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Red O Restaurant: Worth the Trip

July 5, 2010

The MHK is back from vacation, and we have returned in good spirits.  This is mainly due to the dining experience we had the pleasure of participating in at the Red O Restaurant in Los Angeles.  You might think traveling 3000 miles just to eat at a restaurant is mildly insane, but there’s nothing mild about Red O.  It’s the latest restaurant from Mexican food deity Rick Bayless (who’s been mentioned once or 100 times on this blog), and it was the first time that the MHK staff has gotten to taste his food fresh from the kitchen.  My expectations were through the roof, and not surprisingly, they were met. 

There are many facets to an overall enjoyable dining experience – the food, obviously; the atmosphere and décor of the establishment; the attentiveness and knowledge of the wait staff; and the overall price value.  Red O succeeds at each one of these, creating a fantastic epicurean experience for all.

The main dining area has a glass ceiling, allowing the natural light to create an open-air feeling.  The main bar area has a long community table, and a second bar can be found after winding your way through their glass-encased tequila walls, showcasing the 150+ different tequila selections you can choose from.  It’s a somewhat small place, but doesn’t feel cramped or crowded, despite being completely full.  We were seated at the end of the community table in the main bar area, but our group of 6 felt like we were at our own space. 

Red O offers a great variety of margaritas and wine, but it’s their tequila list that was most impressive.  Separated into silver, reposado, anejo and extra anejo categories, each listing’s flavor was described on the menu (as was each of the categories).  If you’re looking for Jose Cuervo shots, do not come to Red O – tequilas start at $10 per shot (which are generous shots), and average around $13 per shot, with some of the extra anejos costing $50, $75, $110, and even $250 per shot.  Our server was happy to recommend some of the less expensive ones, and they were all very tasty.

My first bit of advice is to not bother ordering the guacamole and salsa with chips.  The salsas are terrific, but the guacamole is average and you’d be better served not filling up on chips.  Our server knew everything about each dish on the menu, and advised us to skip the soups and salads section, but did make some great suggestions about the rest of the menu. 

The food menu is comprised mainly of appetizers and small plates, which are perfect for those who want to try many of the wonderful options Red O has to offer.  There are seven entrees (“Mexico’s Celebrated Seven” as the menu advertises), but our group stuck to the small plates.  We ordered the following: Pacific Sole ceviche, Mazatlan Blue Shrimp ceviche, Shredded Creekstone Short Rib sope, Slow-Cooked Sonoma Duck taquitos, Mazatlan Blue Shrimp taquitos, Fresh Corn and Goat Cheese tamales, Queso Fundido with bacon, tomato, Serrano chiles and cilantro, Sonoma County Lamb cazuelas, and Creekstone Natural Skirt Steak tacos al carbon.

The ceviches were wonderful, particularly the sole – it was light and fresh, made with sundried tomatoes, Serrano chiles and jicama.  The shrimp ceviche had great mango and chipotle flavors and was served creatively with long plantain chips.  My only complaint was that it could have been spicier.  The short rib sope was one of my two favorite things we had.  Incredibly tender and flavorful beef on top of a small sope (cornmeal cake lightly fried), it sat on a roasted tomato and chile sauce and was absolutely marvelous.  Both taquitos were very tasty, particularly the duck – again, the meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and both it and the shrimp were bursting with flavor.  The tamale was very good, though a bit on the rich side.  Queso Fundido is served in a skillet, and you spoon it on to warm tortillas – it’s a very authentic Mexican snack.  The variety we ordered was quite good, but I think next time (should there be one) I will try the chorizo and poblano chile variety.  Cazuelas are like small stews served in pots that you then spoon into tortillas to make a taco, which brings me to the other favorite dish we had – the lamb cazuelas.  I’m not a big fan of lamb at all, but as I told my companions, I would try Rick Bayless’ lamb, and am I glad I did.  The meat was beyond tender; it had none of that gamey lamb taste I am used to – and the chile, garlic and cumin sauce it was cooked in was amazing.  The steak tacos were also very good, served with beans, onions and salsa.

We then had a decision to make – do we try one of the entrees, signature Bayless dishes like chicken mole, cochinita pibil (whole suckling pig) or tinga poblana (pork shoulder and belly), or do we try some of Red O’s desserts?  My instinct was to skip dessert and try an entrée or two – my assumption was that the dessert menu would feature the typical cheesecake, chocolate soufflé and fruit tart options normally seen on gourmet restaurant dessert menus.  But King Bayless certainly did not slack on the creativity when it came to the desserts, and after seeing the options, we forgot all about the entrees.  We chose four of the six desserts to share – cajeta (Mexican goat milk caramel) ice cream with buttered pecans and bacon streusel, goat cheese cheesecake, bunuelos, and a trio of sorbets.  The ice cream was tasty – the caramel had an almost bitter aftertaste, so it wasn’t too sweet.  But the bacon streusel was either missing or there wasn’t enough of it, because there was no taste of it at all.  The goat cheese cheesecake was very good, topped with caramel popcorn and a licorice-like sauce.  Bunuelos are like little donuts, and the warm Kahlua chocolate sauce they were topped with was great.  The sorbets consisted of mango-passion fruit, raspberry-prickly pear and lime-mint mojito – they were all terrific, especially the lime variety.

So as I said, Red O lived up to my extremely bloated expectations.  The food was varied and delicious, the atmosphere was fun and comfortable, and our server was great.  As for the overall value – with 5 different tequilas, two margaritas, a glass of wine and all the aforementioned food, we expected a much higher bill than we got; it broke down to only about $60 per person, which is almost laughable considering how terrific the overall experience was.  The MHK salutes you, Rick Bayless.  Please open a restaurant somewhere in the Northeast!

The Mouse House Kitchen gives Red O Restaurant 4.5 out of 5 stars!

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