Showing posts with label La Sandia Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label La Sandia Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar. Show all posts

Monday, February 13, 2012

Special Menus at La Sandia and Zengo at Santa Monica Place

If you live near Santa Monica, you have already visited the open air Dining Deck on the top floor of Santa Monica Place. For anyone who used to visit the old mall, what a difference!
The old food court was on the bottom floor of the mall. Dark and airless, the fast food restaurants weren't especially inviting.

The remodeled mall improved in many ways, most notably with the elevation of the food court to the top floor. For restaurant patrons, free valet parking is available with validation at the Second Street entrance.

Recently I participated in a tasting for food writers at the side-by-side restaurants, La Sandia and the fusion restaurant, Zengo, both owned by the prolific chef Richard Sandoval.
A side note: if you are ever in a restaurant and you see a group of diners all taking photographs of each course as it is placed on the table, you are probably watching food writers doing "research."
During February at La Sandia, chef Sandoval celebrates the regional variations of the Mexican tamale with a "Tamal Festival," featuring two seasonal blanco tequila cocktails (a fresh pomegranate margarita and a passion fruit Mexican mojito) and eight tamals.
The tamal, as described by chef Sandoval:
From Mayan origin, meaning ‘wrapped;’ A traditional Latin American dish made of stuffed masa wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, that is steamed or boiled. Viewed as a comfort food, tamales are enjoyed throughout all parts of the day. Dating back to 1200 BC, tamales have traditionally been prepared for feasts and celebrations. Mexican tradition states that on Dia de Reyes, all enjoy a special bread, containing a hidden doll. He who finds the doll hosts a Tamal Party in February. Over time, tamales have taken on regional influences, resulting in hundreds of varieties of fillings and wrappings found throughout Latin America. 
My favorite was the Torta de Tamal, in the style of Mexico City. Shredded chicken is tucked inside a corn tamal which is placed inside a biscuit-like bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, salsa verde and a spicy chipotle aioli. Speared by the long toothpick holding the sandwich together was a slice of radish, pickled in salt and lime juice.

Ah, carbo inside carbo, the definition of comfort food. Delicious. The heat from the spicy aioli and salsa verde countered all that starchy creaminess in the right way.
Vegetarians will enjoy the tamals with the tamal de frijol con queso. Sweet black beans and melted cheese fill this tamal, which is topped with an entomatada salsa--the result of sautéing Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh oregano and chipotle peppers--and poblano crema.
If you are a pescaterian, you can have a filet of mahi mahi cooked perfectly in the tamal de pescado a la Campeche. The fish is topped with a slab of moist masa, seasoned with the herb epazote, tomatoes and spiced with cilantro and Serrano.
Myself, I'm a meat eater and I thoroughly enjoyed the shredded chicken in the tamal frito Toluca and the pork tamal estilo Oaxaca.
For dessert, chef Sandoval offers sweet yellow corn tamales wrapped in corn husks and topped with masticated raisins. The dessert tamales were good but the crispy churros were excellent.

La Sandia's sister restaurant, Zengo feels like the men's club you always dreamed about. A wide deck wraps around the dining room with views to the Promenade below. At night a refreshing ocean breeze gives the deck the proper amount of romance. With heat lamps a blaze on cooler evenings, the deck is the perfect spot to enjoy drinks, appetizers and a meal with your significant other and friends.

The dark wood and low lighting take some eye-adjusting. A long bar divides the restaurant into an inside dining room and the outside deck. Our waitress explained that "Zengo" means "give and take," which she suggested meant that the courses are supposed to be shared so everyone can have a taste of the varied and innovative menu.

Of course, "give and take" also refers to the fusion that is the menus focus. Latin American and Asian cuisines are mashed up in the most elegant way. From February 15-March 31, chef Sandoval brings together ingredients and techniques from Brazilian (Sao Paulo) and Chinese (Shanghai) cooking.
One of the best appetizers, the crispy Shanghai spring rolls look like traditional Asian fried spring rolls and they taste like very good ones indeed. Adding to the success of the spring rolls are the Brazilian tempero baiano spice mixture and juice from the acai berry added to the ginger dipping sauce.
The salt cod fritters, popular in Brazil, here called coconut crusted bolinhos de bacalhau, are delightfully crisp on the outside, and soft, warm and sweet inside. The sweet and sour sauce, Chinese in spirit, is better than you've probably had in an LA Chinese restaurant. If you have been to Brazil, the bolinhos de bacalhau will bring back sense memories of women from Bahia, cooking their fritters on make-shift set ups on the beach.

I'm happy to say my wife and I have when we visited our older son, Franklin, when he was studying in Rio.
We enjoyed days on the beach, eating the delicious snack food carried by vendors who walk up and down the sandy beaches selling fried shrimp, crisps, fresh fruit and ice cold drinks. We also ate at dozens of restaurants as our son showed off his Portuguese and treated us to his favorite restaurants.
During February and March, at Zengo you can enjoy the national dish of Brazil, feijoada, a meat, bean and vegetable stew. Cooked low and slow, the flavors of pork, beef, bacon, black beans and a dozen herbs combine into comforting deliciousness.
Zengo's version is refined and well-made. The black beans are cooked perfectly. Their sweetness blanketing the salty pork sausage and braised beef. Be sure to order rice with the feijoada. The salty sauce would benefit from the neutral rice.

The traditional Brazilian drink is the caipirinha, a stronger version of the Cuban mojito, made with cachaça. Zengo makes a very good caipirinha. The special drinks for the Shanghai-Sa Paulo festival are also worth trying: the pomegranate kumquat cocktail and the coconut caipirinha.
For dessert, the Shanghai-Sao Paulo menu offers a coconut tapioca with a mix of mango, kumquat, lychee, coquito nuts and shiso. All that is a mouth-full and you'll definitely enjoy every mouthful of tapioca, the perfect way to finish your tour of Brazil by way of China.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Delicious Authentic Mexican Dishes at La Sandia in Santa Monica Place

To celebrate Mexican Independence Day (September 16), through the weekend La Sandia will serve Ponche, a traditional Independence Day punch, and the rich and spicy Chile en Nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with pork in a walnut cream sauce.

La Sandia Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar shares the top floor of Santa Monica Place with half a dozen other restaurants, the Food Court and the Market.

You'll recognize La Sandia by the crowded patio and open air bar, offering over 200 tequillas, half a dozen margaritas and Mexican beers, Mojitos, Capirinhas and Sangria pitchers.
The front part of the restaurant is dominated by the busy bar scene, especially at Happy Hour. With generously extended hours Sunday-Thursday from 4:00pm-9:00pm and Friday 4:00pm-7:00pm, Happy Hour appetizers are $3.00 (shrimp ceviche, a choice of quesadillitas, tacos, empanadas and sliders, chicken wings and bbq pork ribs), margaritas $5.00, Mexican bottled beer $3.00, daily specials Mondays-Thursdays and $5.00, "bottomless" bowls of guacamole.
Walk past the bar and you enter the restaurant with a dining room in a plaza style expanse, dominated by a retractable ceiling, a large fountain with four, smiling cherubs and upholstered booths with plush seating.
On a recent weekday visit, the bar area and patio were packed with young professionals. The booths and tables in the restaurant were filled with a mix of couples, families with small children and groups of friends relaxing, eating and drinking.

The food is well-plated, with good sized portions. All the sauces, flour and corn tortillas and salsas are made fresh daily.
Featured dishes like the molcajete tacos for two ($23.95), could easily feed four as part of a family style meal that included the guacamole prepared tableside ($10.95/$18/95), an appetizer like the mushroom huraches ($9.95), one of the rich and deeply satisfying soups (tortilla soup/$7.95 and roasted corn/$8.95), another entree like the iron skillet shrimp fajitas ($17.95) and a sampling of the desserts, which include affordable portions ($2.95) of flan, tres leches cake, sorbets and a banana empanada with vanilla bean ice cream.
The moderately priced food is hearty, well-seasoned and fresh-tasting with a homemade quality. Nicely, La Sandia feels festive without being loud.

The molcajete is used in the presentation of many featured dishes.
Traditionally made from volcanic stone, the three-legged bowl is used in preparing the guacamole at the table. Whole avocados are mashed together with onions, fresh tomatoes, cilantro, serano peppers for heat, sea salt and lime juice. Guacamole can be good but at La Sandia it is great, with the perfect balance of salty, creamy, crunchy (those delicious raw onions) and heat. Eaten on the freshly made tortilla chips and all you're missing is an ice cold cerveza or a salt-rimmed margarita.

Attention to details is a standard of good cooking.
The molcajete tacos for two exemplifies that perfectly. Also served in a molcajete. This time the stone bowl has been heated in the oven so the sauce surrounding the cubes of grilled skirt steak bubbles and pops, releasing waves of savory sweetness into the air. Topping the dish are the quartered pieces of a whole tomato, two plump brown mushrooms and a packet of charred scallions. A raft of beef cubes appear to float on the surface.

Looking at the dish you assume the word "tacos" in the menu description is a mistake. There is a container of freshly prepared flour and corn tortillas next to the molcajete but surely this is a hearty stew not a "taco."

But you would be wrong. The molcajete contains the taco filling. Possibly the most elaborately constructed "filling" I had ever seen.

To finish the dish, you will ask your waiter for more flour and corn tortillas....many more. Dig deep into the stone bowl to discover its hidden, secret wonder: molten hot fundido cheese.

Tear a tortilla into quarters, put a spoonful each of the Spanish rice and charro beans (black beans simmered with chorizo and onions), a fork-full of caramelized steak coated in liquid cheese, add a piece of charred scallion, a tasting of the roasted tomato and green chile salsas and pop the tasty packet in your mouth.

As your mouth enjoys all those flavors and textures, your eyes close and you begin to mumble. Your friends at the table will wonder what you are muttering about. If they could hear you clearly, they would understand you are saying, "Oh my god that is wonderful."

When the plate of chile en nogada, the holiday dish, appears on the table, everyone will lean forward to inhale the wealth of aromas rising from the poblano pepper, split open to reveal the crumble of sauteed pork. One bite and your eyes close again and if you are all sharing bites together, all eyes will be closed and mouths will be moving as if speaking through sealed lips. A passing waiter will wonder if this is a group seance.
The walnut sauce makes the dish. Warm, creamy, full of flavors that are nutty and yet so much more, the sauce perfectly ties together the muskiness of the poblano with the sweetness of the pork. Adding the pomegranate seeds is a delightful finish. The acidic crunch cuts diagonally across the richness of the sauce.

Chef-owner, Richard Sandoval generously shared his recipe for Chile en Nogada so even after Mexican Independence Day, you can continue to enjoy this delicious dish at home.


Serves 6

Ingredients for the sauce

1 tablespoon shelled walnut pieces
1/4 cup almonds, blanched
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup goat cheese
3/4 teaspoon each granulated sugar, salt and black pepper, to taste


Place the ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth. Set aside covered and refrigerated until ready to use.

Ingredients for the filling

1 3/4 pounds combination of shiitake, button and portobello or crimini fresh mushrooms, cleaned, de-stemmed and sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound fresh tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon almonds, blanched and finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 medium apples peeled, cored and chopped
1 medium ripe pear, peeled, de-seeded and finely chopped
1 medium ripe peach, peeled, pitted and finely chopped
1 tablespoon of oloroso sherry
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground pork picadillo


In a large frying pan, heat the oil to medium high and sauté the onion until translucent; add the mushrooms until golden on all sides. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to cook until all ingredients are heated thoroughly.

Cool enough to handle easily.

Directions for final assembly

6 poblano chiles, roasted and peeled, stems kept attached
1 fresh small pomegranate, seeded
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Make a slit in each roasted poblano chile from the stem to the tip. Remove the seeds and placenta carefully and divide the filling equally to stuff the chiles. If not serving immediately, chill in the refrigerator, covered, for up to a few hours before heating.

Before serving, cover and heat through in a 300 degree oven for a few minutes or under the broiler until hot. When ready to serve, spoon the sauce over the stuffed chiles and garnish with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley.

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