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Trejo's Tacos
Trejo's Tacos
Farley Elliott

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Eater’s Journal 10/18/16: Son of a Gun, Fundamental, Trejo’s Tacos

A special edition of field notes from Eater staffers in LA, and from around the country

Son of a Gun: I couldn’t get into Trois Mec (all booked up) and Animal closed too early the night I tried to swing by (bummer that such a hip restaurant closes at 10pm) but I managed to land at Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's Son of a Gun at the right hour and had a pretty kick-ass seafood meal. In fact it was precisely the type of creative, small-plates affair that recalls the best of the next-generation dining scenes in New York or Paris right now — if only either of those cities had a Son of a Gun because it would do gangbusters.

First course: Hamachi with galbi vinaigrette, pink lady apple, and radish sprouts. This was a great raw fish preparation — mildly oily maritime flesh kept in check by the tang of the galbi and the bitterness of the radish. Second course: Shrimp toast sandwich. This wasn’t so much about the intrinsic flavor of crustaceans as it was a study in butter-fried bread, spicy mayo, and a bevy of bright herbs (thai basil, cilantro) cutting through all the richness. Third course: Linguine with clams, breadcrumbs, and uni. It had great sea urchin flavor and gorgeously stinging chiles but unfortunately the kitchen went a little crazy with the lemon which overpowered the otherwise fine dish. Fourth course: Frozen lime yogurt with graham cracker crumbled and toasted meringue. This was an absolutely ethereal deconstruction of a key lime pie.

This light meal for one, plus a beer, cost $91 after tax and tip. That’s not cheap, but the nice thing about dining here is that the restaurant doesn’t levy the ridiculous healthcare or kitchen appreciation surcharges that plague certain establishments in Los Angeles, policies that lets restaurateurs keep prices artificially low before the consumer gets the bill. That practice is illegal in New York and should be outlawed out West as well. —Ryan Sutton, Senior Critic, Eater New York

A shadowy figure stands at the historic burger stand Tommy’s late at night, surrounded by lights. Matthew Kang

Alma, Sunset Beer, Tommy’s, H.M.S. Bounty, Division 3: My varied eating and drinking experiences in LA could be summed up in one realization — Angeleno restaurants and bars aren’t self-conscious and aren’t restrained by a fear of being perceived as excessive. (Montreal restaurants, by comparison, often prefer to maintain a sense of decorum and hold a fear of being seen as gauche, possibly a side effect of the preponderance of "nice" and "respectable" French restaurants).

The most prominent example of this came during brunch at Alma, in its new-ish Standard Hotel location in West Hollywood. We order one of each of their two doughnut specials. The apple pie doughnut comes out a little more plus-sized than expected, but a sticky bun doughnut approximately the size of a child’s head makes multiple customers gape. The monolithic piece of hyper-proofed brioche is inherently memorable: even if it wasn’t good, it would at least be comically remembered. It is good though, with pillowy dough that’s beautifully airy, but also given some bulk by the perfect quantity of glaze. Chef Ari Taymor shows plenty of self-awareness in discussing the dough-hunk though, describing his hopes of continuously upsizing the doughnut offerings, and his goals of evoking a sense of kid-like wonder in those who order it.

The remainder of the brunch shows a more subtle adventurousness — the bold flavors in a kimchi, tasso ham, and avocado hash could be botched in the wrong hands, but in this case meld neatly.

That certain boldness and confidence appears on menus elsewhere, too — at the Sunset Beer company’s store-slash-bar, the selection of craft brews on tap comes across as wild to someone more used to a more austere microbrewery scene. Options like Common Cider’s nitro toasted coconut concoction very much toe the line between fun and frivolous, even if the flavors exhibit a surprising finesse. (Yeah, Common Cider isn’t strictly an LA thing but for an east coaster, it’s relatively local). Down the list, Ommegang’s barrel-aged Three Philosophers is the most intriguing darker beer I’ve ingested, with a bright and almost sour taste that brings the dark richness to life.

This lack of restraint showed up in lower-key spots too — I became a debutante to the idea that a chili burger can be good, and not a messy slop-pile at my first ever Tommy’s experience. Again, the idea that chili burgers or fries might be tasty is not a widely espoused philosophy in Montreal. Even LA’s dive bars seem more content to be wacky — Koreatown’s HMS Bounty, while not exactly a prime spot for quality booze, is a delightfully tacky, as a nautical themed bar overlaid with copious dollar-store Halloween décor.

Props though, to Glassell Park’s Division 3 for throwing in just a teaspoon of restraint on their breakfast biscuit sandwiches. Obviously, restraint can be positive, and an establishment can undoubtedly go too far — I just didn’t encounter any of that in LA. —Tim Forster, Eater Montreal Editor

Cafe Vida: For my last meal in LA, I gave my soul over to my friend Peter, partly because I had decision fatigue and partly because I didn't think my body could handle another rich, destination restaurant. Peter is regular at Cafe Vida. He gets the same thing every time, and when his friends join us, they tease him for always being there.

But I get why he goes — it was kind of the perfect neighborhood brunch restaurant. We were seated immediately on the patio, where people with very cute small dogs and very cute small human beings dined side by side. The coffee was good, the service was friendly, and the food was solid, affordable, and not heavy. We all ordered some version of Peter's go-to: a bacon, egg, and pancake combo. I was pleasantly surprised to see a generous portion of fresh berries on top of the plate, what surely would have been a $3 surcharge in New York, but hey, when in LA, right? After several days of delicious but extremely taxing food, it was nice to chill with a coffee, a kombucha, and an only mildly elevated version of a classic breakfast dish. —Serena Dai, News Editor, Eater NY

Baroo Menu Wonho Frank Lee

Baroo: My first proper meal during my third-ever trip to Los Angeles was at Baroo, and it was everything I wanted and more. My esteemed colleague (hi, Matt) took care of ordering, and every dish presented was texturally satisfying and tasty. There was the surprisingly meaty ragu pasta made with oxtail and crunchy yet airy tendon puffs, a dish filled with corn presented in all ways, and kimchi fried rice.

My personal favorite was the bright pink noorook, where the fermented grain is paired with a grains, roasted beets, toasted seeds, and more. Each bite was perfectly composed and fresh, leaving me feeling happy. Every meal should involve rice and/or some sort of grain. I even enjoyed the kombucha (both elderflower and rose), which is something I typically don't go for.

Despite all the praise and hype, Baroo doesn’t attempt to be grandiose, and I love that. The location reminded me of Austin: a well-renowned restaurant located in a bare bones strip mall with a stripped away interior. It was simple, accessible, and delicious. If I lived in California, I’d go all the time. Granted we were lucky that there was no line, just a hoard of Eater editors taking over the sole table.

Everything in the middle of the fermentation process, from koji to pineapple, is there in the restaurant, labeled and dated without any fanfare. Fermented food is having a moment, especially in Austin, so it was nice to being able to see a West Coast approach. —Nadia Chaudhury, Eater Austin Editor

Harlowe's French Dip: If you took Cole's and Philippe's word for it, Los Angeles is the birthplace of the humble French Dip sandwich. Harlowe's French Dip takes the sandwich and elevates it to more than just a quick lunch or cheap dinner, but the centerpiece of a full-on sit down gastropub experience, replete with an impressive (and concise) tap list sampling some of the area's most highly regarded brews.

All of this is packaged in gorgeous old-school digs, where plush, conservative-looking leather booths line the wall and gorgeous dark wood tones are employed almost exclusively throughout (including some exceedingly intricate molding on the ceiling). Flat-screen TV’s playing the night’s ballgames are tastefully scattered throughout the restaurant so as not to detract from the interior. Make no mistake — this is an old boy’s club of a gastropub.

That said, one thing I couldn’t help but notice was just how inexpensive the food was, and how generous the portions were. The standard beef dip sandwich will run you $9, $2 to stuff a little bit more meat on there (you’ll want to) — which is actually comparable pricing to a sandwich from a nationwide chain. Harlowe’s sandwich, though, is served on a just-this-side-of-soft roll that somehow avoids being the typical crusty bread while maintaining structural integrity through multiple dips into au jus, the bread infused with that rich, savory, jus that makes the sandwich prime gastropub fare. Chicken wings are a serious bargain, too, perfectly cooked inside and gently battered to pale gold, with three healthy-sized full wings clocking in at a relatively modest $6.

If there were any serious misses here, it might be the yam fries — crunchy and piping hot, it’s served with a caramel glaze that probably made more sense conceptually and might have translated better if it weren’t for the fries being dusted with a ruinous amount of salt.

Salty little misgivings aside, it's clear Harlowe’s isn't aiming to be destination dining anytime soon. That said, the quality of the execution belies an attention to detail that vastly out-kicks the cost of entry. With some later hours and a turn of the wrench here or there back of house, it could just prove to be the flagship gastropub in a part of town that's quietly developing into a compelling dining neighborhood. —Euno Lee, Eater LA Contributor

Stan Lee

Trejo’s Tacos: Will Los Angeles know when it has reached 'peak taco'? Is there even such a summit? Well, we might be getting close with the well-funded rise of Trejo's Tacos, a mediocre Mexican option that only plays into the city's stereotypes about celebrity.

To put this as bluntly as possible up top: the food at Trejo's is not very good. It was actually worse when the restaurant first came to life on La Brea, but even now at their new Hollywood location in a strip mall next to a poutine place and Big Wang's, there's not much to get excited about. $4 fried chicken tacos served in a lettuce wrap don't inspire the kind of devotion to the taco that Los Angeles is normally known for, nor does the more straightforward carnitas take, which is a sort of hybrid between the typical style and a citrus-y cochinita pibil. And when you rely on limp, dense tortillas to get the job done, everybody loses.

Take instead the work being done at Chicas Tacos in Downtown. They operate at a similar price point and both come with moneyed backing and a slick look, but the wide difference — actually, mark that as a chasm — between the two comes from the menu, from the food itself. At one end is Trejo's, which actually offered branded coffee and merchandise before they started selling taco. They literally don't even have a menu up on their website at the moment, which is in some ways telling about how much they care if people look at their food. On the other end is Chicas, which features recipes from James Beard-nominated chef Eddie Ruiz, and culls tastes and takes from flavors you'll find up and down the Western seaboard. One is worth the price of admission, the other takes you on a ride. Trejo's Tacos is a logo that happens to sell you food.

Hopefully things improve. Chef John-Carlos Kuramoto is on hand now to lend some help in the kitchen and reformat menu items as needed. And the Cantina outlet in Hollywood is already working in new, if predictable directions, like adding bowls and keeping the kombucha topped up. Hopefully things get better with the growing chain's third location slated for sometime soon along Virgil Avenue, or the team finds some innovation while driving around on their branded food truck. But for now, with the recent arrival of the Cantina in Hollywood, there are not high hopes for great food at Trejo's. And if tourists and out-of-towners only experience this city's wealth of tacos by trying Trejo's first, that will truly be a shame. —Farley Elliott, Eater LA Senior Editor

Fundamental LA: If there’s a place I’ve seemed to find myself over the years in Westwood, it’s Fundamental, which remains one of the most interesting places to grab a meal in this student-and-office worker environment. I’ve always found the food a bit lacking: not in inventiveness, but sheer pleasure and flavor. The rotating list of chefs they’ve had is unfortunate, because they haven’t been able to establish a culinary identity outside of "composed," which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One thing that’s been good at the beginning, and has improved to the point of excellence, is the wine program, overseen by Eater Young Gun Alicia Kemper, who continues to push the boundaries of wine service and curation.

With new chef Jeffrey Yuguchi in charge of the kitchen, the menu gets another chance to define what Fundamental is about. In this case, it’s stolidly in the comfort arena, with a multi-faceted ingredient selection and classic New American technique. The cornbread makes for a delicious starter bread while the kabocha squash with tart pomegranate seeds and hazelnut dukkah seems pulled right out of the A.O.C. handbook. That’s a good thing.

The cauliflower, roasted and tossed with a chili-lime vinaigrette has a hefty Southeast Asian flavor profile, and we found ourselves wolfing it down delightfully. I wasn’t as keen on the hangar steak, which wasn’t quite cooked enough (we ordered medium rare), making the middle very chewy. I also thought the shrimp a la plancha was trying too hard NOT to be shrimp and grits, as it sports fried polenta, stewed okra, and a fried egg. It’s one of those dishes that would be better with one or two less ingredients. The $30 scallops felt rote by comparison, and ended up boosting the check to well above $150 for three. Will I run back? At this point I think I can find a few meals I like better in LA at that price point. —Matthew Kang, Eater LA Editor

Trejo's Tacos

1048 S LA Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90019

fundamental LA

1303 Westwood Boulevard, , CA 90024 (310) 444-7581 Visit Website

Baroo

5706 Santa Monica Boulevard, , CA 90038 (323) 929-9288 Visit Website

Son of a Gun

8370 West 3rd Street, , CA 90048 (323) 782-9033 Visit Website
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