Sabina Bandera, Mariana Oviedo and their salsa bar. (Russ Parsons / Los Angeles…)
Sabina Bandera and daughter Mariana Oviedo tried to act like it was just another day at the office Monday in the kitchen at Playa restaurant. But, of course, it wasn't.
Instead of serving what seemed like the greater part of Southern California's food blogger community in a stylish modern restaurant on Melrose Avenue, their normal venue is a food cart at the corner of Alvarado and Calle Primera in downtown Ensenada, La Guerrerense.
Still, there they were, part of Playa chef John Rivera Sedlar's cultural exchange bringing leading chefs from Baja California north. Famous for their seafood tostadas, Bandera and Oviedo will be cooking one more night at the restaurant. If you’re at all interested in Mexican cooking, you owe it to yourself to make a reservation for tonight.
You'll probably want to start with the tostada of sea urchin ceviche with clam, probably Bandera’s best known dish. But don't overlook the sea snail ceviche, or the smoked tuna topped with scallops. In fact, you probably ought to just bring a friend and order everything on the menu -- there are only half a dozen tostadas and seafood cocktails to choose from.
The food is fascinating. Having read a lot about Bandera's food, I have to admit I was expecting something a little different -- simpler, more focused, more like sushi maybe in overall effect.
But that's silly, of course. You don't get sushi out of a Baja food cart. What you get is something rounder, subtler and more complex: crisp tostada, a smear of beans, assorted seafood.
In fact, it's only when I started dabbing on Bandera's house-made salsas that the dishes really come into focus. There are three of them -- a fairly mild avocado, a bit warmer one of dried chile (arbol?) in oil, and a pretty fiery mango with what seemed like a habanero burn. If you ask nicely, you might also get some of her special peanut salsa, if we didn't eat it all at our table Monday night.
These salsas are not condiments, but intrinsic parts of the dishes, providing varying amounts of heat, sweet, richness and acidity that change the personality of the underlying food. By alternating salsas, different aspects of the tostadas came to the fore. It was intellectually fascinating as well as utterly delicious.
Sedlar's Baja series continues the next two weeks with Benito Molina scheduled to cook Sept. 23-25 and Tacos Kokopelli Sept. 30-Oct. 2. Word is that the series will be extended even further, with the renowned Javier Plascencia cooking in October.
Playa, 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-5300, www.playarivera.com.
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