The restaurant Luna Park made a splash when it opened in L.A. in 2003. It didn't define itself as serving “San Francisco-style” food, but that's what it really did: it's hard to believe now, in this new era of Los Angeles as the best food city in the country, but at the time, the restaurant's unabashed love of goat cheese, Brussels sprouts and butternut squash was new to us.
Luna Park's owner, AJ Gilbert, recently opened a new restaurant in the same space on La Brea with chef Joe Jack. Describing its menu as Jalisco-style seafood, Pata Salada joins the growing number of Mexican restaurants that focus on a specific region. Which means that once again, Gilbert is, in an unassuming way, contributing to L.A.'s food evolution. We talked to him about opening a new restaurant, and how eating in L.A. has changed in the last 16 years.
Looking at least at the press materials for Pata Salada, it very specifically says that it's food from Jalisco. It doesn't say it's Mexican food, and this is a trend we're seeing more with Mexican restaurants in L.A.: we're getting more specific about the states and regions in Mexico. Was that something you were aware of and thinking about?
Well, I don't know. Aware of the trend? Probably. I mean, when we decided to do this … We went to Guadalajara, and you know, Joe's restaurant in Puerto Vallarta is primarily seafood, so I think that we were trying to find the kind of synthesis of all the things that we knew we could do better than anybody else.
What are those things?
Because Joe lives in a port and cooks fish all day and makes Mexican food and lives in Mexico, Mexican seafood was really kind of a natural thing. And then the food of Jalisco — his father-in-law is from Tequila and their family is pretty well rooted in Jalisco. I think that he's just had a lot of exposure. They're kind of back and forth between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, and the former is kind of a more cosmopolitan take on all of it. We went to Guadalajara and saw all these young chefs — Guadalajara is kind of a bustling city now. That's where we really kind of got that point of view that there were some really exciting things happening. It's also, it's like the California of Mexico, they have the best produce.
Obviously Mexico City is its own thing, but Guadalajara is the sort of second city, like Los Angeles is, and it has a lot of very affluent parts, and there are a lot of chefs that are doing interesting stuff, so I think that's where it all kind of came from, was just seeing what we saw that was exciting, that was happening there. It got us excited about what people were doing. They have all that great produce and such a big variety of fish and stuff like that in Jalisco. I think that's what kind of took us there.
I remember going to Luna Park when I first moved to LA in about 2003 or 2004, and having that goat cheese fondue. I feel like it was part of my food education. How has L.A. food changed, like from your perspective, in the dozen or so years since that first opened?
Well, it's changed a lot, and there are a lot of forces that play, I think. We started coming down to Los Angeles to look at restaurants here in probably 2002 and then we opened in 2003. I mean, coming from San Francisco, which is always a little bit more, I'm trying to think of the right way to put this, a little bit more pretentious than the rest of the country. San Franciscans, they don't like to be marketed to and they have a very kind of organic take on the world. The food history there, with Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower, it was all “pick it, grow it, put a little olive oil on it and serve it” and that was kind of the world we came up in. Which was, food should be simple and fresh and quick. Coming down to Los Angeles, where the popular restaurants at the time, I don't know how well you remember these places, but Dulce on Melrose, the bartenders would put the bottles off the shelves and there was like a roaring fire behind them.
Koi, I believe it was Koi, it's still there on La Cienega, it was a sushi place, was super popular. These places, I would never disparage their food programs, but it wasn't about the food. It was about the experience of going, and the valet and the clothing and the cars. It was just so different than San Francisco. We were really struck by how the dining scene in Los Angeles was, the food was very much secondary. I remember thinking that a big part of that, I would imagine, is the entertainment business; a lot of actors can't eat a lot. If you go out and the bartenders are dressed like they're out of a music video or something like that, that's your entertainment. And then you have a little something, and a couple of drinks and it's just a different speed. “
How is it different now?
Now I think L.A. has just some fantastic restaurants that are really about the food and the chef and the ingredients. I think that the people, and I think that there's probably a lot of cultural and financial reasons for this, but I think that people are interested in restaurants first and foremost because of the product that they can get there. The experience, although there are a lot of great, fun places to go of course, but the environment is now equal, or secondary sometimes, to the food. Whereas before it was the food was really secondary to the environment.
I think of places like Grand Central Market in downtown, and there's some of the best delis and ice cream and there's people that are just obsessed with the quality of the ingredients they're buying and how it's being prepared and stuff like that. The lines of people waiting for this stuff, it's a very different Los Angeles than I remember from 12, 13 years ago.
You can really see it in ice cream. I have a three-year-old now, so ice cream is a big part of my life. There's so many good ice cream places in Los Angeles now.
Like near our house there's Jeni's on Hillhurst, and then Salt and Straw … the ice cream in Los Angeles is fantastic. It's a warm city that probably didn't used to have the greatest selection of ice cream. Fantastic, sourced, made from the best cream and stuff like that. I think that's kind of representative of what's happened with food in general here.