If you’re from Southern California and spent any time away from it, you know that Mexican cuisine withdrawal is real! My earliest taco memory is an original hard-shelled taco from Taco Bell, which, by the way, has been voted America’s Best Mexican restaurant in the 2018 Harris Poll. Today, Mexican dishes are a staple in my weekly food rotation. Having been a loyal customer since 1984, my neighborhood take-out and I are on a first name basis. Direct from the airport it is my first stop when returning from a long trip. My welcome home meal is invariably the “Studio Plate”, white rice, grilled chicken, black beans, Caesar salad, served with house-made corn tortillas. Simple, healthy and delicious!
Mexican cuisine is the defining cuisine of Los Angeles and has changed tremendously in my lifetime. Los Angeles’ geographical proximity to Mexico and access to essential ingredients like avocados, limes, tomatoes and cilantro serve to elevate the dishes to a level unparalleled in other cities. The large multi-room stucco and arch filled restaurants still exist, occasionally including roaming Mariachis for that special evening. These establishments customarily serve the infamous combination plate, an entree served with rice, refried beans, smothered with cheese and zapped under the broiler. Those meals are as far removed from authentic Mexican cuisine as spaghetti and meatballs is from Italian cuisine!
A favorite Mexican hot spot of mine is Toca Madera on Third Street in West Hollywood, a place where traditional Mexican cuisine is re-imagined and elevated resulting in refined flavors and artful presentations. Toca Madera’s menu includes sustainable seafood, grass-fed beef and locally farm-sourced organic ingredients, along with vegan and gluten-free options. The small plate concept is greatly appreciated as it allows you to taste a variety of dishes providing options for every guest. How could a person choose between the wonderful array of starters such as Sweet Corn Tamales, Empanadas Oaxaca or a Street Taco Box?! The table-side Hot Stone Wagyu is a house specialty. The extensive Raw Bar offers five kinds of Ceviche all served with house-made plantain chips or warm corn tortillas chips. The last time I enjoyed anything remotely comparable was at a beachside taqueria on the outskirts of Cancun, Mexico.
Recently I visited Toca Madera for their weekend brunch, a heavenly gratifying indulgence in Mexican cuisine. The brunch classics include Chilaquiles, sunny side up egg, salsa roja, pico de gallo & fresh avocado; and Huevos Rancheros, fried eggs, black beans, ground beef, a blend of queso with ranchero sauce over blue corn tortillas, both dishes can be made vegan upon request. The Carne Asada & Eggs is prepared with prime chimichanga marinated skirt steak, fried eggs, chile de arbol salsa & roasted poblano peppers, unquestionably raising the bar for any other steak and egg breakfast. The Churro Waffle is a renowned must try breakfast item, waffle-pressed churro batter with mixed berries, chantilly creme, honey butter & maple syrup, a delightful decadent finale to brunch.
The farm-fresh ingredients also serve as the foundation for the extensive farm-to-glass cocktail list which uses the finest tequilas and mezcals, as well as beer and a rotating selection of choice wines from across the globe. For brunch start with the “But First Coffee”, with Tromba Reposado, Mr. Black coffee liqueur, homemade Coca-Cola syrup, espresso to get that buzz followed by the “A La Vida” with Espolon Reposado, carrot juice, fresh ginger, lemon and wildflower honey.
Toca Madera has thoughtfully brought together unique design elements to create a truly upscale experience. Raw, earthy elements, such as custom reclaimed planks, decorative wood tiles, and walnut wood fixtures, were carefully chosen to highlight the aesthetic. The dark wood-lined interior is overtaken by a massive 100-foot quartz crystal bar. Surrounding that, a long red upholstered banquette fits a handful of two-tops while much of the rest of the space works as a softened lounge, with plush seats and low tables creating an intimate experience. The mix of stone, tile and wood spills out into the indoor patio space, the high ceilings are adorned with hanging plants in metal boxes, a wall of sugar skulls all surrounding an enchanting lighted tree. The recent addition of the upstairs “treehouse” is the perfect venue for a small private event.
Toca Madera’s stunning design, seductive music, often enjoyed with a live DJ, and award-winning menu creates a memorable experience from the moment you walk in the door. Prepare to be transported to a world that’s both modern and timeless, to food that pays homage to its Mexican roots in a luscious and unique way!