José Acevedo was 6 years old and living in the Mexican state of Guanajuato when he first learned how to cook. Sure, it was just basics — sopa de fideo, huevos revueltos and frijoles de la olla — but as the family's first-born, he had to help mom make the food while dad was working at the family's butcher shop. He was so little at the time, he had to stand on a chair so he could reach the stove.
“From that point on, I started getting very interested in food,” Acevedo says from inside the 9-month-old Maradentro in Studio City, his latest restaurant with partner Jesse Gomez. “Every time my grandma or my aunt would be cooking for a family reunion or special event, I was always in the kitchen with them learning.”
It didn't hurt that he traveled a lot, visiting extended family members (and learning to cook their local food) all over Mexico, and that he eventually worked in the butcher shop – where he was taught how to make carnitas, barbacoa and chorizo. Before coming to the United States at 19, Acevedo also spent several years eating his way through Mexico City, the sprawling metropolis with high-end restaurants specializing in the country's many distinctive regional cuisines. “When I was in Mexico City, I was introduced to food from states I'd never been to,” he says.
After he arrived in L.A., he spent nearly a decade working in the Orange County kitchens of places like Houston's, Cheesecake Factory and Claim Jumper; he also helped Wolfgang Puck launch his now-closed cafe at the Irvine Spectrum before becoming the head chef at Taleo (which is where he and Gomez met), where he presented his own lighter takes on classic Mexican dishes, especially those from from Puebla, Oaxaca, Michoacán and his home state of Guanajuato.
In creating the menu for Maradentro, a seafood-focused Mexican restaurant on Ventura Boulevard (a second nautical-themed location will open in Brentwood next month), Acevedo relied on his vast knowledge of regional Mexican specialties.
Inspired by the cooking Acevedo did with his family during cuaresma, or Lent, when the only meat you could eat on Fridays was seafood, Maradentro features everything from a simple pescado del dia plate to a traditional Baja-style fish taco to more creative dishes such as chile relleno de siete mares and bacon-lobster guacamole. Acevedo's favorite dish, a Mexican-style fish sandwich, is a spicy take on the East Coast versions. There are also oysters of the day, hamachi slices served three ways and a ceviche tostada that rotates depending on what's in season.
“I still do classics, but I'm always trying to find the best quality ingredients,” he says. “I'm proud of what I do. I feel like little by little, I will change people's perceptions about what Mexican food can be.”
The concept at Maradentro is different from the ones at Mercado, the first restaurant he and Gomez opened together, which serves contemporary takes on familiar Mexican dishes at three L.A. locations, and at Yxta Cocina Mexicana, the first restaurant in the duo's Cocinas y Calaveras Restaurant Group, opened by Gomez on the edge of Skid Row in 2009. Acevedo joined him at Yxta in 2011, bringing fresh Mexican comfort food to the table. Both concepts seemed to predict the city's modern-Mexican renaissance.
The upcoming Brentwood Maradentro (the tentative opening date is Feb. 18) will not be a carbon copy of the San Fernando Valley original. A lunch menu will feature new items like a hamachi salad, and dinner options will include Acevedo's slow-cooked carnitas.
While juggling executive chef duties at multiple restaurants, Acevedo continues to innovate; sometimes new ideas come when he's fishing for rockfish, snapper and halibut in San Pedro with his cooks.
“I came up with a lot of different dishes to open the original Maradentro, and I feel like I still have a lot more in my head,” he says. “I'm always playing with food. Sometimes I don't add those dishes to the menu right away, because it might interfere with what I already have. But when it's the right time, I'll release them.”