It’s easy to go big when you have small plates in Los Angeles.
AT Saso, Chef Dominique Crisp’s new Basque-inspired restaurant in Pasadena, the first section of the dinner menu offers a range of pintxos (snacks to share). You can order grilled shrimp or clams in a Josper oven in Barcelona. You can have cheese and cold cuts, croquetas, wagyu steak bites, grilled mushrooms and much more. Or if you can’t choose between the 11 options, you can order what’s listed on the menu like the esperientzia for $ 120. It gives you all the pintxos, and it’s one of the funniest starts in town to a great meal.
Saso is a lot of things at the same time, but it’s a superb restaurant with a seafood focus. Crisp, who grew up on his family’s vineyard and farm in Oregon, embraces an idea he takes. fell in love during his visit to the Basque Country a few years ago: he sources local seafood and lets the ingredients shine.
âIt’s like taking really good seafood and throwing it in a Josper oven,â says Crisp. âThat’s the mentality of a lot of these restaurants. “
Crisp isn’t the only one who wants to celebrate this philosophy of beautiful simplicity in LA. The city’s chefs draw inspiration from Basque and Spanish influences while cooking with local ingredients. They make tapas a viable dinner option in a city where good Spanish food is hard to come by. They show guests that a good night out can mean sharing small plates before a large main course like a bone-in wagyu steak, whole fish, or a pan of paella.
Here are three new Spanish-inspired restaurants where you can start small and end with a full dinner feast.
Gasoline coffee just started the dinner service in April and it already looks like the standard bearer of evening tapas in Los Angeles. Chef Sandra Cordero makes an excellent pan con tomate. His prawns al ajillo, prawns atop a beautiful pool of garlic olive oil, diced guandilla peppers and espelette, is a spectacle. Cordero proves that canned mussels with charred bread can be as transporting as any elaborate dish. She truly understands that Spanish cuisine, and so much great food, is about using a limited amount of quality ingredients and not over complicating things.
Gasolina is the exact opposite of a dinner destination out of nowhere. The Woodland Hills mainstay debuted as a small daytime cafe in 2015 and expanded in 2019 with the intention of adding dinner. The pandemic slowed things down, but Cordero’s free-spirited dinner menu was worth the wait.
She laughs when she thinks about how her aunt texted her after seeing Facebook and Instagram posts about Gasolina’s food.
âIt’s like, ‘How dare you call that pulpo gallego?’â Cordero said, referring to a dish where Gasolina served octopus with mashed potatoes. âWell, aunt, it’s called creativity in the kitchen. Its good.'”
It makes sense that Gasolina is a restaurant that often colors off the lines when serving Spanish cuisine. Cordero is half Dutch and half Spanish. She grew up in Amsterdam.
âI was in a real blue collar neighborhood,â she says. âMy best friend and my neighbors were Moroccan, Turkish and from Suriname. My father remarried to a Cuban woman and my mother to a Greek husband. I definitely grew up around many different food cultures. I loved eating with my Moroccan friends and eating with my hands.
Cordero spent summers in Galicia, Spain, where his family had a small farm.
âThe culinary experiences I had in Spain really influenced my cooking,â she says. “And then when I got to LA there was so little representation of Spanish cuisine.”
Cordero wants to represent Spanish food and European cafe culture in Los Angeles while just doing what she feels like. This includes a selection of strong coffee; vegetable salads from the farmers market; grilled asparagus with French-Dutch flavors; a relaxed setting that encourages people to linger; and seasonal paellas with the best seafood, meats and produce she can find.
âYou can do anything with paella as long as you get a super tasty broth and don’t overload it,â says Cordero, who understands that Spanish cuisine, like life itself, is about having fun but also to balance.
Chef Rudy Lopez fondly remembers the childhood trips he made every summer to visit his grandfather in Spain.
âAs a kid it really makes a big impression on you, when you walk around Spain and see the deli shops and everything,â Lopez says. âYou are just blown away when you see the jamÃ³n. So, I just wanted to do something where I could still cook with local ingredients, but showcase my heritage a bit and what I loved to see as a kid.
AT Soul mate, his stylish and quaint new restaurant in West Hollywood, Lopez offers guests the option of three kinds of Spanish ham on pan con tomate. He also enjoys riffing tapas. Soulmate serves âpaella bites,â which is Lopez’s much-loved version of the crispy spicy tuna rice he makes with bomba rice and cuttlefish sofrito. Soulmate has a plain Santa Barbara toast with shrimp and chorizo ââthat’s not a traditional Spanish dish either, but Lopez knows cooking in LA provides him with the platform and ingredients to serve it.
âI think the only reason I’m able to make a dish like our uni toast is because we’re in LA,â says Lopez, who once cooked at Nomad Los Angeles. âThe guests love it. They understand it. I think that’s how I can have fun and bend the rules a bit.
Lopez was disappointed when JosÃ© AndrÃ©s’ The Bazaar at SLS Beverly Hills closed last year. He knows that The Bazaar was a more avant-garde restaurant, a destination that celebrated molecular gastronomy. But what he clearly appreciated about The Bazaar was his attachment to Spanish flavors and his uninhibited cuisine. This is the kind of vibe he wants to channel at Soulmate.
Lopez has noticed that customers react well when he adds a new Spanish-inspired dish like prawns al ajillo made with wild blue shrimp from Mexico. He loves watching guests scratch the bottom of paella pans. It serves vegetable fideuÃ and seafood paella, and customers keep coming back for more. Lopez therefore plans to add a paella to the meat with chorizo ââand chicken.
Soulmate already sells around 50 orders of fideuÃ and paella combined each evening. These are dishes inducing FOMO. A saucepan falls on a table and the neighboring tables realize that they want one.
Along with other newcomers to LA like Angler, Damian, Found Oyster and Crudo e Nudo, Saso put on a show with high end seafood.
âWe know that our backbone is seafood and coast cuisine, and we put the best seafood we can possibly have on the plate,â Chef Dominique Crisp said of Saso.
Crisp describes his Pasadena restaurant’s Josper charcoal oven as “essentially a $ 16,000 Weber grill” that he is able to maintain at 600-700 degrees throughout a busy dinner service as he cooks. shrimp, clams, whole fish and wagyu tomahawks.
Forging relationships with vendors like Weatherly Bates of Alaska Shellfish Farms, Crisp obtains seafood, primarily from California and the Pacific Northwest, leveraging the long-standing relationships he developed while cooking at L&E Oyster Bar and Blue Plate Oysterette. Meals at Saso can start with chilled Santa Barbara stone crab claws and raw Hama Hama oysters before a luxurious platter of duck egg yolk laden with fish and shellfish.
Saso staff go out of their way to explain to customers where the seafood comes from. And sometimes, guests even bring their own fish.
âOne of our best regulars arrived and he had just caught skipjack in Baja,â says Crisp. âHe unloaded two big bonito at me. The next day we made a special bonito crudo and the team explained to the customers how we got the fish. It sold out in an hour. This is the strength of history. Good stories sell.
Saso’s story even extends to sustainable charcoal inside the Josper. Crisp gets charcoal from Prime 6 (a startup that you may have seen on Shark aquarium), who agrees to plant a tree for every pack of charcoal he sells.
âThey also use a very high quality, like basically sawdust to make the charcoal,â says Crisp. âThey compress it. So you have this fusion of tons of really amazing wood. This wood blend adds crazy flavor to any food while the charcoal burns extremely hot due to the density.
It’s a good metaphor for what’s going on with Saso in general. Crisp respects old cooking techniques and says a lot of what he does is restraint, but he’s also a forward-thinking chef who likes to try new things.