Although celebrity chef Rick Bayless gets star billing on the marquee at L.A.’s fiery-hot Red O restaurant, there’s another chef working hard behind the scenes.
Armando Martinez, whom Bayless personally selected and mentored, is the Mexican hot spot’s chef de cuisine. Executive Chef Bayless conceived and created the West Hollywood eatery’s sensational menu, serves as a consultant, and cooks there monthly. But on a nightly basis, Martinez and his crew prepare the regional Mexican dishes that are selling out the house.
Bayless, “empowers you to do it yourself. He’s not there to hold your hand. He gives me direction and I run with it,” says Martinez, who communicates with Bayless almost daily via their iPhones. (The two frequently send inspirational food photos back and forth for discussion and critique.)
Surprisingly, the Mexican-American Martinez — whose culinary background includes French, Italian and New American — never cooked in a professional Mexican kitchen until he went to Chicago in early 2010 to train for several weeks under Bayless at his legendary Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants.
Bayless, however, was not the least bit surprised or bothered that Martinez lacked such experience.
“We cook the real food of Mexico, and you find no one trained to do that,” Bayless says.
Instead, Bayless hired Martinez based on his technical skills — and his ethnic heritage. Bayless believes Mexican chefs are more likely to have “a taste memory” for authentic flavors than others might.
Indeed, Martinez describes Mexican cuisine as his “soul food.” But he clearly learned a lot from the master chef, and the proof is in the tamales — as well as the sopes, empanaditas and other handmade dishes on the menu.
“Everything is made from scratch. We take nothing out of a can and put it in a pot,” says Martinez, whose exceptionally large prep crew includes full-time tortilla makers.
The comprehensive menu features the “the classical regional dishes which Rick Bayless is known for,” Martinez says. Bayless divided the menu into six sections: “Bright Bites” (guacamole, tostaditas, ceviches and escabeches); “Savory Snacks” (quesos fundidos, sopes, taquitos and empanaditas, and tamales); “Salads and Soup” (tortilla soup and more); “Cazuelas for Soft Tacos” (savory fillings served in cast-iron pots); “Enchiladas & Tacos al Carbon;” and “Mexico’s Celebrated Seven” (which includes classics such as poblano mole chicken and carne asada).
Bayless says his intent was “to bring some of Frontera’s flavors to L.A., plain and simple.”
The menu’s main flaw, in my opinion, is that it features too many items that sound flat-out fantastic. The dishes are meant to be shared, Martinez explains. But I would have needed at least 20 dining companions to sample everything I wanted to try. And, alas, it was just The Husband and me left holding the menu.
To narrow things down, I instituted one rule: we couldn’t order anything we have eaten at Frontera Grill, one of our all-time hometown favorite eateries. So that ruled out several dishes, including guacamole and tortilla soup.
We decided to start things off with woodland mushroom escabeche ($12) with roasted poblano and caramelized onion marinated in a puckery sherry vinegar. And then Martinez stepped in and saved the day by graciously putting together a complimentary chef’s combination of Red O best sellers.
Our plate included: sweet-and-spicy Gleason Ranch pork belly sopes ($13) with black beans, salsa negra and sesame served on perfect golden corn masa bites; crunchy slow-cooked Sonoma duck taquitos ($12) with tomato-arbol chile sauce and tiny local greens; smoky and spicy Mazatlan blue shrimp empanaditas ($13) with chipotle chile, pickled vegetables and crema; and mild but rich fresh corn and goat cheese tamales ($12) served in the husk.
From there, our waitress took control and steered us toward the ultra-tender Sonoma County Lamb in chile Colorado cazuela ($17) with ancho and guajillo chiles, roasted garlic, cumin and black beans.
Deciding we’d be remiss if we didn’t sample a Celebrated Seven, we abandoned plans to order the 12-ounce Carne Asada Brava ($45). We were simply too full for this 12-ounce charcoal-grilled New York strip steak served with roasted salsa huevona, sweet corn tamales and grilled knob onions.
Our plan B was Pescado Pipían ($28) or farm-raised striped bass with a Yucatan-style sauce of red chiles, pumpkin seeds and achiote accompanied by green and white asparagus and chanterelle mushrooms. But we were thwarted by a large party that ordered it out from under us.
Sensing our disappointment, our server suggested Camerones al Mojo de Ajo ($25). Here ginormous wood-grilled Mazatalan blue shrimp with slow-cooked garlic in olive oil are presented with Bloomsdale spinach and a sticky Veracruz-style white rice with sweet plaintains. All was righted.
The Husband and I closed the night by sharing one of Red O’s soft-serve ice cream sundaes ($10). We asked for our luscious vanilla bean ice cream topped cajeta-style — with Mexican goat milk caramel and a crunchy, crunchy, crunchy buttered pecan and bacon streusel. Other tempting options included Mexican hot fudge; pineapple with toasted coconut; and Pepitoria brittle (pumpkinseeds, peanuts, sesame) with caramelized baby banana.
I’m just glad Frontera’s famous chocolate pecan pie with Kahlua whipped cream didn’t make the journey to L.A. For I couldn’t have said “no” to that.
8155 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90046