If there's one potential great leap forward for American dining that we all should be pulling for this year, it's the promise of a new generation of Mexican chefs. Mexico's modern culinary scene has emerged as one of the most exciting in the world, and that excitement is steadily creeping across the border. Because of L.A.'s proximity and cultural ties to Mexico, the city has the potential to be at the forefront of that leap.
In many ways we're already there: Chefs such as Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, Coni'Seafood's Vicente Cossio and mole queen Rocio Camacho have been showing us the joys of creative regional Mexican cooking for years now. Ray Garcia's downtown restaurant, Broken Spanish, and Carlos Salgado's Taco Maria in Costa Mesa are proving how well Mexican flavors translate at the high end. And this year L.A. is anticipating the first U.S. projects from two of Mexico's most prominent chefs: Diego Hernandez and Maycoll Calderon both have forthcoming restaurants in the city.
In Pasadena, another chef looking to push the food of Mexico in new and exciting directions has made his L.A. County debut. Danny Godinez has three restaurants in Orange County, all exploring the potential and diversity of the food of his home country. His latest O.C. restaurant, El Mercado, which debuted in September in Santa Ana, serves 31 dishes, each representing one of Mexico's 31 states. Godinez, who is originally from Acapulco, backpacked through all of those states, for research and inspiration purposes, in anticipation of El Mercado's opening.
And now he's brought Maestro to Union Street in Pasadena. Maestro is less thematic than Godinez's O.C. restaurants, which have focused on French/Mexican cooking, or molecular techniques, or the aforementioned state-specific dishes. At Maestro, Godinez is looking to present "things that people have never tried before while still using Mexican flavors."
The room is long and comfy and dark, backed by a small bar decorated with traditional Mexican tiles. There's a focus on tequila and mezcal cocktails. The margaritas are stellar. There are small plates meant for sharing. There's huitlacoche ice cream. More on that later.
Godinez loves acidic flavors, and his best dishes act as a showcase for the wonders that lime can work on other ingredients. The shrimp and octopus ceviche is fairly straightforward, but the seafood is fresh and lovely, the balance of ingredients just right. Tacos ahogados is a soup/chicken taquito hybrid, the latter presented in a gorgeous citrus-tinged broth, showered with crisp radish and shredded cabbage.
There are a couple of plates of juicy stewed meats that are deeply satisfying, including a lamb barbacoa that comes with thick, house-made tortillas.
There's a focus on presentation that's more whimsical than artful — octopus with chorizo salsa and avocado puree is plated on the side of an empty mezcal bottle, and chicken with mole comes in a blobby swirl on the plate that we're told is "the shape of Mexico."
Esquite "street corn," which is mainly a bowl of shucked corn swimming in tangy, creamy liquid, also has two ears of baby corn that have been impaled on skewers and stick up from the wooden serving platform like tiny corn-shaped, cojita cheese–dusted heads on stakes. The dusting also contains ground-up chapulines, or grasshoppers, though they don't contribute much to the taste or appearance of the dish.
If anything, I wish Godinez would get bolder with his flavors — there are dishes at Maestro that lack depth and impact, that taste too one-note. The L.A. snob in me immediately wonders if the chef has had to tone down his cooking in the past to please a less adventurous suburban customer base, and that maybe he assumes Pasadena residents also will be conservative in their tastes. But that assumption is more about my own shameful anti-suburbia bias, and you don't go serving huitlacoche ice cream to folks whose palates you underestimate.
About that huitlacoche ice cream — it was served atop a puddinglike corn cake that's the only dessert option, and while the musky flavor was intriguing, the ice cream itself had an icy consistency and tasted a little of freezer. It wasn't the only problem that spoke to basic flaws in sourcing or technique. The heirloom cherry tomatoes mixed in with the ceviche were stiff and unripe, and the huge tortilla crisp that came atop it had the unyielding stiffness and dull flavor of extreme staleness.
One night I ordered a shaken, frothy cocktail that arrived 10 degrees warmer than room temperature. I'm assuming the bartender forgot to perform the secondary shake with ice that's standard with sours — that would also explain why the drink seemed a little short, having gotten no dilution from the ice — and it's indicative of the haphazard quality to some of the food and service here. A fluffy, sweet, brioche-like buttered toast comes with the duck carnitas, and when we asked what kind of bread it was, our server told us firmly, "It's a cross between sourdough and pumpernickel." The bread was neither sour nor dark — if anything it tasted a little like yellow cake — and it made me wonder what else we were being told that were just words plucked from the air.
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Am I quibbling? A little bit. Godinez is obviously a thoughtful, talented chef, and his brand of cooking is an important contribution to the wave of modern Mexican that's sweeping Southern California. I hope the boldness of his flavors begins to match the boldness of his platings, and I hope he and his staff get a little more precise as the restaurant matures. I'd love to see a wine list that runs more than a few bottles, and perhaps focuses on the great strides currently being taken being taken by Mexican winemakers.
It's possible that I ask for too much when I'm truly excited about a revolution like the one Maestro represents. But something tells me that Godinez's ambitions are as broad as my hopes for the genre.
MAESTRO | Two stars | 110 E. Union St., Pasadena | (626) 787-1512 | maestropasadena.com | Tue.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Plates $9-$29 | Full bar | Street and nearby lot parking