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

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