It’s a Friday night in the Valley, and I’m standing around at the entrance to Señor Fred’s, a new Mexican restaurant in Sherman Oaks. A chef whose cooking I really like — Andre Guerrero of the sophisticated Max a few blocks to the east — has opened Señor Fred’s with his partner, and though I’ve been looking forward to trying it, I have to admit that, now that I’m here, I feel oddly dislocated. It’s not that I’m underdressed (I’m not) or too old (hope not — many couples more ancient than I are swilling tropical cocktails in the bar). It’s just such a scene — a date scene, a bar scene, a particularly Valley scene. Loud and casual and packed. When a gum-snapping, belly-bared bleached blond elbows past me to the reservation desk, her frat-boy boyfriend in tow, I suddenly recall that in addition to his fine-dining accomplishments, Andre Guerrero put in his time cooking for the bar-loving beach crowd at Alice’s Restaurant in Malibu. “Aha!” I think. “He’s flexing those muscles.”
And the décor. Well, Rancho Notorious meets Victoria’s Secret — all black-lace walls and saddle-brown booths, a hammered-tin ceiling the uneasy color of gunmetal. The bar is painted a rosy, vaguely genital-hued terra cotta. A gas fire burns fake logs behind glass in a truly postmodern hearth. Darkness reigns. A tiny room off the bar is just the sort of place where, in the movies, an infamous gunslinger might play a telling hand of poker or woo his favorite high-dollar whore. Tonight, however, it’s just a nice-looking couple, the guy occasionally leaning out to check the basketball game on TV.
Señor Fred’s! I mean really, the name says it all. Although it’s ostensibly named for Guerrero’s older son (as Max was named for his younger son), what else could Señor Fred’s be but a stateside Mexican restaurant with American sensibilities? And, indeed, the food won’t chafe mainstream American palates — you’ll find more treacherous spice levels at Baja Fresh.
I had been curious to see what Guerrero did with Mexican cuisine. Unfortunately, the answer is: Not Much. This menu isn’t about innovation or improvisation: Instead, it offers a lexicon of dishes that have, in recent years, wandered into common usage at the most mainstream of Americanized Mexican places. At its best, the food surprises with an occasional spike in quality and deftness — almost as if, at times, Guerrero can’t help but tip his hand and show his abilities. Taquitos, for example, have a delicate chewiness and related textural pleasures — the crumble of fresh cotija cheese, the soaking avocado sauce, the threadlike shredded chicken. And huitlacoche quesadillas slyly manage to convey the slippery sexiness of corn smut. An ensalada pico de gallo — big chunks of papaya, orange, cucumber, jicama and mango tossed in a lime-and-chile dressing — is especially spirited and quenching.
But other appetizers are prosaic: ceviche de mariscos is the most basic, boring lime-marinated mixed seafood served drained in a glass: Surely Guerrero could have jazzed — or juiced — it up. And a huarache — a Mexican flatbread pizza with two kinds of cheeses, garlic pork sausage and slips of red onion — is somehow less than the sum of its parts, stuff scattered on dough.
Moments of acute pleasure grow fewer and farther between once we come to the entrées. Despite fresh, good-quality ingredients, the Señor Fred’s Combo — a fried beef taco, a cheese enchilada and a chicken tamale — is as bland and dull as nursery food, though the refried beans are excellent. Shrimp tacos need a sturdier tortilla, or a doubling up, and the shrimp so lack any taste of the grill — no hint of smoke, no charred tip — they might as well be boiled. The ribs, though, have Guerrero’s practiced touch in spades: Smoked over mesquite, they have a fall-apart tenderness, a deep meaty flavor and a decent chipotle-kissed sauce sweetened by tamarind. But the best thing about the cochinita pibil, pork slow roasted and smoked in banana leaves, is its accompaniment, a big, fat, perfectly ripe fried platano swimming in crema.
One night, our waiter is really pushing a particular special — more of those barely grilled shrimp and a marinated skirt steak. The steak has an unmistakable gaminess, even through its marinade — they should’ve pushed it a few days earlier. That same night, a chilly one, I order a caldo siete mares, a classic seafood soup, and receive a shallow bowl of lukewarm broth heaped with a stunning amount of crab legs, shellfish, salmon, shrimp and sea bass.
“They say you get more in the Valley,” quipped a friend.
Yes, but I wanted more — and hotter — broth.
For dessert, it’s hard to beat the Mexican hot chocolate with cookies — even when, as when we get it, the hot chocolate is barely lukewarm. Still, it’s thick, not too sweet, and seriously chocolatey, with little globs of barely melted ganache lurking in its depths. It’s like a melted pudding, perfect for dunking the still-warm miniature churros. The smooth, mild flan also stands out thanks to a scattering of candied lime zest and a bubbly sopaipilla (fried, sugar-dusted flatbread) on which it rests.
Leaving that rainy night, we pass the gum-snapping blond and her boyfriend waiting for the valet to bring their car around. He’s grabbed onto her bare waist; she’s sharing her chewing gum. Hey — for some people, clearly, Señor Fred’s is one hot date.
Señor Fred’s, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-3200. Lunch and dinner Sun.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. Entrées $8.50–$18.50. AE, D, MC, V.