Gjelina and MTN chefs launch Oaxacan pop-up in Venice
At MTN on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, everything is frozen in time from March, trapped in amber like a mosquito harboring dinosaur DNA: stools upside-down on counters, dishes on shelves in plastic wrap as if there were a hurricane coming.
But this week, back in the see-through open kitchen, the robata grill has been fired up again, searing heat coming off of the glowing orange logs of binchotan.
It isn’t Jidori chicken wings or miso black cod being grilled this time. It’s thinly sliced pork cecina in an al pastor-like marinade, the red achiote seeds imparting a brightness almost more intense than the coals.
Juan Hernandez and Pedro Aquino, longtime chefs with the restaurant group, are soft-opening a Oaxacan-inspired pop-up called Valle inside MTN beginning today, and officially opening Wednesday (it will be closed Tuesday for Cinco de Mayo).
The initial menu features tacos (two for $9 or three for $13) with a choice of pork belly al pastor, pollo adobado and Baja shrimp. A mole amarillo ($13) made with potatoes, peas, chayote and guajillo chiles is on the menu, as is a Little Gem and nopales salad. There are also family-style options for two and four people: Pollo adobado for four ($45) comes with a split, bone-in full chicken, rice, beans, tortillas and a variety of house-made salsas.
The restaurant space, which had been lying dormant, was perfect to try out the new concept, said buyer Max Dornbush, who is overseeing the pop-up. But why not just pivot to takeout with MTN’s existing menu? “MTN wasn’t that well adapted for to-go,” Dornbush said. Ramen and grilled skewers weren’t exactly made for travel.
If it takes off, there’s a chance Valle (Spanish for “valley”) could supplant the mountain permanently.
When chef-owner Travis Lett exited the Gjelina Group last year, his departure suddenly left the company — which owns Gjelina, Gjusta, GTA and Gjusta Goods, all in Venice — without its most recognizable, sun-kissed face. The coronavirus shutdown, which has devastated restaurants nationwide, further underscored the need for strong leadership to emerge from within the group.
Hernandez and Aquino, both from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, have stepped up to the challenge. For 12 years, they have been an integral part of the company’s success, most recently as the chefs de cuisine at Gjelina and MTN, respectively. But now, the spotlight is more firmly on them as two of the most senior employees. They say they’re ready to embrace it.
“I’m really excited to show my background and the food I used to eat when I was little,” said Hernandez, 36. “Food I saw my mom and grandma and aunts cook.”
Aquino, 37, hails from San Marcos Tlapazola, a village in the Central Valley, southeast of the city of Oaxaca. When he and Hernandez started working at Gjelina in 2008, they soon realized they had much in common. Not only were both men from Oaxaca state but Hernandez was from San Bartolomé Quialana, literally the town next door.
What started as a friendly rivalry — Hernandez started as a line cook, Aquino as a prep cook — developed into a close bond. They both speak the same dialect of Zapotec, a group of indigenous languages spoken in the region — handy for when they don’t want to be understood by others.
“We share a lot of the same values, the same stories about food,” Aquino said.
The handmade tortillas — yellow for tacos, blue for quesadillas — are central to Valle’s identity, and personally meaningful for Aquino, whose mother “made tortillas pretty much every day.”
“She cooked on her comal and made tortillas and sometimes huaraches,” he said. “It brings a lot of memories.”
The men will soon start offering a lamb barbacoa — meat slowly cooked until it’s fall-apart tender. In the meantime, they have a birria made with thick beef cheeks and topped with a cabbage slaw.
Dornbush said one bright spot during the shutdown is that it allows the company to experiment with new concepts more easily than it ordinarily might. “It’s a way for us to see a silver lining in this horrible mess,” he said.
It’s also imperative to put as many employees back to work as possible, Hernandez said. There’s an urgency to get this project off the ground right away — getting the company’s back-of-house employees, some of whom are unable to collect state benefits, working again is a priority.
“It’s my responsibility and other chefs’ responsibility to see how we can help those workers, people who are unemployed right now, and give them their jobs back,” he said.
Valle will be open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. for pickup only. Customers are asked to call in their orders ahead of time or place orders through Toast. Delivery is expected to follow soon — and, once restaurants are allowed to fully open again, dine-in.
1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (424) 465-3313
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