The cat's out of the bag: Hungry Cat in Santa Monica Canyon is now El Gato en la Playa. At least, that's the name of the Baja-inspired pop-up taking over the restaurant's beachside location all summer long.
That means more traditional favorites such as the lobster roll and pub burger are no longer on the menu at the Pacific Coast Highway outpost (although you can still find them at Hungry Cat in Hollywood and Santa Barbara). But chef/owner David Lentz and chef de cuisine Kris Longley hope to entice diners instead with their seafood-driven take on modern Mexican cuisine, available now until Labor Day.
Starters include a crab and shrimp cocktail ($16.50) tossed with avocado, cucumber, gazpacho and house-made hot sauce, as well as sharable items such as queso fundido ($10.50) and guacamole with chips ($9.50). Larger dishes range from duck carnitas with charred pineapple ($14.50) to the plato of whole-grilled fish, yellow rice, mojo de ajo, grapefruit and grilled lime ($34.50). Raw shellfish is available as well; El Gato oysters on the half-shell are flavored with lime and tequila mignonette (half-dozen, $18.50).
The menu change-up has been a welcome challenge for Longley. The Orange County native attended high school in Utah and spent many childhood summers in Mexico, where his family owned a second home. His culinary adventures in and around Puerto Vallarta were part of the inspiration behind the El Gato transformation.
“I remember going shopping in all of the stores — the carniceria, the tortilleria, the pescaderia — and though we had a house manager who cooked for us, I’d stick around the kitchen and help out,” Longley said. “The simplicity of the food stuck with me. We’ve tried to follow suit and not overdo anything on this menu.”
The albacore tuna tostada ($12.50) — made with tuna, avocado, aji amarillo sauce, lime-pickled cucumbers and sea salt — exemplifies the straightforward compilation of many of Longley's own favorite Mexican dishes, he said. El Gato also has allowed him and Lentz to show off their skills with carne, as showcased in the duck carnitas (made with confit duck leg), puerco pibil tacos ($10.50) and bistec adobado ($27.50).
Of course, no summertime menu is complete without a cocktail list to wash it all down; El Gato’s has been created by bar manager Dona Bridges. In addition to seriously spicy margaritas, Bridges’ menu offers tequila- and mezcal-infused drinks such as La Luchadora, made with fresh watermelon, cilantro, habanero and silver tequila, and the Sancho, a mixture of tomatillo, cucumber, reposado (aged tequila) and lime salt. There are also Micheladas, Mexican beers, horchata and aguas frescas.
El Gato en la Playa, 100 West Channel Road, Santa Monica, 310-459-3337; www.thehungrycat.com