La Fresca is Grand Avenue's latest star
A few titles immediately spring to mind when we talk about trilogies: Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, that Magnetic Fields concept album. There are a great many trilogies in film, literature, and music, but restaurant trilogies? Those are harder to come by. It's tough enough to keep one place up and running, let alone three, but there are a handful of ambitious local restaurateurs who have managed to pull it off beautifully: the Broder family, Isaac Becker, and now chef Hector Ruiz.
With his third restaurant, La Fresca, Ruiz completes his Kingfield trilogy. Several years ago, when he opened Cafe Ena, Ruiz introduced high-end Latin fusion to the area, which remains the focus there. His second installment, Rincon 38, debuted just last year with a more straightforward Spanish flavor, serving reasonably priced tapas, sangria, and Spanish wines. Now Ruiz rounds out this array of styles and influences with what he's calling "nouveau Mexican," a cuisine that highlights the produce of coastal Mexico as well as a handful of dishes from the Mayan tradition.
One of the most surprising things about our first visit to La Fresca was how much this new concept veers from the one Ruiz originally proposed for the space, one that promised homemade ice cream, grass-fed burgers, and "European comfort fare." Not that there is any reason to question the end result: La Fresca feels like the perfect next installment in this series, almost as though it, Ena, and Rincon were three different dining rooms in one great big, colorful, friendly eatery.
Though the pendulum seems to be slowly swinging away from the shareable small plates trend (if Olive Garden via the voice of Julie Bowen has started to promote it as "fun and new," it's probably not), ordering multiple items to share and sample is still undoubtedly the best way to approach your experience at La Fresca. Plates are delivered from the kitchen as soon as they're ready, and the pacing turned out to be just about perfect on all of our visits. We never felt as though we needed to rush before our plates were wrenched from our grasp, and yet the steady flow of service kept satiety from setting in and fooling us into thinking we no longer had room for dessert.
On the second count we were especially grateful, because it gave us a chance to sample the light yet totally saturated pan de caballero pobre, a sort of bread pudding souffle topped with miel de rum, lightly sweetened cream, and a bit of tart confit fruit. La Fresca also serves a version of tres leches unlike any other we've seen before. It's almost a tan color, reminiscent of a brown butter cake, and when there's even the mere suggestion of a fork tine in its presence, it crumbles like a soft sea sponge. The texture is not actually dry, but it's served sans the usual pool of milk, having perhaps already soaked up every possible drop.
As many ingredients as La Fresca's dishes involve, the food still doesn't feel over-complicated or muddied. It's all, as the name implies, very fresh. There are bright dashes of acidity, crisp herbs, palatable heat, and a noticeable lack of grease. In fact, we had to think back and re-investigate whether anything on the menu was even deep-fried. With the exception of the crisped-up purple tortillas in the tostaditas de pulpo, and lightly browned potatoes that prop up the cilantro-crusted snapper and spicy chorizo with jalapeno crema, there were few, if any, heavily fried foods.
In standard coursing protocol, which you should not feel the need to follow here, we started with the Azteca: shreds of crab meat, julienned jicama, and cucumber dressed in an agave-guajillo pepper vinaigrette atop mixed greens sprinkled with cotija cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds. This bevy of superfoods tastes like a super hit of summer, while a deeper, more autumnal offering from this same section of the menu is the Frida, a composed salad of beets, wine-braised pears, fennel, and apples on peppery arugula, luxed up with chipotle chevre cheese fondue. Fondue on salad is something we'd like to see more often.
More substantial plates of note include the unique chilatl, which is grass-fed ground beef stuffed into a chile "capeado" (Spanish for "weathered") and then roasted. It's a bit like a chile relleno, but much lighter, with raisins, olives, and a very light roux-based sauce thinned with chicken broth. The combination of ground beef, egg, and dried fruit reconstituted with olive brine sounds like it would be strange, but it's unexpectedly great and almost Middle Eastern in profile. The juicy, herb-roasted pork tenderloin with roasted fennel, potatoes, asparagus, and smoky bacon would be right at home in any standard American bistro were it not for the ayocote black bean mole, poblano peppers, and pickled onions that decorate the plate.
Although cooked quite beautifully, the avocado-crusted scallops were a bit too subtle among so many other bold flavors. The avocado "crust" may have started out as a creamy slathering, but after cooking looked (and tasted) like some spice dust of untraceable origin. The pepper risotto that was served underneath the mollusks was more sticky than creamy, but texture issues were masked quite effectively by the accompanying guajillo butter sauce.
Service is warm and professional but unpretentious, and even though there is no full bar, the malt-based margaritas do the trick. If Ruiz's restaurants were really a trilogy with La Fresca as the exciting conclusion, we'd buy the boxed set.
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