Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A new article for the SM Observer on Richard Sandoval's restuarant ZENGO at the Santa Monica Place.


Richard Sandoval’s Classic and/or Modern Restaurants at Santa Monica Place           

Once upon a time my father was a builder (and don’t worry, he’s a building inspector now so he’s moved up in the world!).   During his time, Dad was always imparting words of wisdom about the houses that he constructed.   Growing up in a beach community he built a good deal of summer homes, and one thing that always stuck with me was how he noted that people want stability in their first home, but that they’re always willing to go more out on a limb, to be more fantastical, with their second home.   This concept popped into my head dining at Richard Sandoval’s two new restaurants at Santa Monica Place, La Sandia and ZENGO.  If La Sandia is the two bedroom, two bath than ZENGO is Falling Water (it’s even evident in the fact the ZENGO is only spelled in all capital letters).  

It might be an understatement to say that Richard Sandoval has become somewhat of a name in the food scene.  Sandoval, who is internationally recognized as the ‘Father of Modern Mexican Cuisine,’ elevated Mexican cuisine to gourmet status when he first opened Maya in New York City in 1997.  He’s received numerous awards, including Bon Appetit’s prestigious Restaurateur of the Year in 2006.  He was named one of the “Best Chefs of 2003” by New York Magazine, and Maya and Pampano (co-owned with opera star Placido Domingo) are the only two Mexican restaurants to have been awarded two stars by the New York Times. International accolades include the National Toque d’Oro, Mexican Chef of the Year, and the MENA’s Best Fine Dining Restaurant award for the experience at Maya, Dubai.  Richard Sandoval Restaurants now owns and operates more than a dozen different restaurants in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago, Mexico City, Acapulco, and Dubai.  

“Opening two restaurants in my home of Southern California is like the fulfillment of a dream and the project of a lifetime,” said Sandoval.  Sandoval makes his first foray into Southern California with La Sandia, featuring “approachable” modern Mexican cuisine in a relaxed setting. ZENGO, on the other hand, is a Fusion restaurant – Latin Asian in this case.  Neither are completely reinventing the wheel for Sandoval since they have both have previous locations in cities such as Washington DC and Denver.  

La Sandia (which according to my friend’s eight year old means watermelon in Spanish) is the more classic of the two new restaurants. “At La Sandia, I am reaching a wider and more diverse group of diners by offering my signature flavors in an approachable setting.   The menu features my interpretation of familiar yet authentic Mexican dishes, all at affordable prices,” explained Sandoval.  Friendly service in a chic yet laid-back setting makes all guests feel welcome.” 

The menu is definitely more simply stated of the two.  The classics of Mexican food are all there: Margaritas and Mojitos, Tacos, Empanadas, and Mole.  The drinks are a mix of classic and infusions with Sangria, Hibiscus Margaritas, and Lime Mojitos being featured on the drink selection. The bar (which offers a happy hour for those with monetary issues…) offers 250 Tequilas and smoky Mezcal. Tequila tasting flights and infused tequilas are also available. 

You get what you’re looking for at La Sandia.  The Guacamole is made table side in a Molcajete (a traditional cured lava rock stone).  It was spicy (if you ask for it) and tasty, but definitely needed a little more salt.  The Chorizo Empanadas were hearty, wrapped in very thick pastry dough.   The Chicken Mole had a lovely deeply complex chocolately flavor.   Served with friend plantains and rice, which was actually good, a surprise since it is usually a throwaway side dish at most restaurants.   For an ending sweet we partook in a mini dessert sampler of Tres Leches, Flan, Sopapillas.

It was perfect if what you’re looking for is tradition.   The problem with that word, traditional, is that a lot of times people will look at it and translate it to boring.   But boring is not the case with La Sandia, instead you’re getting what you expected with reliable quality: another statement that many people might yawn at, single people.   For as a friend pointed out to me recently where this makes all the difference in the world is when you have young kid.  Young picky eater kids.  Than words like reliable, traditional, expected become Godsends.  Another bonus for the families choosing to dine at La Sandia the prices are a little less costly (for sit down dining at Santa Monica Place) with the entrees running between $11.95 - $24.95.

With all that being said it is no surprise that I (being a single gal with no children) was more drawn to the fantastical elements of the Latin Asian fusion of ZENGO.   Zengo, as it was reiterated to me numerous times, means “give and take,” and with that approach in mind comes the good-humored tug-of-war between two culture’s cuisines.  “The potential of Latin cooking is endless, and by combining native ingredients with unexpected, Asian flavors, a whole new world of possibilities is born,” explained Sandoval.  “ZENGO is meant to be unexpected, playful and an experience shared amongst friends.”

The drink menu alone is like “Its a Small World,” cocktails are categorized by their main Latin-Asian cocktail ingredient: Sugarcane, Agave, Grain.   The wine list’s bottles are from Latin-American vineyards, as well as some Spanish highlight, and a good amount of Sake choices.   I chose the recently renamed Cucumber Mojito (up recently ZENGO’s signature cocktails had confusing Japanese titles).  Composed of Bacardi, Mint, and Midori it was a perfection of refreshing and cool, perfect for a hot summer afternoon (one of the only ones it looks like we’re getting this summer….).

Simple: definitely not (you need to speak both Japanese and Spanish to fully navigate the menu), fun: absolutely.  I began my United Nations dining adventure with ZENGO’s Ceviche Sampler this included both the Seafood Ceviche (Shrimp, Octopus, Calamari, Aji Panca, Heart of Palm, Orange, Serrano) and the California Sea Bass Ceviche (Aji Amarillo, Red Onion, Cucumber, Apple, Tomato Shiso) served with Corn Chips and Daikon Chips.  Go all that?   Both Ceviches were great, the latter being light and sweet, the former being my preference since it’s chewier (when I think Ceviche I just think chewy…)
ZENGO has a free flowing kitchen, it’s not coursed, so the food arrives as it comes out. Every dish was more fantastical.   The next dish to arrive, off the Dim Sum and Antojitos section, was the Peking Duck –Daikon Tacos, comprised of Duck Confit, Curried Apples, Orange Coriander Sauce.   A fun twist on a standard Asian tradition the shaved Daikon radish made up the shell for the taco.  This dish was standout, fresh, healthy, and totally tasty.  For the Asian side ZENGO offers sushi rolls.  I took my server Danielle’s suggestion and went for the Torched Wagyu Beef Roll, comprised of Tamgo, Scallion, Masago, Truffled Ponzu Sauce (but luckily not too much Truffle Oil, TO overkill is something that seems to be quite a hazard at a good amount of restaurants in LA these days).  Soft and buttery this roll is what every mediocre mini-mall sushi roll aspires to be.  The Chipotle Miso Glazed Black Cod with Daikon Radish, Lemon Togarashi Aioli was a lovely delicate delight.  But with the side dish of Roasted Sweet Plantains I had finally hit my fusion breaking point.  Topped with sesame seeds and drizzled with an excess of honey I looked and though longingly for simplicity.   
Both La Sandia and ZENGO have their shared location going for them (something that can be a little confusing when you’re trying request a table and realize you’ve been waiting to talk to the host at the wrong restaurant).   Although not seaside, the view of the Promenade, especially at night with the twinkling lights, is definitely pretty.   And if it ever gets hot this summer (thank you global warming) the breezes will definitely helping with cooling. 

Give and take, ZENGO’s namesake can really be applied to both of Sandoval’s new restaurants.  In a Ying-Yang Zen-like perspective - one restaurant is neither better nor worse than the other.  It all depends what you’re looking for in that moment:  a trip through a culinary Latin-Asian Wonderland or No Place like (a Mexican) home.    

Kat Thomas is a writer of life, sometimes focusing on food.   Check out her blog:

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Conscientious Carnivore - The Politics of Eating Meat

This is a reprint on my article in the Santa Monica Observer, but I thought it bears repeating...

Conscience Carnivore

Animals, it’s become such a hot food button issue in the last three years. With the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, and Food Inc. opening the Pandora’s box food consciousness you now have to wonder questions about your meat and dairy that you never wanted to ask. But not every meat provider out there is totally inhumane, not every cow is soaked with antibiotics and standing in three feet of guano.

Those few rare (and local) ranchers and farmers were celebrated last Thursday night at the Santa Monica Library’s quarterly Farmer’s Market Panel Series. This event, entitled the Conscientious Carnivore, focused on an evening of farmers who are raising animals for meat and dairy in a humane way and offering concerned consumers a choice about what they eat. The event was moderated by chef and owner of Angeli Caffe, and KCRW Good Food host, Evan Kleiman. The panel included a variety of food personalities: Marcie Jimenez of Jimenez Family Farm (lamb, rabbits, and goats), Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy (raw milk), Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Farms (beef and pork), and Evan Funke executive chef of Rustic Canyon.

The greatness of humanely raised animals and dairy was quickly proclaimed by Funke, “it sounds cliché that ingredients speak to you, but the food of the Farmers Market is still holding the sunshine. It screams pick me!” Funke who’s Rustic Canyon is 95-98% sourced with produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market and 95% with humanely sourced meat continued, “I get all the praise, people tell me this is amazing. Farmers have the hardest jobs, my job is so easy. Shopping locally creates accountability. Good cooking is 80% ingredients and 20% technique, in Santa Monica with our great farmers market it’s 90/10.”

Kleiman was quick to ask if there is an issue at Rustic Canyon with people expecting a corn-fed texture to their steaks. “Yes most definitely,” Funke quickly answered, “They don’t understand, this is flesh. It’s not going to all the same, it’s different. It’s an animal, it eats, it sweats. There’s a real problem with food disconnect in this country now. I taught culinary school for 12 weeks (you can tell I really liked it, he noted sarcastically) and someone came up to me and asked what tree does salad come from?”

“Fresh food matters,” noted Mark McAfee who’s Organic Pastures Dairy is one of two certified raw dairies in California. “With more people learning about the importance of their food with movies like Food Inc., we’ve increased out sales 18% this year. People are prioritizing good food in their life.“ McAfee showed a picture of an industrial dairy cow covered in feces, “this type of dairy milk needs to be pasteurized.” He continued by then showing a cow in a green pasture from his farm, Organic Pastures, where the cows are grass grazed, milked in the pasture, and given no antibiotics.
“Only ourselves and Claravale Farm, are raw. There are 1750 other dairies in California; they have the real power over California. We don’t focus on the big dairy, instead we focus on the community: moms and kids looking for probiotics.” McAfee noted even though their sales have increased in a terrible economy there is a lot of confusion over raw milk that many people believe that you will get sick if you drink it.

“Raw isn’t even defined by the USDA. We tried to help create raw milk standards. Fourteen hundred people showed up for the meeting, the FDA refused to show. They didn’t have the science to back up a lie. The CDC has zero deaths from raw milk in the past thirty years. Yes it was bad in places like in Chicago and Boston back in the 1850s, but not now. “ But even if all those 1750 other dairy farms decided to go raw tomorrow they couldn’t. “Bad milk doesn’t have the resources to produce good milk,” continued McAfee. “I bypass the big corporations. People are deciding, I’m not going to the doctor for asthma or allergies, I’m going to get it in what I eat.”

But one of the hardest issues that small time farms are having at the moment is with regulation. Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Farms in Atascadero, CA began farming vegetables before venturing into beef and pork explained that as of 2001 for any animal being slaughtered the USDA is required to come in and watch it being killed. “They watch the whole thing. They test the meat and age check it since you can’t get any animal over 30 months older with bones because of Mad Cow disease.” Nauta noted how he’s really lucky with his location, “there’s a USDA inspection plant locally, it used to be a horse slaughterhouse to make dog food.“

Most small ranchers don’t have the luxury of having a local slaughterhouse since now the majority of meat is slaughtered at one of five massive slaughterhouses around the country. “The government likes it because they can control the big guy farmers.” At which point Evan Kleiman interrupted to ask, “How can you even call them farmers?” Nauta paused for a moment and continued, “We’ve taken all the small farming and destroyed it. We’ve taken all the infrastructure from the little guys. You go to a big slaughter house and ask them to kill three cattle and they’ll look at you if you have three eyes.”
And it’s not like you can build new ones. “In Ventura, Monterey, San Luis Obispo you couldn’t put a slaughterhouse if you tried because of regulation,” he continued. Turns out that most country board of supervisors would prefer not to be known for building slaughterhouse inside their jurisdiction. The irony in doing so is that we’re giving all the power to the big corporations. Nauta noted, “everything is about being cheaper for them, and that includes the animals. They’ve stopped thinking of it as an animal; instead they think it’s a thing.”

Kleinman then noted how she’s on a board of directors who’s trying to combat this issue. “The mayor agrees LA needs a food policy; that all these localized county-based issues need to be resolved. We’re working hard on a local food policy in LA. Our city encompasses such huge farming communities. It’s been a really interesting process we started in early June creating documents and are going to have structure to sheparding it through.” And the issue is getting bigger. One of the questions to the panel addressed the FDA raid on Rawesome a few weeks back (Rawesome is a raw Co-op store in Venice). “The FDA is getting more stupid, which is just leading to more people getting involved,” notes McAfee. “There’s more people at Rawesome than ever before.”

But more people are speaking up. “We need to address these issues because if the government doesn’t allow in, it won’t work,” notes Nauta. “Change needs to happen and will happen, but it’s a quiet movement, this food thing. It’s better to create a ballot initiative than trying to fight a local politician. It has a bigger impact.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer Days: An Edible Passport of Disneyland

Wrote a travel article for the SM Observer on the food of Disneyland! Enjoy! 

Summer Days: An Edible Passport of Disneyland

Is any Southern California summer complete without at trip to Disney?  (The answer is no, and if you have to ask then you really need to head towards Sleeping Beauty’s castle…).  Naturally everyone always talks about the rides at Disneyland, but an unsung memory of any child’s (or adult’s) day is the food consumed at the House of Mouse.  This is not a time to be snooty, none of these options are looking for (or are expected to have) a Michelin Star, but what they are is fun! (You remember fun right?)  So don a set of Mickey ears enjoy a passport into the world of edible Disney.       

Eating on the Run 
Corn dogs (more than one person on Chowhound swore that Disneyland’s Corn Dogs were the best Corn Dogs on Earth), Pickles, Turkey Legs, Mickey Ice Cream Popsicles, there’s something so classic about walking around Disneyland and eating at the same time.   Call us uncivilized, and normally I would, but when there’s rides to be ridden sitting down to eat isn’t always the smartest strategy.  If they’ve already given out all the Fast Passes (placeholders so you can ride the rides later on) for the day then there’s a chance that you’re going to stand in an hour long line (my case for Space Mountain) so a Pickle or Corn dog can be the perfect hunger solution.  Plus they make great photo opportunities!    

Secret Stashes
It’s a down low secret, but you can bring a limited amount of food into the park.  (This is one of many areas that Disneyland has the airport way beat...) There are lockers on Main Street ($6-$10 depending on the size) where you can stash a small cooler with picnic tables and chairs conveniently located nearby.  If you are going to both Disneyland and California Adventure with Park Hopper Passes (which we did) there are also lockers in between the two parks near Guest Relations.   You can also bring in non-alcoholic beverages like soda pop (I don’t normally call it soda pop, but it seems so appropriate for Disneyland.).  It’s also a great idea to bring in a reusable water bottle (like a SIGG) since there are a good number of water fountains and Anaheim can get quite toasty.  

Fine Dining a la Pirate Style
If you’re looking for a place to just sit down and relax Blue Bayou is your best bet. The restaurant, that has been open in 1967, offers Cajun and Creole style food in a unique setting offering nighttime dining inside (even though the SoCal sun is shining outside).  Like any good waterfront property restaurant you’re paying for the ambiance (that being the view of the boats setting sail on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride) with the adult lunch entrees running thirty bucks, including their infamous Monte Cristo sandwich.  The Kids menu is more decently priced (about nine dollars each) and more than just the standard greasy Kids fare (they offer grilled Salmon).  Reservations are a must for this one. 

Let’s Learn about Food… at Disneyland
In case you still haven’t made it to this one, California Adventure opened in 2001 as a park to celebrate and pay tribute to California.  From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Hollywood Back Lot to the classic wooden Amusement Pier California Adventure California Adventure is best explained as “stepping inside a California postcard.”   This includes tours of California’s classic foods such as the Mission Tortillas and Boudin Breads.   At the Mission Tortilla Factory you get to watch dough transformed into hot, tasty tortillas (Plus you get a free tortilla at the end, and if it’s your birthday you get a whole bag!).  At the Boudin Bakery tour, of the famous 150-year-old artisanal bakery in San Francisco, you watch the bakers create fresh sourdough bread through a glass walled tour hosted by Rosie O’Donnell.  No free bread here, but you can buy Mickey shaped Sourdough bread baguettes at the end of this tour.  

Dinner Downtown Disney Style
Sure it’s full of chain restaurants (Wetzel’s Pretzels, Rainforest Café, Haagen-Dazs) but sometimes that’s what you need when you have children who just need to be feed (which was the case for the two kids ten and under I was with who had just spent 12 hours riding rides).  We opted for take out from La Bread Bakery (originated by foodie darling Nancy Silverton) going for chili bread bowls for the kids.  The café offers more “adult fare” such as Flatbreads, Salads, and Panini’s.    

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Save the Date! Santa Monica Farmers Market Panel Series: The Conscientious Carnivore

Conscience Carnivore
If Food Inc did anything for you it probably made you seriously consider becoming a vegetarian, total omnivore bummer... but there is hope!

For everyone who likes to eat meat and dairy but doesn't want to endorse the commercial animal factory system comes a wonderful FREE event. The Santa Monica Library's quarterly Farmers Market Panel Series is hosting an evening of farmers who are raising animals for meat and dairy in a humane way and offering concerned consumers a choice about what they eat.

The lineup hasn't officially been announced but there will be three farmers who raise lamb, goat, rabbit, chicken, cows and some chefs who prefer to source their animals from these small producers (there's been fliers at Organic Pastures Farmers Market stall for months so chances are they're coming!).

I cannot say enough how amazing it is that we live in a town that does these food events, and does them for free! (Plus they usually have amazing foodie snacks afterward made by one of the panel chefs). Go educate yourself!

Santa Monica Farmers Market Panel Series: The Conscientious Carnivore
August 12 · 7:00pm - 9:00pm
Main Library MLK Jr. Auditorium
(these events are first come first serve and always fill up some get there 15-20 minutes early!)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whole Times Article on the Coolest Plastic Hating People I Know

Marcus and Anna

My interview with Anna Cummins and Marcus Ericksen, founders of the 5 Gyres, is in the August/September of the Whole Life Times. Through the 5 Gyres Marcus and Anna are sailing around the world mapping out our global plastic footprint at all of the five ocean gyres (the places in the ocean where all the currents swirl together).

Shores of Azores - 5 Gyres

Marcus and Anna are probably the coolest couple you’ve ever met. They have survived hurricanes in the middle of the Indian Ocean, biked from Vancouver to Tijuana handing out their plastic packed ocean water gyre samples to everyone from Gavin Newsome to Google, and presently are building a paddleboard out of cigarette lighters to educate kids. Positively passionate about their cause they even invested their honeymoon money to found the 5 Gyres (I told you they were cool!)
If you can't find a hard copy check it out online.