It's dinnertime on a Tuesday evening, and I'm standing outside the Purple Haze Smoke Shop in Hermosa Beach kicking myself.
After an hour spent crawling south on the 405, I showed up at Baran's 2239 — a tiny, strip-mall bistro that opened in March, next door to the aforementioned smoke shop — without a reservation. "How busy could it be on a weeknight?" I asked my girlfriend on the drive down, assuring her there would, of course, be an open table. It turned out to be a supremely boneheaded move. We were met with a dining room booked solid and ended up heading to a roast chicken and hummus joint down the street (it wasn't bad). I returned a few days later with a heightened sense of purpose (and a confirmed table).
The brainchild of brothers and first-time restaurateurs Jonathan and Jason Baran, Baran's 2239 is inspired by their family's historic Pasadena restaurant, the Brothertons Farmhouse, which opened in 1937 and served down-home comfort food at 2239 E. Colorado Blvd. for half a century. Perhaps taking a cue from the Brothertons Farmhouse, the Barans' new South Bay space is humble but functional: a few tufted banquettes, a scattering of wooden tables and a wide wall mirror that gives way to exposed rafters. A lone TV is positioned over a small wraparound bar, commonly tuned to the Dodger game. On most nights, you'll find the brothers pouring drinks or greeting diners out front while their collaborator, chef Tyler Gugliotta, runs the kitchen.
Gugliotta, a Torrance native who most recently worked at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice, has an interesting family tree of his own. His aunt and uncle, owners of Weiser Family Farms, are known for their choice vegetables (and for being name-checked on countless menus around town). Though the waitstaff at Baran's 2239 is quick to point out that much of the menu's produce hails from the family farm, it soon becomes apparent that Gugliotta's inventive global cooking doesn't need to hang its hat on the farm-to-fork ethos alone. For a local hangout, the food at Baran's 2239 is progressive, delicious and unexpected.
The compact, one-page menu pulls you in immediately. Gugliotta's heavenly version of focaccia is soft and supple, with a dense strata of Parmesan cheese and a side of a whipped "umami butter," an indulgent spread supercharged with sun-dried tomato, capers and olives. A hamachi crudo, tricked out with a colorful aji amarillo and passion fruit, nods toward both Nobu and Peru, while Caribbean-leaning jerk chicken wings come with a sweet mango dipping sauce to tame their habanero-powered heat.
Rest assured, Gugliotta does right by his aunt and uncle's produce. Small coins of fingerling potatoes take the place of fries in a shockingly refined take on duck poutine, and a duo of white and green asparagus is tossed in salty, truffle-laced brown butter flecked with morel mushrooms and crushed hazelnuts. Lighter options abound, too. A sweet-bitter salad of endive, snap peas and goat cheese is a lovely holdover from spring, perked up with fresh mint and baked strawberries laced with pink peppercorn. I enjoyed its more summer-appropriate sibling as well: tender farro, compressed watermelon, queso fresco and a charred poblano ash sprinkled over the top like cracked black pepper.
Gugliotta makes use of his Italian background with a couple of fresh pastas, one of which regularly changes — on our visit it was a simple bundle of linguini with wild mushrooms and fried sage. Another has become something of a signature dish: soft, squid-ink gnocchi swimming with Calabrian chiles and jumbo lumps of King crab, a gorgeous little rumination on the way a gentle nudge of heat can elevate the brininess of fresh seafood. The PCH-adjacent dining room might be set back from the beach, but the gnocchi here blows away anything you'll find strolling along the boardwalk.
There is the occasional dish in which the spark of creativity doesn't quite take hold. Fried chicken that's smoked before it's dredged in a cornstarch slurry sounds like a slick move to add flavor, but the smoking seemed to leach moisture from the meat, leaving behind dryish hunks that even the accompanying soy-chile gastrique couldn't save.
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Much more successful — and even more quirky — was a take on a Scotch egg, the British pub snack made by wrapping a soft-boiled egg in sausage and tossing it in the fryer, producing a crunchy exterior and a molten yolk. Here it's made with peppery lamb sausage and drizzled with an aromatic curry jus, a cheeky Indian twist taken even further by the yogurt and cucumber salad served alongside.
The still-booming South Bay restaurant scene has seen its share of splashy openings in the past — the new-wave Asian fusion at Little Sister, the pristine seafood at Fishing With Dynamite, the lush Cal-Ital at Love & Salt — but it's fair to say that Baran's 2239 arrived with much less fanfare. Perhaps that's why it's so easy to fall in love with the place. As much as we adore a good underdog story, especially an off-the-radar place that feels more like a dinner party than a restaurant, there's probably another reason for the restaurant's out-of-the-gate popularity.
The brothers Baran were shrewd enough to realize they'd wrangled a chef brimming with creativity and the skills to back it up, then had the prescience to let him cook whatever he wanted. It makes you wonder why more restaurateurs won't take that same leap — and how many more packed dining rooms we'd see in unexpected locations if they did.
BARAN'S 2239 | Three stars | 502 Pacific Coast Hwy., Hermosa Beach | (424) 247-8468 | barans2239.com | Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. | Lot parking | Beer & wine