farms around Chicago — so when you order a Veracruz-style chilpachole (fish stew) the Carlsbad mussels and Mazatlan shrimp will be firm and fresh, even where the chile broth is laced with a medicinal dose of epazote, and the quality of the sea bass in the pescado Zarandeado will be superb even as the preparation leaves you yearning for the trashy but fabulous version in Inglewood.
At Bayless' Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, a lot of the dishes tend to have similar flavor profiles, the sweet-smoky-hot thing that tends to travel from rabbit to poultry to pig. And you do find a lot of that here, from the queso fundido sluiced with a watery crumble of chorizo to the green-chile-marinated steak, to the dryish, achiote-tinged cochinita pibil also made from Gleason Farms pork.
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And then a dish of soft-serve ice cream, maybe topped with goat's-milk caramel, and you float back into the night.
"Do I have to ask your permission to leave, too?" a tipsy man asked the door host.
The door host smiled. "You may leave," he said.
RED O: 8155 Melrose Ave, L.A. (323) 655-5009, redorestaurant.com. Dinner Sun.-Thurs., 6-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Small courses, $9-$15; main courses, $25-$32. Recommended dishes: mushroom ceviche, lamb cazuela, tinga poblana, soft-serve ice cream.