Taberna Mexicana: L.A.'s Latest "Must-Try" For Modern Mexican

Move over, Red O and Rivera. We've got a new contender for L.A.'s best modern Mexican restaurant. Taberna Mexicana, a new(ish)-comer to the trendy "MoMex" (aka Modern Mexican) scene, opened last Spring and has been turning out refined, authentic Mexican cuisine ever since. What's more, the restaurant has a Beverly Hills address minus the attitude, and Executive Chef Alex Padilla has a story that will put a smile on even the most botoxed of Beverly Hills' housewife faces.

Talk about the American dream. After leaving his native Honduras in 1985 with his family, a 16 year-old Padilla found himself forced to adjust to life -- and high school -- in Houston. In the coming months, Padilla's mother took a job as a line cook in the kitchen of Houston's famed tortilla factory-turned-restaurant, Ninfa's on Navigation.

This seemingly unsuspecting move helped Padilla himself discover his passion for the culinary arts. Even as a bystander, it was inside Ninfa's kitchen that Padilla soaked up the ins and outs of Mexican-turned-American staples: tamales, fajitas and queso flameado.

In 1988, a 19 year-old Padilla left Houston to work in a small restaurant in San Francisco, where celebrated chef Nancy Oakes recognized his talent and mentored him in the kitchen of her James Beard award-winning and Michelin-starred restaurant, Boulevard. Padilla started as one of Boulevard's dishwashers but with Oakes' training, five short years later he landed the coveted Executive Sous Chef spot. Four years later Padilla went out on his own, refreshing his repertoire through Europe and Mexico and ultimately opening three award-winning restaurants in Northern California: the Mediterranean Thea and Mexican Bistro's Colibri and Consuelo.

In 2006, Padilla went back to Houston and took over as Executive Chef of Ninfa's, at the time a $3 million per year operation serving a generic array of what Americans thought Mexican food should be: heavy servings of refried beans, tacos, enchiladas, etc.

Chef Padilla reinvigorated the menu, first by literally cutting the fat and replacing lard with extra virgin olive oil. (What, you say? Mexican food without lard? It's true!) Next, Padilla introduced housemade sauces, spice mixes, and lighter, more flavorful versions of authentic Mexican recipes. Dishes like handmade "Oaxacan Style" pork tamales with roasted pasilla peppers, tamarind-glazed BBQ salmon tacos, and crispy calamari tossed with Ancho and Serrano chilis became menu staples (see right - Photo Credit: Flickr/Turi319). Locals and critics alike praised Padilla's efforts; in only two years Ninfa's racked up the awards and more than doubled its bottom line.

After proving himself in Houston and Northern California, Chef Padilla is taking L.A. by storm at his newly-opened Taberna Mexicana. After a recent dinner at Taberna's N. Bedford drive location, I can say that Padilla's upscale Latin restaurant is a welcome respite from WeHo's uber-trendy/bouncer-guarded Mexican restaurants (I love you, Red O, but the bouncer has GOT to go), yet a dressier alternative to some of East L.A.'s killer hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints. The vibe is rustic yet modern, with wooden beams and wrought iron lanterns juxtaposed against black leather furniture and a decidedly contemporary accent wall. It's comfy and trendy without trying too hard, with a welcoming air as a result of both the the decor and friendly waitstaff.

In the kitchen, Padilla is doing what he does best: turning out dishes that combine a serious respect for tradition and his signature touches. "Chips and salsa" arrive redefined as baked plantain, yucca and blue corn strips and served with two housemade salsas: a spiced pasilla pepper version and a toned down tomatillo with avocado and mango. Chicharron de Queso y Carnitas, a massive yet delicately rolled shell made from Manchego cheese, pork crackling and shredded pork, is an undeniable head-turner. Cueto en Mole, a mouthwatering mole-rubbed Filet Mignon served with housemade corn tortillas, is easily the most tender and flavorful piece of steak I've ever had in a taco. In fact, calling it a "steak taco" seems a serious injustice. The boldly-spiced Yucatan pork stew, Cochinita Pibil, arrives at your table still bubbling and accompanied by refreshing crema and tangy pickled onions. Tiradito de Pulpo, a terrine of poached octopus sliced paper -- and I mean paper -- thin, is beyond delicate in texture but with a wang of flavor from a caper aioli and jalapeno. Finally, while the dessert menu is full of filling delights like Pastel Tres Leches with a torched marshmallow topping, Padilla recommended the Sopa de Fruta filled with farmers market fruits -- think pineapple, apple, peach, berries and passionfruit -- the Chef had hand-picked earlier that day, arranged beautifully and topped with a pineapple and jalapeno granita.

Housemade Plantain, Yucca & Blue Corn Chips |
Served with pasilla pepper salsa (left) tomatillo salsa with avocado & mango (right)

Guacamole | Pumpkin Seeds & Queso Fresco

Tiradito de Pulpo | Poached Octopus with Roasted Jalapeno, Caper Aioli & Garlic Chips

Cueto En Mole | Filet Mignon with a Mole Rub & Chipotle Aioli

Hand-Pressed Corn Tortillas for "Build Your Own" Tacos

Cochinita Pibil "Yucatan Pork Stew" | In Banana Leaf with Fried Plantains, Crema & Pickled Red Onions

Sopa de Fruta | Passionfruit, Pineapple, Strawberry, Apple, Peach and Berries with Pineapple & Jalapeno Granita
Taberna's menu is full of so many hits that even the few misses were slight. Carnitas Verde, a delicious mound of shredded pork topped with Oaxacan cheese and tomatillo sauce sat on a bed of doughy, bland masa. And the Callos de Acha y Pepitas, the pumpkin seed encrusted scallops, were ever-so-slighty gritty and tough. The buoyant spring I love in a perfectly seared scallop had been lost, but the base of corn "grits" with Huitlacoche roasted garlic sauce was divine. Like I said, certainly not glaring errors but when compared to other stand-out hits the misses were apparent.

Carnitas Verde | Braised Pork, Oaxaca Cheese in Tomatillo Sauce
Callos de Acha y Pepitas | Pumpkin Seed Scallops on Fresh Corn "Grits" Huitlacoche Roasted Garlic Sauce

From left to right:
1) Refrescante Morgan | Espolon Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, Orange Juice, and a Hint of Ginger and Jalapeno.

2) Margarita Piña | Espolon Blanco Tequila, pineapple agua fresca, muddled pineapple, juices of lemon and lime, and simple syrup.

3) Margarita Mole | Espolon Blanco Tequila, Chef's homemade 18-ingredient mole spice mix, agave, lime juice.

Overall, Taberna Mexicana is doing a fantastic job bridging the gap between trendy and authentic Mexican cuisine. Chef Padilla's experience, skill and passion for his craft comes through in spades. He's constantly putting modern touches on traditional Mexican dishes, doesn't cut corners when it comes to tried-and-true techniques or authentic ingredients, and it shows in his cooking. His menu has options for both adventurous and conservative eaters, and the restaurant's staff are helpful and knowledgeable about each item. We are looking forward to returning and working our way through the menu.

369 N. Bedford Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 858-7070


Grab the Defibrillator: Denny's Intros "Let's Get Cheesy" Menu

Denny's has hit rock bottom. And apparently at the bottom of said bottom, there is a giant pool of melted cheese. Now, don't get me wrong. In my college days, Denny's really did the trick for late-night, "I-won't-remember-this-meal-tomorrow" drunk binges. Nothing hit the spot better than Moons Over My Hammy or the Grand Slamwich, especially when 20-year-old metabolism was able to power wash it all out of your arteries come 10am. But with the recent introduction of its "Let's Get Cheesy" menu, I just feel like Denny's has gone too far. Either that, or it has a surplus of Velveeta in its restaurant's pantries that it absolutely must use by the end of 2011.

My beef isn't that the calorie or fat gram count is too high. Then again, 101 grams of fat for the Winner Winner Cheesy Dinner (did they get permission from Guy Fieri to say that?) -- which includes two fried chopped beef steaks covered in Pepper Jack cheese sauce, a side of creamy Mac 'n Cheese and broccoli topped with cheese sauce -- might be overkill. Or it might just kill you on the spot. Either way, it's nasty.

But I digress... my real issue with this is that Denny's has completely trained Americans to eat fake food. What the hell is "cheese sauce" anyway? Does it have a hint of cheddar cheese? A whisper of Pepper Jack? Is it filled with hydrogenated oil or silicone? Does it follow after General Mills & Kraft by using cellulose (aka processed wood pulp) as a cheesy filler? Perhaps most importantly, why does it have to come "slathered" on broccoli, nothing more than an innocent veggie bystander? The saddest part is that this menu is no doubt going to be a hit, either as a result of sheer curiosity or from folks who just can't say no when the word slathered appears on a menu.

What's on the menu and exactly how bad is it for you? Here's a play-by-play of each of the "Let's Get Cheesy" menu items. Caution: Read at your own risk. You might want to pull out that defibrillator, just in case.

Denny's "Let's Get Cheesy" Menu

1. Mac ‘n Cheese Big Daddy Patty Melt

Introducing the ultimate in patty melts. A hand-pressed beef patty topped with our NEW creamy Mac ‘n Cheese, melted Cheddar cheese and zesty Frisco sauce on grilled potato bread. Served with a side of our wavy-cut French fries.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 1690
Fat -- 99 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 1
Saturated Fat -- 36
Cholesterol -- 180
Sodium -- 2010
Carbohydrates -- 126
Fiber -- 7
Protein -- 64
Sugar -- 11

2. Cheesy Breakfast Sampler

Featuring a Cheddar smoked sausage and two eggs scrambled with Cheddar cheese. Served with hash browns topped with melted shredded Cheddar cheese and choice of bread.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 710
Fat -- 50 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 0
Saturated Fat -- 20
Cholesterol -- 560
Sodium -- 1950
Carbohydrates -- 29
Fiber -- 2
Protein -- 36
Sugar -- 2

3. Cheese Please Omelette

Three-egg omelette with a blend of cheeses folded in. More cheese? You’ve got it. We top it off with creamy cheese sauce and diced tomatoes. Served with hash browns and choice of bread.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 800
Fat -- 57 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 0
Saturated Fat -- 21
Cholesterol -- 780
Sodium -- 2090
Carbohydrates -- 34
Fiber -- 2
Protein -- 37
Sugar -- 4

4. The Big Cheese Country-Fried Steak & Eggs

A golden-fried chopped beef steak smothered in Pepper Jack cheese sauce. Served with hash browns topped with melted shredded Cheddar cheese, two eggs cooked any way you’d like and choice of bread. Big cheese indeed.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 1210
Fat -- 84 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 2
Saturated Fat -- 34
Cholesterol -- 590
Sodium -- 2630
Carbohydrates -- 53
Fiber -- 5
Protein -- 59
Sugar -- 1

5. Winner Winner Cheesy Dinner

Two golden-fried chopped beef steaks covered in Pepper Jack cheese sauce. Served with a side of our NEW creamy Mac ‘n Cheese, broccoli topped with cheese sauce and dinner bread. This is one dish that truly lives up to its name.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 1520
Fat -- 101 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 4
Saturated Fat -- 45
Cholesterol -- 25
Sodium -- 3330
Carbohydrates -- 77
Fiber -- 9
Protein -- 73
Sugar -- 5

6. Say Cheese Sizzlin’ Skillet

Flavorful blend of diced Cheddar smoked sausage, fire-roasted peppers and onions, grape tomatoes and seasoned red-skinned potatoes. Topped with shredded Cheddar cheese, cheese sauce and two eggs cooked any way you’d like.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 1120
Fat -- 84 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 0
Saturated Fat -- 28
Cholesterol -- 900
Sodium -- 2790
Carbohydrates -- 41
Fiber -- 5
Protein -- 49
Sugar -- 9

7. Strawberry Pancake Puppies® with Cream Cheese Icing

Six bite-sized round pancakes made with strawberry and white chocolate chips. Sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a side of cream cheese icing for dipping.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 670
Fat -- 20 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 0
Saturated Fat -- 12
Cholesterol -- 25
Sodium -- 1200
Carbohydrates -- 114
Fiber -- 2
Protein -- 9
Sugar -- 64

8. Strawberry Cheesecake Milk Shake

Thick, creamy hand-dipped milk shake made with vanilla ice cream blended with strawberry topping, cream cheese and real cheesecake. Topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

Nutritional Info:
Calories -- 850
Fat -- 50 grams of fat
Trans Fat -- 0
Saturated Fat -- 29
Cholesterol -- 205
Sodium -- 450
Carbohydrates -- 84
Fiber -- 1
Protein -- 17
Sugar -- 70

Need Plans Tonight? Try "Tuesdays Best" At Original Farmers Market

Looking for something to do tonight? Head to the Original Farmers Market's "Tuesday's Best" event tonight from 5-9 p.m. Check out food sampling, cooking demos from Farmers Market purveyors, live entertainment, dine & shop specials, and FREE parking (gasp)!

The night will fly by, so plan accordingly. Here's the evening's official schedule of events:

5pm: China Depot
Manny Chang demonstrates his special recipe for Chicken Chow Mein.

5pm: Sushi A Go-Go
Learn how to make the perfect hand roll.

6pm: Huntington Meats
Learn how to make Portuguese and garlic artichoke sausages with Jim Cascone.

7pm: Loteria Grill (my personal favorite)
Chef Jimmy Shaw shows you how to prepare one of his favorite dishes.

8pm: Little Spain
Chef Alejandro Pages shows you his special technique for making classic Spanish paella.
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