Posted on November 1, 2017
Superstar chef and TV personality Rick Bayless is well known for bringing both authentic and innovative tastes of Mexican cuisine to his home city of Chicago. But the chilly Midwestern metropolis is quite a distance from our nearby southern neighbor. Most San Diegans are already knowledgeable about Mexican ingredients, spices, and delicacies. It takes a lot to impress our real tortilla- and fresh salsa-craving population. Satisfying that crowd is the challenge Bayless embraces with gusto in the opening of his Red O restaurant in La Jolla’s UTC area.
The fourth location of the chef-entrepreneur’s West Coast chain of eateries is located in the completely overhauled site of former local stalwart Donovan’s Steak and Chop House. A previously dim and cavernous space is now bright and lively with a buzzing bar, airy waterfront patio, and high-ceilinged dining room with tables and banquettes centered around a large shade tree. Black-and-white-clad servers work in concert, shuttling food and drink to all points of the sprawling eatery from a kitchen that’s in view through a window along the south wall.
The tone of the meal at Red O is set by a diner’s personal tastes. Those seeking the staples of everyday Mexican restaurants — tacos, enchiladas, tamales — may try heightened versions, ordering two- or three-item combination plates complete with familiar Spanish rice and epazote-infused black beans. Slow-cooked short-rib barbacoa finds its way into tortillas for both enchiladas and tacos, while tangy Laura Chenel’s chèvre waits in the center of tender tamales displaying sweetness and earthiness from a mix of both masa and fresh corn kernels.
Guests seeking Mexican classics will appreciate a take on street corn with a touch of salinity care of cotija cheese, as well as the savory authenticity of mole negro plucked from Oaxacan roots and served with hefty lamb chops. The same goes for colossal shrimp served diablo-style. This preparation is usually served at a meek spice-level in the U.S., but the shellfish-rich, arbol chile-fueled sauce at Red O is downright incendiary. It’s the closest thing to an eating challenge you’ll find at a white linen restaurant. It’s also undeniably delicious. (If your server describes a dish as “spicy,” take heed!)
The sharing of small plates is also an option thanks to the eleven-strong list that features crispy, petite empanadas filled with zesty carnitas, shrimp ceviche, duck-stuffed taquitos, decadent queso fundido fortified with poblano chilies and caramelized onions (plus chorizo, if you like), and house guacamole that has an extra punch of heat from serrano chiles. Those peppers also amp the Scoville heat units in the tart, Tajin-rimmed Alacran Margarita. If you prefer the kick in your tipples to come exclusively from booze, Red O offers a half-dozen other margaritas (including an all-organic “skinny” version that doesn’t taste like a lightweight) and new takes on classic cocktails like the Red O Fashioned and Mexican Mai Tai. Tequila flights are another luxurious libation.
The in-house pastry chef makes dessert anything but an afterthought. Fried-to-order churros and dense tres leches cake are familiar delights. But a taste of something unlike anything else comes in the form of rich butter cake inverted over a thick passion-fruit puree and topped with coconut ice cream. The interplay of warm and cold is magical, while crunch from a dusting of coconut crumble makes for enjoyable added texture.
Bayless has succeeded in bringing a new range of Mexican food unlike any available in a county awash with comida Mexicana. It’s an accomplishment made all the more impressive by its daunting level of complexity. ¡Bien hecho! 858.291.8360, redorestaurant.com Brandon Hernández
Photography by Vincent Knakal