I could write a book about the issues with Yelp's rating system, the history of distrust between the website and the restaurant community, accusations that ratings are manipulated by the company for its own economic gain, and the very real economic impact that low or high Yelp ratings have on restaurants. But I'm not here to write that book. I'm here to review Tallula's, the newest restaurant from Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, the chefs-turned-restaurateurs who are also behind Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo & Olive, Cassia, Sweet Rose Creamery and Esters Wine Shop & Bar.
Unfortunately, since Tallula's opened in May, its most discussed attribute has not been its modern Mexican cooking. Instead, people have been talking about its Yelp rating.
Very high Yelp ratings are common, even among fast food restaurants and the like. The reason Tallula's rating is notable is because it's comparatively low. This is odd for a number of reasons, not least of which that Loeb and Nathan are widely beloved and have thus far delivered only fantastic and successful restaurants. Is there something fishy going on with the way Tallula's rating is calculated? Or is there really something off about the place?
It appears that there is something strange about the way Tallula's is being rated on Yelp. (For more on that, see Eater's examination of the matter.) But despite the wonky calculation, I understand why the restaurant is having trouble finding a fully appreciative audience. Is it a fancy restaurant or a big, loud neighborhood cantina? Who is it meant to please? And are the few short miles that separate Tallula's and the owners' other restaurants responsible for a huge difference in the clientele they're likely to attract?
Let's start with the neighborhood. Tallula's is located on Entrada Drive, a few feet from the PCH and in view of the ocean, near the point where Santa Monica technically becomes Pacific Palisades. It seems like a perfect location for a restaurant, proximate to wealthy residents and on the road to Malibu but only a 10-minute drive — at most — from the center of Santa Monica. Even so, driving there feels like going to another world, and it's been a tough place for restaurants to take hold in the past. The Hungry Cat, which opened about a block away in 2011, closed late last year. Perhaps thoughtful, high-end food isn't what the area's affluent residents want in a neighborhood eatery.
What they might want instead is a large family restaurant, and in many ways Tallula's looks to be just that. Located in what was, for decades, a Tex-Mex restaurant called Marix, Tallula's has a soaring dining room, a brightly colored bar with a large-screen TV and a margaritas-and-guacamole menu that screams "CANTINA" in the old-school American sense of the word, the type of cheese-drenched, combo-special-having place that we all know and some of us love. In many regards Tallula's is that restaurant. And in many ways it is not.
For instance: There are nachos. But they're constructed with house-made chips and come drizzled with buttermilk cream and scattered with spicy pickled vegetables, as well as melted cotija and Oaxaca cheeses. They are neither as gloppy nor as tawdry as the nachos most people (and their children) are used to, but they also aren't obviously fancy. They're a little ... confusing.
The kitchen is run by executive chef Mario Alberto, who was the longtime chef at Ysabel and Laurel Hardware. Jeremy Fox also is involved as a business partner and an overseer of culinary operations. Fox is the executive chef at Rustic Canyon and was this year nominated for a James Beard Award in the Best Chef in the West category.
Some of the food — a lot of the food! — lives up to the promise of the two chefs' talent. In fact, some of it is a wonderful collision of tradition and creativity and gorgeous ingredients. The only tacos on the menu are served on small tortillas made from heritage blue corn, topped with a slick of malt aioli and grilled chunks of juicy swordfish. Rather than salsa or slaw, the crowning ingredient is something called "Mexican sauerkraut," made from thin strips of purple cabbage. The dish is a bizarro masterpiece, a melding of Mexican and German and British ideas (the aioli's malt coming from malt vinegar, which gives fish-and-chips context to the swordfish). The fish is meaty, the aioli is creamy, the sauerkraut is funky and tangy, the tortilla has that deep corn muskiness that only comes from incredible masa. It's probably confusing as hell to the person who came here expecting regular fish tacos.
Equally as mind-boggling (in a good way): the bowl of tender chopped squid, scattered over a sticky sludge of spicy eggplant and punctuated with crunchy spears of kohlrabi, lima beans, purple basil and nectarine. There's not quite enough of the sweet stone fruit on the plate to allow all the ingredients to come together often enough, but when they do it's an outrageous combination of texture and flavor and ocean and land and orchard.
If you came here looking for a dumbed-down meal of melty cheese, you're obviously unlikely to order the squid and eggplant and nectarine dish. But you might order the queso fundido, and you'd likely be intensely baffled if you did. It comes with three puffy tortillas — not nearly enough to help you consume the bowl of beans and cheese you've been served — but that's almost beside the point. This is not cheese dip. It's not cheese melted over other ingredients. It's a bowl of (very delicious) vaquero and scarlet runner beans, cooked with tomatoes and spices, and with gobs of queso panela and Oaxaca cheese strewn throughout. Most of it is in gobs at the bottom of the bowl of beans. You have to continuously mix it vigorously for it to even partially resemble a dip. It's a bean soup with a lot of cheese in it.
I could go on and on, about the dishes that would more comfortably fit into a fine-dining (or an ambitious new-American) context and the dishes that are modeled after comfort Tex-Mex food but are elevated too much or in a manner that's odd in one way or another. There are cocktails that fit exactly into a beach-meets-Mexico-meets-tiki sensibility and others that take the trope of the too-sweet margarita and add unneeded upscale ingredients and manage to make them worse. The peach margarita is besmirched by apricot liqueur, while the cocktail built from hibiscus agua fresca is so dry it's almost bitter.
Servers are knowledgeable and welcoming, as you'd expect from something modern and chef-driven, but also harried and distracted, adding to the feel that this is a very casual restaurant. The prices? Not so casual, as the quality of the ingredients absolutely dictates.
Isn't this where we are right now? In 2017, aren't most restaurants casual but fancy, serving intellectual comfort food, a place where you can get guac and margaritas and watch the game but also have organic turkey enchiladas topped with burrata and black recado-quinoa sauce? Perhaps. And perhaps if Tallula's was in a different neighborhood, and was just a little bit smaller, and didn't give off quite so many conflicting indicators, it would hit exactly the right tone for its time and place. If those swordfish tacos were near my house, I'd be there three times a week.
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But if this is a neighborhood restaurant, it might be in the wrong neighborhood. And if it's a destination, Tallula's will be a test for whether this lovely little precipice — which is awfully close but feels like another world — can sustain such a thing.
TALLULA'S | Two stars | 118 Entrada Drive, Pacific Palisades | (310) 526-0027 | tallulasrestaurant.com | Sun.-Thu., 4-10:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 4-11:30 p.m. | Small plates, $12-$19, large share plates, $29-$32 | Full bar | $9 valet parking