Pull up in front of the new Red O on Melrose and, before deigning to take your car, a valet in an embroidered guayabera and natty straw hat will lean into the window to ask, politely, if you’ve got a reservation. It’s Mozza all over again. No reservation, no getting in. And on weekend nights, you’ll need to reserve a month out. Even on the weekdays, it’s the 6:30 or 9:30 routine. Try to get into the bar and the big guy posted outside the door, leaning on a lectern to make him look less like a bouncer, will nix that too. The bar is for patrons waiting for tables.
We all know the drill. This is the scenario that has played out at countless hot restaurants of the moment. Only it used to be dentists driving Hummers who pleaded to get inside, not cool kids driving a Tesla or Prius — or a Vespa.
In addition to the irritating treatment at the door, Red O exhibits all the trappings of this season’s trendy restaurant: a trio of hosts to vet the guests, a romantic tropical décor, a tequila lounge and long-tressed babes by the yard.
It’s different, though, in that there’s no sushi bar, no agnolotti with white truffle oil, thin-crusted pizzas or fusion cuisine either. Red O is a Mexican restaurant, the first showcase outside Chicago for chef Rick Bayless’ gutsy regional cuisine.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bayless, suffice it to say that he’s the best Mexican cuisine chef in the country, a favorite of President Obama’s, invited to cook at the White House for the president of Mexico the week before Red O opened. Bayless, winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” has three über-successful Chicago restaurants: Topolobampo, Frontera Grill and the new Xoco, plus his own PBS show. And, I almost forgot, he’s the author of seven cookbooks and an obsessive Twitterer.
He’s not Mexican, just someone who fell in love with Mexican cooking early on, the way Alice Waters fell in love with French cooking. He’s spent big chunks of time in Mexico researching regional cuisine. And this geeky and driven American chef is probably more faithful to the cuisines of Mexico than many Mexican cooks in this country.
At Red O, the guacamole comes out unadorned, fresh and chunky, simply ripe avocadoes smashed and stirred together with lime and a little cilantro. The chips are golden and crisp and not a bit greasy, the salsas — either a lilting green tomatillo sauce or a complex, seductive guajillo salsa, wickedly balanced. I can’t stop eating any of it.
To get started, he’s assembled a beguiling collection of “bright bites” and “savory snacks.” Mazatlán blue shrimp tostaditas layer sliced “chips” of raw jicama with a pungent roasted garlic mojo, grilled shrimp and avocado for a vibrant taste of Mexican seafood.
Ceviche comes five bites to an order, each a triangular chip piled with lime-drenched fish to pick up like an hors d’oeuvre. I liked the Pacific sole marinated in lime with olives, heat-emitting serrano chile, cooling jicama and a touch of unconventional sun-dried tomato. Others, though, can be a bit dull.
For the sopes, masa is pinched into miniature tartlets and topped with — well, all of them are pretty great, especially the shredded short rib with a roasted tomato salsa or the soft, sweet plantains with rich ivory crema.
Tamales fall in the category of snack too, and they’re terrific. The dough is fluffy and suffused with corn flavor. You get three choices: Order all of them to share. It’s tough to choose between the one with fresh sweet corn with creamy goat cheese and poblano chile, or the one with shredded short rib with smoky chipotle chiles. Or the chicken tamale napped with Bayless’ intricate Oaxacan yellow mole on a banana leaf.
Bayless started his cooking career in Los Angeles but chose Chicago over L.A. when he was ready to open a restaurant, which was a big loss for us. I’m left wondering why now, why here for his first venture outside Chicago. He’s had offers for years, even turned down Las Vegas. He’s not an owner of Red O, more a creative consultant responsible for the overall culinary vision. The food is billed as “Rick Bayless’ Mexican Cuisine” and he flies in at least once a month, sometimes more often, to tweak the dishes and consult with executive chef Michael Brown and sous chef Armando Martinez, both of whom spent some weeks training with Bayless at Frontera Grill’s kitchen in Chicago.
However Bayless got here, it’s a win for L.A. I don’t know how he does it, but somehow he’s imbued everyone in the kitchen with the ability to turn out faithful renditions of his signature dishes. Red O is more Frontera Grill than the more inventive and formal Topolobampo, with a few " California light” dishes thrown into the mix.
His classic tortilla soup is nothing like the thick sludge some kitchens serve. The broth is rich and clean, laced with moist shredded chicken, avocado, a dab of crema, and embellished with toasted pasilla negro chiles and a thatch of the skinniest tortilla strips.
He knows his Angelenos, so he’s put some salads on the menu too, which are easy to miss given all the other, more unusual sounding dishes. But steak and heirloom tomato salad is killer with flavorful tomatoes and watermelon, smoky grilled scallions and sliced grilled skirt steak in a punchy red guajillo chile dressing.
And all that’s well before you get to the cazuelas for soft tacos. You get a terracotta casserole with, say, moist cubes of chicken and strips of roasted poblano peppers in cream to fold into fragrant warm tortillas. (Bayless grinds his own corn for the masa.) My fave, though, is the lamb in a gorgeous red-brown chile colorado sauce scented with cumin.
The menu just seems to go on and on. Enchiladas are excellent too, and if you like, you can have yours with mole instead of in enchilada suizas style.
But the real heart of the menu is the category labeled “Mexico’s Celebrated Seven,” which I guess means regional classics. That’s where you’ll find the grilled chicken in a subtle and sublime mole poblano, and carne asada made with steak marinated in a green chile rub and cooked over the coals to give the meat a smoky edge. Fold the finger-thick slices into some warm tortillas and that’s it. Striped bass grilled over wood is moist and pristine, served with three salsas and Veracruz-style rice studded with chunks of sweet plantains.
The pork for the cochinita pibil is, I’m told, raised at a farm just down the road from a tortilla factory, so these could be, in fact, tortilla-fed suckling pigs, marinated in achiote and cooked in banana leaves. Chunks of the tender pig come on a swatch of leaf, with pickled red onions, velvety black beans and a vivid roasted habanero salsa.
But cochinita pibil or tinga poblana? I’m hard-pressed to choose. The latter is very moist, falling-apart-tender pork shoulder and belly flavored with smoked chipotle chiles and braised with chorizo, roasted tomatoes and Yukon gold potatoes. Of the celebrated dishes, the weakest is the chilpachole, a seafood stew that’s on the pallid side.
The best thing on the somewhat weak dessert menu is the soft-serve ice cream. Think high-quality ice cream, soft and creamy, topped with pepita brittle, closely followed by Veracruz-style buñuelos, fluffy fritters served warm with salted caramel ice cream and a warm Kahlua chocolate sauce for dipping.
Right now, the success of Red O is getting in the way of the experience. Nobody likes being turned away at the door. Or the snooty attitude you get when you call for a reservation. There’s a disjunct disconnect between the quality of the food and some of the staff, who don’t seem to get that they’re working in a restaurant rather than a club. Maybe it comes from owners Mike Dobson and Rick Teasta, who also own Ma’Kai Lounge in Santa Monica.
Not to worry. It will eventually calm down as something new opens and the trend-seeking crowd heads elsewhere. It’s as inevitable as wrinkles. Meanwhile, expect a wait for a reservation — and sometimes for a table — but know that the food, once it comes, will be worth it. I’m crossing my fingers too that Bayless will stay just as committed for the long run as he is now.
Rating: three stars
Location: 8155 Melrose Ave. (at Crescent Heights), Los Angeles; (323) 655-5009; https://www.redorestaurant.com.
Price: Bites and snacks, $7 to $13.50; salads and soups, $7.50 to $13.50; tacos and enchiladas, $12 to $18; specialties, $23 to $29.50; desserts, $12. Corkage fee, $25 per bottle, two bottle minimum, $35 for sparkling wines, and only if the bottle is not on the wine list.
Details: Open for dinner Sunday to Thursday from 6 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight. Full bar and tequila lounge. Valet parking, $8.