When restaurant owner Jay Krymis, the guy behind downtown L.A.'s Mezcalero and West Hollywood’s dirtiest queer bar, FUBAR, decided to move into Long Beach territory, he arrived with a bang: Padre in downtown Long Beach quickly became a hit.
But with the wave of staffing and consistency issues that often hits new restaurants, Padre lost its way for a bit. Then Krymis brought on Guadalajara-based chef Manuel Bañuelos, the guy who served up what is arguably the area’s best torta ahogada, at Balam in Lynwood (which is still open and still good), and creates tacos filled with mole alemandrado and witty twists like chicken tinga masala.
However, Bañuelos wants to move beyond the taqueria — despite still owning Balam, as well as his barbacoa taco chain in Jalisco, Mexico — and exercise his talents outside the common-in-the-U.S. items from Mexico’s food repertoire.
“Fifteen years ago, chef-driven Mexican food didn’t exist,” Bañuelos says. “And when I was young, I had this obsession with over-accessorizing — y’know, adding things on top of things because it made it ‘fancy.’ I didn’t know how bad that really was until I returned to Mexico [after a fine-dining stint in London].”
Upon returning, Bañuelos did the precise opposite of traveling and vacationing; he volunteered, helping build homes around the most rural areas of Mexico. The result? A total reversal of his presumptions and a honing of the skills he learned abroad.
“When I was in Oaxaca, the food there changed the way I approached cooking forever,” he says. “Butchering was left to the men but if you wanted to really know the food, you had to talk to the women; the women ran it all. And they created these things that — what's the word in English? — that … I want to say 'complicated' but it's more, well, complicated than that. There was so much going on in each dish, but everything had a simplicity, with really local flavors that couldn't be replicated elsewhere.”
This has resulted in a return to basics that simultaneously means an entire shift in Bañuelos’ cuisine: respecting the sources, focusing on sauces and quality of ingredients and reinventing classics without casting aside their origins.
For example, there's Bañuelos’ vegan take on ceviche: Chunky pieces of asparagus and hearts of palm are tossed with a citrusy coconut milk blend, lemon basil and a lime-basil oil. The result matches the acidity and flavor profile of his Santa Barbara shrimp aguachile.
This isn’t to say Bañuelos is purely experimental. His grilled panela and nopal (cow's milk cheese and cactus) is a traditional dish.
His esquites (typically corn kernels covered in cotija, Tajin, lime juice and mayo) plays with the idea of a nixtamal (dried corn kernels soaked or boiled in citrus liquid). With fresh heirloom hominy, Bañuelos bastes the corn in broth and then tops the bowl with bone-marrow mayo and lime.
“There is no question Mexican food is going through a renaissance,” Bañuelos says. “But that doesn’t mean we make it inaccessible, that we shut out the traditions that made it great.”
525 E. Broadway, Long Beach. (562) 612-4951, padrelongbeach.com.