Obviously, I'm a food tourist. When I travel, food is right up there on the itinerary, along with art museums, scenery and birds.
My usual trips to Los Angeles, however, are not necessarily dictated by my own appetites. We go to visit family, and when in L.A. we eat like family. That means raw and vegetarian, for the most part, and severely local, since, for the most part, no one wants to drive across town for a meal. "Across town" from Eagle Rock means an hour and a half drive.
So we eat at Fatty's, a flaky but usually good vegetarian restaurant in Eagle Rock. We eat at Auntie Em's, a bakery-cum-cafe with awesome French toast in Eagle Rock. We shop at organic stores and eat at home.
This last trip, we varied the pattern. We ate at Barney Greengrass (about which more later) and we ate at Rick Bayless's LA restaurant, Red O, because we were invited to. SO not in Eagle Rock.
I love Rick Bayless. I love Frontera Grill and Topolobompo in Chicago and have eaten at both several times. His is the only cooking show I really like, because of his low-key style and his emphasis on the true regional flavors of Mexico which show his deep love for that culture.
So I fully expected to love Red O. That I didn't totally love it says more about me than about the restaurant. I'm not really an Angeleno type, and Red O is made for LA.
Soaring ceilings and huge plants give it the feeling of bygone luxury, the kind of place you used to see in Vera Cruz. We were seated at a white leather banquette, with more pillows than we knew what to do with and a dramatic wall of spotlit tequilas rising behind us. In other words, glamor. Perfect for LA; I'm just not really a halo-lit kind of personality. (My metier is, um, more funk than fashion. More Sorel boots than Laboutin.)
We were served our choice of waters.
And we perused the list of margaritas. Prices start at $14.
So, yes, some sticker shock.
But things do cost more in the big city for a million reasons, and this was a great margarita, even the basic one. Served in the shaker, so you could replenish your little cocktail glass at will, enough fresh lime to make you wince, with just enough sweet buffer so you didn't cry and could still taste the tequila. I also loved the TK with its chili kick.
Queso funded made with Vella cheese and house made chorizo; Dungeness crab tostaditos with avocado salsa and grilled pineapple; three different ceviches–albacore, ahi and yellowtail–each sparked with different chiles, tomatoes and onion–these early courses were the high point of the meal.
Not that the mains weren't good. They were. I have to say that the enchiladas mole didn't measure up to Red Iguana's and not even to the mole I make at home from Rick Bayless' recipe (Red O's was too sweet for me), but these were the only actual disappointment. Best was the cochinita pibil, suckling pig marinated in achiote, slow-cooked Salvadoran-style in banana leaves, served with black beans and roast chile salsa.
(By the way, where can I buy suckling pig in SLC? Anyone know?)
The thing is, when you're traveling, even seeking new flavors, your palate remembers and compares the new to the usual. At Red O, the standouts in my taste-memory were the dishes I can't get great versions of in SLC. Actually, a surprisingly small number.
Still, it left me with a craving for ceviche that I'm having trouble getting rid of.
So here's Rick Bayless's "classic Frontera Grill" recipe for ceviche, in case you're not headed LA way. Way easier than pie.
1 pound “sashimi-quality” skinless meaty ocean fish fillet (halibut, snapper and bass are great choices), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
About 1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice 1 small white onion, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
Hot green chiles to taste (roughly 2 or 3 serranos or 1 large jalapeño), stemmed and roughly chopped
1/4 cup pitted green olives, preferably manzanillos
1 large (about 10-ounce) ripe tomato, cored, seeded (if you wish) and cut into 1/4-inch pieces OR 1/4 cup (lightly packed, about 1 ounce) soft sundried tomatoes, chopped into 1/8-inch pieces
1/4 small jícama, peeled and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces (optional, but suggested if using sundried tomatoes)
1/4 cup (loosely packed) chopped fresh cilantro (thick bottom stems cut off)
2 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
1 teaspoon sugar
“Cook” the fish in the lime juice. In a large stainless steel or glass bowl, combine the fish, lime juice and onion. The fish should float freely in the juice; if not, add a little more. Cover and refrigerate until the fish is as “done” as you like: An hour or so for medium-rare, 3 to 4 hours for “cooked” all the way through. Tip off the lime juice—sad to say that it’s fishy tasting at this point and can’t be easily used for any other preparation. Flavor the ceviche. In a mini food processor, process the green chile and olives until finely chopped (or finely chopped by hand). Add to the fish along with the tomato, optional jicama, cilantro and olive oil. Stir well, then season with salt (usually about a scant teaspoon) and sugar. Refrigerate until ready to serve — preferably no longer than an hour or two.
MM: Serve with lightly or unsalted tostados; I like the Milagro chips from Whole Foods, but they're too delicate for dipping. You'll have to spoon the ceviche onto the chip.