From the moment diners step inside the sleek and glowing Santa Monica outpost of Red O, the welcoming, stylish dining room and the aromas of freshly made tortillas, sizzling prawns, and street corn are all just about irresistible.
The inventive, seafood-centric cuisine pairs well with the modern setting and Santa Monica pier view; the glamorous bar lighting and spacious tables add to the restaurant’s cool yet comfortable vibe. A good spot for a romantic date, yes, but it’s also family friendly, with kid’s food options available.
The restaurant was originally launched by James Beard award winner Rick Bayless. There’s a branch on Melrose Ave. and one in Newport Beach. Today, flavors of Baja and Central Mexico are elegantly prepared along with craft cocktails. Freshness is the key here, with everything made daily at the restaurant, including sauces.
The guacamole has a smart, tangy bite from the fresh lime juice and serrano chile. The Fresh Corn & Goat Cheese Tamales feature sweet fresh corn masa, fresh Laura Chenel goat cheese, and tomatillo salsa.
The salads, often a weak note at Mexican restaurants, are strong here. The Organic Baby Kale Salad is a well balanced mix of grapefruit, grilled jicama, kale, avocado, cucumber, pepitas, and nicely zingy orange-habanero dressing. My favorite starters were the soups: the creamy butternut squash, flavor heightened with Mulato chiles, Marcona almonds, and plump golden raisins; and the impressively smokey richness of the tortilla soup, were both standouts.
Main courses included halibat and mahi-mahi, both delicately prepared, sustaining the unique flavor of both fish; and a wonderful chile releno stuffed with prawns, lobster, and a creamy cheese sauce. We also enjoyed the hearty Enchiladas Suizas, vegetable enchiladas juicy with tomatillo sauce, frisee, red rice, beans, and seasonal sauteed veggies.
The sides were exceptional: that fragrant Mexican street corn was every bit as good as it smelled when we walked into the restaurant. If there’s one dish on the menu that’s a must-try, it’s that street corn. The texture, the sauce, Cotija cheese, poblano chilies, cilantro – a truly smart, delicious combination of flavors is what makes this deconstructed dish. Hint: you can taste the corn as a topping in a crisp taco, too.
For kids, it would be hard to beat the handmade Monterrey Jack Cheese Quesadilla, built with a fresh corn tortilla, jack cheese, rice, black beans, and guacamole. Simple, satisfying, and generously portioned for the small fry.
I’ve grown more and more picky about the craft cocktail scene. Often the word “craft” doesn’t mean all that much. I was delighted to try the cocktail program here, with its top flight ingredients and subtle but unique spicing. Note that Red O would also be a terrific spot to simply enjoy some appetizers and margaritas while the sun sets over the Pacific.
We tried the Signature Red O Margarita, light and fragrant with the house-made limonada. Also in the glass: Cabo wabo blanco, o3 orange liqueur. Not a margarita fan? Try the Coco-J Ito, a nice variant on a mojito, made with Cruzan coconut rum, fresh mint, fresh lime, simple syrup, and soda water. It’s less sweet and crisper than your average mojito.
Finally, don’t skip dessert. Passion Fruit Butter Cake is a house specialty, created with grilled strawberries and passion fruit custard; the Just-Made Churros are a far cry from those you last scarfed down at an amusement park. These are crisp on the outside, soft inside, and served with a chocolate and cajeta sauce — a slow-cooked, fragrant Mexican caramel sauce that successfully manages to sidestep too-sweet.
From polished service to fresh, fresh, fresh cuisine, the restaurant lives up to its celebrity-chef pedigree. Get ready to say O – and ahh.
Red O is located at 1541 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica.
- Genie Davis; Photos: Genie Davis, Red O