The Tamale & the Toothpick

I’ve never liked office holiday parties much. People stand around awkwardly, drinking punch and nibbling bad food. But this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to one at the much hyped new Los Angeles restaurant, Playa.

Wiped plate and torn menu, Playa

Chef John Sedlar had success with his downtown restaurant, Rivera, and the investors lined up to help him open another. He seems to be one of the nicest guys on earth. Most of the really good chefs are. They’re guys who make food because they love it, and can’t believe their good fortune to be famous and/or rich. I’ve cooked with Wolfgang Puck, whose great insight all those years ago was to put goat cheese and Thai chicken on pizza; and I’ve cooked with Nobu Matsuhisa, who added butter and chilies to Japanese cuisine and changed everything. They hit a zeitgeist, and they know it. And so they retain their humility, remembering that no matter how successful they become, they are providing the most basic of all services: feeding people.

The least humble chefs are always the young ones who feel they’re owed some glory, spreading foam across their deconstructed seared tuna appetizers as if they invented the concept. They need to spend some time with that cheerful Salvadoran dishwasher in the kitchen, who is just happy to be in America working and being able to provide for his family.

Swirling my pink tequila drink and admiring the coconut-shrimp-ball-like lighting fixtures, I noticed John Sedlar outside laughing and chatting with the Hispanic valet parking guys. I don’t care what he’s cooking — that’s a good chef.

I’ve been to most of the best and fanciest Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles. They’re all run by gringo chefs. The food is usually really good, but somehow tastes less like Mexican food than French or Italian food with Mexican footnotes laid over the top. Of course, there are always plenty of Mexicans in the kitchen to add an air of authenticity.

The best Mexican meal I ever had was at a grungy stall on a side alley in Puerto Vallarta. It had the troubled look of a shanty. My friend and traveling companion, Gary, would not eat there. “Man, that crema looks like it’s been sitting in the sun all day,” he said with an expression of alarm. “Yeah,” I mumbled, mouth full of fish taco, “It’s delicious!” Often the best meals in any city are to be found cooking curbside down a crowded, dirty alley — John Sedlar would probably agree.

Driving to Playa, I thought perhaps there would be a blog post in the experience. Although I wasn’t sure what it would be. Once there, I realized it wasn’t going to be another review of the restaurant; there have been dozens and mine would be less exhaustive and informative. How was the food? On the whole quite good — the wild mushroom tamale with chipotle béarnaise and filet mignon was top notch, as were the two kinds of maize cakes with wild mushrooms (I like wild mushrooms) and salsa verde and burrata. The famous corn tortillas with flowers pressed into them served with “indian butter” (guacamole) were gorgeous and also tasty although not quite the equal of some I’ve had made by the leathery hands of old Mexican women in East L.A. The salmon “entomatada sunburn” was beautiful but missing something, and the desserts were strange. A few things had foam. It being a holiday party, I didn’t get to try some of the dishes I would’ve liked such as the mussels or the tempura chili rellenos. Perhaps I’ll go back.

Digesting my food before heading home, I decided maybe there wasn’t a blog post in this holiday party meal after all. I tore the corner off my menu to dislodge a sesame seed stuck between my teeth. “I do that sometimes too,” said friend Raquel, sitting beside me. I got out my phone to take a photo of the menu with the corner missing. Raquel, who has art direction experience in her past, helped me compose the shot. First we tried just the menu, but it was too prosaic. I suggested adding some of the table detritus — sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, bits of tortilla. But still it wasn’t art. Then Raquel pushed a tortilla-wiped tamale plate into the frame, and it all came together.

Next time you’re in the mood for slightly-fancy Mexican food in Los Angeles, pay a visit to Playa. We need to support the good guys.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. g
    Dec 23, 2011 @ 05:45:39

    We haven’t gone there yet but it’s on our list. We’re spending the holidays taking Max to Boyle Heights joints and little holes in the wall in the SGV.


  2. Lisa Gaskin
    Dec 24, 2011 @ 02:04:42

    Today my gardener of many years told me about his wive’s tamales…very soon I’m going to order some. He thinks his wife is a goddess because she makes these tamales and that’s what every man should think of their wives. He had his hose and was spraying stuff and just got this big smile and QUIVERED with the thought of the tamales…GOOD STUFF


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